Twista explains how he became a chopping pioneer
© Aldo Chacon/Red Bull Content Pool
Back on the scene with his new EP recorded with Red Bull Songs, we spoke to Chicago rapper and chopping pioneer Twista about the history of speed rapping and what it takes to chop like a pro.
The qualities that constitute a 'good rapper' are countless and subjective. Some people prize subject matter over rhythm and the ability to rap on beat. Others rank metaphors and similes above direct, unadorned realism. Others, to quote the late Gang Starr legend Guru, believe it's "mostly tha voice". But one of the most enduring metrics of rap talent – one that appeals to rap nerds and dazzles laypeople – is the ability to rap fast.
Fast rap, speed rap, tongue-twisting – rapping quickly has many names, but it's widely referred to as chopping. It's called such because the sound of the syllables rappers project when rhyming in this fashion bear a strong resemblance to the firing of an automatic weapon (aka, a chopper), or a spinning helicopter propeller. Rap scholars might make distinctions between fast/speed rap and chopping, but its greatest practitioners disregard that pedantry.
"It's the same thing. I think chopping is a title that, depending on where you're from, will be used as [shorthand] for rapping fast," says Twista, the Chicago rapper who pioneered the art of chopping and recently spent three days in Los Angeles recording his new Lifetime EP with Red Bull Songs writers and producers. "I never put a title on it. I let other people call it what they wanted to call it, but to me, I always knew it was a faster cadence of rap than normal."
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The history of chopping is rich and decades long. People have been chopping in some fashion since the earliest days of rap. But in the years since, chopping has climbed from the underground to conquer the charts. Today, it's a universally revered and continually evolving style of rap.
If chopping has an antecedent outside of rap, it's scatting: the rhythmic singing of improvised, nonsensical syllables by jazz singers keeping pace with their backing band. Listen to Betty Carter or Ella Fitzgerald scat and then put on a Twista song. You’ll recognise the influence and wish they'd been around to guest on Overnight Celebrity.
Within the rap canon, though, you can trace the history of chopping at least as far back as The Treacherous Three’s 1980 song The New Rap Language. Spoonie Gee, Kool Moe Dee and L.A. Sunshine trade verses for eight minutes, never straying far from the braggadocious party-rocking style born out of early rap shows but rapping quickly for the duration of the song. They're flexing their technical ability while challenging their peers to keep pace. This provided the blueprint for the next phase of chopping.
"I wouldn't really hear a whole song [back then]. You might hear somebody do a cadence or a phase or something like that," Twista explains as he gears up to release his new EP, Lifetime. "I took those little bits and pieces that people would so-called 'rap fast' over and I would do whole songs and verses like that."
Then, Twista arrived with his 1991 single Mr. Tung Twista. For four minutes he stacks and twists syllables at seemingly impossible speeds. It's like the verbal equivalent of watching Usain Boltsprint 100m while solving a Rubik's Cube.
Twista combined style with substance, too, as on 1994's Resurrection, where he began addressing record-high violence in Chicago, but it was his 1997 album Adrenaline Rush that was the pinnacle of '90s chopping. He diced words with samurai-like speed and precision, while sliding new rhythmic cadences between ominous beats from The Legendary Traxster. From Mr. Tung Twista to Adrenaline Rush, Twista's work inspired dexterous rappers to take up the challenge.
"I was one of the first artists doing it, so you had people who were influenced by that," Twista tells us. "A lot of other artists from Chicago saw how I flourished [with that style] and they would be influenced by that. It just spread out."
Fellow Chicagoans Do Or Die rank alongside Twista at the top of the list of '90s Midwest choppers. Their first two albums on Rap-A-Lot, Picture This (1996) and Headz Or Tailz, went gold. On songs like Po Pimp, which featured Twista, they made chopping more melodic, rapping strings of words at lightning speed before singing and elongating words in unique cadences.
No Midwesterners blurred the lines between chopping and singing better than Cleveland's Bone Thugs n-Harmony however. Thuggish Ruggish Bone, Crossroads, First Of Tha Month – the list of enduring Bone Thugs hits is long. Chopping as much as they harmonised, they made rapping fast more soulful and more accessible. Bone Thugs briefly beefed with Twista and his group, Speedknot Mobstaz, for ostensibly copying a Chicago-bred style, but they've since reconciled their differences.
"It took all of us a certain amount of years to realise that what we were doing was not something to be owned. We'd recreated the template as far as what people could do when writing verses and cadences and style," Twista explains now. "In that respect, I started to be like, 'Okay, I'm a pioneer'."
During the '90s, chopping spread beyond the Midwest. On the West Coast, in a health food market (The Good Life Café) in South Los Angeles, groups like Freestyle Fellowship were inventing a jazz-influenced chopping at open mics and parking lot cyphers. Their spontaneous rhythms were closer to John Coltrane solos and scatting than the sound of semi-automatics. If you listen to the group's 1993 single Innercity Boundaries, you can hear Myka 9 scatting and speeding through passages with an unconstrained, sax-like rise and fall. Decades later, Myka's flows remain fresh and unmatched in their singularity.
New York's Busta Rhymes, one of the fastest and most technically brilliant choppers of all time, continued to expand the style in the late '90s. With singles like Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Could See (1997) and Gimme Some More (1998), Busta brought some much-needed humour and personality to chopping. Absurdist, cartoon-inspired videos by Hype Williams complemented his flows and took chopping into even more living rooms.
At the dawn of the new millennium, the West Coast and Midwest joined forces and brought a slightly slower sort of chopping to the masses. If you listen closely to Dr. Dre and Eminem's Forgot About Dre, released in early 2000, you can hear the influence of the choppers who'd come before. It's most obvious in Eminem's hook, where he maligns rap fans who've erased Dre's contributions to rap from their memories. You can even hear Dre attempting to keep up with the sped-up cadences of his collaborator.
"If you take away the ability to punch in, you'll see a lot of these artists can't sound as good as they sound," Twista says when explaining how some rappers record their fastest verses. “Because they’re able to punch in, they’re able to get out a certain phrase, or certain amount of words, and it allows you to continuously keep going. Some of those artists can't do that if you ask them to do it in one take."
Throughout the 2000s, chopping gained wider popularity than ever before. In underground circles, rappers like Busdriver pushed chopping to new heights. A descendant of the Freestyle Fellowship lineage, Driver's verses contain more words and insights on rap and race than most university dissertations. You can pick virtually any Driver song to hear his adenoidal assaults, but it's best to begin with 2002's Imaginary Places, where he rhymes in time with blistering flute runs.
Chopping also began hitting the charts with regularity. Ludacris brought his Southern-fried twist to singles like the libidinous What’s Your Fantasy (2000) and 2001's Roll Out (My Business). In 2004, Twista returned with two Kanye West-produced, Grammy-nominated singles, Overnight Celebrity and Slow Jamz. However, the chart-topping single with (arguably) the fastest chopping came in 2011, with Chris Brown's Look At Me Now. Brown and Lil Wayne do their best to chop, but both are blown clean away by Busta Rhymes.
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The making of Twista's Lifetime
You can't discuss chopping in the 2000s without mentioning Tech N9NE. The prolific, often face-painted Kansas City native made his name synonymous with chopping. Nearly every Tech song features cadences that would challenge any of his peers – many of whom he surrounds himself with to keep pushing things forward. There's no better test case than Worldwide Choppers, which features rappers from Kansas City (Tech, JL, and D-Los), Alabama (Yelawolf), Chicago (Twista), New York (Busta Rhymes), California (Twisted Insane), Turkey (Ceza) and Denmark (U$O). It's a five-minute masterclass in chopping, a symposium of some of the most verbally gifted on the planet.
With choppers in every corner of the globe, rappers continue to evolve the form both in and outside of the mainstream. You can watch Mac Lethal set world records on his popular YouTube channel. You can also hear chopping in verses by everyone from Pulitzer Prize-winner Kendrick Lamar (Alright) to Dreamville Records' rising star JID (Off Deez). For Twista, though, the speed of chopping remains tertiary to substance and coherence.
"The last thing I'm paying attention to is how fast it is," he says. "The first thing I'm paying attention to is whether you're talking about something and are you making sense." The master has spoken.