ABOVE: ANTWON. IMAGE COURTESY OF JONATHAN WEINER
Despite drawing comparisons to mainstream titans like Notorious B.I.G. and Rick Ross, San Jose's Antwon makes hip-hop on his own terms. Raised on the likes of Bay Area thrashcore, his eclectic sound can best be described as '80s R&B shot through with hardcore and ripped straight from VHS. The Bay Area native is probably best known for his string of successful mixtapes, like last summer's End of Earth, which featured contributions from Big Baby Gandhi, Pictureplane, and his longtime friend DJ Sex Play. After featuring his track "Automatic," and ahead of his upcoming shows in New York (Public Assembly tonight and Santos Party House tomorrow), we recently spoke with the rapper. Like his lyrics, the topics of conversation were an unlikely mix of laid-back and brooding.
ERIN BRADY: So you'll be in New York and Philadelphia this week. Are you touring with anyone?
ANTWON: I'll be playing with Hot Sugar [and Trinidad Jame$ at Public Assembly]. I'm playing with Cities Aviv [at Santos Party House]. They've played the West Coast a couple of times. He's from Memphis, but he lives in New York right now. I'm playing that same show with Weekend Money. And for the Philly show, I'm playing with a band that I started in 2009 with my friends called Leather.
BRADY: Your live shows have been described as having a "punk energy." Do you agree with that?
ANTWON: Most of my experience comes from going to punk and hardcore shows since I was younger. That was really my main experience with live shows. I guess that's just how I learned to do a live show. I started playing guitar when I was 15. I rapped too, but I never really told my friends.
BRADY: Is that what you listened to when you were younger?
ANTWON: I was into a lot of thrash stuff like What Happens Next and Spazz.
BRADY: Really? What are you listening to currently?
ANTWON: I like a lot of heavy riffs like War Hungry. I also listen to Sabbath. I like a lot of riff-driven hardcore stuff nowadays. I listen to rap stuff, but not a lot of rap stuff.
BRADY: Why did you title your most recent mixtape End of Earth?
ANTWON: I just thought it was a really catchy title. I don't know. It seems like a lot of music today plays at being dark, but isn't really dark. There's a lot of pretend darkness in music nowadays. If you really listen to where people are coming from, there's no darkness in their lives. A lot of people are afraid of the end of Earth happening, but I don't feel like the end of Earth would be the end of Earth, it would just be evolution.
BRADY: So, how do you view your music?
ANTWON: There are a lot of pop elements to my music, but behind the scenes and underneath it, it's very much dark undertones.
BRADY: On your previous mixtape, Fantasy Beds, I was really struck by the song "Skullkrush" (produced by Salem). I think that's one of the more overtly intense songs. Can you tell us a little about your writing process? Are your lyrics personal?
ANTWON: They're definitely personal lyrics. A lot of the time people like to take them as, "Oh this is a song about this," but really it's deeper than that. People think that "Skullkrush" is about a breakup, but it's about a really destructive relationship. A lot of people get into destructive relationships and they just never leave, you know? It's about a destructive relationship that's codependent. It's not just like, "Oh, this is my breakup."
BRADY: I recently watched your video for "Living Every Dream." What attracted you to the early '90s look and sound?
ANTWON: The '90s were definitely a thing for me. I don't really feel like it's a throwback because I grew up in the '90s, so that's just what I've got. I kind of wanted to make a video like that because—I don't know. If I were to direct it, it would probably be a lot different.
BRADY: In what way?
ANTWON: I would have wanted it to be a lot of black and white and shots with mood in them—like the shots with a bump in them, or it's shot from below and then sideways—a lot of strange shots. And it would have been darker, like gritty.
BRADY: I feel like you're thinking of a specific video...
ANTWON: Yeah, snap! "I Got the Power." That one and Neneh Cherry, "Buffalo Stance."
BRADY: Well, besides the lack of crazy camera angles, the video was totally solid. Any video babes, or just babes, you were crushing on in the '90s?
ANTWON: Jennifer Love Hewitt. That was like number one for me.
BRADY: That leads nicely into my next question. Any musical guilty pleasures you're willing to reveal?
ANTWON: I love Biohazard and stuff like that—like rap metal. I've been listening to that Kid Rock album...
BRADY: Wait. You've been listening to a Kid Rock album?
ANTWON: Yeah. Devil Without a Cause. That was like my favorite when it came out. In '98, that was my shit.
BRADY: Kid Rock. I would not have expected that.
ANTWON: Yeah. And Biohazard.
BRADY: Well, since you said you were into thrash stuff when you were younger, I can sort of see Biohazard, but Kid Rock was a surprise.
ANTWON: Well, Kid Rock's pretty versatile. If you listen to his first album, it's kind of hip-hop. There's no country or metal infusion into it at all. The first stuff I heard was Devil Without A Cause and I was like, "Damn, this is crazy. " It was also around the time when alternative was the thing, you know? So, I thought that was the coolest shit at the time. I listen to it now and it's kind of nostalgic. I'm like, "Man, I remember this shit."
BRADY: Besides the shows this month, what does 2013 hold for you?
ANTWON: I'm going to be playing more states. Also, I'm going to put out a release in February called In Dark Denim.
BRADY: We'll be on the lookout.
ANTWON PLAYS PUBLIC ASSEMBLY TONIGHT, JANUARY 23, AND SANTOS PARTY HOUSE TOMORROW. FOR MORE ON ANTWON AND HIS FORTHCOMING FEBRUARY RELEASE, IN DARK DENIM, VISIT HIS WEBSITE.