Photo by Dan Zev
In hip hop culture, street cred has historically been crucial to success. However, as of late, this need has apparently dissipated with the prominence of artists like Kanye West and Drake. Tucson rapper Isaiah Toothtaker is the epitome of street cred, and is making a wholehearted attempt to revive the street legitimacy of hip hop. Sporting a shaved head, a mouthful of gold teeth, tattoos covering his entire body, a rap sheet a mile long, and often a pair of suspenders, Isaiah Toothtaker is one of the most menacing rappers out there today. Repping the often looked-over region of the Southwest, his own tattoo parlor, and his label Machina Muerte, he is also one of the most industrious. I talked with him over the phone all the way from the arid Southwest to figure out what he is working on, the deal with Machina Muerte, and the life of a Tucson street thug.
How did Machina Muerte get started?
Basically it was founded by Mestizo, it was his idea, his concept, and he kicked it all off. He set it towards the motion, he basically brought the people he had seen fit to come together. After the ball started rolling a little bit, it was obviously real loose in a way, not each and every one of us had a strong personal relationship, but then after time we gathered and the crew started to gain more strength and structure. Then the records started coming out, and once Yiggy came out, which was my record for that came out on January 1st, that started putting things in a more filed perspective, they took a little bit more realization to the actual label and to the crew and it really brought more actuality into fruition. Other than it being a loose tie or a loose crew affiliation it started to become the entity that it’s still more or less growing into. Then Mestizo’s record came out, and the beginning of a relationship with Alpha Pup was his Elecholo record, and from that he and I started to really put together our thoughts and our plans, what we really wanted to do with the label itself, and I’d say where he and I are right now. We’re just working on this path to dominate what we can, what we will.
“Intruder” from Isaiah Toothtaker’s Illuminati Thug Mafia
Are there any expansion plans for Machina Muerte?
Yeah of course, we don’t plan to just be digitally distributed, we have a lot of plans to grow into a much more unique product itself, so when we do have physical merchandise and product we really want it to become something that’s special and unique to the buyer itself, so the person just doesn’t feel like they’re getting this jewel case with a paper print out of the same thing that they can see online. We want them to have something that’s a little more special and individual to the actual product itself, maybe different types of vinyl, more unique ways to package it, something that makes the actual product itself an event. We have plans to go a lot further with at least what it is that we’re selling with the records themselves, but it’s a full blown record label right now. We’re taking our steps as we go, we’re really doing a lot of stuff do-it-yourself, and trying to correct everything right now at its earlier stages so that in that way, when things really start to hit, there’s heavier stride, and we have everything in place. It’s really still just JJ [Mestizo] and I who are doing everything, we want to make sure all of our bases are covered, and everything is situated in an appropriate manner and handled righteously.
Who in Machina Muerte do you work the most with?
A lot of the core members are on a day-to-day type basis of communication, I’d say I regularly speak to Cadalack Ron, to Mestizo, to Alex Pathetic, to Lush[One] to even Kap [Kallous] who’s a more recent inductee, and then the same thing with Mainframe who’s a little bit more new to the crew. Luckyiam is a regular conversation, of course Rheteric, Mike Gao, these are people who are in a very regular dialogue, Louisahhh, Mr. Dibbs even. For the face-to-face type basis, easily the Crime Killz kids, and Zackey Force Funk, Masque Anonymous, those people in the crew I get to see because they’re in the same city that I am, in Tucson.
What is the Tucson rap scene like?
In general, there really isn’t much of one. What was a community at one point scattered apart or it dissipated. The scene now, there might be a little cluster, but it’s not so much of a very active base. As far as anybody genuinely making progression and trying to become a little bit more known for artistry and doing more actual releases and making a higher notion of impact it would be the three units in that sense, Zackey Force Funk, Crime Killz, and myself. More or less, Machina Muerte, that’s really the effect of it, the strength of it.
What other regions is Machina Muerte representing?
It’s limitless to whatever really, it’s not like we’re trying to take on just a West Coast demeanor necessarily, I think that because a lot of us are from here, the southwest, it has that kind of dialect or aesthetic to it in ways, because that’s genuine. It is from Ohio, that’s easily something else, there’s Northern Cali aspects that are somewhat a different climate to what would maybe be considered the aesthetic, it’s not like secluded to any one thing, it is what fits into it. Kap Kallous fits into it, and he’s far off from like Florida, that’s a different spectrum completely, it’s limitless in that sense.
Photo by Omer Kreso
What is Staring Without Caring?
Yeah it’s a tattoo shop that I opened up approximately five years ago after having a falling out with the boss of a place that I was working at prior to it, I just decided to open up a tattoo shop that was of a higher scale. Everywhere that I had seen in town, a majority of the shops were just street shops, meaning that you would walk in without an appointment necessarily set and needed, and be able to pick something right off the wall or already designed flash, any changes that you want to be made would be made on the spot, it wasn’t so much of a custom, or any formal sort of set up for it, you’d just walk in, pick something off the wall an go for it. I wanted to create more of a debonair, boutique kind of tattoo shop that was definitely of the tradition and very true to a tattoo shop that had like a higher standard for everything, that definitely kept the utmost of sterility, but then at the same time presented it in a much classier sort of disposition. So I did that, took some of the people who I was working with, opened up a shop that raised the bar for the types of tattoo shops, and I opened it up here. It went from being one of the most regarded shops in town for actual artistry, to what is now considered the best tattoo shop in the city.
Being a tattoo artist, how important do you think art is in hip hop?
I think that it’s plenty important. I think that art is important with whatever culture, I think that art has a pretty heavy play into everything. That’s why we see a lot of music videos do successful, because people like to visualize what they’re hearing. Sound can carry certain colors and connotations to them and things can set the mood and the atmosphere and definitely help to place things in perspective. I think that it takes a big part in it and it’s definitely good for it.
Do you have a favorite tattoo?
Yeah it’s on my throat, it says Tucson in six and a half inch letters from ear to ear. Being proud of where I am and where I’m from and the upbringing, even as fucked up as it has been I’m still proud of it because it made me into who I am now and I feel real good about that.
“The difference of Machina to Odd Future is that when we say we’re gonna stab you or we’re gonna slit your fuckin’ throat, people are afraid that we actually will.”
Who do you think is out there now making good music, outside of Machina Muerte?
I think there’s a lot of people man, shit that’s a countless fuckin’ list really because I think that it’s a good time for music, but it’s always been a good time for music. At the very present, I’m listening to a lot of Max B type shit to be honest with you, it probably goes through a lot of variety of different shit. There’s this kid that’s actually from Tucson, his name is Chris Hall and he does a kind of folk-country and I’m really into the shit that he’s been doing. It’s not a rip-off but in the same vein as that old-time classic country. Seeing new sound and new writing and this younger kind of uptake on it, that shit is kind of cool to see and that’s something that I’ve been listening to.
If you could start a beef with any rapper out there now, who would it be?
Fuckin’ any of ’em. None of them specifically, I don’t really give a fuck about most of these rappers, a lot of ’em are fake. I have had beef with rappers for whatever that’s worth, I’ve had to put them in their fucking place, I’ve had to correct them and check them. There’s been a lot of rappers that have been punched in the face, dead up. Beef with rappers is kind of corny, most of ’em are just fake as fuck.
Photo by Tyler the Creator (OFWGKTA)
How do you feel about all this Odd Future hype right now? Do you think that’s something Machina Muerte could do in the future?
I feel all right about it man, you know, I think it’s good for them. Obviously their hype is benefitting them. Could we be sensationalized in the same sense? It’s possible I guess, it would just depend on how it’s done. I think that part of the sensationalism is the fact that they’re young, and I think that a lot of people find excitement in that, and that even goes for some of the good industry folk, they want to suck the blood out of that. That’s appealing to most people to see what they can like steal or corrupt, the challenge, it’s the appeal that attracts something to it, they feel like their young enough that they can take something from them or take advantage of it. So I think that’s how the craze originated in some aspects. I don’t know man, it’s possible, but I think that the difference of Machina to Odd Future is that when we say we’re gonna stab you or we’re gonna slit your fuckin’ throat, people are afraid that we actually will. It’s not fun to be rebellious when we say it, to have an actual criminal say it or to have actual street thugs or people who have fuckin’ been through certain life experiences. If we do say it, there’s this ninety percent chance it’s gonna get done if it hasn’t already. I think that keeps us at a different end, that keeps us a little bit less friendly, people don’t wanna welcome us in the same way maybe, and it’s not as dismissed with us when we say it.
Some people don’t believe that you have been in over 400 witnessed bare-knuckle street fights, what do you have to say to that?
I don’t give a fuck if people believe that shit or not, it sounds like a ridiculous-ass number. But it’s not like impossible, if I’m saying I’m getting into a fight every other week, how impossible is that? That shits been fifteen years of my life, what if it’s every other week, and then sometimes it’s twice? Some people wouldn’t believe a lot of shit. One of the felonies that I’m fucking convicted of recently, I fought seven people by myself at once, I think like five of them were six foot and taller and I’m 5' 10". I’m fighting seven of ‘em — I take out a Blackjack, which is sort of a baton, but with a spring and it has a lead end — and I ended up knocking out four of the seven before any of them hit me, and a lot of people would have trouble believing that. Out of those four, his face was split in half and his eyeball popped out and he had to get surgery to get his eyeball put back in, and that’s what I ended up catching some trouble for. It was a few different felonies and I ended up taking a plea to collect only one. But seven dudes try and fight me, not one of them hit me, I knocked four of ‘em out, and the other ones picked up their homies and then ran off. That doesn’t seem so possible, but that shit happens, and there was a big number of people who witnessed that.
The thing is, it’s not that hard to get into a fight, trust me. The way that Tucson operates, its part of the dialogue, the climate in Tucson is still like a wild west in that sense. We have a threshold, there’s a matter of respect. Cussing at someone that you don’t necessarily know or talking about someone in a fucked up way will get you punched in the face, or will start a fight. It’s a rowdy city, it’s a very scrappy city, it’s a very violent city. I don’t give a fuck if people believe it or not, if you run a background check on me you can find out that I’ve beat thirteen cases. Let alone some other shit where I can’t be found guilty on, that’s ridiculous. Not very many people with actual criminal histories are lookin’ like that. And that’s like on some petty shit, those are the people who snitched where it got through. Feeling the need to validate that, it’s not hard to look up. It sounds like a ludicrous number, but then if you put it in the right kind of like context it’s like okay, here’s a guy who’s saying he scrapped like every other week, that’s not impossible to believe especially if you’re in the fuckin’ street, especially if you’re out thugging. Then you put that into like fifteen years or someshit like that, it adds up, it’s not impossible for that to happen to them.
Do you think that that lifestyle comes out in your music?
Scrapping or just violence in general, of course. I was brought up with violence, I was like hit as a kid. Being hit as a kid and then being not necessarily straight off abandoned but outcast and homeless at an early early age type shit, bouncing around from family members and friends houses, growing up on my own and being on the street and the getting into fucking as many fights as I have, of course, it’s almost embedded in me. I find it extremely challenging now to not even do something as I’m on probation, and I have a crazy amount of years of prison hanging over my head if I get into some sort of trouble. The consequences are very severe and I’ve already paid tens of thousands of dollars to not be in prison so of course, that shit bears on me at every moment. It bears on me when someone is slightly disrespectful and my whole entire life, my nature is to sock ‘em in the fuckin’ face. Fuck it, straight up and down, if the number of fights is in question, that number can definitely raise. Let them come and question me for shit in person. There’s some sort of background stuff that is embedded in me man, through and through. That’s something that I enjoy doing and that I’ve had plenty of success with, so I definitely accept those types of challenges full-heartedly.
What is Humansuit?
Humansuit is a group that consists of myself and Mestizo. Basically we are going to start recording for an album that should be released by the end of 2011.
Are there any tours planned for your solo work, Humansuit, or Machina Muerte?
Machina has some things for the up and coming, but I’m not really allowed to leave for long periods of time as I’m on probation. I might be able to get an early termination of it come September, so it’s possible for that to happen. But what I got scheduled to complete for the different albums that I have intended to release, I probably won’t be leaving any time this year at all. For myself, it’s not the outlet.
What are you working on right now?
I’m working on Humansuit, we’re just about ready to get started into that, I got a couple things that I’m doing for the hood internet, and then I’m jumping into starting the Humansuit record, and then after that comes to completion I’ll begin my next solo record.
What Machina Muerte releases can we look forward to in the near future?
You can look forward to something from Zackey Force Funk, from Mike Gao, from Louisahhh, from Kap Kallous, from Mestizo, from Rhetoric, from Luckyiam, we just saw recently the Cadalack Ron and Innaspace record called Space Cadalack as well as LushOne’s record coming out and the record Rapewolf in Compton from Alex Pathetic, and then my record (Illuminati Thug Mafia) was just released at the end of January, and there’s a couple others that could come possibly this year, but it just depends if the place is right at this point; we would want it to be for like a reason and definitely make its full impact. And that’s just the locked down stuff.
Any last thoughts or shout-outs?
I’d say just make sure everybody gets out there and takes a look and takes a listen to the fuckin’ shit that Machina has to offer this year because this is the time to become aware of what we’re doing because I think that we’ve got some big projects and different ideas that are gonna come into practice soon enough.