Teezo Touchdown's search for the perfect breakthrough
Before birthing Teezo Touchdown in 2016, the Beaumont, TX rapper, singer-songwriter and producer Aaron Thomas underwent a couple of iterations — first, rapping as Aye Tee during his senior year of high school, and then as Teezo Suave a couple years later, when he began producing, writing and learning how to shoot music videos himself. He's become a mysterious artist since, with so many personas it can be difficult to assess what is real about him. In his latest incarnation, he first gained recognition for the way he looked: "Teezo Touchdown's Nail Hair Is Taking Him To the Top," GQ proclaimed in 2021. But his sound is just as style-forward and eclectic. The music he makes ranges from snap-era hip-hop to early '00s pop-punk, a nod to a lifetime spent deejaying and sampling sounds, from humble beginnings playing local talent shows in a trailer to hanging around the rapper Trippie Redd in L.A. Still, many are hung up on the way he presents himself, most notably, with a head full of nails and strapped into football shoulder pads. Teezo, for his part, is fully aware of the dissonance his presence creates.
Since 2020, the rapper has garnered a cult-like following, in large part because of the spectacle. His series of self-released, wisecrack-filled singles — like "SUCKA!," "Strong Friend" and "Careful" — were paired with satirical skits of his alter-egos in front of a graffiti-adorned garage. In 2021, he landed on Tyler, The Creator's Call Me If You Get Lost and later joined him on tour. He's only ascended since, fulfilling the role of Best Supporting Feature to some of hip-hop's brightest stars (appearing recently on "Modern Jam" from the Travis Scott album Utopia), all before the release of his debut album, How Do You Sleep At Night? With a catalog that almost resembles a mosaic, infused with sounds traversing genres, and a penchant for dressing the part, no matter what that part might be, it can be hard to anticipate his next move.
Despite falling outside of many spectators' expectations, Teezo's 14-track debut is as charming as it is unconventional. Though it cycles through a lot of ideas and even mashes some together, How Do You Sleep At Night? maintains a pop appeal that makes for a lively listen. Drake called it "some of the best music ever," reaffirming what many of his famous friends seem to believe. As I talk to him on the eve of the album's release, that hype has built to a fever pitch and is ready to explode. In lieu of letting his mind wander down a boundless rabbit-hole of "what if's?," Teezo is trying to stay present; in conversation we talk about debut album statement-making, learning to become a collaborator, and embracing the "fashion rapper" tag.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
NPR: I think one of the most impressive things about you is that no two Teezo songs or features sound alike.
Teezo Touchdown: I'm seeing now, especially after doing the Utopia thing, when people hear that, they're like, "I wanna listen to his other music," and they kind of get let down when it's nothing like that. But I feel like if I got into the studio and created this copy and paste thing that would be a disservice to myself and also the listener. I'm so early on. I don't want to find a sound that works for me and stick with it for life. I'm always going to be a student. I'm always going to be learning. And I think this debut album kind of gives me that freedom to grow and let the audience allow me to still experiment.
It does seem that rock is the most consistent through line in your music. I'm curious what draws you to it.
I think that's just an extension of hip-hop. Ice-T had a quote that really stuck to me. I think right now he's the [only] artist who has a rap Grammy and also a metal Grammy [nomination]. And Questlove asked him about rock, and he was like, "Rock is rap. MCs, we don't R&B the mic, we rock the mic." Even if you look at the punk scene, like this rebellion, I think that also is in a relation to hip-hop. Hip-hop and rock are very tight knit. So I don't even really separate them. Both shows have a pit now. They're pretty much married.
Were you intentionally channeling any artists when you were creating this?
I was doing my research on debut albums—the Destiny's Child album, Nelly's album, Prince's first album. Just looking at all of these people who have really great careers, just seeing what was their first introduction to the world. Looked at Rick James. I looked at Phil Lynott. I definitely did Bootsy Collins. Which, I'm noticing they're all bass players. But for Phil Lynott and Rick James, I really love their penmanship. As far as R&B, there's this Texas artist by the name of Link, whose album is called Sex Down. I think it's probably my favorite R&B album of all-time.
Following pages like Afropunk, I was seeing In Living Color, this Black rock band where the front man basically could be a gospel singer if he wanted; he could be an R&B singer. That was the first time I really saw this very potent example of the thing that I'm exploring right now. They say you have your whole life to make your first album. I'm going all the way back to when I was downloading the Billboard Hot 100 every weekend and DJing these weddings and graduations and seeing what songs get people on the dance floor, and what songs get them off. I was at my dad's work event DJing, of course you have the hits, so Pretty Ricky had "Grind on Me" and "[On the] Hotline," but my dad got the albums every Tuesday, so I would listen to the whole album and I'm like, I really like this song, and would try to play it at the parties and I would notice that songs that people don't know [they don't dance to].
I remember I went to a Trippie Redd show, and he's rocking, he's doing all of the hits, rocking it, and then he played the newer song that had just came out, and the crowd wasn't as... I guess they were just processing it, but that's when I see like, oh, it doesn't matter who you are, if they don't know the music yet, it's just a natural thing that they're taking it in. The first stop of the tour, Tyler, the Creator came into the dressing room and said, "When you go out here people are gonna just be standing there and looking at you, but don't take it in the wrong way. They're just processing you."
You've been on this huge feature run before even dropping the album. How have these collaborative experiences impacted the way you created?
What you're hearing is just a display of my humility and how I'm here to serve. I don't go into these sessions like, all right, it's time to turn it to the Teezo Touchdown show. So, the first thing I'm asking is, "Yo, how can I help? What do you hear from me?" First thing I say when I get out of the booth is "How do you like it? Do you need me to change anything?" So I haven't even zoomed out to even see — when they started putting like the list of the songs I did, I don't look at this like I'm collecting these infinity stones. Every room I get into that's the same level of support and showmanship that I want to have.
Joseph Hill, the CEO of Not Fit Society, the imprint that I'm working with, was just like, yo, you have to have fun. I know you want to make it so bad, but one, have fun, and then, also, be more collaborative. Just because you produce don't mean you gotta be all over the board, choosing the sounds. Once you're at this level, you're in the room with people who are just as talented as you, so, let them shine and let that moment happen. That was the shift when I became way more collaborative and free.
The collaborations are so light on the album 'cause I have this fear of asking for things. I have this fear of calling these people who are telling me like, yo, whatever, just hit me. To me, they're so big, I'm still a fan. I've been a fan more years than an artist.
You said that you were looking for a life-changing moment a couple of years ago and that really stuck out to me. I'm curious where you are now in that process.
I used to always say, either the success or the failure, I want it to be my fault. I used to have that really bad on tour: "Yo, if the s**** goes down today..." But I really kind of let that go because I heard that this self-sabotaging, self-deprecating thing is kind of like you're trying to control your own destiny. It's like trying to beat yourself to prove yourself right or wrong. So I heard that and it changed my life.
Do you feel this album counters critics who call you a "fashion rapper"?
I would say they are not wrong. If you look at my career, I always say if you ever see me outside of the country, first thank God, then thank Marc Jacobs because I got my passport through Marc Jacobs. My first tour, I was wearing all Telfar because they've been very hands on helping with my career. The "I'm Just a Fan" video — [Alyx designer] Matthew Williams is the reason that we have that out in the world.
Coming from Beaumont, all I know is Dillard's, Macy's, Ralph Lauren. I'm a country boy at the end of the day. I'm learning this fashion thing in real time and I'm blessed and I'm fortunate. I won't let that be just minimized as this very materialistic thing. When I first came to L.A. in 2019, I only came with my laptop, a Hanes tank top and some jeans and I was wearing that every day until Trippie was like, "I know you came out here with nothing, so if you want to go up there and grab something" — and all I grabbed was accessories. So I'm very, very appreciative of these things.
As far as the narrative, it's amazing to be on the Pitchforks and Complexes, because I have a love for one, music, two, film, three, journalism, and four, comedy. So to even be written about, I'm thankful. I used to write about myself in this journalist persona. So to even have these people have these opinions, I'm super grateful for that. It's a cool thing to kind of throw stones at Teezo Touchdown, but I think that'll definitely pass because when I posted "I Don't Think U C Me," I got like crazy quote tweets. We were like the fastest to get a million views, probably off the negativity pushing it like that. But they thought that I was Isaiah Rusk. So I was like, they're not hating the person or the video. They are just attacking the name.
I always say my interviews are for the next person who's coming up to be able to look at and study. You're going to go through one, the process of no one knowing who you are. And I would say to that, please don't be jaded. Please don't take it personal. Give people time to find you. Then you're going to hit the level of when people start to discover you and everyone's loving you because you're new, but once you start to cross over to that bigger market, you're going to get the people who just don't understand it. I think once you see that, really pat yourself on the back because you're breaking into that third step. And I feel like that's where I'm at right now. I'll have more on step four when I get there.
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