n Halloween of 2012, Chester Watson broke into Hip-Hop with his debut mixtape, Phantom. The breakthrough was cut from the same cloth as masked poet MF DOOM, inspired by contemporaries Earl Sweatshirt and Tyler, the Creator—part of the wave of “Tumblr-core” internet rappers like Kitty and Snubnose Frankenstein who recognized that great music didn’t have to be costly produced, but merely released for free for the sake of publicity. The money would come later. Today, Phantom‘s Bandcamp album credits read: “back when i was 15 and used to cop beats off youtube lol.”
But at age 15, Chester Watson proved to be more than just another teenager attempting a rap career in the midst of high school. He was a hungry tongue-twisting rapper with major dreams, charming promise, and a lot of time on his hands.
His follow-up record, Tin Wooki, released two years later and nabbed a vinyl deal with German imprint Radio Juicy. In 2016, Watson’s Past Cloaks became the first record to release on Hip-Hop writer Jeff Weiss’s then newly founded label, P.O.W. Recordings.
Watson garnered a cult following by way of Bandcamp and SoundCloud uploads, gained traction as other Odd Future babies fell through the cracks, and sharpened his mind through vigorously studying culture and musical craft.
“The place I lived up in Georgia in high school—I was in the forest,” Chester recalled over the phone, detailing his earliest music endeavors. “Like high-key, middle of nowhere, no cars type shit. It was really peaceful and serene … we had a big ass backyard. I had the attic space and all that shit was mine. Nobody could hear me fucking banging my music, ever. I could literally be up until 5 in the morning making loud ass music and nobody would give a fuck. I feel like that really helped me find my sound. I just had so much time on my hands.”
Watson proved his smarts and graduated high school early. “School to me was easy,” he said. “All you had to do was remember shit to be good at school.” His sharp memory became a tool later utilized during his earliest rap performances on stage, easily regurgitating his poetic, multisyllabic wordy lyrics.
Born in St. Louis, Missouri and raised in Clearwater, Florida, Chester Watson’s sound doesn’t align with any specific city. Although his musical birthplace remains in Georgia, Watson currently resides in Miami to remain close with his crew, Nü Age Syndicate. He’s more than a blunted southern wordsmith and nothing close to his Miami contemporaries. In reality, Chester Watson is simply a product of the internet.
From Bedroom Mixes to Popular Records
Growing up, Watson wasn’t allowed outside after dark, which forced the rapper to focus on personal lessons at home. Outside of class, Watson found his mindful bliss by “just being inside on the computer at night.” Creating instrumentals, rapping, smoking weed, and writing in his bedroom, Chester Watson found an early ritual with his rap career.
He also had a few other muses and life coaches: His Egyptian, Russian-trained ballet instructor, which opened his eyes to different cultures; the act of skateboarding and finding mental clarity together with his Nü Age crew; Adult Swim, which mentally guided interests toward abstraction and oddities; cannabis, which Watson assures is part of his musical ritual to get in the creative zone; Stones Throw Records—and most specifically, producer Madlib—who aided in opening his musical mind to new ideas and song structures.
“My homie put me onto Madlib,” Chester Watson said. “The summer before ninth grade, he put me onto Madlib and I was just like ‘what the fuck is this?!’ The first song I heard was “Distant Lands” off of Shades of Blue. That was around the time I started skating … It just set the tone for my existence, I guess.”
[Watson begins beatboxing “Distant Lands” over the phone.]
“When I first dropped Phantom, I actually talked to the dudes at Stones Throw. They sent me a care package of CDs and shit, so I got to listen to a lot of their discography through that.”
Expanding His Footprint on Today’s Hip-Hop Scene
Today, Chester Watson creates a sound distinctly sitting between newer New York rappers like MIKE and Medhane, and YouTube’s “lofi hip hop radio 24/7 – chill study/relax/gaming beats” radio station. His beats are jazzy, dusty and echo 90’s boom-bap. His words are lazily delivered, through a sedated consciousness that enjoys subtle, braggy lines and nerdy references. Take, for example, the dreamy, piano-looped “40 Acres,” off the rapper’s latest release, Project 0:
Project 0 is the rapper’s shortest and newest project, released as a bridge to hold fans over for his debut album, Japanese Horror Film. Where Tin Wooki stands at 28 tracks and plays together as five separate acts, Project 0 is simply 10 tracks that serve as a sound collage showcasing Watson’s progression.
Japanese Horror Film will act as Chester Watson’s most precise execution, promising to be content-heavy and conceptual with Japanese culture. If Project 0 is a collection of scraps from Japanese Horror Film, Watson’s promising a hefty main course for fans.
“I wanted to showcase the shit that I’ve been working on in the last year and a half,” Watson says on Project 0. “It’s just showing people what’s changed in my life over the past couple of years because I’ve just been working on my craft, honestly. I’m just getting better. So Project 0 is just showcasing what I’ve learned as far as composing music. It’s also paying homage to some of the things I’ve done in the past. I felt like [these songs] were really, really good and I didn’t want them to go on [Japanese Horror Film], but I knew they needed a place somewhere in the world, physically, alive.”
Cannabis and Watson’s Creative Beats
Chester Watson may have founded his sound off lo-fi production and LA’s early beat-scene (and heavy inspiration from the late Japanese producer Nujabes, hence Nü Age’s name), but 2018 seems to fit better for the rapper. Today at age 21, Watson may be partially responsible for several sounds found in today’s underground Bandcamp and SoundCloud scenes.
Being one of the first successful artists to dump rap tracks on both platforms, Watson fully fleshed out ideas initially formed when he was 15 years old and experimenting with bedroom rap. “We didn’t really have the most expensive hardware and shit back then, so our beats were really lo-fi,” Watson said. “We used 404s and so it’s dope to see that people gravitated to it. Now there’s a bunch of other people doing it, but it’s still dope to see that this sound resonated with so many people—it’s a timeless sound. I feel like [Nü Age] felt like that when we were making it.”
His creative process has always been supplemented with smoking, be it from a blunt or bong. “I do more creative shit I wouldn’t do while I’m sober,” Watson says about smoking while creating. “I’ll think of more shit when I’m stoned. I just feel relaxed. I don’t wanna feel super tense making music. I just wanna kick back and vibe with something I was just working on.” The strain of choice? Gelato or GSC. “Some people get really anxious [when they smoke]. I either wanna go to sleep, or I wanna work on my music. That’s how I feel better.”