Toki Wright on Rap, Radio, and Minnesota’s Place in the World

The north Minneapolis hip-hop artist’s new show on The Current explores the genre’s vast history—from James Brown to Kendrick Lamar

Toki Wright, host of “Wright About Now” on 89.3 The Current/Photo by Mamuda, Courtesy of The Current

On a recent episode of The Current’s new hip-hop radio show “Wright About Now,” host and north Minneapolis rapper Toki Wright took his listeners from the top of their Twitter feed to the back of their grandma’s closet within minutes.

He played “All the Stars,” the Kendrick Lamar thumper and slice of the explosively popular Black Panther soundtrack. Moments later, he explained that many early hip-hop artists sampled funky breaks from James Brown drummer Clyde Stubblefield—and still do. Then he put on the infectiously danceable James Brown classic “Get on the Good Foot.”

Those minutes summed up Wright’s mission: to impart a wide-ranging, rigorous sense of hip-hop—officially the nation’s most popular kind of music, according to Nielsen data this year—every Wednesday at 10 p.m.

And there’s no better person to do it. Wright is a bona fide authority on the 40-plus-year-old genre. From his early years rapping at metro talent shows to his three-LP, four-EP deep body of work today, Wright has founded a Minneapolis label, Soul Tools; coordinated the country’s first accredited hip-hop program at McNally Smith College in St. Paul (going on a decade until the school’s recent close); and nurtured the Twin Cities scene by organizing festivals and aiding youth programs—to say nothing of his ambassador work with the U.S. State Department, fostering hip-hop communities in such countries as Sierra Leone, Uganda, Croatia, and China.

For about a month, Wright has used “Wright About Now” to examine hip-hop’s beginnings. He reaches farther back, to its influences (James Brown, Aretha Franklin, plus artists in dancehall, reggae, lo-fi, and other genres). And he looks forward, too (Dessa’s Chime, even Jaden Smith). For an hour, he’s an easygoing guide. If you didn’t know he was an educator, his voice—soft, but firm enough to evince that student-tempered type of confidence—would immediately recommend him. With his new platform, he plans to interview artists, too, and highlight indie releases.

But behind the warmth, Wright’s mission has a serious political bent: Yes, Kendrick Lamar is exemplary, but Wright also wants to put voices on public radio that have gone ignored—especially in Minnesota.

Coming to You from North Minneapolis…

Wright remembers the moment he first realized that what he was listening to was hip-hop. In the mid-’80s, he was a kid living in then-rural Lakeville, Minnesota. His mom brought home a new tape: Crushin’, by The Fat Boys. Raised in Chicago, she had come into her love of music as a fly on the wall of practice sessions with artists like Chaka Khan and Curtis Mayfield—thanks to her cousin, who performed with The Pharaohs and the original Earth, Wind & Fire. “She would bring home vinyl and tapes,” Wright says—everything from The Gap Band and James Brown to Michael Jackson and Cyndi Lauper—“and that was our internet.” But something made him listen a little more intently to The Fat Boys. “I was hearing something different,” he says, “something more edgy.”

Wright moved to north Minneapolis in the early ’90s, where he began digging into hip-hop. “As a black kid in the suburbs in the ’80s, with parents from Chicago, and my mom raised us all in Buddhism, we were kind of oddballs,” he says. In hip-hop, he felt a sense of belonging, so he delved deeper, into gritty East Coast rap—“underground, or just above ground”—including Boot Camp Clik, Wu-Tang Clan, Onyx, and Redman.

But, now living in the inner city, Wright noticed that his life, and the lives of those he knew, weren’t the ones he heard on air. “I turn on the radio in Minneapolis back in the day, and I may not hear any hip-hop,” he says, “and if I did, it was that one song that reaches the top five,” often pop-sounding, sometimes sensationalizing violence, “that only represents a sliver of the community.” Those tracks didn’t explore the everyday legacy of racism or dissect the rankling complications of love—not like songs Wright himself would record as an artist later on.

Wright, in his career, would find air time on The Current. But Minnesota still has a representation problem. And it is, in large part, the same one.

Toki Wright/Photo by Mamuda, Courtesy of The Current

“Indie rock and folk pretty much hold the lion’s share of radio play, the lion’s share of record sales” in Minnesota, Wright says, “and if you have indie rock-leaning qualities [as a hip-hop artist], the likelihood of your getting played is higher.”

Folk doesn’t exactly jive with the north Minneapolis Wright knows. “People think if I’m talking about hard-core street issues and I have an aggressive beat, that that is somehow inauthentic to the Minnesotan experience, when the problem is that a lot of the people in charge of entertainment in the state live inside of a box.” That box, he says, does not include north Minneapolis. It doesn’t include the east side of St. Paul, or other urban areas where many of the state’s people of color live.

Inner-city hip-hop has a largely coastal reputation, but urban kids are making careers here, too, he says. “We have one of the biggest urban Native American populations,” Wright points out. “Why isn’t Tall Paul being played on the radio every day?” The Minneapolis-based Native American artist raps about growing up indigenous—as well as school, friends, and seeking out role models. “He might have more views on YouTube than the top five people being played in hip-hop in Minnesota,” Wright says.

It could be that radio DJs balk at the content. (Wright describes the inner city as a place of “intrigue around things that may not be good for you.”) Still, Wright argues that penning “deep rap” doesn’t mean divorcing it from issues that court censorship. He remembers when his brother introduced him to artists like N.W.A. and Slick Rick. They had the same edge as The Fat Boys—even more so, because they swore and talked explicitly about sex (which, granted, The Fat Boys did, too, stressing the importance of wearing a condom in “Protect Yourself,” followed by “My Nutz,” which Wright could listen to only when his mom wasn’t home). “It’s that rebel mentality,” Wright says—“I wasn’t supposed to say that, but I said it anyway.”

Wright’s music might have gone the more conscientious route of Common or A Tribe Called Quest, but he still commends N.W.A. as the first act to “bluntly criticize the police,” and Slick Rick for laying into both sex and relationships as topics for hip-hop.

DJs who ignore music because it’s “outside the box,” as Wright describes it, or “hard-core” impose de facto censorship. “There’s a good 15 years of hip-hop in Minnesota that really didn’t get any radio play,” he says. “And it’s great stuff, but nobody ever played it because they couldn’t see the value in it.”

Beyond the Four-Mile Radius

Wright wants to extend play time to lesser-heard voices, but his sights don’t stop at city limits.

A few weeks ago, “Wright About Now” focused on international artists, from countries including Iran, Sri Lanka, and Ghana. Growing up with friends from Saudi Arabia and the West Indies, Wright embraced world sounds early on, including from dancehall artists Buju Banton and Shabba Ranks.

When he took on his ambassadorship with the U.S. State Department—going from non-profit youth guidance in north Minneapolis to hip-hop community-building overseas—Wright had to put aside what he knew about the genre to understand why it developed differently elsewhere.

“Maybe there’s a reason why this Iranian artist I’m hearing makes really aggressive music,” he noted. “Maybe there’s a reason why some of the music I hear from South Korea might sound like pop—lighthearted.”

In war-affected countries, scarcity determined sound. Wright helped an artist in Uganda record while his grandma sat on his bedroom floor nearby. In Sierra Leone, Wright had to use two-decade-old production programs. But such limitations, he says, actually get to the core of hip-hop: “You find great musicianship and artistry when people have less and create more, which is essentially the hip-hop aesthetic anyway,” he says. “We breakdanced because we couldn’t join formal dance classes. We DJ’d because we couldn’t take formal instrument lessons. We MC’d because we couldn’t get formal vocal training…And that’s why hip-hop is an anomaly—because all of these poor kids that were told they’re the scum of the earth ended up becoming superstars and millionaires and shifting culture and making people dress different.”

On the show, Wright played a Paraguayan artist he met in Toronto, an Iranian-American artist in Minneapolis, a group from Croatia, another from Paris. He wanted to react against what he sees as U.S. self-absorption, using Ghana-based artist M.anifest as an example. The Macalester College alum, who moved from the Twin Cities back to Africa, has collaborated with big names including Erykah Badu and Bono—“and he’s not on the radio in Minnesota,” Wright says in disbelief. “Like, why?!”

Actually, he knows why, he says: We’re musically incestuous. “Some people from Minnesota are like, if it’s not from Rhymesayers or Doomtree, we’re not supporting it. Or, that’s real hip-hop, and everything else isn’t…I might invite you for diversity day, but I’m not going to integrate you into the center.”

Ghana, Wright suggests, feels too “over there.” But as a kid who moved from the sticks to the suburbs to inner-city Chicago to inner-city Minneapolis, he came to “see beyond the four-block radius around [his] house.” He says it made him a better person—in that difficult-to-describe sense of understanding yourself by understanding others. His empathetic curiosity took hold as early as childhood: “I was interested in hearing other people’s stories,” he says. “What is it like to live in Staten Island? What is it like to live in Paris?”

Convincing The Current

Despite Minnesota’s indie-folk box, Wright says The Current warmed to his mission when he pitched it.

He described his show’s potential: “What do those personal conversations sound like that I and another hip-hop artist are having in my basement at 3 a.m. on a Sunday after a session? What are those conversations that are happening at these conferences and symposiums all around the world on hip-hop and gender? How do we get out of our bubble and join the world community?”

Of course, he also assured them, “I grew up on Soundgarden and Nirvana and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, too. I grew up listening to Guns N’ Roses”—and even references them in his music. Wright concedes that hip-hop has long sampled rock and other guitar-centered, white-dominant genres. But hip-hop also draws from classical, jazz, country—and all those sounds his mom introduced him to.

Today, artists such as Bruno Mars blend hip-hop into an unplaceable pop hybrid. Knowing your stuff has become the difference between being a fan and being into the Top 40. (In the Twin Cities, do you know I.R.M. Crew, Next, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, even MC Skat Kat?)

More than educating, though, Wright hopes his show opens minds. “Hip-hop is everywhere—it’s kind of like white noise,” he says. “If I don’t listen to the room, I don’t hear it. But if I take a second, and I stop, and I just listen to the tone of the room, I realize that I’m not alone, that the house makes sounds, that there’s creaks—there’s water running through pipes.” Hip-hop is in fast-food commercials, at basketball games during halftime, in shoe stores. But there’s a story behind each song, a person behind each lyric, and an entire history behind every beat.

“Wright About Now” airs on Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on 89.3 The Current.