Been an outlaw long before the poster said wanted/ Skeletons in the closet but the whole house haunted/ Know I'm going to hell/ Might as well act demonic. —"Numb," Illmatic 2
Before I sit down with Isaiah Toothtaker, I'm having severe feelings of apprehension. There are too many stories and too many rumors. I know how rumors work in this town, and I'd like to think my bullshit detector is strong. Still, there is this feeling of dread. Would the wrong question trigger his temper? Or would he simply laugh me off and shoo me away?
I first met Toothtaker more than a decade ago, when his name was Isaiah Camacho. I was a regular at the Tap Room in Hotel Congress, where he did a short stint working security. We had a few mutual friends and soon struck up a friendly rapport. We mainly talked about movies and music, cracked a few jokes and talked about tattoos. It was around this time when I first heard the whispered rumors and stories.
In the meantime, he went from Isaiah, the budding hip-hop artist and tattoo apprentice hawking his demos outside of shows, to the notorious Isaiah Toothtaker, a much revered and respected rapper with several albums, mixtapes, guest spots and the record label/collective Machina Muerte under his belt. He's also a proud father of 9-year-old twins and the owner of Staring Without Caring, the iconic tattoo parlor at 1024 E. Sixth St.
Any dread I was feeling was immediately eased as I walked through the Staring Without Caring door. Toothtaker greeted me with a handshake and a radiant smile, either from his eagerness or his intense gold grilles. We sat down at an outdoor cafe on a beautiful Saturday afternoon to discuss growing up in Tucson, falling in love with hip-hop at the swap meet, tattooing, his penchant for trouble and how the current state of hip-hop ain't shit.
Were you born and raised in Tucson?
Yes, I was.
What was it like, growing up?
Um ... it was pretty troubled I guess, I came from a broken home. I was kind of like in and out of family members' houses and I was on my own since I was 11. At 15 I had my own apartment and provided for myself, got a job, all that kind of crazy shit. I just got into a lot of like, probably violence and trouble. That came along with people who I was hanging out with and the overall attitude and just what I was kind of used to. There were some other elements that were kind of good at the time. My dad was into the punk rock scene and really active in that. That stuff was cool and I think that had a strong influence on me even in participating in shit now, making music now, being creative. There were a lot of different activities happening in the era when I was younger. There was a lot of, I don't want to say like makeshift, but it was very impromptu or DIY, art shit happening, shows going down, warehouse parties, different events happening. That stuff was part of my youth, but family life was pretty difficult. It was always a lot of fighting, and I probably got into the mix of it. I was a little shithead; I was a troublemaker. But I think it also came from my dad being in and out of prison, and being in that sort of upbringing with those types of people. My mom was a real difficult person to deal with. Her and I never really had a good relationship. It was a lot of trouble, and as soon as I really could be on my own, I tried to.
Got a dime on my dick or nine on my lap/ Got 6 gold fronts, 2 Ms on my back/ Trying to add some zeros & give nothing back/ Spit 16 bars every one is a fact.
—"Deathborg," Illmatic 2
I met Isaiah when I opened planet-z in 1996 and had him rapping and doing art on store mixtapes a year after that.
We've done various songs together on his albums but I have recently had a chance to get him to appear on the new Demon Queen album with Black Moth Super Rainbow's Tobacco, set to be released later this year.
Toothtaker is very original when it comes to style and takes a lot of risks with his sound. He's basically gonna do whatever he wants when it comes to creativity, regardless of what folks think. I saw him in a completely different light when I became a songwriter.
I realized just how good of a writer he truly is. I see Toothtaker different than most. I remember him when he was young and have seen him deal with different hardships and blessings in his life.
He's battled through a lot and has made it pretty much on his own and I'm proud where he is today as a father, business owner, artist and person ... and I see a lot of upside to his future in all of those traits, which only means good things for the city of Tucson.
—Zackey Force Funk, aka Zackey 425, local rapper/DJ/gentleman
What was some of the first hip-hop that grabbed you?
The first actual cassette that I bought was at the fucking swap meet at a bootleg tape spot. I got a $3 Ice-T Original Gangster tape. That was my first independent purchase on my own. I remember it was amidst all my cousins trying to convince me to get a fucking Vanilla Ice tape. They were like "get the MC Hammer shit" or even that group Lighter Shade of Brown. I was like, fuck all that stuff, I don't want none of that. It wasn't the first time I had ever heard rap, it was just that for sure was something I wanted. New Jack City was also crazy big, so I wanted to get that tape more than anything else. I heard Fear of a Black Planet; my dad was trying to push that on me. But I think from 10 on, anything he tried to show me or like, give me, I never really received. It was like "Yo, I'm old enough to take my own opinions on shit" and I didn't take any of his referrals at that point. I magnetized to that on my own way, independent of everything.
How old where you when you started rapping?
I'd say I was probably 15. I didn't tell nobody for probably like a year or so. I wrote a bunch of random shit. I was in and out of spots. I didn't really have like a stable house I would live at, or any one set place. A lot of it was honestly on the fucking bus, man, to kill time and to make some money and to be able to eat and shit. I sold nickels and dimes. I sold acid, I sold weed or whatever. I would write shit on the bus or collect it in my head. It was just a matter of memorizing different songs. Something sticks and catches in your head. I came up with a line off of another line or thinking about shit just out of nowhere. From that, I just decided to start penning stuff down. A couple years into it I attempted some four-track recording-type shit, just because I had another couple of friends that had done stuff as well. In that era too, cyphering, freestyle was kind of popular, there was a lot more of that element. People would battle; that became something kind of popular as well. I felt like I had enough passion for music, and rap specifically, that I was gonna dedicate as much as I could to it.
Quieting liars with the skills I've acquired/ Fill the entire payback required/ My empire's a market of buyers.
—"Midnight," Illmatic 2
He's one of my favorite artists. His delivery/rhythms are insane. There's nothing like it. I love his style of writing and what he says and how he says it. Dude is the truth. He tells you what he thinks and he's a throwback to those old warriors who would be on a battlefield but then go home and paint or create. Good man.
—N8 Noface of CrimeKillz, punk rock hip-hop madman currently living in Los Angeles
You've been super-prolific lately, with four releases last year. And Illmatic 2 was just released in late February. Have you gotten any criticism from Nas fans for using that title?
Noooooo ... I think the way it's titled ... it's done in jest. I didn't expect it to be some fart/dick joke. It wasn't like, let's make this a humorous thing.
Illmatic is regarded as such a holy grail of an album.
Exactly. It's kind of like the current temperature right now. Like seeing Raekwon release Only Built 4 Cuban Linx 2 or Capone-N-Noreaga doing The War Report 2. Naming your same title but putting the 2 after that is a marketing technique just so they can fucking sell that album on the shelf. I said fuck it, I'm gonna do this because it's gonna offset what people would expect about it, and if anything that's good. It wasn't done for Nas. It wasn't done to chastise him or challenge his release. It wasn't done to be the opposition to what that considered "classic" album is. It was just done to integrate my audience's participation into it.
This all might end in penitentiaries if it was really meant to be/ You can't prevent some things I can't pretend repenting/ I'll pen my own identity/ Pending the next sentencing/ My violent affinity/ Bring death to all my enemies/ Gotta die eventually.
— "Hert," Illmatic 2
I really like Isaiah's creative output. I listen to a lot of different types of music, including rap. It seems like a lot of musicians and genres in general (even ones I really enjoy) become stagnant and people start to follow the same formula for creation. That's fine, do what you know and do it well, but... that becomes boring and played out. Isaiah's music is all over the map and he is constantly experimenting with new forms of delivery, a variety of different musical styles and a wide variety of awesome collaborators. He keeps his shit new. His creativity doesn't just end at music, though—video, illustration, graphic design—his ideas and skills are fused into everything around him.
Isaiah is an enigma wrapped in a riddle, dripping with style. He defies any stereotype you could throw at him. I have known him for a while and he gave me my first tattoo (and all the rest). He grinds hard, drinks harder, and has a discerning taste in everything from film to food to music.
—Patrick Foley, aka Patrick Karnaykeso, founder of the Carne Queso collective, art punks who make the best clothes in Tucson
How long have you been tattooing?
Approximately 11 years.
How did you start?
I was getting tattooed pretty early on, and just being associates with Mac at Black Rose at the time. I think it was slightly after getting Tucson tattooed on my neck, he tattooed my throat, and we were going through discussions about it. He was familiar with the type of rambunctiousness and shit that I was doing. I think he saw that maybe there was a bit of mentoring he could maybe be able to offer, and it just went from there.
You apprenticed for him?
Yeah, I was his apprentice at Black Rose for a year or something like that. It was a very staunch and traditional apprenticeship.
How long has Staring Without Caring been around?
We've been there now for seven years.
What's behind the name?
Staring Without Caring came up when we were all having a dinner someplace, just a group of us. Kenzo, who works there, too, we were outside the restaurant and some guy was like looking at me, kind of perturbed. He had, like, a very sour face on. He was staring at us from inside of the restaurant, and I had just mentioned how, like, irritated I was with it and that maybe I was gonna go and beat him up. Kenzo was like, "Why would you do that?" Kenzo didn't understand it, and he was like, "What would be the point, what's the reason for that?" and the reason I gave was because it was staring without caring. From that it became a joke and we were gonna develop into, like, a collective, maybe do flash tattoos or something like that. The shop came into fruition and it was like, fuck it, let's run with this name. It always had lingered, no matter what we were doing. It was like a familiar inside joke.
Dressed to impressed in that funeral black/ And it's just one step for your death to match/ We can close your casket or shut your trap/ We can have you hemmed we can bust some straps.
—"Deathborg," Illmatic 2
When did Machina Muerte start?
It manifested slightly in 2009. There was a sort of mixtape Mestizo put together. He just did it to sell on tour. He had been playing with the idea of this title and he and I had been speaking about who we were gonna collect into it and there were some loose players on the mixtape who are in the crew. 2010 is when it officially kicked off. Half of the mixtape was half of my Yiggy album and I so I was pretty pissed at Mestizo. Making this mixtape with half of my fucking album on it unauthorized! That's why you didn't see it again after the fact ... it's a rare collector's album! The middle of 2010 is when we made the official record label and got distribution.
How many different artists have released material on the label?
Probably around seven. Projects that we've released with Machina is fucking probably over 50. If you think I'm prolific, CrimeKillz is really crazy prolific, Zackey Force Funk is, Mestizo is, everybody does an insane amount of work. These people are workhorses. They have this ability that's like supernatural. It's probably good in the same way that we're all friends because we compete with each other's releases and productivity. These guys are fuckin' nuts.
You're working on a project with Jacob Cooper of Wavves, using all Nine Inch Nails samples?
It's done. And it's fucking badass. I'm super-amped on it. I wrote the songs with him in a week's time. It's not an extremely long project. We're not trying to be known as the guys that sampled all the Nine Inch Nails songs. It's less is more, quality over quantity. I'm really excited for people to hear the songs.
What's your take on the current state of hip-hop?
I don't divide them anymore, man. The current state of hip-hop is retarded. Hip-hop is retarded. It's rap. If it's not rap, it's fucking rock. If it's not rock, it's punk rock. If it's not metal, it's black metal. Anything I currently listen to or that I choose to listen to tomorrow is the state of it. I don't have to breakdance at every show I do to validate how hip-hop I am. If it changes, great. If it deteriorates, and diminishes completely, great. Something better's gonna happen. Something different is gonna happen. That's all it ever needs. Music can range a spectrum of keys, a spectrum of notes. If you only play the one forever, people aren't gonna listen to it that often. That's not to say a different person wouldn't wanna hear it just as much. That's never in my consciousness, or my thought process. I don't ever consider it.
Weather the storm/ Head full of thorns/ Deformed/ What was dead is reborn/ Torn from the arms/ Thrown into harm/ Last of my culture the vultures swarm.
—"Midnight," Illmatic 2
I did live printing at his tattoo shop's infamous five-year anniversary party, which was also his 30th birthday party. Craziest shit ever. We had promised free prints to all guests so people were just coming up in droves asking for, like, five Tooth prints at a time. I think we printed well over 500 relief prints that night ... craziest party I've ever been to. By the end of the night, when CrimeKillz started playing, the moshing and general chaos just got to be too much. Our print press was knocked off the table and it broke and kids just started jacking all the prints I had made especially for Isaiah right off his tattoo station. It was madness.
As far as my thoughts and feelings about him, there's a lot there because we are such old friends. I mean, he runs the gamut from one of the most loving fathers and great friends that I've ever known to the scariest and most volatile person I've ever seen. When the smartest guy in the room is also the most thuggish, it's a hell of a combination—the kind of guy I'm glad to call my friend.
He has a great sense for visual design, his tattoo art and fine art is amazing, he is an incredible and very thoughtful writer, he's a whiz with video editing and production, he writes all his own press copy. His promotion and marketing skills are sharp and he's an incredibly talented musician. Dude knows what's up.
—Slobby Robby, no description needed
You've been getting press all around the country but you haven't been getting much press here in Tucson. How do you feel about that?
I've been getting press worldwide, not even being shitty. I'm not trying to be egotistical, but I've been championed and getting press and write-ups from everywhere else besides here for a long time. I feel very slighted by it, but I don't think there's a personal vendetta against me. It's never going to fucking make me do something differently to get attention because I'm not getting it. It's never gonna dictate my art or my actions or what I do with my art. Not having any write-ups here. ... I feel like it's obviously myopic in my opinion. It's not stopping me from producing, and I don't think about it. I don't do it for the attention of a journalist or a magazine. But, of course, a writer and an editor and a publisher are people and they listen to music. I would do it for them on a personal level.
How often do you play live?
I used to try to be a lot more active with it. I wanted to be more frequent with my shows, but after I felt confident with my stage performance, my stage presence, my ability, it wasn't as much of a concern. Not that I conquered it, but that I'm capable of it. I know what that situation is, I'm familiar with it. It wasn't something I gave a fuck about anymore. I'm definitely not trying to open up for a passing band that's not gonna see my performance just because I get to have some fucking synonymous billing on a poster. I don't care about that. If I can only perform once to twice in Tucson a year, I'm very happy with that and feel that's even a bit much.
Liquor drown my sorrow till the bottom of the bottle/ Ain't got a pot to piss in I ain't livin' for tomorrow/ Ain't no halo to borrow got a hollow you can swallow/ Give all that I got and take whatever trouble follows.
—"Hert," Illmatic 2
You do have a violent reputation. Where does all of that stem from?
I think it stems from a lot of violent reactions! The reputation comes because I've done a lot of fucked-up shit. I haven't done a lot of fucked-up shit to a lot of nice people—I did fucked-up shit to fucked-up people. I'm not a bully, I don't go around blowing people up. I wasn't fighting a bunch of soccer dads shopping for tomatoes at Safeway. I'm fighting dudes that have attitude problems; I'm fighting guys that bump into people that they don't know. I'm fighting gangbangers, hoodlums and thugs. It's not these innocent types. Tucson is a violent city. It's a very physical city, people are really willing to fight here. And it was even worse growing up. Unfortunately, it's a sense of our nature. We're destructive, we're sometimes violent. We're physical people, just as we can be intelligible and eloquent and conversational. When we start to limit that, it dilutes it. It's reducing our experiences. Most boxers might have a violent past, but they go on to become champions of the world. These great people in history that we write books about, that we throw parades for ... they came from awful upbringings. Abusive upbringings. I don't really regret any of the stuff I've done. I feel like I didn't choose the broken home I grew up in. I didn't choose to have to fight my father or other peers or other hoodlums for the reasons that I did. I felt broken down at an early age. My kids have no idea what I've done. My kids have no idea that I've had these conflicts all my life. It's nothing I've tried to teach them. None of this stuff has any influence on my songs, or what I try to produce overall. I've tried to overcome them and do something different, and not be identified by them. But ... they're very much a part of my character. I'd also like to thank my defense attorney, Dan H. Cooper, for keeping me out of jail.
Any last words?
Come by the tattoo shop and get some work, check out a lot of free music by myself and Machina Muerte. If you want some good shit, you've got a long list to choose from.