​TOBi Finds Strength in Vulnerability

"To get on your knees and wail about your weaknesses is not something I've exactly seen celebrated in hip-hop," says the Toronto rapper and community leader

Photo courtesy of Sony Music Canada

BY Kyle MullinPublished Oct 11, 2023

She hadn't yet heard the song. But when TOBi pressed play, it blew her mind.

The Toronto rapper (known for hits like "Made Me Everything" and the eagerly awaited new LP PANIC, out October 12 via RCA Records) was, as is his wont, working with students in need at a youth program called Create X Connect. When TOBi learned one member of the class hadn't heard of Lauryn Hill, he played the '90s alt-rap queen's Grammy-winning single "Doo-Wop (That Thing)" and delighted in the student experiencing its hummingbird-flutter harmonies, stirring horns and empowering lyrics.

"To put her onto Lauryn Hill, and see that reaction in real time, was crazy," TOBi tells Exclaim! over a video call, discussing the free 10-week program he runs to help teach audio production to primarily Black youth. He adds, "The best part is seeing somebody starting off not knowing how to produce, and watching them use the technical terms, or creating a beat. Watching that growth is amazing."

Create X Connect is not only in keeping with TOBi's socially conscious lyrics, but also his prior career as a youth counsellor. When he thinks about some of the most vulnerable songs on this new album, such as the Emanuel-assisted "Keep from Falling," TOBi is reminded of all the toxic cycles ensnaring him and the young people he counselled. 

Some of the most telling examples unfolded unexpectedly — like when he had lunch with a 15-year-old who balked at his order. "When he told me, 'Men don't eat salad,' I was kind of taken aback, wondering if he was joking. It made me think: 'He was taught men shouldn't take care of ourselves. That we have to run ourselves into the ground, and always be strong,'" says TOBi, who then thankfully shares a happier ending to that story. As the then-counsellor and that young man's bond deepened, he went from "always answering 'yes' or 'no,' to answering 'yes, because I feel this way or that,'" says TOBi, flipping his outstretched palm to express how clipped the young man's words were, before arcing his hand up and down, as if tracing the boy's waves of pent-up emotion.

TOBi adds, "I think that richness and depth of communication will give him a better quality of life, and help him become a more compassionate man to himself, and by extension to the rest of the world." 

But it's not always easy for TOBi to be so bravely vulnerable. "Keep from Falling," with its strategic bass strums and python-coiled strings, is so sonically pared back, Emanuel and TOBi have nothing to hide behind as they tenderly emote. 

"To get on your knees and wail about your weaknesses is not something I've exactly seen celebrated in hip-hop," says TOBi, who came up as a hardened battle rapper. "But I had to be honest with myself, with these fear-based things [on 'Keep from Falling']. Which leads back to the title, PANIC."

What was driving that emotional whirlwind of a song? His recent falling in love, naturally (as if that weren't plain to hear on "Keep from Falling"). Of that experience, TOBi says, "In the past I've allowed myself to fall and get hurt. But I never would've known the blissful ecstasy of love and surrender if I hadn't. That's what it is: I've taken both the love and the hurt." 

In addition to Emanuel and his ballet-graceful vocals, TOBi is also pleased with PANIC's other contributors. Highlights include Daniele Luppi, an Italian composer who lent the same string talents to PANIC that he used with Danger Mouse on Gnarls Barkley hits. There are also a handful of beloved American underground rappers — like Topaz Jones on the revving-like-a-convertible summer jam "All Night Long," Kenny Mason on the jabbing-piano-laden "Flatline," and MAVI on "Flowers," whose chipmunk soul sample rivals that of College Dropout-era Kanye West.

And while the album boasts a range of guests, its sound comes courtesy of Alex Goose. The producer of all 12 of these tracks, along with some of TOBi's biggest past hits, is an indispensable member of the rapper's circle. Says TOBi, "Alex has seen every aspect of my artistry, from the rapping to the singing to the primal noises that I can make on the mic. We've worked a lot in the studio together, and got some amazing musicians on this album."

Goose agrees, adding, "TOBi and I just knew what we wanted: make a very musical album with a lot of textures. The combination of samples and live instrumentation was key." Goose is especially excited about having trombonist Phil Ranelin on several PANIC songs, calling him "a living legend" because of his influential 1970's underground spiritual jazz albums.

Goose adds, "It was really gratifying going from just a sample or a simple beat and song idea to fully fleshing out these songs with so many layers. It took us time, but I feel like we achieved what we were going after."

As much as he cherishes his bond with Goose, there are other producers TOBi hopes to work with in the future. Chief among them is another studio dynamo who he's worked with in the past: Harrison. During a recent interview, Harrison told Exclaim!, "Anything I send TOBi can be a hit." 

Turns out the feeling is mutual. TOBi calls Harrison "a humble guy. Everything he sends me, I don't have to labour over the words, because it just feels good. He's someone I want to do more work with in the future."

But right now, he's elated by this juncture of his career, having collaborated with these all-star guests on an album about confronting — and overcoming — fear. Of all the tracks, he points to "Protect You" as pivotal, calling it "an ode to community. When I sing 'I will protect you,' I want people to sing it to themselves too," he says of the penultimate and climactic PANIC song.

"Because the concept of the album is panic, but I don't want you to leave feeling scared. It's about feeling hopeful."

He continues, "What eases the weight of panic is the people around you, your community. It's one of the most important things that I'm grateful for —  that if I was to fall today, somebody would catch me. I don't take it for granted."

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