Toof has been a performer from childhood, writing a rap as a third grader that he then performed for his fellow students during an assembly at Highland Elementary School.
The following day, he was invited to repeat the performance – “The song was about the school, like, ‘Highland school is the best/All the other schools tryin’ to put us to the test,’” the rapper said, and laughed – for a roomful of board members at Fifth Third Bank.
“They invited me and my mom downtown, and we go all the way to the second to top floor, all the way up in the air,” said Toof, 28, seated in the South Side environs of , a recording studio and smoke shop he founded alongside business partners JHornz and iR Wolf. “And we go in, and it’s just one big, long table of board members. And they’re just sitting there and staring at me like, ‘All right, do your thing.’"
While Toof has advanced far beyond these grade school rhymes, the moment proved illustrative for the rapper, his view from the top of the downtown tower offering an almost literal sense of the heights to which music could carry him. “That,” he said, “was the beginning of hope.”
But the process of finding his own voice as a rapper has been a longer journey for the artist, who started to more seriously pursue music starting at age 19, spending the first five years of his career performing under the name the Prodigal Son. At the time, the musician adopted a cadence and style he borrowed in part from Chicago rapper Kanye West, whose College Dropout album he described as deeply influential. Frequently, Toof said he would write new verses atop West’s songs, adapting scenes from his own life to fit the rapper’s lyrical frameworks.
A turning point arrived when Toof got punched during a fight at now-defunct rock club Alrosa Villa, the blow knocking loose a crown the rapper had set in 10th grade, when an errant elbow during a pickup basketball game took out a front tooth. “And I got into the car … and I didn’t even know the crown was gone, because the shock was still settling in,” he said. “And then I touched my tongue to my teeth and it was like, ‘My crown is out. It’s gone.’ And it dawned on me during the drive, like, ‘Why don’t I just go to the dentist and have them take the rest of the crown out?’ And the next week I went to the dentist and they were like, ‘Do you want a new crown? Or do you want to flip? You want this?’ And I was like, ‘I want nothing.’ And they were like, ‘There’s no way you want nothing.’ And I was like, ‘Nope. I don’t want you to put anything in. That’s all. Thank you.’”
For the rapper, the decision was part of a larger philosophical shift in which he started to more fully embrace all aspects of his personality, his new gap-toothed smile – paired with rap name to match in Toof – gradually revealing itself in increasingly unvarnished verses that cut deeper to the core of who he was and how he viewed the world.
A handful of these earlier songs form the core of new album , out today (Monday, March 6), a more inward-looking record that finds the rapper working to reconcile with his past self. “Really couldn’t wait anymore, had to tie up my laces,” he raps on tone-setting opener “Amazin’.” A second full length slated to land early this summer takes a more external stance, with Toof beginning to take stock of his place in the larger world.
Both albums are sharply shaped by Toof’s experiences coming up in Columbus, and in particular the stark transition he experienced at age 14, when he entered into the foster care system and moved from the West Side to rural Morrow County, Ohio.
“It was culture shock. … The whole way of life, the mindsets, everything was different – and not bad, just different,” he said. “It was definitely isolating. I was one of four Black kids in all four grades [at Highland High School], and it’s not like it mattered, but that was the first time in my life I ever really noticed [race] in that way, just because it was so apparent. But that was also the reason I think I’m at where I am today, because 14, that’s a time in your life when you’re just coming into your freedom and really starting to understand your power, and my whole world was flipped. … So, it was like I have to come up with a whole new way of communicating, a whole new way of thinking, a whole new way of moving.”
Among other things, Toof said this abrupt pivot increased his level of empathy, introducing a belief that much of the cultural divide can be attributed to a deep communication gap. “Seeing those two places (the West Side and Morrow County), they’re opposite sides of the spectrum, but when I look, I see the similarities,” he said. “Everybody wants to be heard. Everybody wants to be validated. Pain is real no matter who it comes from. No one knows anything. And I just started keeping all of that in mind, and remembering that people are people.”
This concept has long been an anchoring point not just in Toof’s music, but also in his business dealings with ShitHouse and in his behind-the-scenes work alongside fellow rapper Sam Rothstein with (the company books concerts at venues such as Skully’s, among others). Collectively, Toof said he views these various pursuits as a way of creating community, believing that the only way to truly get ahead is to lift others up with you.
“I just want to get to the people from any angle I can get to them and bring them into this hub,” he said. “I don’t want to play into the music world, and I don’t want to play this game in which I can’t create the rules. I want to build my own world, and that’s kind of what I feel like we’re doing with the studio and the smoke shop and with At Work. And anyone who wants to can come be a part of it. ... It can be a hard game if you try to play into someone else’s world. But if I can create my own, then I’ve already won.”