The middle of 2020 saw unrest throughout Chicago as peaceful protests over the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police were hijacked by criminals who looted and vandalized businesses. In response, many Latino citizens in Chicago’s Little Village and Cicero area, who were alleged to be affiliated with the Latin Kings street gang, harassed and assaulted black motorists driving through those neighborhoods. These incidents shined a light on a decades old powder keg that exists between black and brown Chicagoan’s.
Chicago emcee Kastaway and his west coast producer, Krikit Boi decided to tackle the issues existing between African-American’s and Latino’s in Chicago on an album called “El Pilón.” El Pilón is produced entirely by Krikit Boi and features appearances by Mán Cub, Stig Van Eijk, Lester Jay, Tone Styles, Cam the Downrocka, Vill, Torch, C-Note, Gritz, Louie Kaczmarek, Kaley Shannon, and Mic Logik.
The Real Hip-Hop spoke to Kastaway about the division between black and brown people in Chicago, his battles with mental and physical health issues, and his new album with Krikit Boi, El Pilón.
TRHH: You have so many different styles on El Pilón; how would you classify the Kastaway sound?
Kastaway: I would say soulful, funky, I know that’s kind of cliché, but still with the boom bap roots, if that makes sense. I think that’s the best way to describe it. I can occasionally do my Latin influenced stuff, because I’m raised by Puerto Rican’s, so, sometimes that’s there, but for the most part the core of my sound is the atmospheric funk with the boom bap root. That’s the best way to describe it because the main producer I work with, that’s his sound, and he kind of gave me my own sound in regards to Chicago artists. So, it’s still got that traditional Hip-Hop, but it’s not sample-based.
TRHH: So, there are no samples on the record?
Kastaway: Nah. None. I tried to stay away from that when I started selling my records in a digital space because I’m too afraid of getting sued. But the older I get the more I’m like, what are they gonna sue me for? I don’t have anything [laughs]. By then I already developed my chemistry and sound with my main producer Krikit Boi. He’ll do the bulk of my projects and then I would outsource for a few others ones. But then I discovered that sometimes it’s best to have that one producer and just focus.
TRHH: What is it about Krikit Boi that brings out the best in you as an emcee?
Kastaway: I worked with a couple of different producers here and sometimes it’s always too much of something and it’s not a balance of everything I like. He knows how to give me that boom bap that I like, but I like those atmospheric sounds, and I like funk music, and I like Latin music, and I still love soul music. He’s from the Bay area and if you know anything about the Bay area, they love the R&B and the funk. Even though he’s Latino that’s what he grew up on, so, he gives me what I like. I’m a huge R&B head and he’s got those elements in his beats without making me sound soft.
TRHH: What’s the meaning behind the title of the album, El Pilón?
Kastaway: The original title of the album was going to be “The Broke Viaduct.” That was to talk about how we’re going to break this viaduct that separates Lawndale and Little Village. At the time we were making this album was in the middle of the looting, beefing, and people getting killed in Lawndale and Little Village. Me being from there and having a lot of my Mexican friends and a lot of Latino friends in general, I felt some kind of way. Krikit Boi, even though he’s from Cali, he felt some kind of way, too. My adopted dad, who was on the intro of the album wrote that poem. Pilón is a cooking tool that a lot of Puerto Rican’s use to mash up spices. When my pop was explaining it to me he said that Mexican’s have their version and African’s have their version.
So, the basic meaning behind it is blacks and Latino’s use what we have to make something flavorful, but it can go wrong and get a bit spicy if situations continue the way they are. We wanted to try to make something to unite us. If things kept going the way they were when we were making the album shit could have gotten spicy, and we didn’t want that. We were trying to say, we’re going to be this Pilón to blend our flavors together and build this wonderful meal of unity.
TRHH: Why do you think division exists between minorities in the city, despite having commonalities?
Kastaway: Okay, you’re taking it there. I’m going to go there with you. I think the dysfunction and the beefs are systematic. I try to be politically correct, but it’s time to be real. I think if the system, and you know what I mean by the system, can keep us fighting each other, then that’s less of a problem for them. Also, there’s this thing of resources. If you’re trying to survive and you’re in the neighborhood together you’re pretty much fighting over the resources that they give us. That causes a lot of dysfunction and it’s frustrating to see. I always tell my people that the president don’t like any one of us, so while we’re fighting each other, they’re laughing at us. We’re in this struggle together. Although we have individual unique struggles, we also have similar struggles.
The police are going to mess with you the same way they mess with me! The same way when you go to your school and they can’t understand you because you speak Spanish, they put you in special ed., it’s the same way they do with us when they realize we’re passionate and physical people. They say we can’t behave, so they put is in special ed., too. It’s a systematic thing and if they can keep us fighting each other it’s all good. I’m not saying this in regard to all white people, because I don’t think all white people think like that. I for sure don’t. I know white people who are in this whole modern-day civil rights struggle and they’re fighting with us. But there is a group of them, they ain’t playing, and they wanna see us fighting each other. I grew up seeing that and it used to break my heart because I wasn’t raised that way.
TRHH: On the single “Sing This Song” you say, “We need a pair of shoes and you’re talking bootstraps.” The entire song speaks to the skewed view that many people have of black and brown people, but that line sums it up perfectly. Why do you think so many people don’t believe that systemic racism exists or even that America’s past does not have an impact on people today?
Kastaway: I’ll try to answer that the best way I can. Number one, some people don’t grow up having to see it. I have friends who grew up in privileged areas and they totally don’t believe systemic racism exists, until I start telling them stories. And even then, they can’t believe it because they don’t have to grow up seeing it. They don’t have to grow up questioning anything around them because they have their privilege, so it’s easy for them to say that. Some of them know it exists, but they don’t want to admit to it because it will basically make them have to face the guilt. I don’t have the answers right now, but I live this. I’m studying it and living it because I work with kids in my real life. I’m trying to figure out these answers so the kids behind me can have a better future. But what I can’t figure out is when people of color deny systemic racism. It’s like, “How?”
If you don’t mind me getting personal I will. I have an uncle who I don’t even speak to anymore. If you listen to my albums and then go and listen to the new album, you’ll figure out where I’m talking about him on this new album. He is a Latino pro-Trump guy and he doesn’t believe that systematic racism exists. So, whenever I used to get into incidents where it was clearly evidence of racism or prejudice he would say, “Oh, it’s all in your head” or “You black people this and that.” I’m confused. I don’t understand. You see this! I’ve seen you be a victim of racism and prejudice. How can you deny this? I don’t know what makes people of color feel that way. I’m trying to figure it out. I don’t know if it’s a self-hate thing or what it is! That one I’m trying to figure out the answer to, but in regards to white people who deny systemic racism, they don’t have to see it and some of them don’t want to see it and face the guilt. That’s how is see it.
Of course, there’s more answers to it. I’m around a bunch of older people who have been doing a lot of civil rights work for years and they have better answers than me. I just feel like I’m at a point where I’m experiencing it firsthand in the world. When you grow up in the hood you hear things about white people, you hear things about racism, but you only experience the systematic parts that you don’t see. Because you don’t have to interact with them. Now I interact with all kinds of people and I’ve met some wonderful white people. They’re on my album. Like Mic Logik who is on my album, my godfather is an old white guy who lives in the hood, my high school social worker is still my friend to this day. Amazing white people. They acknowledge some of the ills in the system and they go out and fight for people. Then you have the people who don’t.
I’m just coming across it and that’s another reason why this album is urgent to me. I felt like for years I didn’t address a lot of stuff in my music because I was trying to keep it safe with some people I know who think these subjects are pretty controversial. But at one point you’ve got to stop caring about how people feel, because if we don’t say anything who is going to make the world better for the kids coming after us? I know I’m jumping around, but I get real passionate and emotional about this subject because it’s deeper than rhymes to me. This is real life. I work with kids and I’ve seen people who work with black and brown kids and don’t care about them and deny their cultural existence. I get flamed up. That’s why this album is the way it is. You should hear the stuff that didn’t make the album!
TRHH: You have a song on the album called “Like A Son” and the first verse is about your father. Have you forgiven your dad for the negativity he brought to your life?
Kastaway: You know what? I have. I’m actually on speaking terms with my biological dad, but I can’t call him dad. I just call him by his real name. What I discovered as I got older was thank God things went the way they went, because had he been there I wouldn’t be who I am today. I don’t want to change anything, of course some physical illness situations that I also touch on, but I don’t want to change anything. Thank God! I wouldn’t be adopted by my Puerto Rican pops, I wouldn’t have my godfather, I wouldn’t have these opportunities that I have. You know how it is, when you’re hungry and you want something you work extra hard. I could have probably been a spoiled brat. I probably wouldn’t have anything to rhyme about. I probably wouldn’t be in Hip-Hop, because that was the thing that started my struggle that caused me to relate to the music I listen to.
So, as I get older I’m thankful for him. I’m also understanding too that drug addiction is a real issue. Then you add that on top of somebody who is already egotistical and it makes things worse. So, I got to the point where I pray for him rather than hate him. The pain that he’s caused that I’m trying to come to grips with is I will never 100% feel like I’m somebody’s son. Whether it’s his or the people who look at me like their son, I will never be 100%. As much as that song was about him and my father figures, it’s also about me accepting a reality that I didn’t want to accept and I just had to.
TRHH: I saw the video on your YouTube page where you explained how your health issues exacerbated your anxiety. Why was it important to you to share such personal aspects of your life?
Kastaway: So, from an artistic standpoint it’s personal because most of favorite rappers, I felt like I knew them. I felt like I was emotionally connected to them. I knew Jay-Z had four nephews, I knew his father left him, I knew his uncle Ray died in the street. I knew these things about him and I felt like if I wanted to be acknowledged with the GOAT’s, that’s part of my artistic arsenal that I have to have. On a personal level I started acknowledging mental health issues. I was doing this before it was popular. That clip you saw was from 2016. A lot of people weren’t talking about mental illness. This was before Kanye and the whole bi-polar thing. I feel like the black community doesn’t look at mental health as a real issue. But then certain educated and informed black people were telling me, “When your leg hurts you go to the doctor right? It’s the same thing with your brain and your emotional and psychological well-being. You get help.”
I want everybody in my community to get that help. Being vulnerable is a sign of weakness and we’ve gotta stop because it’s killing us. It’s killing me. You can ask some of my rapper friends, I literally have a bad habit of saying that I’m okay when I’m in pain. I’m in pain every day and I don’t say nothing. I just thug it out and be like, “I’m good.” But then when it gets really bad, I go silent and nobody hears from me. They don’t see me. That’s not healthy. You need people who love you and care about you to know what’s going on. I want people who watch me to see it’s okay to tell your truth about your mental and physical health around your people. It’s okay. Just try to break the cycle.
TRHH: Who is the El Pilón album made for?
Kastaway: It’s definitely made to uplift blacks and Latino’s, but it’s also made to inform people who aren’t from our culture to understand that we are strong and beautiful people and even though we get beat up a lot, and we beat up on each other a lot, we’ve got something beautiful to offer this world and even offer to you if you just take the chance and build with us. Sometimes it’s hard to get rid of implicit biases and prejudices, but if you open up and try to ignore those things and be non-judgmental, yo, we got some flavorful stuff to offer the world! So, it’s for everybody. It’s for everybody who is and isn’t connected to us.
Purchase: Kastaway & Krikit Boi- El Pilón