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Kastaway Is Fighting To Win

Written by on October 27, 2021

For West Side Chicago hip-hop artist Kastaway, music is therapy, and a tool for overcoming obstacles.

Photo courtesy of the artist.

Chicago hip-hop artist Kastaway fills his songs with personal narratives and richly layered production elements. He’s been a part of Chicago’s underground scene for years and his single, “Shine,” was recently featured on Vocalo’s In Rotation playlist.

The artist got his start in the worlds of music and dance while attending fine arts school. He found a love for dance at a young age, but was unable to stick with it as he grew older.

“[Dancing] was frowned upon in the hood,” Kastaway recalled in an interview with Vocalo. “Once I became a teenager, I started feeling a lot of pain and the dancing stopped.” 

The pain Kastaway felt was largely brought on by familial issues, he admitted. His biological father was not present and struggled with drug addiction, so Kastaway grew up at his grandmother’s house — an environment he described as toxic with the exception of his mother and older sisters. There, he was exposed to mental and physical violence, verbal abuse, drug dealing and drug use, but he still chose to be grateful for certain aspects of his childhood.

“It was a lot … and what’s crazy, my situation wasn’t even the worst in the hood,” he said. “I had food and I had a mom that wasn’t on drugs.”

Even still, Kastaway kept alive his love of the arts. Church youth programs gave him the “space to build on [his] love for words.” His time in these programs was cut short, though, because of his aggressive, at times violent, tendencies.

“I got kicked out of a lot of their programs because I was too much,” he said. “I was tearing up stuff, throwing chairs at people, and I was saying things that I regret now. I would curse out pastors and even threaten to beat them up. I feel sorry about that.” 

For years since, Kastaway has been releasing music and gaining traction through Chicago. He continues to make music that is deeply personal and consistently strives to uplift others with his songs, despite currently struggling with physical health issues. 

We chatted with the artist about his early years in music, what Chicago means to him, how he continues to persevere through pain and his impressive vinyl collection.

Photo courtesy of the artist.

When did you start making music? 

I started making music as young as sixth or seventh grade. All of my cousins rhymed, but my cousin Blue saw something in me, and my cousin Tone, who is a rapper and producer, pushed me to write and battle other rappers in the hood or whatever rapper he met and thought was dope. I was in a rap group called The Omen and, being the youngest, I felt forced to push my pen. Lastly, my sister’s ex-boyfriend had me studying hip-hop like a historian and he took me to my first studio sessions. He was literally my big brother, and he disappeared. Low-key, it hurts me to this day that I haven’t seen him in almost 20 years and he is not a part of what I’m doing now, but whatever, it is what is it. 

In high school, one of my best friends C-Note and his father Pauly let me come and hone my craft in their basement studio. Once I was ready, C-Note took me to my first big studio and it was on from there. 

“I’m still here and I’m fighting to win.”

– Kastaway

How was your identity shaped by growing up in Chicago, both as an artist and an individual?

Honestly, I never thought about it because I never knew much of anything outside of Chicago. I know my situation is unique. Of course, growing up in North Lawndale created a tough exterior that gives my music grit, but then having a caring mom gave me a heart which creates consciousness. I also was “adopted” by my Puerto Rican Pops as a teenager, which gave my life the Caribbean influence. Most [non-Afro Latino] Black dudes in the hood can’t say, “I was raised by a Puerto Rican.” I also bounced in and out of church and [was] mentored by pastors, which gave my music a lot of spiritual undertones. 

One thing for sure is some neighborhoods, like Lawndale, Little Village, Garfield Park, Humboldt and Austin, are havens for trauma. Those traumas affected me, and I rap about them — not just for myself, but so that people listening can see that we need help. I know that teenagers currently experiencing the trauma won’t listen to my style of hip-hop, but someone who has influence to change their lives will listen. 

As an individual, I’ve grown to care about the mental health of Black and Latino people, especially children, which is why I support Chicago students for a living. I will die a happy man if I know my music and personal life decisions made the life of a Black and Brown child easier. 

Photo courtesy of the artist.

What is your favorite aspect of Chicago’s hip-hop scene?

My favorite aspect of the city’s hip-hop scene has always been the versatility. You have thought-provoking MCs to party rappers, battle rappers to drill. We have a lot to offer. I just hate that some of us, including myself, don’t get as much attention, but I am grateful that this is really starting to change. Lots of MCs getting love, and the community is starting to be more loving. At least, from what I’ve seen in the vinyl world. 

Your bio also stated you fell ill for a year, and used it as inspiration to fuel your second album Who I Am. Could you tell us a little bit about how you found inspiration and motivation during your year-long illness? What about this time made you want to create? What does this album mean to you?

To be honest, I am still struggling with physical health issues. I talk about it in my new album. I finished my new album the day before my brain surgery. The brain surgery was on a nerve that affects the pain sensors in my throat. Basically, I felt (and still feel) pain in my throat when I talk. Sometimes I don’t even have to talk but I feel debilitating pain, so I quit music before my [album] Who I Am and my new album My Life In Music 3: Revelation. Forgive me if I sound crazy, but I feel like God wants me to tell my story to inspire other people. Between that and my friends, Mike, Lester Jay, Krikit Boi and Drew, they made me feel like I could do it. 

This new album means a lot to me, it helped me go back and reflect on some childhood traumas, prove to myself that I can still rap despite the pain and also reveal to the world that I am in pain, but I’m still here and I’m fighting to win. So this album is a testament to my fight. I want my listeners to fight with me. 

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned when it comes to physical and spiritual strength?

I’ve learned how much I have. As a spiritual person, I often call myself weak because I am human and make bad decisions and mistakes. However, I recently read something that encouraged me to stop calling myself weak, especially when you are physically working through a painful health struggle. Through my last album El Pilon and My Life In Music 3, I am discovering how strong I am. Like, I am really strong and I am telling myself that more. I still know that God is behind my strength, though. I also have another father figure who’s a pastor who reminds [me] a lot that I am strong, because sometimes I feel weak and be wanting [to] curse out God, but he really has given me so much strength.

Photo courtesy of the artist.

How have you seen yourself grow as a musician over time?

I will say my growth comes in my decision to make the music I want to make. It’s hard to be in hip-hop when so many people want to suggest something like they are Russell Simmons or some successful exec. I’ve grown to see music as a tool to spread a message, and if I make some bucks along the way, cool. If I don’t get rich, I am good because that is not why I do this. 

In regards to growth in sound, I feel I have my own sound now. That’s because of my brother Krikit Boi who produces the bulk of my music. He gave me own sound, which I believe no [one] in the city has. I have my own musical identity now. My sound has been consistent since the My Life in Music 2 album. I’m proud of that. 

Do you see music as a cathartic outlet? If so, in what ways? If not, why not?

Yeah, I do see it as a cathartic outlet. Especially rap music. All the words can tell so many stories, communicate pain, joy, lust, anger, hate — you know, all of those ideas and emotions. When I can make music, I struggle to find an outlet that is as useful or productive. I would be making more bad decisions without [music]. The microphone is my therapist, and the beats are the therapist couch. The booth in my crib is my therapist office, low-key. 

What have you learned about yourself through making music?

I haven’t thought about this. I think I discovered that I don’t give up, despite everything life hits me with. I have been through so much, but music is there waiting for me to tell everyone. Sometimes I tell too much but I am actually pretty shy around people I don’t know, so this is my way of sharing with them. 

I also learned that music is where my “drunken truth” comes out. A lot of people hide the truth they want to speak [when] they are sober, but give them some liquor and truth comes out like crazy. That’s me when I write and record. 

We saw on your Instagram you’re a pretty big vinyl collector. When did you start your collection?

I started collecting right before the pandemic. I already had Jay-Z’s Reasonable Doubt on vinyl, but I never had a turntable until early March 2020. After that, it [was] on. I went kind of crazy. 

Why do you collect vinyl? What does listening to music on vinyl mean to you?

I love having music in the form of physical media, I love the vinyl culture and a lot of the stores. I have met some cool people collecting. I love hunting for vinyl … but I am not into waiting in lines for stuff, that ain’t happening. I love the sound of a lot of my records. Some have bad pressings that’s wack, but most of my vinyl be slapping! I also discovered artists I never heard of due to vinyl, like Durand Jones and The Indications, Children of Zeus (they are fire!) and Miles Bonny. Vinyl plays a role in helping me with my pain. It takes me out of my head. 

What are your top three favorite records in your collection?

This is hard! I have to answer this one a few different ways. 

I have a few records that are hard to find, like an OG copy of Jay-Z Reasonable Doubt, Ghostface‘s Supreme Clientele and the 20 year anniversary of DMX‘s first album, and its a gold vinyl. 

But my favorite to listen to because of sound, Curtis Mayfield‘s Superfly the Mobile Fidelity joint, Willie Colon and Rubén BladesSiembra and I think I want to say Santana‘s Supernatural, but Pharcyde’s first album is amazing on vinyl. This question is hard. 

Tell us about your upcoming fifth album, My Life In Music III. What are some life experiences you drew inspiration from when making it? How has the experience of creating it helped shape who you are as a musician?

So I started this album before I started having nerve issues in my throat. I had three songs done. But then I started reading about childhood trauma and how it affects who we become as adults, and I wanted to write about a lot of that. Also being told that I have to get a brain surgery, and that shit scared me. So I did the rest of the album in a month. I also had friends who inspired me: Krikit Boi, Mic Logic, Lester Jay, Wrds and Rudy De Anda. My brothers C-Note and Drew from 606 Records inspire, too. I was also caught off guard by the support my last album El Pilon got, and the vinyl is selling a lot in stores and on my website. 

This experience showed me that if I push myself and be laser-focused, I can record music despite my pain. Some days my pain is too much, but when it’s tolerable, I can knock some dope music. I already started looking into beats for my next project, but I am not doing this one in a month. I want to take more time for health reasons, but I am still knocking out joints. 

Anything else fans should be on the lookout for or that you want to promote?

My album My Life and Music 3: Revelation will be out on all streaming platforms Nov. 13, and the vinyl will be in stores like 606 Records, Record Breakers, Rattleback, Reckless and Shuga. So all my vinyl heads go and get that. Even if you are not into vinyl, we made the records like a piece of art as soon as you see the record.

We are doing a virtual live listening party on 606 Records’ Facebook and I am doing my first show in three years virtually on Rattleback Records’ social media platforms.

Be on the lookout for my podcast with my big bro Lex Cruz, we are trying to do it every week but sometimes we have to do it bi-weekly due to my health challenges. Sorry about that, y’all.

I also have another album called The Art of Tradition. Straight-up boom-bap with my homies in Sweden DJ Cam Downrocka and Max I Million. That vinyl will be dope as well.

Look out for my stuff from my brand Cultural Coalition, which the music label I own and the clothing merch with which I partnered up with good friend Jonathan Mejias. He’s the illest graphic designer and photographer. We also get support from Ves120 and Illform Clothing. 

Follow Kastaway on Twitter and Instagram.

Edited for length and clarity by Erik Anderson and Morgan Ciocca

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