Professor Toon is a Durham-based hip-hop producer and songwriter who previously attended Durham School of the Arts. He has performed alongside touring acts including Meek Mill, Big Sean and Mike Posner and will be holding a release show for his new LP "Take Notes" at Motorco this Friday, Jan. 22. The Chronicle's Elizabeth Djinis talked with Professor Toon about his Durham roots, artistic process and turning his life trials into songs.
The Chronicle: What is your new LP like?
Professor Toon: Just emotionally it’s a collection of everything that i’m feeling right now. it’s not always the exact narrative because I do some flashbacks during the album. It’s more of an introduction to myself as an artist, me finding my new voice. I’ve got a lot of flashbacks to some early matters in my life—I've had to deal with domestic violence and a few other issues. Also living in impoverished conditions, a little bit of my grind and my ascent and kind of growing as a businessman, as an artist at the same time since I handle most of my stuff independently. The 9 to 5 grind that i experienced a lot of having to grow up early helping my mom out and dealing with the issues that domestic violence survivors kind of deal with. You don’t usually want to leave the abusers pushing that point across. Also not compromising my artistic view of things, I don’t really want to make extra effort to go Will Smith on the music—profanity, cussing, I want to be in the middle of that raw emotion at the time.
....The album is super depressing but the beats are surprisingly upbeat. You're kind of in emotional limbo—"Aw man, I want to dance but also I want to listen to this right now." Whatever style those tracks are, I let people choose if they want to move them, or if they want to be moved by the music.
TC: Talk a little bit about the songwriting process.
PT: Most of my songs start out on the toilet. I try to stay [with] raw emotion. I’m usually playing a beat—I’ll have my headphones in while I’m sitting there. When I'm starting to write a song melody, I'm not that great of a singer even though I sing a lot on my tracks. The acoustics in the bathroom are really good to hide my shortcomings as a singer. I don’t really think about if I sound bad while I’m writing. I usually think to a beat and how to keeping the sh***** theme here, I let myself have diarrhea of the mouth. Whatever the first things come out and I let the emotion flow from there. Usually I'm touched by the beat already. It's really weird and hippie howIi think about beat and the emotion. Beats evoke emotion for me, especially baseline touch my heart, "Oh s**t this is so dope" and I have to start writing right then at that moment. Whatever I feel, whatever I start talking about at that moment I just don’t really think of that specific place.
TC: You attended Durham School of the Arts. When did you first know you wanted to be a performer?
PT: I worked at Duke. I didn’t find that until I was way into adult life. I dropped out of high school, I stayed out for a year and then I finally went back and got my equivalency. And then I went to college for a semester but then I stopped going, and I went back and did my second semester. I finished one full year of college... but it took me like three years to finish and I dropped out of school twice. My second time leaving school was because I knew I wanted to be an arist, specifically a rapper. I always had a knack for theatre, a knack for stage, but I wasn’t dead set on that being something I wanted to do.
I was a class clown and I would always spark conversations and sidetrack the entire class. So I guess it was kind of in school that I started to control crowds. I’d have the whole side of the classroom on another schtick. I’d get kicked out a lot for just talking and being a know-it-all. She suggested I try theater and that was like history. I went into theater, and my theater teacher told me to apply for Hillsides or DSA. You need to be over there where they can culture your skill set and make that a thing. I applied for DSA twice. I didn’t get in the first time. I got in the second time during the lottery and when I got in I started acting. I went for a whole first semester they threw me into one of the feature plays. "Mother Courage" was my first one. I’d do two plays and then after two plays were over I had a job so I was working. It wasn’t like I was completely eating s***. I went to work I was working more hours saving my money.
TC: How has being from Durham inspired your work?
PT: It’s been everything. Without coming to Durham I wouldn’t be where I am now. Every best friend—all of my next door neighbors and everybody in Baltimore, it’s kind of deep—every best friend that I grew up with got shot in the head. I would be living a completely different life. I moved down here and got a complete new group of friends. Yo Ricky got shot, oh s***. I was down here too, I was like, "F*** if I was up there I couldn't do anything about it." People that watch "The Wire" think that it’s like a show—it’s a real thing.
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