It's Valentine's Day, and Antwon is on the roof of his San Jose apartment tweeting about Kid Rock. Earlier this morning, the 26-year-old rapper released In Dark Denim, an 11-song mixtape that showcases his gruff voice reciting noirish sex-raps over abrasive, metallic beats. In Dark Denim successfully builds on the success of the acclaimed Fantasy Beds and End of Earth projects from the last two years, and heralds Antwon as a special talent from the Bay: He's a rapper who makes fantastically creative hip-hop with a distinctively punk attitude.
Putting his tweeting on hold, Antwon explains his unlikely appreciation of Detroit's foremost rap-rocker. "Kid Rock rules, man," he says, obviously sincere. "When I was at school, music was very divided. Kids would be like, 'Do you like rap or do you like rock music?'" I was into a lot of alternative bands, but I didn't see a difference between the two. I just thought if you listen to music you listen to it all. But when I first heard Kid Rock, I knew that was the type of stuff I liked. It was hard."
In Dark Denim doesn't sound much like anything Kid Rock would put out. But the mentality of mixing together scenes and influences — as when Kid Rock layered rap's aggressive rhymes and b-boy posturing over a backdrop of rock noise — defines Antwon's early, buzzed-about body of work. He's blessed with a booming voice that has been compared to the Notorious B.I.G.'s deep brogue. (As with Biggie's recorded work, In Dark Denim's songs offer glimpses into a sometimes twisted mind: "Burn Away" is peppered with ready-to-die sentiments and refers to a friend who became a meth addict.) But the production eschews both the sheen of mainstream trap-rap as peddled by Rick Ross and Lil Wayne, and the Bay's archetypal synth-and-slap sound. Instead, Antwon joined forces with a bunch of avant-leaning racket merchants, with beats coming from Memphis blog darling Cities Aviv, Houston din-maker B L A C K I E, and Big Baby Gandhi, a Queens-based Das Racist ally who also guest raps on the punchy, S.W.V.-sampling "Downtown." (Antwon's voice will also soon be heard on a single by Hot Sugar, the Manhattan-based producer who samples sounds made by the city around him, and is working with rapper Kitty Pryde.)
Antwon's formative musical steps mirror the creative mesh found on In Dark Denim. His first forays were with local punk bands, and he credits the rugged and stripped-down "Collude/Intrude" by EL-P's former group Company Flow as being the rap song that inspired him to write lyrics. This followed a childhood spent in transit: He was born in Key West to a mom from the Philippines and a Fresno-raised father in the armed services; later, as his parents' relationship faltered, Antwon moved to his grandmother's home in Sunnyvale.
"When I played in bands and started with guitar and bass, that's what made me learn how to be musical and make rap better," he explains. And it's not just lip service: Last October, Antwon headlined a show at legendary Berkeley punk venue 924 Gilman along with local hardcore acts and Oakland cloud-rap duo Main Attrakionz. His album artwork goes for a lo-fi look, with the cover of last year's End of Earth featuring a skull on a distressed, photocopied-looking, black-and-white background.
The tail-end of 2012 saw Antwon winning acclaim for this distinct style: SPIN named End of Earth one of the best hip-hop albums of the year, and this publication chose it as one of the best rap records from the Bay. Antwon appreciates the critical love, but says he's simply making the music that comes naturally to someone who enthuses about Kid Rock while collaborating with underground New York hip-hoppers. "It's not really regional," he says about the style he's forged. "People should just give up on making up some weird genre so that everyone can fit in some pocket somewhere."