Tom Johnson: The Creator of the Rap Van (and Many Other Things)

Tom Johnson makes up half of Headlock (a grungy rap duo here in Tucson), drives the Rap Van (and created it), is the Event Manager at R Bar (hosting fresh events), and is that one guy everyone refers to as the handy man.

He was once an emcee, now focuses on making beats, has traveled across the country in light of self-development, enjoys being the go-to guy for help, and is constantly involved in the community in various ways. Tom touches base on all these things and more (including his biggest accomplishment and overcoming one of his toughest years), in the interview below!

I honestly don’t know much about you. I just know you’re an interesting guy. If you had to give a brief intro about yourself, what would it be?

I like to make connections. Person to person or person to need or anything. I like for things to run smoother on a community level.

I mean, I think that’s why everyone describes you as the handy man. You’re like the go to guy for a bunch of random stuff.

Yeah my buddy Nick, Illslur, calls me a “sourcerer,” like I source things.

How did you become this person?

I think because I like to do a lot of stuff all the time. I don’t really like to do one thing consistently other than work hard towards a goal of things running smoothly. So whenever I see a way that I can help with that, if somebody is willing to let me do that or even better if someone wants to employ me to do so then I will do that.

So, you and Illslur (or Nick) make up Headlock. Why the name Headlock?

My buddy gave us that name. Nick and I have been making music together since around 2001/2002 and have been through different phases including living on the road at two different points. The first time was for about nine months and the second time was six months. But we’ve always made music together and at a certain point we decided that we were going for kind of a different goal, which has now manifested in a way that we sound now. It was to be grimey-er and to own what we’re doing more and to kind of one up what we each do. Nick makes raps and beats. I make beats. I used to rap. It was a part of being like, “Let’s get fucking better at this. Let’s pay attention to what we’re doing.” It was at that point that a buddy of ours, T Rust, stepped in and we were talking about what should be the name. He just came over and was like, “Headlock! That’s what you’re going to be,” and we were like, “Okay! That’s cool. Sounds good.”

How’d you guys meet and come together as a group?

I was managing a burrito shop in Portland and he came in. I think he was trying to get a job. He was out there going to school. I was just living there. He was wearing a shirt of a record that I had but I didn’t know that much about the record. I was like, “Hey I have that record but I don’t ever really listen to it.” He was like, “Cool ‘cause I don’t really know ‘em I just have this shirt.” So we were like, “Cool, let’s be friends.”

Then we discovered we had mutual interest in similar styles of music. He taught me how to make beats on an MPC and we were rapping for a while but I stopped doing that ‘cause it’s not my thing.

I think the scene [in Tucson] is very encouraging. People aren’t afraid to try new things.
— Tom Johnson

So, what would you say are your biggest influences or inspirations for your music?

Anybody that takes risks and just sounds like themselves. All across the board in any genre.

Tell me someone on the spot, right now, who takes risks.

I just bought that Danny Brown and Paul White 12” and I like both those guys. I think they take a lot of risks. I’ve also been fucking with a lot of old Laurie Anderson. She takes a ton of risks. Hm… yeah those three! I like all of them.

You mentioned when you guys first started to now, your sound has evolved. How would you say it’s evolved?

Just becoming more like that’s us. Like owning everything that we do. Originally we used to make what Nick and I used to refer as, “Loop Castle” stuff. Where you make a drum loop, put another thing on, just a very basic way of making a beat with samples. It has turned into mutating those samples into something that sounds like specifically our thing. It’s like making a cake and then eating it, puking it up and making a pie with that, and then puking it up and making a soup. So we’re at the soup stage.

So you guys took a big road trip together.

Yeah we’ve done a couple!

Could you tell me more about where you went and what you did?

The first time we moved into an RV with a couple other friends and left from Phoenix, went up to San Francisco and then came back through Tucson. That was the first time I ever came to Tucson, so that was Summer 2008. Came to Tucson and then went all the way to Miami, up to Philly, Mineap., and then back down to here. That was a nine month journey. It was really fun.

I like doing events that are curated and fun and that represent the new shit in this city.
— Tom Johnson

What was the purpose of that?

Exploration through personal development and music making. We all brought equipment. We deejayed in weird places. We’d make beats on the beach and shit.

What would you say was the one place that really resonated with you?

There was so much of that. For sure. Traveling like that… there’s nothing like that. If it’s within the country you live in too. Not to discourage any kind of international travel but it’s where you are. You take and add with that style of traveling because you already know the playing ground. You could appear to be from there so you can blend it a little bit easier.

New Orleans was amazing and sad. We were there right after Katrina. That was crazy to see. Saw a lot of shit. Saw some really crazy stuff. Like in the center of Florida, in between Orlando and Tampa, a little bit South in the middle of nowhere, we were in a fire tower watching lightning. Shit like that was crazy. A lot of visual stuff. A lot of nice people everywhere. Obviously Tucson resonated because I ended up back here eventually. That was an interesting revelation later in life to be like, “Oh yeah the first time I came here was on that trip!”

So why Tucson?

People.

How would you describe the scene here in Tucson?

I think the scene here is very encouraging. People aren’t afraid to try new things. I like that a lot. I’ve always fed off of doing whatever the fuck and trying to do better as an individual or as a group with other people. I think people here dare each other to do bigger, greater shit. So they establish their identity as a musician, artist in that way. That’s really fucking cool. Also, I think the hip hop kids hanging out with the punk rockers hanging out with the electronic kids is really cool. They cross pollinate. I think that’s neat and important.

How about in comparison to Portland?

Portland also has always had a lot of artists. I was part of the pilgrimage to Portland in the 2000s, where a lot of people showed up and changed the face of it - why the show Portlandia got made. A kind of a joke of itself. It’s a really awesome place.

Do you plan on taking any big trips soon again?

Always. Nick and I (Headlock), we’ve been talking about doing a tour with the Saint Market guys and that would be late this summer.

The accountability [the Rap Van] established for being a participant, whether you’re the audience or the performer, because it is so intimate where in certain ways… you hold yourself accountable!
— Tom Johnson, his favorite thing about the Rap Van

You, also, are in charge of the R Bar event bookings.

Officially this week yeah! I’ve been working with Matt Baquet, who’s been doing the booking there. He was really responsible for turning the place around and the identity it has now but he brought me on to help him with Sunday’s, specifically local based. Then he moved to LA and then New York. So he’s in New York now but I’ve been working with him and have slowly been taking on more responsibility there. As of this week, we’re working together on the booking and I’m the person that’s here physically.

What kind of events are you into or do you like hosting?

Events that are different than anything you’ve done before. I like doing events that are curated and fun and that represent the new shit in this city.

How did the idea for the Rap Van come up?

Originally, Nick and I were talking about doing an album release and only playing in the van. I think the original, original idea was to do a video inside the van and then that wasn’t quite it. Then we talked about doing the album release and that wasn’t quite it. And then my friend Badio, who’s a rapper who used to live here, wanted to do a video in the van and in my head I was like, “No… you’re not going to be the first one who’s going to do it.” Kind of like an ego thing. I was like, if anything… I’m going to be a part of that. I wanted him to as well.

I think I was hungover and was zoning out, probably a similar day like this, and I was like, “Oh I’m going to get all the rappers to be in the van. Instead of me and Nick or Badio.” I was like, “I could just do this over and over and over and everyone gets to rap in the van. That would be fun!” So I made a list and cut it down, made a list and cut it down, until I had the first six/seven people. That’s how it started.

I think learning to be happy with yourself as a human being and your accomplishments in general (or your lack of accomplishments) is important.
— Tom Johnson

What’s your favorite thing about the Rap Van?

The accountability it established for being a participant, whether you’re the audience or the performer, because it is so intimate where in certain ways… you hold yourself accountable! Number one you have to be safe, ‘cause it’s a moving vehicle. There can’t really be a moshpit effectively (not that I’m against moshpits). Then as a performer, there’s a certain way you speak to people where if you’re on a stage in the spotlight yelling down at the faceless people you don’t necessarily know that’s in the room or you don’t identify anyone that you see in the room, you can say whatever you want. There’s a certain amount of performances built on ego because you just talk shit but when you’ve in a van with fifteen to twenty people, you can see every person’s face you’re like, “I’m in a conversation with this person.” Whether it’s a performance or not, you have to change the way you fucking do it because it’s right there. I’ve always loved small spaces, like house parties or pop-up shows, stuff like that.

I feel like you’ve experienced a lot. You come off as someone who’s done a lot. What would you say is your biggest accomplishment?

That’s a tough question. I think learning to be happy with yourself as a human being and your accomplishments in general (or your lack of accomplishments) is important. As Nick says, “Honoring what is possible.” It’s that concept of dealing with life as it comes to you and not giving yourself such a hard time and not over congratulating yourself for what you have done. Being realistic with how you’ve accomplished or not accomplished the things you’re doing and if you’re not happy, then making any adjustments to stay happy. I think I’m happy with that. I’ve grown a lot in the past year or two, specifically with Tucson’s help, to be able to accomplish more things and be realistic about who I am and what I’m capable of. That feels great.

If you know what you’re worth everything’s a lot easier.
— Tom Johnson

Feeding off of that, what would you say are the three biggest lessons you’ve learned that perhaps you’d like to remind yourself of in the future?

Don’t take anything seriously. If you don’t like Wu-Tang then you suck at washing dishes. What else… oh, realize what you’re worth! Yeah. Those three things. Or not necessarily realize, respect what you’re worth as a person. If you know what you’re worth everything’s a lot easier.

Could you share a low point in your life in regards to that? Like not knowing what your worth is and how you overcame it.

There’s been lots of peaks but there’s been lots of valleys too. For sure. I think that’s a good balance. 2016 was pretty terrible. Yeah it was a rough year but I overcame, (without specifically speaking about things, I don’t know if that’s as important ‘cause everyone has tough things that they go through in different forms) but whether it’s a broken heart or losing a job or losing somebody that’s important to you in your life, I think if you have a good realistic and loving base of friends and family that’s how you get through everything. Paying attention to those people that love you because sometimes you can’t pay attention to yourself. Sometimes you’re busy and you’re caught up in your shit, you can’t actually see the forest from the trees but if you have a good support system around you then that’s when you can shoot out from the other side and realize that things are going fucking great. That’s what I feel like with 2016. I fell into it and I fucking ran out.

It was one of those years?

Yeah.

Yeah, mine was in 2015.

Yeah, it was a bad year for sure. I mean every time you have a hard time you think it’s the hardest it’s ever going to be. No, it’ll get worse later. Don’t worry. The hardest fucking shit you’ll ever do is three years later or whatever. It's going to be way the fuck worse. So it’s nice to be prepared and have experience... and to love people as much as they can love you. You know, find that balance with people.

Of all the things that you do - Headlock, R Bar, Rap Van - what can people anticipate coming up next?

All those things are working themselves. They’re bigger than me so it’s nice to be involved and I’m going to put everything I got into them to help them flourish and I believe that works. I’m really exciting for Sound + Noise. My friend Christian Ramirez, it’s an event she started at MOCA, like four years ago. It was a consistent event there. It focused on using sound in a unique space for a performance - usually noise based artists but then that went into the beat world as well. Then we started as a secret invite-only event. The one we did last month was in some tunnels underground. We got another one on Tuesday that’s in a secret location with some cool artists. We’re going to keep doing stuff like that.

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