Choo Jackson has a habit of naming his albums before he finishes them. He likes to set the mood for the creative process, and it makes it easier when that mood has a name. His latest mixtape, Choo, Where U Goin’?, was released last December, but the Pittsburgh-based Jackson came up with the title long before that. The title is about avoiding complacency, always thinking about the next thing. He’s on the move before he gets to where he’s going.
The title also poses a reasonable question. From all appearances, Jackson’s career is poised for a breakthrough. He’s not a household name, but he’s far from obscure, thanks to an early nod in 2013 from Mac Miller, who brought him on tour and signed him to his indie label, REmember Music. Jackson is always releasing new music and workshopping new projects; he never goes more than a few weeks without posting one-off tracks to his Soundcloud. Next year, he’ll release his official debut (yes, it has a name already), executive produced by E. Dan, the ID Labs producer whom many credit with crafting Wiz Khalifa’s breakthrough.
It’s never fun to be called “the next so-and-so” (looking at you, CP reader’s poll), less so for an idiosyncratic dude like Choo Jackson. But it’s hard not to see similarities between his career arc and those of Miller and Khalifa.
“I’m here to be on a bigger level,” Jackson says. “I’m not here to be some underground act forever. I don’t see myself as that.”
Jackson is not big-headed, at least as much as a phone call and a couple of emails can reveal, but he’s not bashful about his ambitions, or ignorant about how much is riding on his official debut. The music business is littered with artists perpetually poised for breakout success without ever getting it. But Jackson is confident, nonetheless.
“I can’t say much about the name because I want it to be polarizing when it comes out,” says Jackson. “I definitely know that’s gonna be the project to take me to the next level.”
Tracing his output to date, you hear an artist getting weirder, bolder and more interesting with each release. Choo, Where U Goin’? opens with “Camo,” a brooding track about deceptive appearances and unseen sadness. It’s a disarming, wicked-smart piece of music. Christo, the track’s producer and Jackson’s longtime collaborator, explains that Jackson told him to “make something that makes him feel like he’s not from this planet.”
Jackson’s style was never middle of the road, but over the past few years, he’s begun to veer more and more into experimentation, and it’s paying off. Earlier this year, he signed a distribution deal with the San Francisco-based Empire Distribution.
Growing up in Vero Beach, Fla., Jackson kept his hip-hop ambitions to himself. He wrote lyrics and practiced privately, and might have never gone public if not for his friend Josh Jordan, who set up a home studio in his closet and asked Choo to lay down vocals on a test track.
“They didn’t know I’d already been preparing,” he says.
Jackson doesn’t remember the name of the song or its lyrics, but it sticks with him as his first step toward going professional in hip hop. Things got rolling once he moved to Chambersburg, Pa., as a teenager. Then in 10th grade, it was not a good fit at first.
“I fought with my mom for almost a month. Just being a kid, I didn’t wanna lose my friends,” says Jackson. “Little did I know, God had a plan for me to be a musician, and it only happened [once] I moved.”
Within a few years, he began making music with a number of Pittsburgh-based producers, including Christo (who, along with E. Dan, will executive produce the debut). The two connected through a mutual friend at Duquesne University and started making music the day they met.
“Choo was the first artist I worked with who never wrote lyrics down, which served to save a lot of time and effort toward making a record,” says Christo. “I remember leaving that session thinking, ‘I’m gonna work with this kid for a long time.’”
Before long, Jackson caught Mac Miller’s attention, and his career has been on a steady rise ever since. He’s released Beer Flavored Pizza, Broken Hearts Make Money, ANIME and Choo, Where U Goin’?, as well as a handful of splits, EPs, mixtapes and singles. It can be hard to distinguish an album from a mixtape; it’s sort of a dealer’s-choice thing, but Jackson sees his forthcoming album as his official debut. The albums are well-thought out, cohesive collections of tracks, but he uses his Soundcloud as a forum for experimentation, testing out new directions to see how they’re received by fans.
One example is “Bug Spray,” posted last month. The beat is deep, heavy and trippy, produced by Christo. The track is a bit more straightforward and less nerdy than most of his output (or maybe just less flamboyant). “Bug Spray” and many of his Soundcloud tracks serve as a testament to his willingness to try new things, while keeping a pulse on what his audience wants and retaining his distinctive personality.
“I’ve just always been a weird type of dude,” says Jackson. “When I was in Florida, I was the only dude skateboarding. When everybody was fighting or dealing drugs, me and my friends were just tearing up rails and curbs.”
Details are mum on the debut, but true to form, Jackson has another project with E. Dan on deck to be released beforehand. Keep an eye on Choo.