“What color is the number seven?” I ask Theo on the phone last Wednesday. This is the first time we’ve talked since May, just before Theo said bye to LA to recharge back home on the East Coast for a few months, just after he DJ’d Labeling Men’s one year anniversary party.
“Right now?” he asks, rhetorically, I suppose, because he doesn’t await a response. “Maybe like an orange. Not bright orange, but almost like a harvest. You know like harvest season, around Thanksgiving time, like that weird brownish orange color with some yellow mixed in?”
Theo has what he considers the “great gift” of synesthesia, a neurological phenomenon literally translated as “joined perception,” in which the stimulation of one sense produces an automatic, involuntary stimulation of another sense. For Theo, it means that numbers, songs, and people produce colors. “The number 3,” he tells me, “is a turquoise blue. Number 1 is silver. When I hear Pharrell’s ‘Frontin,’ I see a very sky blue, and white…with a little bit of black.”
Theo says this gift has helped him artistically. In DJ’ing, for example, he is aided by the fact that he has always been able to see beats per minute visually. It’s also made him more independent. In the last year, he decided to launch his own company, Good Posture, through which he produces visual art, design, and music. “I’d have a harder time explaining to someone how I want things to look than actually doing it myself,” he tells me and I nod in sincere understanding, because in listening to him explain his work to me for an hour, it’s clear that Theo exists on a different, more artistic plane than most. For this reason, he explains his longtime producers – Steve Metz and Austin White – are necessary “contain his crazy,” to keep his ideas from piling up, to keep him grounded in the boring world of logistics where most of us live.
While Theo has been performing since he was a kid, landing a role in Steven Spielberg’s Amistad at eleven and DJ’ing starting at thirteen, he’s made great strides in the last year. As Theo is 29, I suspect Saturn’s Return may be partially responsible, but we don’t get into it because I’m trying to contain my own crazy over here. A year ago, during a dark period, Theo moved to London for four months. “I’d always wanted to live there,” he tells me, “so I just bought a ticket and went.” Despite suffering from depression at the time, Theo says the trip exceeded his expectations and, most importantly, provided him with solitude that allowed him to grow as an artist.
For a while, Theo was obsessed with the idea being famous, a fixation that lodged itself in him after he opened for Nas at age 20: “it was like a high and I just wanted to keep smoking that shit.” When he put out his album Wonderland in 2012, he tells me, he was preoccupied with the expectation that it was going to blow him up. In London, he had a revelation: he decided to focus his energy onto his music – on making it good, authentic, honest – “as opposed to this maniacal scheme.” It’s easy to get caught up in the rat race, he tells me, but in London he realized he should focus on his work “as opposed to trying to look cool on the Internet.”
Despite his best efforts, Theo still looks pretty cool, both on the Internet (see his Labeling Men spread) and IRL. “I used to be afraid of standing out,” he tells me. “I used to wear neutral colors.” But now, “I’m here to be nothing less than amazing.” Rather than blowing up, Theo is more currently concerned with sharing his story, sharing his joy, sharing his pain. When he was young, artists like Kanye West, Lupe Fiaco, and NERD played an integral role in his self-development. “Here are these great artists,” he recalls thinking, “who sound like me, look like me, feel like me.” Without them, he tells me, he wouldn’t have been able to develop a sense of self-reflection.
And now Theo is ready to do for others what Kanye and NERD did for him. “Speaking through art is a very powerful thing,” he tells me. Instead of saying “fuck you” to someone, he posits, “why not make it bigger?” He wants to put his emotions and experiences into his music so that people around the world can feel what he’s feeling, so that others can “live in it.” It’s like “literally building a fortress,” he tells me.
Because he cites him as a major influence I don’t feel bad saying that Theo at times has decidedly Kanye vibes – his taste for metaphor and grandeur, his stream-of-consciousness expression, his typically shy demeanor punctuated by surprising moments of aggression. “As an artist it’s my job,” he says, “—it’s my fucking due diligence – to tell my story and be honest with people,” he continues, speaking so rapidly that I have to rewind the recording several times to make sure I catch it. “I’ve been given a gift.” He pauses for the first time. “It’s like a fucking superhero movie.” He laughs.
You can see and hear Theo’s superhero movie in early September, when he’s having a listening party and debuting his collection through Good Posture. You can also listen here or look here.
By Anna Dorn
Photograph by Logan Hill for Labeling Men