There’s no purer definition of multi-hyphenate than Tobi Lou. The Chicago-born rapper drifted from a promising career on the semi-pro baseball field to major festivals, landing him at major spectacles such as Bud Light’s Dive Bar Sessions at this year’s Governors Ball festival. His eclectic sense of style and genre-bending sound cementing him as one of hip-hop’s rising stars. In fact, there’s probably no other artist to keep tabs on like Tobi.
The formula is simple: Colorful visuals—paired with light synth beats and a gut-wrenching exploration of reality—have helped him grow a cult-following. He’s a true lyricist, examining the feelings of love, loss, and straight-up living life while making it digestible enough for Gen-Zers and millennials to fathom—a concept he pulled from his favorite cartoons.
“Cartoons are an escape from the real world for me,” Lou tells Cools. “There were times in my life where so much shit was happening, and I would just turn on the TV and I wouldn’t want to see anymore drama. To me, cartoons are my escape from reality. As we grow up, the world takes our imagination and magic away from us, and the going gets tough. So cartoons are a way for me to relive that magic.”
Below, we talk to Tobi Lou about his abrupt switch from baseball to music, his keen sense on meshing “the good and the bad” of everyday life within his music, and more.
Who, or what, inspired you to get into music in the first place?
I would say Kanye West. When I first heard his music, it really hit me. That’s someone who sounded like he didn’t belong but proved himself otherwise. He was very confident in everything he did, and he also represented Chicago, which was great, because we didn’t have anyone doing rap like him. He really showed everyone that you could be yourself and not have to put on this hardcore act.
You’re from Chicago, which is such a hotbed for hip-hop. Did you find it hard to make a name for yourself there?
It’s hard to get noticed anywhere, but in Chicago, in particular, it was pretty hard. Rappers like Chance [the Rapper] and Chief Keef were just coming up,. so much creative shit was happening. I really aspired to make a name for myself. When you come out, people often try to compare you to someone else.. And since I was basically on my own—I wasn’t part of a rap crew—I felt it was pretty difficult to really establish myself. I wasn’t really able to find my sound until I looked outside of Chicago. I wasn’t making good music until I did that.
So, when did you find your lane?
Well, I got kicked out of my parents’ house when I was just starting. It was in February, so all of my decisions were motivated by surviving, but also by a need to see the world. So, it was either staying in Chicago and working as a waiter, or leaving. I was thinking about going to New York, but I didn’t want to go from one cold place to another. So, I decided to go to Los Angeles.
I spent my first year there writing pop songs. That was good for me, but it was also a tough year in general because I wasn’t able to focus on my music. I was too busy trying to write hits for other people. Once I quit that, I started driving for Uber for cash. That’s when my music started to become Tobi Lou music.
Your main game is rap, but you also dabble in singing in your music. It’s very experimental, and I noticed that it’s becoming a major trend in hip-hop. Do you think that nowadays rappers have to have multiple talents in order to make it?
I would hate to say that you have to do something to be heard, but the truth is that melody does run the world. There’s something about hearing a melody that brings a positive reaction, it’s almost chemical. When you say something, people usually take it for granted, but when you put a melody behind it, it changes everything. People will start feeling something before they even hear a word.
A lot of people don’t realize that the song “Hey Ya!” from Outkast is actually sad. It’s about divorce, and about why relationships don’t last. But no one really knows that because they get so lost in the melody that they don’t even realize the depth of the lyrics.
So, I would say in today’s era of rap, you hear a lot more of this melodic, harmonious sound and rappers trying to sing because it grabs attention more. It’s that simple—who doesn’t like something catchy?
It’s so true, especially when listening to your music. You explore a lot of heavy topics, but tie it to a chill, pop beat. What inspired that kind of sound?
I just knew you didn’t have to have a moody soundscape or moody beat to create a moody bop. I wanted to cover heavy stuff but still be uplifting—sad shit doesn’t have to sound sad. That’s kind of what started this kind of style. I can talk to you about what’s going on, but it can still leave a positive mark.
I feel like I’m pigeonholed in having these uplifting, happy songs and beats. I’m not complaining— it’s not a bad thing, I love that I have that effect on people. But, I want to explore more of reality with my music, and the good and the bad that comes along with it. I want to connect with people that are also going through shit. Sometimes you want to feel hype, but other times you just don’t want to feel alone with your thoughts. I want to bring people both of those sides of comfort. Also, you don’t have to be fully depressed to be going through something. Sometimes, I feel happiness and sadness at the same time—emotions are just complex like that. I feel like music should have that complexity, too.
It’s so interesting to see how listeners can grow such a connection to artists, even if they never met before. Obviously, the music has a major part to do with that, but social media has made that connection even stronger.
Being out at these shows, you can really see how music affects people. It’s really cool, because you can’t see that on social media. Sometimes, people come up to me and go, “Yo, your music has helped me through so much shit.” To me, what I do is much more than just music. When artists are just starting out, they don’t realize the effect they have on people. But when you start to get out, you see how it really hits people. You become a leader of sorts to your fans down the line.
That responsibility must be a lot to deal with.
It is a lot, but it’s a responsibility I love because there were so many artists that were there for me…Kanye, Kid Cudi, André 3000. I just feel like everybody on this earth should be trying to help each other in some way. The fact that my music can help people the way music has helped me is a hefty responsibility, but it’s also really cool.
You also play on cartoons a lot. Why are you so drawn to cartoons?
I always thought it was a problem that I’m still watching cartoons and genuinely enjoy them. But, cartoons are an escape from the real world for me. There were times in my life where so much shit was happening, and I would just turn on the TV and I wouldn’t want to see anymore drama. To me, cartoons are my escape from reality. As we grow up, the world takes our imagination and magic away from us and the going gets tough. Cartoons are a way for me to relive that magic. But, at the same time, cartoons can also show real-life struggle in a more digestible form.
Dude, modern cartoons like Adventure Time cover some real problems. It’s so interesting how these are considered children’s shows, yet they take on topics that kids can’t really fathom yet.
Yeah, but it’s all much more fathomable when it’s put into animated form. Adventure Time did it in a way that blows your mind, even as an adult. They do it in such a way that works for kids and adults. Bojack Horseman does this well too, but that’s more of an adult cartoon. He truly embodies the struggles of everyday life, but we can handle it more because he’s a fucking horse. But, he’s really going through shit, even more than the average human, so we really feel a connection to him. Cartoons are so much more than the average Saturday morning shit now.
Your style involves a lot of color, and a touch of nostalgia. Who, or what, influences your style?
I love the feel of old shirts, and just nostalgia in general. Things from the ‘90s and early 2000’s just have a different feel from the clothes right now. Maybe they’re softer? I can’t put my finger on it, but there’s something special about a vintage piece from a thrift store.
The other part of my style, which is all of the color, isn’t really something I can say is inspired by one single person or thing. I’m just not afraid to play around with color anymore. I guess I learned that from people like André 3000. He was really out there with his style. If André can do what he was doing back in the day with OutKast, then I can play around with my style now. The world has seen so much evolution in style that anything I wear right now won’t be that outlandish, but what André was doing for his time was just so different. One of his outfits that really stuck with me was when he performed in this Tarzan-like outfit with this white fur top that stopped at his belly button. It was just wild, especially for the time. André, Missy Elliott, Busta Rhymes…they were all just wearing the wildest shit.
When you think about style, it’s supposed to be about what makes you feel good. So, these artists before me really inspired the confidence I have to just do something different and fun. When I look in the mirror and I like what I see, that’s what style should feel like. If I look good, feel good, and wanna go outside and prance around in my ‘fit, then I know I did good. You can’t have style without being confident.
Are there any brands that you’re into right now?
I really like Comme des Garçons. I’m also into the Adidas Boost because they’re comfortable, and I wear their track pants a lot. I was just gifted these Nike Air Max 270s, and they’re pretty dope. I don’t have a lot of stuff from one specific brand. But, I do love Stone Island. They have some fire stuff. I also wear a lot of my dad’s stuff.
Before you decided to get into music, you were playing baseball. Why did you decide to make the jump from sports to music?
It wasn’t necessarily a choice. I was always into music, but my background was sports. There’s such a timeline with sports, it’s very formulaic. It’s like, you have to do certain things at a certain time in order to make it. There’s a certain set of rules to follow: You either play for a college and try to get drafted, or you can try going into the semi-pro league making, like, $600 a month. I was really planning on being a professional athlete, but I ended up getting hurt and I got cut from the team I was on because of my injury. When I was in rehab for the injury, I was reaching out for try-outs and people wouldn’t get back to me for months. They kept telling me to try again in the next season, but by then I was just over it. I just felt like it was my time to truly focus on music, and see what happens from there.
I was tired of the politics of sports, and I felt like I had more control over myself in music. I was making all of the decisions for myself, and with sports you really don’t have that kind of power. Music was always my first love, so it was just a matter of time before I fell into it. Music is all about practice and proving your worth, sports is more of an established path that you have to take to get there
What’s the message that you want to send with your music?
I have a song called “Just Keep Going,” and I really want to get that tatted somewhere on me. It’s more than a message from my music, it’s the truth. Anything that happens in life, you really have two options: You can either stop and dwell, or you can just keep going. I feel like my life has been nothing but pushing past obstacles. I know I’m not on top of the world, but everyday that passes is another little victory through life.
What’s next for you?
I’m dropping a mixtape at the end of this month. I just can’t wait to give people a full serving of Tobi Lou and show them all of the thingsI like and enjoy. I just want to give people a step into my world.