Water > Gold

This article originally appeared as the cover story of Cypher League‘s sold-out debut print publication Cypher Magazine, which is available for digital purchase here. Photo by Nathan R. Smith

In July 2014, 23-year-old rapper Mick Jenkins released his latest mixtape, The Water[s]. His breakout work, the tape is a far cry from the popular sounds that engulf hip hop outlets today; no simple bangers, ABC raps, or vapidly fun debauchery on this tape. Instead, it’s the cooler version of “conscious rap.” In fact, it’s “conscious rap” for thinkers who hate the term “conscious rap.” The mixtape showcases his musicality, a realm in which lyrical emcees often fall short. Mick makes timeless music not solely for lyrical finesse, but for the sake of music itself and upholding the art of composition. It’s music that sounds good but still makes you think; one of those bodies of work that can be valued for both.

Now, Mick is headlining with some fresh-faced rap stars, touring with Pro Era’s Kirk Knight, and fellow Chicago rappers Noname Gypsy and Saba. One of the first stops on their tour was New York City’s SOB’s. I caught up with the young thinker to discuss his life, his positioning in the game, his outlook on the current state of hip hop, and the message behind the music.

New wave rap and indie rap seem to be dominated by Brooklyn. Do you ever feel any type of sectionalism happening with newer hip hop artists? Do you ever feel the need to rep hard for the Midwest?

I don’t feel like Brooklyn or New York as a whole took me in…I feel like everybody knows, or people who know who I am, know where I’m from. I talk about it enough in the stories that I tell. It’s not conscious. I talk about what I know…I definitely got a big fanbase out there. But I feel like that’s just because the nature of hip hop in New York, and I make good hip hop…I feel like New York clasically respects that more than any other city.

Your favorite artists, or your favorite rappers, where are they from?

Jill Scott from Philly. That’s my favorite artist of all time. And Andre is my favorite rapper. 3000.

You went on tour with Method Man and Redman. How was that?

It was cool. I’m not really a fan of the Wu. I know their hits and shit, but I couldn’t say that I was a fan. It was really cool to see them perform though…they performed amazing. You know, Meth is like 6’3″, 6’4″, so to watch him as a big guy moving around the stage and how he was crowd- surfing. I already had it in my mind that I can’t crowd-surf [laughs]. It was definitely a learning experience. I took from it what I could, and most of it was just how to interact with the crowd and requiring people’s energy. I used to feel like I had to bring the energy, and it was all on me. But this is really 50/50. They [Meth and Red] required that shit. They would make a speech every night before they even got started that was requiring the fans’ energy. And it can’t be a good show without y’all, feel me?

That’s an art form that’s not really talked about at all; performance art in rap isn’t focused on. What do you feel you bring to performance art in terms of new rappers? Because I don’t see anybody really studying those energetic- type rappers like Meth and Red.

Early on, I fucked with Cudi, Kendrick, Chance. They really do something different in their shows. And I respect that because it’s not something completely different, like nothing you’ve ever seen before, but it just feels different.

I think I pay attention to that and try to figure out how to foster that kind of feel with my talent, as opposed to imitating what I see them do…I’m a thinker. I think about a lot of shit. It’s intense, my shit. I make sure I stop and pause and stare at people. I’m big, and I stand close to the edge of the stage and try to be ominous over motherfuckers and shit… I’m coming at you like I’m attacking…I move really weird. It’s unconventional.

Is there anyone, hip hop-wise, in the game who inspires you?

People from Chicago inspire me all the time. When niggas get moves like that that are ahead of what I’m doing it makes me want to work harder. As soon as that shit came out with Vic and Kanye I was like, ‘Fuck! Gotta get back to work.’ Travis’ project has made me add some different elements to my music. Kanye has forever been an inspiration…I’m not inspired by a lot of rap niggas.

What type of artists outside of rap inspire you? What contemporary artists?

Neo-soul for sure. I listen to the same music. I’ve been listening to the same music for like five years. I have a hundred songs on my phone…I’m really picky…Who Is Jill Scott is one of my favorite albums, and I only have three songs from the album on my phone. I only play music that I’m not gonna get tired of listening to…Sade, Erykah Badu, Jill Scott, Talib, Common, some Knowledge, some Nas…and it’s just my favorite songs from those artists. It’s not an overload of music. I’m just real selective of what I put in my ear…That’s just what I’ve been listening to for the longest, and that shit still inspires me today. There’s always elements of that music that I can incorporate into rap.

Do you have an early music memories? Like a song you heard when you were ten that gave you an epiphany moment?

Jill Scott. My mom used to listen to her a lot. I knew all of the words to that album before I knew what she was talking about [laughs].

Have you ever met Jill Scott?

Nah. I will though.

Have you seen her in concert at all?

Nope. I’m a youngin’.

Let’s get into your mixtape…your whole steelo is about truth-telling and, you know, breaking the mold of the status quo…What do you think is the number one social mold that we need to break away from?

I think we need to stop being spoon-fed. I think people just need to figure shit out on their own. There’s so much information that we just see and take and view as true—whether it be the news, whether it be some random article on the internet that you didn’t even bother to source and see that it’s from The Onion, know what I’m sayin’? People take information and use it as truth. And for something like Ferguson to happen, they got on tv and just blatantly misrepresent the facts. How can you then continue to take shit from the news as truth?…Something like ISIS, that we don’t have a lot of information on and is happening halfway around the world, what kind of misleading and misinformation are we getting fed in that realm, if they can mislead the masses with some shit that happens on our own soil in our face?

Your mother was a journalist, right? Journalism is about truth-telling. So, how much of that journalist-type code do you apply to your life and to your work?

It’s just subconscious, for real. Just like you said, now that I think about it, that whole shit that I just said could’ve been part of a lesson in a fucking journalism class. [laughs]
It definitely has a lot to do with the fact that she was a journalist and the way I was being taught at home.

I want to go back to Ferguson. Do you ever feel like there’s this stigma with black artists to always address every single black issue that arises? A certain type of pressure?

No, I think there’s a stigma for bigger issues; the more pertinent black issues that are permeating through the culture at the moment. There’s hella black issues. There’s hella issues that niggas need to address. I don’t think people want bigger black artists to address every issue. I think people in a situation like Ferguson and how serious and alarming it is, people wonder why certain artists choose to remain silent…I don’t require that they speak on anything at all, but it does make you wonder ‘What’s up with the silence?’…I’m a black man in America. I make art about how I feel. There’s no way I could not have a song or two, or some bars about that. I spoke about that shit on The Water[s] before that shit happened.

Are you familiar with Michael Eric Dyson?

Yeah, I love Michael Eric Dyson.

He did this interview a couple of years ago and he spoke about what we’re talking about now. I can’t quote him verbatim, but he said something about Americans always placing the burden on the backs of 18-year-old rappers to address every social plight before they even solidify themselves. And he said that it’s a burden that is never placed on any other type of artist in another genre. I remember he used the example, people never ask Kenny Chesney what he thinks about the state of the economy, or things like that.

So, how do you feel about the particular type of responsibilities that rappers have, and hip hop artists have, and other black artists have that other genres don’t have?

It’s because they’re not pop music. Hip hop is now pop. Not to say that it is pop…but it takes the place of pop music. Pop music was ruling the world, and it’s not anymore. Rap got more influence, rap sells more stuff—not country, not jazz. It’s whatever is in that spot; those artists are gonna be asked those questions. And it just happens to be our kid, black peoples’. I don’t feel like it’s because we’re black, I feel like it’s because it’s the dominant entertainment. Throughout the ages, it’s the most popular music at the time…and that is hip hop. As far as the music world and holding the attention of the masses, and selling product, and influencing people…it is rap… It’s who people are listening to. It’s who they want to interview, who’s in movies now. This nigga Pharrell is scoring movies now, feel me?

I’m sure you know who ?uestlove is.

Of course.

I remember reading this interview he did with Touré. He has this theory that black music always peaks in creativity when black people are in the hardest of social conditions. Like the post-Great Depression era bringing Rock & Roll, and the Crack epidemic bringing hip hop. Since we are at a period where racial tension is heightened, with white cops killing black kids, there’s a lot happening in terms of race, do you think we’re headed in a direction where black music is gonna peak?

I would like to think that, but no. I mean yeah, it’s gonna peak, but is the world gonna be aware?…What is ‘peaking,’ to who? Yeah, some artists are gonna have amazing music, but on a wide scale. I don’t feel like it’ll be acknowledged or respected as it should be like you mentioned in those specific cases—the Crack Epidemic, or the Great Depression…I’m not absolutely sure. Are we about to invent a whole new genre of music? I don’t think so.

What about re-inventing?

I don’t feel like there’s really ‘reinvention.’ How could you reinvent? By sampling? By what? Anything there is to do in music has pretty much been done. There’s a lot of genre- mashing right now…but we don’t even know what to call it… Yeah, we’re doing new shit, but with the significance of hip hop or jazz being birthed, I don’t think nothing like that is gonna happen any time soon.

What is your greatest fear?

Not going to heaven.

What’s your writing process like?

It varies. I write in my phone. I hate writing, like with my hands. I could write a whole song in the studio in one session, and then sometimes it takes me ten months to finish a song. I can write with a lot of people in the room, I can write with nobody in the room. Sometimes I write a verse straight through. I have a bunch of four, five-bar couplets in my phone, sometimes I mix and match them to make a verse…I’m not locked in to one way.

Are you good with melodies? Do you have trouble writing hooks?

Nah, I like writing hooks. That’s the fun part. I feel like some rappers just get stuck in rapping. Rapping for the sake of rapping. I be tryna make songs…A lot of the music on The Water[s] is to evaluate myself. “Dehydration,” “Jazz,” “Drink More Water,” “Waters,” when I perform these songs, niggas are quiet on the verse…It’s too lyrical…I want to make more songs that people can sing along to…I’ll forever be lyrical though. That’s not going anywhere. It’s just being conscious of that and finding a happy medium.

I take you as a person who reads often. Do you?

No. I just started reading more maybe in September. I felt like I was hitting a wall writing, and I could write better if I read more.

What was the last book you read?

The Alchemist. I’m reading The Bluest Eye now.

What are you working on right now?

The album. My EP is done.

How long do you see yourself in the industry?

I want to be in and out. I want to be like Mos Def, or fucking Justin Timberlake, or Sade. If they dropped a project tomorrow, they’re still doing numbers. They come and go as they please. Forever relevant…they make moves at their own pace. I am strong enough as a person, and as a brand and what I intend to be to be able to have that kind of career.

Is that your definition of success? To be able to have that kind of agency?

I think that is an aspect of success. I don’t really know what success is…What is success? That just comes down to your own personal happiness.

My last question: what imprint do you want to leave on the world?

I want people to remember that I was trying to help people…I don’t feel like we’re here to change things necessarily. I feel like doing the work that I want to do, things will be c•hanged. I feel like I’m here to save people–including myself.

Alex Oka