Interview: Mack Wilds Talks About Growing Up Around Wu-Tang & Why Urban Is The New Pop

Interview: Mack Wilds Talks About Growing Up Around Wu-Tang & Why Urban Is The New PopPhotography by Jonathan Mannion.

Tristan Wilds made quite the name for himself as an actor by perfectly depicting a cold, heartless killer named Michael Lee on The Wire and he followed it up by playing every lady’s favorite playboy on 90210. But musically, he had only scratched the surface with his 2011 EP, Remember Remember. It was clear that listeners needed more to fully understand what he was capable of. So he fell back for two years and focused on establishing his voice, upgrading his lyrics, and building a stronger tone in order to come correct to his audience. 

Now known as Mack Wilds, he's reviving a sound that New York City created many years ago and has been very much missed on his new album, New York: A Love Story. Collaborating with Salaam Remi, a producer with a talent that few can match, Mack recreated Michael Jackson’s “Remember the Time,” Mobb Deep’s “Burn,” Jay Z's “You, Me, Him and Her,” and other songs. In doing so, he tried to create the ultimate ode to New York City. We got up with the 24-year-old Staten Island native to talk about working with Salaam Remi, and how he got his name, and just why he keeps rocking that bandana...

Interview by Jasmina Cuevas (@CueJT)

When you first came out we knew you as Tristan. Where did you get the name Mack from?
My grandmother gave me the name Mack. My great grandmother's name was Betsy Mack Miller. When I was born, I had a cousin that was a little bit older than me but we were the two youngest grandchildren that my grandmother had. So my grandmother had the bright idea of splitting up my great grandmother’s name and she gave me Mack and she gave my cousin Miller. My family started calling me Mack, my friends starting calling me Mack. I’m talking about even my AIM name back in the day was MackMan347. It always had something to do with Mack.

I gotta ask, what’s up with the bandana?
Growing up, there was a little clique in Staten Island that my brother was a part of, it was called Trey Pound Juveniles or Guns Up. I had my own little team and we called ourselves Rare Breed and Company. When my brother’s clique grew up, they all turned into Bloods and spread out and then I guess it was our time. So we all became Trey Pound Juveniles and that was the color of our bandana.

It’s pretty much a representation especially because this album is personal. I’m bringing you back to my house, my home, to my hood. It’s an ode to Stapleton. That was our color of unity. I’ve had so many friends who have died over that bandana and I felt it was only necessarily to really show and represent what that feels, that hometown pride.

Growing up, there was a little clique in Staten Island that my brother was a part of, it was called Trey Pound Juveniles or Guns Up. I had my own little team and we called ourselves Rare Breed and Company. When my brother’s clique grew up, they all turned into Bloods and spread out and then I guess it was our time. So we all became Trey Pound Juveniles and that was the color of our bandana.

New York: A Love Story has been getting great buzz. Were you surprised by the feedback?
I was and I think it’s mainly because I didn’t know what to expect. You do a project, you know it feels good to yourself, you know what it is but to really have it be respected everywhere, by everyone. I really haven’t heard anything bad as of yet.

There a good amount of samples on NYALS, how did the idea behind the tracks come about?
We really wanted to just re-represent that iconic sound of New York. I feel like it right now we are in a soundscape  where real musicality is coming back but in hip-hop, there is such a focus on trap rap. We wanted to do something where we fully established what the sound is in New York. Things have changed, years have gone by, but I feel like in certain aspects New York is still the same New York was when hip-hop was becoming hip-hop. New York still has the same heartbeat as it always has.

What was it like working with Salaam Remi?
Amazing. I think the best thing about it was that it wasn’t even just a work relationship. Salaam is like my big brother. I’ve known since I was 18. From 18 to literally this past December, we were just kicking it. He would bring me to the studio and let me hear some stuff. I would let him hear the things I was working on and he would critique it. As I started to grow as an artist, he finally got to a point where he was like, “Come down to Miami, let’s see what you can actually do.” We went out there for a week and we knocked out like seven records in seven days and four of those records made the album.

Were you at all intimidated remaking MJ's "Remember the Time"?
See, he tricked me with that! I say he tricked me because, I was in the room writing “Henny” and he called me into the other room, he was like, “Yo! Just record 'Remember the Time' over that.” I’m like, “Are you serious?” He was like, “Yeah, yeah just record it.” I’m thinking we are just playing around because we are in the studio, just having fun.

I recorded it, he’s listening to it and he’s like, “That’s good, we’re going to keep it.” “We are going to keep it? Do what? We’re keeping a Michael Jackson’s record?” I almost threw up. It was crazy. But it’s amazing the way that it turned out especially after rerecording it, touching it up and hearing how the different aspects that he placed in it, like the orchestration or even the harps, it really turned it into a whole another monster.

It’s hard to really establish what’s urban and what’s not. Where once you can say, “Justin Timberlake,” but now Justin Timberlake is an urban artist. Same thing with Robin Thicke. Even, oddly enough, Miley Cyrus. I feel like the lines between urban and I guess popular are so blurred now.

Was MJ one of your inspirations?
Definitely. I wish I could dance.

So you can't even hold your own in the club?
Yeahhhh, I got a mean two step. That’s it.

Besides MJ, who are you influences musically?
How long do you have? [Laughs.]

You can give me the top five.
It’s hard to even do that. There are so many people that I draw inspiration from. It’s people like Lauryn Hill, Kanye, Jay, B.I.G., Pac, Rakim, Stevie Wonder, Roy Ayers, Otis Redding, Mint Condition, all the way to Phil Collins, Queen, Billy Joel, Iggy Pop, David Bowie, Elton John, Daft Punk…

Which other artists outside of urban music do you respect and why?
Outside of urban music?

Like right now, currently.
I don’t know, everything seems so urban now. It’s hard to really establish what’s urban and what’s not. Where once you can say, “Justin Timberlake,” but now Justin Timberlake is an urban artist. Same thing with Robin Thicke. Even, oddly enough, Miley Cyrus. I feel like the lines between urban and I guess popular are so blurred now. Even your biggest pop stars are touching on the urban side of things. Like Lady Gaga did over a trap rap song. You have Justin Bieber out here, flexing.

Getting in the ring with Mayweather!
Yeah, it’s crazy! The lines are blurred when it comes to that. I think urban is the new pop.

I hear you've been working with Raekwon and Method Man?
See, I grew up with them. I grew up in Park Hill, but the majority of my life was in Stapleton. So I definitely representative Stapleton a lot more. But growing up in Park Hill, my dad had a barbershop out there and they used to come to my dad’s barbershop, get their haircut right before they went on tour. So I used to see them a lot growing up. They watched me grow up in the neighborhood and in the business. They would see me around and keep an eye on me whereever I was moving. They were all definitely close, we were all close.

How was your transition from actor to recording artist?
It wasn’t terrible because I’ve been doing music for God knows how long. So it was really more so just finding the time to really devote what I needed to fully becoming an artist instead of just jumping into studios and writing.

Will you be going to go back to acting?
I don’t know about going back to acting, but I’m definitely going to do so more acting. If I do acting again, it would be more so like I’m doing both, acting and singing.

Like a musical?
If the right one comes—you never know. But I love acting so much now and I love music so much, I can’t really choose between them. I’m always going to go back to acting just like I can’t stay away from music and everything else. Just being creative as a whole.

Out of all of your acting roles, which one was the hardest to prepare for?
Red Tails, because it was someone who I wasn’t familiar with. It’s easier to prepare for a role when you're embodying a stereotype or an archetype that you’ve seen before, or that guy acts just like my brother or this guy is just like my friend from school. When you're completely being someone that you’ve never met, a hero of yours, it takes a lot more thought and a lot more effort to pull it together and make it convincing.

Moving on to The Wire because that was everybody’s favorite show. How did you prepare to transition from corner boy to a killer?
I grew up in not necessarily the best neighborhood so the kid Michael is pretty much...I know that kid, I’ve seen that kid. There are certain things that Michael has done in the show, I’ve done myself. So it wasn’t so foreign to me that I really had to work super hard to building the character. It was more so just tapping into something a little deeper that hit a little closer to home and not even really understanding what I was tapping into. When I was 16, I was out there shooting just having fun. I was just basically acting like the kids that I grew up around rather than making a thought reason why I was doing what I was doing. 

I grew up in not necessarily the best neighborhood so the kid Michael is pretty much...I know that kid, I’ve seen that kid. There are certain things that Michael has done in the show, I’ve done myself. So it wasn’t so foreign to me that I really had to work super hard to building the character.

If they brought the show back, would you do it again?
Yeah, why not? I loved the show. It was fun, it was great. I loved the cast. We were like a big family, still are. The way that they embraced all of us, especially us being brand new, I would definitely do it.

What type of role would you like to play next?
I want to try a bad guy now. I want to see how I would do as a bad guy. Whether it’s a Joker type guy or something psychotic like American Psycho or something teen heart-throbish, or Mark Wahlberg in Fear. Just not a good guy. I just want to see what they would be like.

How was it different filming your documentary and exposing yourself and your life to your fans?
I felt like it was needed. People have known me my whole life, well since I was 16 on The Wire as someone else rather than myself. You’ve known me as the kid from The Wire or that kid from 90210 or that kid from The Secret Life of Bees or whatever the case may be, but to really delve into something that’s a little deeper, a little more real, show you where I’m from and I’m not trying to be a thug or anything but this is just where I’m coming from.

I felt it was necessary, especially when it comes to the music because people would probably listen to the music and be like, “Whatever!” But once you got a more personal depiction of a person, there’s a lot more sentiment behind the music, you understand it a little bit more.

Talk about growing up on Staten Island. How are the people there different from the rest of NYC?
We definitely got into trouble here and there but it was fun. I had some of my best times growing up out there. Whether it was something as simple as running around with my friends or taking the ferry to the city to run around the city. The thing about Staten Island, it’s so isolated from all the other boroughs that each neighborhood is like a borough, so everybody acts differently. People in Park Hill act differently from people in West Brighton. People in Arlington don’t really mess with the people in Stapleton. Every neighborhood is set up differently.

What was school like for you during your rise to stardom?
I got out of school when I was in my sophomore year. Middle of sophomore year, I started doing The Wire so I wasn’t really in school as much. But when I did come to school it was cool. When I would come back to school, my friends would see me and they would be like, “I’m so proud of you. You still ain’t shit, but we're so proud of you.”

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