Timing, they say, is everything. When it's on an artist's side, he can ride that wave effortlessly upward; when it isn't, he's thrust to the sidelines, marginalized instantaneously. It makes or breaks careers. You could fill 200 iPhones with the music of rappers who couldn't deliver on their promise, no matter how substantial their talents. All because of timing.
At least, that's what they say.
Maybe it's time to rethink the old cliches. Hip-hop fans have always focused on measuring success. It's no surprise; after all, you're talking about an art form where something was created from nothing, unheard voices alchemized experience into therapeutic autobiography, speculative fantasy, and floor-filling entertainment. This is why the gold chains make sense; the fruits of this invisible labor have to be substantial, or it may as well never have happened. There's an irrational, contradictory logic to this arrangement. On the one hand, if an MC records great art in a forest, does it make a sound? And on the other: whose fault is it that the rapper's art is in a forest in the first place?
Vic Mensa visited Complex the morning after headlining a workout of a show at the Knitting Factory last November. It was one of those lineups that only makes sense in New York, where three rising artists with substantially different fanbases—in this case, Deniro Ferrar, Ty Dolla $ign, and Vic Mensa—perform for the benefit of the media. Vic was supporting Innanetape, his celebrated 2013 solo record, his first since the break-up of acclaimed hip-hop band Kids These Days. In Kids These Days, he was the rapper and frontman.
Innanetape was produced primarily by Cam Osteen from Justice League, Peter Cottontale (best known for his work with Chance The Rapper), and Vic himself. The tape suggests Vic has a strong sense for songcraft, with smooth neo-soul hooks and beats rooted in an '80s funk/R&B tradition. It's shot through with experimental flavors (like the drum'n'bass-style groove on "Lovely Day") and features guests like L.A. experimental jazz-fusion bassist Thundercat and Neptunes-affiliated pop eccentric Kenna.
Despite some adventurous choices, Innanetape is musically tasteful, even serene—cuts like "Hollywood LA" and "Orange Soda" are relaxed and comfortable moments of family barbecue-friendly positivity. But Vic's live performance, at least at the Knitting Factory that night, had a serrated edge, amplified by stage dives, rock guitars, and a mosh pit. Going back to the tape after seeing him perform, the restlessness under the surface became more apparent; a barbed, nervous energy surfaced in his lyrics. On "Orange Soda": "Know when you want it, but just can't have it?/Especially as an artist, don't that shit make you mad/Just breathe... breathe... breathe, it's all in your head/Know these labels wanna sign me for an arm and a leg."
Vic created this path, even before Chance The Rapper released a song. Before Chief Keef was signed by Interscope, Vic was 16 with a solo mixtape and being sought out by the major labels. As a member of Kids These Days, he played Lollapalooza a year before Keef and two before Chance. But while Chicago was having its biggest moment since the arrival of Kanye West a decade earlier, Vic was caught up in the turmoil surrounding Kids These Days, the hip-hop band to whom he'd thrown his loyalty and several years of his life. While they spent a year gearing up to breakthrough within the proper industry channels, they felt the strain of internal tensions about the band's direction. While numerous Chicago hip-hop stars capitalized on the buzz, one of its most talented, most promising voices was on the sidelines, his group in stasis. But his story isn't anything like Chance The Rapper's—even though, to a national audience, he still has to prove it.
When Vic first arrived at Complex, he seemed tired and withdrawn—likely because of the previous night's late performance. As he spoke with Complex, while his friend fell asleep face down on the table beside him, he opened up considerably; he had a lot to get off his chest. An hour and a half later, when he left, it seemed like a weight had lifted. Open and honest about the internal turmoil that led to the break-up of Kids These Days, his frustrations, and his confident personal and musical philosophies, the conversation felt as much like a therapy session as an interview.
If timing is everything, though, Vic might have some hurdles in front of him. He is a prodigal talent; give him a space to create, and he'll fill every inch of that canvas, and do it with more color and more creativity and a stronger sense for an emotional truth than anyone around him. He's used to being the best in the room. But what happens if he's in the wrong room at the wrong time?
As Vic left Complex, the reality of an uphill climb was still ahead. But if anyone can find his way out of that forest, it's Vic Mensa.
Interview by David Drake (@somanyshrimp).
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What was your life like as a kid?
My neighborhood is mad diverse and also divided. It’s called Hyde Park. On one hand, you have the University of Chicago. That’s a community in and of itself. And on the other side you have Hyde Park, which I separate. People classify Hyde Park based on the side they’re looking at.
My dad used to work at University of Chicago and I was born over there. Hyde Park—I grew up around a lot of different races and a lot of different types of people. My first friend was a Jewish kid, I went to a Jewish pre-school, but it wasn’t all Jewish kids. It’s just like that in Hyde Park. Now, I live in a cul-de-sac of townhouses that’s one block away from gigantic houses, four or five blocks from Barack Obama’s house. And it’s also a block away from section 8 [affordable housing], and four or five blocks away to what would be the equivalent of the projects. So that’s how Hyde Park is and I’m somewhere in the middle of it all.
When I was in grammar school, up until like 5th grade, I didn’t really vibe with hip-hop. I just didn’t understand why n****s was so mad.
What expectations did your parents have of you growing up?
All parents have expectations. My dad especially, he’s from Ghana—super educated man. So education has always been huge to him. I never was too much into school, but I didn’t have problems getting good grades. School was easy for me. I always did well, but I always got in trouble, and as I got older the trouble just multiplied.
From the first time I got suspended in sixth grade, I just kept getting suspended, at least once a year until I graduated high school. It’s easy to cheat in school. And it’s also not hard to do the shit you have to do.
My parents wanted me to go to college and a lot of things that didn’t happen, but at the same time as those things were falling to the wayside, music was steadily rising. And it was something they could see and recognize. So they were understanding in some ways, but less understanding in others. They weren’t ever super rigid, like "We’re going to kick you out the house if you don’t go to college."
What are your earliest memories of music?
I was heavily into rock and roll. That and African drums. I remember my father used to play African music all the time. The Beatles are probably some of my earliest memories from my mother, and Jimi Hendrix, Miles Davis.
Backstreet Boys in first grade, I remember Backstreet Boys and N'SYNC and Spice Girls and shit like that. I wasn't really into the Spice Girls, but I was definitely into the Backstreet Boys. When I was in grammar school, up until like 5th grade, I didn’t really vibe with hip-hop. I just didn’t understand why niggas was so mad.
I think some of the first rap I liked before I started liking rap was Eminem, just because there was an African kid I knew that was older than me who knew my sister, who told me Eminem was cool. When you’re a little kid and someone tells you something’s cool, you just go with it.
I was really into Guns N' Roses and AC/DC and all of that classic hair-rock shit. And then I found out about Nirvana, and I was a gigantic fan of Nirvana around 5th grade. I found out about hip-hop through skateboard movies, because I had been skating since I was like 10. I really started fucking with rap off this Zoo York VHS tape. KRS-ONE, “Step Into A World,” that was the first rap song I remember finding myself, and being like, "I fuck with this heavily." And then I got put onto 106 & Park by my homie, so at the same time watching that—when Westside Connection and Destiny’s Child were on TV.
Who was your favorite rapper when you were first getting into rap?
2pac. I always loved 2pac. I just connected with him emotionally. I was a young kid, you know. When I would have my petty problems in life, I felt like it related to me. Getting suspended from school and shit and just hearing 'Pac like, "suspended from school, I was a fool," just had me like, "Man I know. I know what that feels like."
What were your raps about, once you started writing?
Similar shit to what they’re about now. Raps I wrote when I was 15 are on the Internet. Also just being a graffiti kid and a hip-hop kid and general asshole. I was all over the city, as opposed to kids who might’ve stayed more in their neighborhood. I used to ride the trains just to ride the trains. I went to the end of every line and witnessed those neighborhoods and ran from the police and got arrested and did a bunch of shit by the time I was 14, 15.
My raps were about neighborhoods, the city, community, disparities and injustices and shit. They’re really about the same shit I write about now, with the exception of having traveled. But I had already traveled with my family, so honestly, like a lot of the earliest Kids These Days verses from their first EP Hard Times, I wrote those when I was 15 years old. I used to just write all the time on paper. Not even to beats and shit. I used to just write raps.
At this point, were there rappers you wanted to emulate? Whose styles did you learn from?
Jay Z [and] Nas. Nas is a person I can really really remember truly, truly trying to be like. Also Pharcyde and Souls of Mischief. But Nas I can remember—I used to have these exercises I would do down in my basement. I would take a Nas song like “The Message.” And I would print out a sheet of the lyrics, and write a rap next to it with the same patterns, but change all the words. I clearly remember counting syllables a lot, too, as a younger rapper. There’s somewhere between 10 to 15 syllables, 11, 12, 13 syllables in most lines that I would spit. I wonder if that’s still relevant. But that was then. I took Nas’ raps and put them on a table and emulated them to the syllable.
I don’t regret anything that I’ve done because I like what I do now, but thinking about it, I was on some really, really dope sh*t as a 15-year-old kid. Had I continued to do that, I’d be doing some insane sh*t.
That was the first time I ever recorded a song of my own. It was at the end of the session. And I had done a couple verses. I was like, "Man, let me just record this joint. I promise you It’s only going to take me like one take. Take like ten minutes." It was like a three-minute song of rapping.
Then the whole Vic Spencer/Brainiac Society thing came together. Me and Vic Spencer did this song called "Good Morning, Goodnight." I wonder if that shit is still online. [It is —ed.] Because Naledge wanted to see If I could write songs. So, I wrote this song down on my fucking PC computer in the crib, "Good Morning, goodnight girl/I’m on it all night." I had some hot lines in there, too. Something like, "Like a blood transplant, because you just my type."
A lot of shit happened the same summer I started recording with those guys. Cherry-picking people's sessions and shit. Hopping on other people's songs. The same summer I started hustling, selling weed, and so once I was doing that, I was able to get my own sessions. I made a mixtape, Straight Up, and put it out during the next year. Then Kids These Days made an EP of music.
The band started moving once we dropped that EP, Hard Times. We were getting label attention. It was all at the same time. I put out Straight Up before the the band’s EP. Atlantic Records flew me out to New York City when I was like 15 or 16.
How did Kids These Days form?
Four of us went to school together. Me and Nico were best friends, the rest of them were all jazz musicians. They went to an after school and Saturday jazz program, where they met and the drummer Greg, Liam on guitar, Lane on bass, and Nico formed the band and went to Nico’s basement. They got J.P. on the trombone, because he went to jazz with them too.
They knew they wanted to do a funk/hip-hop/jazz thing, and they tried out a couple of rappers. I was recording shit at that time, too. I just ended up being the rapper in the band. I was Nico’s best friend.
I was recording crazy shit. Honestly, some of the shit I was recording on my own before the band, to me, looking back at it all, was already better than what the band was about to do. I had this one song called "Sneakers," I think it was over a Raekwon beat. It was this crazy story that followed the life of a shoe, off the shelf to the person who bought it, who got robbed for it. Then that person got killed for it, and those shoes ended up laying out on the block and then somebody found them and sold them. Around the time when I was a big Nike head. We used to save money and stack up allowance and buy shoes and steal clothes and sell that. And at the end of the story, the sneakers got sold. It was like, “if OG sneaks is your interest, you should see these like Memorex," and that was the phone call to me.
I don’t regret anything that I’ve done because I like what I do now, but thinking about it, I was on some really, really dope shit as a 15-year-old kid. Had I continued to do that, I’d be doing some insane shit. But yeah, the band started like that, through Liam's basement.
What happened with the major labels interest in you?
They tried to sign me to some terrible deal. I wasn’t into it, anyway. But people were already like, this is the hottest kid out of Chicago. Like, of the whole young-Chicago-rapper wave, I was undoubtedly the first one. The first person that Andrew Barber was like "Oh, man, this nigga’s the future." I was the Chicago young rapper. I was the original one. So I had labels at me. And Kids These Days had the labels at us, as a product of that. The same people that were looking at me once I got with the band really started taking that matter seriously. I was just like, this is what I’m doing, I’m not going to do solo thing with you right now. Those people kind of shifted it over to the Kids These Days. It was really just about videos. We were shooting videos and we had a couple hundred views on Youtube and shit when we were in high school.
So, that was all around when I was 16, so that was around 2009-2010. The band started moving from there. We pretty much talked to most people in the business. We talked to Sylvia Rhone, talked to Warner Brothers, what was Atlantic at the time. Started getting booked for shows. We were getting on because of the Internet, because we had videos that people fucked with. But, as the Internet evolved, and Kids These Days took too long... Just too many peoples’ opinions, you know what I’m saying? And we took mad long to make this album that we thought was going to be the height of everything. This shit called Traphouse Rock.
Why did you decide to go that route, with Kids These Days?I just had this feeling, which was incorrect, that Kids These Days was going to change the world. So, maybe you don’t always follow your gut. But I had this feeling. Earlier on, we rehearsed every Friday and Saturday and spent every weekend together and went to parties together and just did a lot of shit together. As time progressed we were rehearsing in high school multiple times a week. I was just with these people so, so much. We just formed a family and I really thought Kids These Days was it, musically.
My reasoning behind it was that it was too much talent in Kids These Days for it to not change the world. I always knew, since I started rapping, I was one of the best around me, of any age. I was just always one of the best. When I was in high school, I was better than seniors. When I was in Naledge's crew, I was out-spitting everybody. I was like, "If I'm this good, and then Macie," who plays the keys and sings, "Macie is one of the most talented musicians I’ve ever met in my life. If I’m this good, Macie's that good of a songwriter, Liam also an amazing guitarist and an amazing lyricist..."
Liam and I disagreeing, not seeing eye-to-eye, is why the band broke up. And thinking he ain’t like rap and I’m like, "Well, I don’t like his singing either."
Liam and I disagreeing, not seeing eye-to-eye, is why the band broke up. And thinking he ain’t like rap. I’m like, "well, I don’t like this nigga singing either, this whole blues-type shit. This shit ain’t me." That’s why we broke up.
But my whole reasoning behind thinking Kids These Days is it—because I’m this fucking good, Macie's that good, Liam that good, Nico is another cat who I would say is one of the most talented musicians I ever met. Artist, writer and everything. Lane, to this day, one of the best bass players, probably the best bass player I’ve ever done anything with. Or really come in contact with. Just a group of the most talented motherfuckers ever.
There must have been something there.
There was definitely something there, and it was something very special, at times. But time passes and you get older and start to realize that not everything you thought was true. I started to grow up and I started to see that these six minute songs with all of these drum fills in them and extra shit ain’t the songs that’s going to make us anything.
Everybody just got sick of hearing my voice because I’m always trying to tell somebody what to do. Because I was listening, I’m not playing an instrument, I’m just listening. So, I was always trying to tell people what to do. And tell Greg, the drummer, to tone it down. He’s the gospel drummer. And drummers, in general, you can’t tell a drummer anything. Drummers don’t want to hear shit. So, I was always trying to tell him some shit, so we developed a little beef. He’d be like, "Man, stop telling me what the fuck to do." Same thing with Liam. Macie and Lane were kind of just like passive a lot of time. Similar with Nico and J.P. a lot of times.
And I realized that—I wasn’t at that jazz program where you guys met. And doing an interview like this, it’s evident that I’m such a complete student of music from all angles, you know? I didn’t go to band camp. I spent my time stealing shit and fighting and writing raps, it’s just different. We were just divided. Liam, Macie, and Lane grew up a certain way. Nico, me, and Greg grew up a different way. That rift just grew. Mainly me and Liam, though. Because Nico grew up the same way I grew up, although he was a jazz kid. But I came to realize that shit just isn’t me.
Honestly, I thought that we were going to bring this whole thing about, like, changing the world by bringing back live instrumentation to pop music. I had all these theories and stuff about that. I just kind of grew to realize that I don’t give a fuck if there is a live bass, or guitar, or live drums or horns on a song. I just like to make good music. And the band was stuck into, like... everybody got to play this instrument. The band was just pigeonholed in what it was. I thought I gave a fuck about that shit early on, but I realized that I really don’t care. That shit doesn’t mean anything to me. And I think they see that too, now. Live instrumentation never went anywhere.
Everybody was always telling us, "You guys going to bring back the live shit." I guess a lot of live instrumentation is less popular, but to me, I just saw that the whole mentality didn’t mean anything. I think that there is a much to be said in fucking... Lex Luger, pioneers of that style of hard-hitting-ass trap beats made off Fruity Loops, making 15 beats a day, as there is in somebody who becomes the best pianist by practicing a lot. At the end of the day it’s about the songs you make. I think there is a different level of talent in being Miles Davis or in being Lex Luger, or being Nico and Lex Luger. Its not about the instruments. Its not about anything except the songs. Its not about the raps. Canibus is not somebody anyone but me, or somebody from my type of past, remembers. He could rap his ass off. But you remember LL Cool J.
When did you start putting together Innanetape?
Innanetape I made up one night when I was with Nico and Joey Purp at my homegirl Anna’s house tripping on mushrooms, trying to convince myself that I was the Internet. Then I started making these songs. I made what I thought was the Innanetape, or the Internet, cause I was the Internet at that point in time. I made what I was calling The Innanetape that night just freestyling on random beats. I was like, "Innanetape dropping tomorrow."
Ever since I became the Innanet I started making solo songs. Really focusing on them. You got to understand, by this point I been out of high school. I’m not going to college. I see other things around me—no slight to anybody else—but things that I know don’t have the staying power of what I do start to boom. I’m out of high school. I’m in this band. We’re disagreeing. Things are slowing down. Things around me are starting to pop up and pop off. And I was like I need to start being me again. So, I started being me again. Making songs all of the time.
I felt the pressure. Having so many disputes and disagreements with people I was working with. Seeing everything not being what I wanted it to be. Certain confidences in myself, as part of a group, started to hide themselves a bit. I always knew I was the best. Then I was in this band, and I started focusing on something else. Forgot I was the best for a while. Became the Innanet. Remembered it. Started making a bunch of songs. I was taking things from everything. I was taking from what I did before the band. I just felt it around me, you know? It’s my time. I started producing. Made "Lovely Day." Took that shit to Peter Cottontale. He made it into something crazy. We started making all this music that was fucking foolish. I made a song called “Run” that has Thundercat on it now. I made that, I won’t say sample anymore because I don’t want to get chased down for it. But, I made it off one bass note sample that I transferred to the keys. Made a new bassline out of it. And produced that with Cottontale. Started focusing, man.
As I started to focus, things with the band got worse. Same problems we always had continued themselves. The band got into this label situation, signing this deal. Make a long story short, the band broke the fuck up.
I had this project that I was making. I didn’t know when it was going to see the light of day or how. I worked, man, fucking hard. I was back and forth from the studio. Not sleeping a lot. Smoking a lot. Writing a lot. Recording a lot. Relationships in my life were strained, because I was not being selfless anymore. Being selfish about my fucking time, like an artist has to be. So I just made a bunch of music. Most of the best became the Innanetape, which I thought I made the first day I became the Innanet. The Innanet was just an outlet for me to be an individual again. To not be Vic Mensa from Kids These Days. Because I told people to view me as that for a long time, because of the allegiance I had to the band.
I’m not Vic Mensa from Kids These Days. I was Vic Mensa before Kids These Days. So, I started being Vic Mensa again. I just added a name to it so that we could distinguish this from that, you know what I’m saying? I don’t even know what question I’m answering, but that’s how I started making Innanetape.
Chance has a similar style to yours. He's obviously blown up and he's one of your close friends. Personally, I think it’s ridiculous that anyone would think the two of you couldn’t co-exist and have your own shit going on...
The comparisons are there all the time. They are an ongoing thing. At certain times it has gotten to me. It has bothered me. But most of the time, when i’m doing what it is that I do, It doesn’t really affect me. If anything, It’s just a fuel to the fire. It’s not about Chance specifically. Chance was my friend before music. We met through music. We met early enough that it was before niggas was focusing everything on rap music. We was still partying and stealing clothes downtown and running bitches. So that’s my man way before all of this shit.
I’m not the type of person to go overboard trying to prove anything to anybody. I just believe in myself. I have enough people who believe in me, and whose opinions I do respect, to know I’m not gassing my own head.
I’m not the type of person to go overboard trying to prove anything to anybody. I just believe in myself. I have enough people who believe in me, and whose opinions I do respect, to know I’m not gassing my own head. Like the BET Backroom shit I just did. Or rap some shit like I did on MTV Rap Fix yesterday. Just something for me to laugh and see how many people say something different when they see me do something spectacular.
Very few people in the industry can rap. It’s not a lot really good rappers in the industry. You got Kendrick Lamar.... There’s good rappers, but there’s not a lot of really good rappers in the industry. So, I think that it is funny when people try to play me like a Chance clone or something. I know where I came from, and it’s not as a product of him. I also understand that people latch onto familiarity. And people don’t know the story of my life, nor do they know the story of his life. Nor do they really know what the fuck they talking about. For the most part, I be like whatever because it’s not a lot of very good rappers in the industry. Me and Chance are two of the few.
Because I know it’s not a lot of people fucking with me. And that’s anywhere, anyone. So, if you want try to pigeonhole me as this or that, it’s like, go head. It doesn’t stop me from doing what I want to do. There is no one that can take it from me. There’s no shade or salt that can be thrown on my shine when I’m doing what it is that I do, which is spitting, writing songs and performing. I’ve been doing just that.
What are your future plans? Were people hitting you up as soon as Kids These Days broke up?
Hell yeah. A lot people were hitting me up when Kids These Days broke up, like, "Man, I’m so glad that happened. I really believe in you. I been thought that you would have went." I tend to get that. Not just the comments from people like, "man, I always thought that you could succeed, that you got a chance, but you the one. You the guy. If you not the guy, you one of the few guys." I had a lot of people that helped me through the process of the Innanetape that I’m still talking to, and a lot of labels that I’m talking to. But my plans consist more of things that I’m trying to do. Videos I’m trying to shoot.
I really want to shoot a video for the last song on the tape called "That Nigga," produced by Hit-Boy. The last song I wrote for the Innanetape. Right now I would say the whole Innanetape is overlooked. Just because the majority of the world hasn’t heard it. But within the tape, it’s one of the most overlooked songs, to me. Probably because I made it the outro, so it plays an outro role. But I think it’s more of a single song. As a sole entity. Cut off like the "Last Call"-ish outro bit to it. It’s one of those joints to me. So I’m gonna shoot a video for it.