Mick Jenkins is the latest rapper out of Chicago to blow, so to speak. He's not as Drill as Chief Keef and not as left as Chance the Rapper. Mick's sound sits comfortably in the middle with pro black raps over jazzy production similar to Windy City OG Common. For fans of "traditional" hip-hop, the 23-year-old rapper, who moved to Chicago from Alabama when he was 10, is a breath of fresh air. He speaks of being free and spits knowledge darts on almost every track in between biblical and hydration motifs while impressing with lyrical acrobatics. Mick blipped on everyone's radar with the Trees and Truth tape during the first half of 2013. This year he's proving that he isn't a fluke and is here to stay with his new tape, The Water[s]. We sat down with the Chi-town MC to talk about his lyrical content, the eclectic Chicago rap scene, and trying to stay positive when growing up around negativity.
My brother played "Negro Leagues" for me, and I was amazed. It reminded me of Common and early Kanye. Who are your rap influences?
Little Brother, Kanye, Common, Q-Tip, Andre, for sure.
Your beats are jazzy. Who makes them?"
Mostly OnGaud; they did six on The Water[s] and a lot on Trees and Truth. That’s who I collaborate with the most.
They’re from Chicago too?
Did you grow up with them?
Nah, actually, I met them two weeks before I recorded “Negro League,” and that was the first song I recorded when I moved back to Chicago, and from there I just kept building with them.
So you said, "rap is like the Negro Leagues." Can you elaborate on that?
Rap and basketball are the two biggest places a black man can be successful without being discriminated against as he is in the corporate world. You know what I’m sayin’? That’s what the Negro Leagues and boxing were back then. That was our way to get in. ’Cause, I mean, we were producing good athletes as we always have been, so through those platforms we were able to make something of ourselves. Those were the first people to go out and not only to be making money, but to do it better than those who were in power. Rap is the same way.
So you being only 23, naming a track "Negro League," and having an "old school," jazzy sound: Who were your role models growing up? Did your mom instill these things in you? Cousins? Uncles?
I was raised Christian, but as far as were my content and sound? My older cousin, Jordan. I liked Kanye and Common 'cause they were always on the radio. But he put me onto Little Brother, and it was just like from there it went into Q-Tip, Talib Kweli, and artists of that nature.
Rap and basketball are the two biggest places a black man can be successful without being discriminated against as he is in the corporate world.
So it was like a wormhole, because you start listening to them and it’s like, hold on, lemme check these motherfuckers out.
And what Little Brother project was the first one you listened to?
The Minstrel Show. But I like The Becoming a lot.
I got put on to Little Brother in college. The same with Doom and Madlib and all that shit.
I ain't ever get into Doom and Madlib, man. I fuck with some of their beats, though.
How about J Dilla?
Absolutely. I mean, come on.
I’m saying, you're 23, man.
That just led to me finding Knxwledge and artists like that. I also really started listening to a lot of instrumental stuff, and they pulled stuff from jazz as well. My mother was listening to Sade, Erykah Badu, Prince, Jill Scott. You can hear those influences in my music.
I want to open up people’s minds, and I feel like I’m effectively doing that with the way that I’m able to keep all my content in the verses and make the choruses something that people really want to recite.
Do you listen to jazz?
I listened to jazz for a period—for this chick—she was really into jazz, so I told her I was into jazz, so I had to go home and do mad homework and shit. [Laughs.] So for a good four months, I was really into jazz. I have some of my favorite songs I still listen to, but not as much anymore.
I ask because your sound is jazzy, and you have a song named "Jazz."
OnGaud and Brian definitely listen to a lot of jazz. They a bunch of jazz vinyls at the crib.
It’s easy for people to pigeonhole you and say that you're preachy. What are you trying to accomplish with your sound?
I just want to make people think. I might have more than one sound—my album’s not going to sound like this, the project after that’s not going to sound like that. I want to open up people’s minds, and I feel like I’m effectively doing that with the way that I’m able to keep all my content in the verses and make the choruses something that people really want to recite.
Jean Deaux is dope. What’s up with her? She fucking murdered "Noah and the Reign." I looked at her Soundcloud, and she sings as well. I think her rapping is better than her singing.
She comes from the poetry world so she knows how to construct rhymes. She should be rapping more. That’s why whenever I do songs with her like “Healer” and “Noah and the Reign,” I made sure she had a verse on them. Both times she just wanted to be on the chorus, but I was like, "Nah, you got to rap."
Yeah, I had to run back the one part in "Noah and the Reign" where she was talking about God or whatever. She was like, “Now where was this nigga when rain didn't let up?/The whole thing is set up/As soon as we get away my brothers always gettin’ wet up." Are you going to be working with her more?
Absolutely. I think that’s what people don’t realize about the Chicago scene is that it’s a really communal vibe. OnGaud, Save Money, and THEM People all have bases. Whether it be a garage or a house. I see Chance, I see Noname [Gypsy], I see Jean Deaux, I see Saba, I see Kembe, like, interchangeably wherever, randomly. THEM People is a production crew that you may not know, but they touched Acid Rap, they touched my shit, it’s a big communal vibe. Jean and Saba were the first people that showed me love when I came to Chicago.
So you were a nerd in school?
I was different. When I moved to Chicago I lived in a really bad neighborhood. I dressed different. I talked different. People said I acted "white." So yeah, in that sense. I didn’t really come into my own until the end of junior year. So yeah, kind of nerdy. [Laughs.]
I listened to jazz for a period—for this chick—she was really into jazz, so I told her I was into jazz, so I had to go home and do mad homework and s**t.
How long have you been into poetry?
My junior year of high school, I did a lot of drama, like acting and shit. And one day we needed a poem to accompany the singing so I wrote it. That was the first poem I wrote. From there, it just grew.
That's when you realized you could put words together. Why did you talk "white?"
I was coming from Hudson, Alabama and Florida, which were two places I was often, and it’s just really integrated, but definitely the majority was white, so I mean, that’s where I was coming from. To come to an all-black neighborhood, it was different.
Yeah, your accent was different. There's a James Baldwin sample at the end of "Black Sheep." I’ve never read a James Baldwin book, but I’ve watched a bunch of his debates.
Same, same, same. I watch a lot of shit like that. Malcolm X, Michael Eric Dyson, James Baldwin, and I just let it take me wherever. Toni Morrison, man, I need the manuscript when she’s talking. [Laughs.] I have to read and listen, she’s on some whole other deep shit. Those are the greats. I want to not only see how they carry themselves, but know their thoughts on everything, and try to get inspiration and guidance from that.
Who are your favorite poets?
Langston Hughes and Maya Angelou. I read a lot of Langston Hughes’ poetry when I was in school.
So you came up in Chicago, in a bad neighborhood. I'm sure you’ve seen your fair share of violence. Given the inner city's, or better yet, the relationship minorities in this country have with the cops, what was your initial reaction to the Mike Brown situation in Ferguson, Mo.?
I wasn’t surprised, and the lack of information coming out off the police department is pretty outraging. The officer has yet to be arrested. The people in power in that town blatantly do not give a fuck. So that's a bit upsetting to me.
So how do you feel about people bringing up black-on-black crime in these situations?
I think it’s silly. Why aren’t we doing anything about black-on-black crime? We are. There are people who are actively organizing to try and stop black-on-black crime, and even with that the statistics show that most people kill the people they know. White people kill white people, black people kill black people, etc.
The only people who are killing strangers are serial killers.
There’s white-on-white crime, there’s Mexican-on-Mexican crime, just to even bring it up when something like this happens is silly. It's definitely a refusal to address the problem at hand.
Like Atlanta, Chicago is a place where multiple hip-hop sounds are able to coexist and nobody bats an eye. Can you try to explain the Chicago rap scene?
I think that’s what’s so great about Chicago. From Lucky Eck$ to Chance to myself to Treated Crew. There’s really five or six different sounds coming from Chicago. It’s not like we’re not talking about violence, you know what I’m saying, we talk about it, ’cause that’s where we grew up. I just have a different view. The values that were instilled in me as a young boy have created the way I think about things as a young man. There are several different sounds coming out of Chicago, and Drill has been a more popular one because of what it is.
That's why the noose was included around my neck too. That’s what I want to do with my music. I don't want to remove myself from the people. I can’t point a finger because I’m in this s**t too.
Violence sells in America.
Violence sells, sex sells, it’s just inherently going to be more popular. And it’s crazy that you got to beg people for coverage. When labels came out hitting up Chicago people like Andrew from Fake Shore Drive about Keef and them not realizing that Chance was selling out shows. And they’re like, "nah, we want a Drill artist." It’s crazy. It’s the "powers that be" that really control what gets shine. I don’t think it really is up to the artist. I don’t think Herb or Durk or Keef are destroying the culture or anything like that. It’s really who gives them the platform and who chooses to focus where.
Because they are out here making music just like you.
You had mentioned in a prior interview that you weren't judging them.
It’s real. They’re talking about real shit, and that’s what’s so captivating about the Drill movement. A lot of times niggas don’t have to validate what they're rapping about.
In the “Martyrs” video you had a noose around your neck kind of mocking the "I Don't Like" video.
Initially, I wanted to do that because he was the face of the movement at the time. People take that sort of music to heart and allow it to shape their decisions. But I included it around my neck just because I’m not exempt from the some of the things I was mentioning in the song; I definitely still take part in some things. I think it’s all about who you are, how you receive it, and what you allow to shape the way you think and do.
I’m not susceptible to that shit. I do recognize that I still have vices I need to work on that could be detrimental to myself, my future. That's why the noose was included around my neck too. That’s what I want to do with my music. I don't want to remove myself from the people. I can’t point a finger because I’m in this shit too.
Can you talk about your Free Nation collective real quick?
There’s five of us: me, Prop, J-Stock, Burman, and Maine the Saint. We all met at this competition "Who Got Bars?" We sat down to figure out how we were going to attack shit like full force. It's a nation of free thinkers. There’s definitely things going on systematically to keep not only people with color down but just people down in general. With my goal being heaven, this world is just producing more and more sin. That’s where it’s going to shit, and that’s where the world’s ending. Just being able to be aware of that, think outside of that, and actively combat that we consider people free. It’s not like A$AP Mob, or something where you've got to be included. People can be free.