Flying With the Red Dragon: My Transcendental Journey With Makonnen

Inside the studio with Makonnen.

Not Available Lead
Complex Original

Image via Complex Original

Not Available Lead

In a cramped Manhattan recording studio, my friend slices the Tootsie Roll in half with a pocket blade. I examine my half. It looks identical enough to a standard-issue Tootsie Roll. I peel the paper off and go for it—hellishly bitter, as expected. Ten minutes later I’m sweating feverishly, grasping at undersized water bottle after undersized water bottle.

I need to lie down.

Makonnen has given me psilocybin (the psychoactive element in shrooms) concentrate in the form of a Tootsie Roll. He has taken at least as much of it as I have, but somehow he’s standing up straight, unbothered, freestyling while making synth beats.

He’s rapping about what’s happening to my body in real time: “On that shit that might make you want to throw up, EUUGHHH,” he gasps.

Sure enough, 20 minutes later, I’m doubled over in a stairwell, forcing out semi-digested ramen from lunch. He’s narrating my trip, I realize. He’s guiding me.

Three months prior, Makonnen and I were in a studio in Atlanta. This time, I’m sober. He freestyles for hours. Bar after bar, he chews through beats that people have e-mailed him: “Out here, from the barrio/My niggas still be trapping/Fuck these niggas talking ’bout/Nigga, fuck this goddamn rapping.”

“Look at that nigga face!” laughs his studio partner Key!, pointing at me. He’s noticed me with my mouth wide open. I’m in awe. Makonnen isn’t in the booth, nor even at a microphone. He’s just standing right in front of the rest of us, harnessing an energy for himself, I suppose, and for the few other people who happen to be in the studio. He appears capable of going on forever, like a rap version of John Henry the steel-driver: “Grammy-nominated in this bitch/I ain’t ask for none of that shit, lil nigga...’cause a nigga like me, need at least 5 billion, nigga/Don’t talk to me unless you see what I’m building, nigga.”

And so on.

We’re witnessing a live purge of emotion. Most of it isn’t intended for any song in particular, though in the time that transpires, several substantial, unstructured tracks could have been punched in.

His freestyles always serve a cathartic purpose. He sort of puffs his chest out and addresses his grand ambitions (e.g. at least 5 billion), his grave concerns (e.g. Gucci Mane’s incarceration), his loves (e.g. the South), and his hates (e.g. the music industry), one by one as they surface in his mind.

It’s been just about one year since Drake remixed “Tuesday” and signed him to OVO, but one can still sense a certain distance between Makonnen and the rest of that camp—at least on a level of brand consistency. He often stays far off on another planet, letting various drugs collide into a devilish cocktail that I can only begin to grasp during my own hallucinations. I left the rest of the Fear and Loathing-worthy drug collection alone.

Such is a lifestyle that the rest of OVO probably only engages in occasionally as tourism, if at all. For Makonnen, it seems much more of a fully committed escapism. He’s done this enough to have poked through to the other side of the rabbit hole.

But beyond that, consider the logistics. Makonnen is always touring on his own, and when he’s not on tour, he lives in New York City. That is to say there probably isn’t much room in anyone’s schedule for him to be following Drake around or spending quality time with OB O’Brien’s beard.

The musical output and general aesthetic of non-Makonnen OVO certainly doesn’t reflect Makonnen’s degree of extraterrestrial musing. The world he creates is an abstracted fantasy consisting of red dragons, based chef-ing, and religious hydration. In short: He’s elsewhere, on some other shit.

Such is why it was a little off-putting for me to see him at one of Toronto’s most ostentatious, exclusive nightclubs for a walk-through performance last month. Think sparkler bottle service and fake body parts. Suited, grown men attempting to impress their respective dates with lavish, unnecessary spending on tables and liquor. Decidedly not Makonnen’s preferred scene, though he’s making the necessary appearances, all while smoking comically proportioned joints.

Coming from a characteristically DIY background, with respect to his approach to song development and audience engagement, signing to a label could restrict Makonnen in certain ways. Though he might make a great song on a whim of inspiration, as is typical for him, he now has to consider things like label marketing and album deadlines, structured processes unnatural to him.

Back in New York, earlier in the day, before the shrooms, before the studio, Makonnen’s creative bank must have been overflowing: “I just want to make some fucking music,” he declares.

The plan for the day is to cook up some new songs with a few members of Awful Records (his frequent collaborators prior to the deal), but instead of being the main artist or the featured artist, he will just imbue his sauce as contribution. This means he can be the producer and come up with hooks, but that they’re ultimately going to subtract his vocals from the final product.

He freestyles on a song Father has been putting together. The resulting verse somehow voices all of Father’s own personal romantic frustrations. So it seems, whenever Makonnen shares a studio, he is the lightning rod for spontaneous creativity. He can sing through or for the people he’s working with, as though summoning from the ether whatever message or melody is necessary for the given situation.

At this point, my consciousness has been splattered somewhere along the walls of the booth some 30-odd times. I’m experiencing sensory epiphanies every few seconds. Every once in a while, Makonnen refers to my current state in his raps or his singing, as though he knows exactly what I’m going through. He’s the voice leading me through what feels like several dimensions and unfamiliar universes. It would have been much more terrifying without him. Everyone else is making me anxious. When my dilated pupils meet his dilated pupils, though, I sense an unspoken, mutual understanding: I’m flying with the red dragon.

Three or four skeletal songs have now been recorded, each more ridiculous than the previous because everyone present has only gotten exponentially higher as time has progressed (one of the latter tracks, for example, is simply a two-part harmony consisting of the words “A nigga a little high right now/A nigga look high right now”).

Eventually, we stop recording new shit and Makonnen starts playing his own unreleased upcoming music for us. I manage to seat myself in a chair, miraculously. He had just revealed the day before that his debut album will be officially released in October.

The bread and butter of this album material can be classified as either 1. his hits, in an advanced vein of his established “I Don’t Sell Molly No More” side, or 2. his songs of lost love, one of which in particular brings me to actual tears in the studio (perhaps, in part, due to the emotional state that the drugs have induced in me).

He also experiments with some big-name EDM producers, but with sort of a wink and a nudge. The last song he plays (incidentally, he mentions that he was also on shrooms during its recording) is particularly heartbreaking, almost to a comedic degree.

In the opening lines, he sings in the most resigned melancholy: “I think my life is a joke.” The shrooms seem to plunge him into the deepest of his emotional chasms, allowing him to access and express whatever he finds there. It makes complete sense to me at the time as I attempt to confront my own demons.

When our studio session finally comes to an end, we walk outside and I’m just starting to fall back down toward earth.

“Is this the wave you’re always on?” I manage to finally ask him, after hours of silence on my end.

“Yeah,” he replies. “Now you’re starting to understand.”

Latest in Music