Though already several releases deep in his short career, young Chicago rapper Mick Jenkins truly made a name for himself last August with the critically lauded concept mixtape, ‘The Water[s].’ (We named it one of the 15 best mixtapes of 2014.) Sounding almost nothing like many of his Windy City peers, from Lil Herb to Chance The Rapper, the Red Bull Sound Select artist showed an experimental musical and lyrical prowess, as well as a wise streak of social commentary, that’s rare in a rookie.
After collaborating with the likes of Chance The Rapper and Joey Bada$$, and turning heads in the underground scene, he capped off 2014 opening up for Method Man and Redman on their nationwide Smokers Club Tour. And, yesterday, it was announced Jenkins will be touring next month with fellow Red Bull Sound Select rapper Saba, Pro Era’s Kirk Knight and Noname Gypsy.
It’s gearing up to be a big year for the young rapper, no doubt about it. So we spoke to Jenkins about his new projects, his upbringing from Alabama to Chicago, the current state of Chicago’s rap scene, his upcoming EP and much more. Here’s what he said.
Last year was an amazing year for you. How did it feel?
I think it was just about the exposure. I don’t really get too caught up in publications' opinions, per se, just because I feel a way about my music. I feel a way about my abilities. I feel like the most important people are fans. I just feel a way about a lot of publications. Like, what entitles these people to have these opinions and dictate what is hot or not? I don’t put too much stock into that.
What I like the most about 2014 was really watching everything grow, grassroots-wise. You could actually see people share the tape via Twitter and Instagram and all these things. People being surprised at the quality of music they’re hearing. Having a steady following grow week by week. I think I’m probably gaining a thousand followers a week without me putting out anything recently, except for ‘The Water[s].’ It just really shows the slow growth of what I’m doing. That means it’s the fans spreading the music, rather than the publications, which is something I really f--k with.
I feel like I’m still relatively unknown outside of the Midwest market. There’s a couple things that made people aware of who I am or they may have heard of me before, but there’s a bunch of things that I know are still keeping me back.
‘The Water[s]’ was your biggest project to date. Can you talk about what inspired the idea behind it?
I’m all about feeling, know what I’m saying? Helping people out. I was asked before what I want to be remembered as, and I would want to be remembered for helping people. A lot of music that I make, the message is healing. So I wanted to call the project ‘The Healing Component,’ but that wasn’t my idea, and the person whose idea it was got upset that I was gonna call it that. So I started thinking about what was the healing component, and the only two things I could come up with were God and water. Water just gave me a lot more metaphorical things I could do that would be more appealing. I know that the basic metaphor for water is that water represents truth, and we just tried to manipulate that in as many ways as we can.
WATCH: Mick Jenkins's music video - "Jazz"
You were born in Alabama, right? When you first moved to Chicago, was it very different from what you knew down south?
My father and mother got divorced and my mother got lupus, so we moved from Alabama with some of our other family, which was in Chicago. We moved here in 2000. Alabama’s slow and hot, and Chicago’s a huge city. It’s the city-life versus the country life. I don’t want you to think it was super country, like I was living on a farm or some s--t, but it was much slower. What’s crazy is, in Alabama, it was a lot more integrated. When I came to Chicago, I was in an all-black school. It was completely different, actually. It didn’t take me long to acclimate and get used to it, but it was definitely a different world than what I’d been exposed to previously.
I would get 200 downloads, and I thought that was a big deal. I didn’t really get serious until I moved back to Chicago, after I released ‘Negro League,’ which is the first song I recorded for ‘Trees and Truths.’ That was when I got serious.
Your mother was a journalist, right?
Yeah, for some time. She’s now an insurance claims agent. Before she got sick, she was doing journalism.
I think a lot of your music is about trying to get to the truth of things. Do you think you get that from your mom?
I think I got that from just my own curiosity. I definitely take the writing from my mom. I was always a creative writer. I was a PR major in college, as well. That’s definitely the influence of my mother. I think that quest for the truth or the truest nature of things, that was just… I don’t know. It comes from a bunch of different places and my own curiosity in general. I think that thirst and desire to find that information would have been there regardless of what I do.
You studied PR at Oakwood University in Alabama. What brought you back there after moving to Chicago?
My father works at the school. He’s a contractor at Oakwood. I actually remember applying for all these colleges and then in the middle of filling out this one application, I was just like, "F--k it. I know where I’m going to school." It didn’t make any sense to go anywhere else, because I got a big discount [on tuition] since he worked there. Am I gonna go pay $50,000 somewhere else, or $2,000 a semester? Like, it didn't make sense to go somewhere else.
Was that about the time you started rapping, when you went to college?
Yeah, my sophomore year in college. Well, I had been rapping before that, but I never even thought about taking it seriously. I write poetry, I could do this over the beat. But I started seriously rapping my sophomore year in college. It just spiraled out of control, and I kept with it.
There’s a video of you rapping from the Who Got B.A.R.S. competition you had entered around that time. Was that the first time you performed in front of a crowd?
The one where everybody goes crazy at the end? Nah, that wasn’t my first time. Who Got B.A.R.S. was a very new thing. That was like the fourth one, but people really weren’t coming. That was the first one where everybody really showed up. That one was fun. I was actually supposed to save that verse for a later round, but there were a bunch of people there, so I was like, "F--k it."
We’re not taking over the hip-hop scene. I don’t think we deserve the right to say that yet. But I think as people get put on to more Chicago artists, it’s kind of hard to deny that we just have a dope array of talent that isn’t going anywhere.
What was it like to have people really getting into your performance?
That let me know that I like performing. I was kind of used to that in a way because I did poetry, I was going to open mics. I was a younger person, and I had a different mind, but that was how I gained notoriety on campus. I was a poet, and I was trying to finesse all the shorties with my poetry and s--t. So, it was a different feel for that same performing thing. It just let me know I wanted to do shows, seeing people react like that. Because for me, throughout the course of the competition, my goal was to win these Beats By Dre headphones. So I wasn’t taking it seriously, but things like that made me go, "Damn, people really like this."
So you started taking rapping more seriously, then what was your next move?
Shortly after that, I started recording mixtapes, and I thought that was me taking it seriously. Not knowing how to maneuver in this world of music. Not sending my stuff out to blogs. I was only really giving my music to my college friends. I would get 200 downloads, and I thought that was a big deal. I didn’t really get serious until I moved back to Chicago, after I released ‘Negro League,’ which is the first song I recorded for ‘Trees and Truths.’ That was when I got serious. That took it to a new realm for me, seriously. Before that, I was playing. I didn’t realize how serious I wasn’t.
People don’t even realize that even in the year where we had more murders than troop deaths in Iraq, as far as murders per capita, we still weren’t number one. We still weren’t in the top 10.
Have you listened to your early stuff — ’The Micktape’ or ‘The Pursuit of HappyNess: The Story of Mickalascage’ — recently?
‘The Persuit of HappyNess’ I probably listened to recently. But honestly? I don’t f--k with those. I appreciate them for what they were and where they helped me get. Even now, people still hit me up and ask me for my old tapes. There are some that are online. I feel like you can hear the difference, from my content to my flow to the mixing. I’m not a big fan of those anymore.
With the technical aspect of rapping, you get better the more you do it, but was it the content that was different, also? Do you feel that you opened up more later on?
My music is just a direct reflection of me. All of that — the growth with the mixing and the beats and the way I rap and the content — it just directly reflects growth in my life, as a man. That’s all I can really say about that. Everything has progressed, including the content, just because as a man, I’ve progressed.
In a lot of your music, you talk about violence in Chicago, and you use it as a jumping off point to talk about a bigger problem.
Yeah, because that’s what the problem is. A lot of the “problems” that we have, come from real issues. There’s always a bigger picture to be looking at. I try to take advantage of the fact that Chicago is fetishized, as far as the gang violence goes. People don’t even realize that even in the year where we had more murders than troop deaths in Iraq, as far as murders per capita, we still weren’t number one. We still weren’t in the top 10. As of 2014, Chicago still isn’t in the top 10. It’s just like any other metropolitan city: there’s a gang problem in every single one of them. I don’t want to downplay what is going in Chicago, but I feel like the media makes it something completely other than what it is.
That's a great word to describe it, people “fetishizing” the problems that Chicago has. Was that a conscious effort to speak out against that musically?
Yeah, in a lot of different ways. It’s like, now that I know this, how am I going to make the fetishizing of this violence to work for me? I used that in the “Dehydration” song and video. I did that in the “Martyrs” song and video. Whatever’s going on in the culture, I’m always gonna try to make a point with it and use it to my advantage rather than use it to tear down what I’m doing or what we’re doing as a people. Not just with violence, with a lot of other things as well. But that’s a part of it and that’s what was being talked about so heavily during that time in the wake of Chief Keef and everything that the drill movement brought from Chicago. Being from Chicago, being an artist outside of the drill movement in Chicago, I thought that it would be poignant to try to play on that. And I always will with anything that buzzing or noteworthy in the culture. I try to find a way to make my point with it and that’s what those songs were.
Chicago has a deep music history, but within the past few years, especially in hip-hop, the movement has been so huge and diverse. Why do you think now it’s all coming out at once like that?
There’s a couple of reasons. It started with the rise of drill music that was birthed in Chicago. Seeing it be so effective with artists like Chief Keef and [Lil] Durk. Outside of Chicago, people in the industry started imitating that, but we know where it came from, so that just gave Chicago all the more buzz. Kanye co-signed it. And then Chance [The Rapper] coming out last year let people know that there was more than drill music in Chicago and we continue to discover artists here, like myself, like Saba, like Noname [Gypsy], and like a Lucki Eck$. Then you’re continuing to see people who are very dope in their own right and very different. I just think that makes the interest grow more.
I just feel like people are aware of the buzzing artists of Chicago. We’re not taking over the hip-hop scene. I don’t think we deserve the right to say that yet. But I think as people get put on to more Chicago artists, it’s kind of hard to deny that we just have a dope array of talent that isn’t going anywhere. I think that’s what’s different about Chicago artists than a Father or iLoveMakonnen. I say them just because they’re a bunch of buzzing artists coming from Atlanta in the same way that Chicago is doing. I think for what it is, with respect to what it is, I think a lot of that s--t is just hot. It’s hot right now. Chance doesn’t give a f--k about what’s hot right now.
He’s making the kind of music that he wants to make. I’m making the kind of music that I want to make. Vic [Mensa] is making the kind of music that he wants to make. There’s stuff that we haven’t heard and is different. We have vision and I don’t know… we’re not going anywhere. I feel like that is something that is felt and understood. And even if it’s not understood, you can see the potential for us to be around for a while.
WATCH: Mick Jenkins's music video - "Martyrs"
Where do you see yourself in the Chicago rap scene of Chicago and the broader music scene in general?
As far as Chicago goes, I feel like I’m number one. When you talk about the ranks, I feel like Chance and Lil Herb and Durk and King Louie — I don’t consider them direct competition. I think they’ve already broke through one of the ceilings and gained a certain level of national exposure that I can’t really compete with. I think they’re out of the conversation of who’s next up and I think, as far as from Chicago, I'm up next. I came out of nowhere with ‘Trees and Truths’ and I kind of just excused myself to the front of the room with ‘The Water[s].’
As far as Chicago goes, that’s how I feel. I feel like I’m overlooked, for sure. But it comes with the territory. How many tapes did Kendrick [Lamar] have out before we knew about him? How many tapes did J. Cole have out before we knew about him? I feel like really dope people like that are often overlooked. They gotta give you four or five. They don’t really get exposure until they put out this amazing album, whereas OG Maco can drop ‘U Guessed It’ [and become popular overnight]. I’m not hating on it. That’s the nature of what we do. That’s the nature of how it works.
I’m working on an album, it’s called ‘The Healing Component.’ Hopefully, it comes out in 2015. I want it to, but I’m not gonna rush it.
He can do that and his name can be everywhere, but I can drop ‘The Water[s]’ and I still may be a year out from that national exposure. I feel like that’s the nature of where I am, as compared to the rest of the industry. I feel like I’m still relatively unknown outside of the Midwest market. There’s a couple things that made people aware of who I am or they may have heard of me before, but there’s a bunch of things that I know are still keeping me back. In Chicago, I feel like I’m next, but in the world, I feel like I’m still relatively unknown.
You must've gained quite a few new fans from The Smokers Club Tour. How was that experience?
It was dope seeing Meth and Red. Especially Method Man, he’s almost my size. He’s huge, know what I’m saying? I’m 6’5, I think he’s 6’3, but he’s big, though. I have my own way of commanding a stage, but the way he commands the stage is really interesting. I’ve always felt that I can’t stage dive. No one’s trying to hold me up. It’s not a good idea. But he’s walking out onto the crowd and they’re holding him up as he’s rapping a whole verse. That’s crazy! They’ve been doing it for 20 years, so it’s nothing new to them. But to see how they rocked a crowd was interesting. I took some notes from that.
I only met them a couple of times. I didn’t really get to parley with them at all. Again, they’ve been doing this for 20 years. They don’t know who the f--k Mick Jenkins is. They kind of only came up right before their set, so I would only see them getting ready right before their set. And I’m not the biggest fan of Wu-Tang anyway or Method and Redman. I didn’t grow up on that. I know the hits, but I can’t say that I’m an actual fan. So it wasn’t that big a deal to me. It was a very dope experience to have 35 shows and have some weeks where it was seven shows in a row, which according to their tour manager, is actually unheard of. But getting that kind of experience was exciting and helpful. And I gained a lot of respect from them and their fans, who are a lot older than what I’m used to performing in front of.
In only a couple of years, you’ve put out so much stuff. It seems like you’re always working. Do you have a typical work day?
This is my typical day. Every day is different. I kind of wake up and do everything I want to do. I’ll talk to my friends and I’ll tell them I don’t know what I’m doing tomorrow and they’ll say, "I got work." But I work, too. This is work to me. It’s just different. I never know what to expect.
What do you do to relax when you’re not working?
Chicago is relaxing for me. When I’m home, that’s what I’m doing. It’s not strenuous work to be at the studio or waiting for a studio session or producing. That’s fun for me. That is my hobby. I was previously doing community management and copywriting, with rapping on the side. I had no intentions of ever taking rapping that seriously. That was the hobby and now my hobby is work. So a lot of the time, it’s not work for me. Work is when I’m about to go to L.A. for a week and do photo shoots and start shooting this video. Then I’m going out to New York after that. Then I’m going on tour. Like… that’s work. When I’m in Chicago, I’m good. This is rest. I set my own pace and really living and doing me.
Are you working on your next project right now?
I’m done, actually. I’m working on an album, it’s called ‘The Healing Component.’ Hopefully, it comes out in 2015. I want it to, but I’m not gonna rush it. In the interim, I wanted to give people more music and I know people want more music, so I’m putting out this EP. It’s untitled. And we’re mixing that. We’re gonna put out the first single very soon. The EP’s what’s next, it’s nine songs and it’s different.
Doing ‘The Water[s]’ was exhausting. I loved it, but that was a year of actual work and effort. Doing something highly conceptual like that takes a lot of energy and time. Right now, I wanna live, I wanna be free, I wanna do some fun stuff. These songs are more upbeat. It’s good vibes — I’m excited to give that to the world.