Exclusive: Mick Jenkins is the Most Woke Rapper
Upon first hearing the music of Mick Jenkins, I quickly realized that hip-hop artists like him don’t come by all that often. At just 24 years old, the Alabama-born, Chicago-based rapper has made a name for himself for his ability to rhyme with purpose and reason. Unlike many other mainstream artists these days, Jenkins uses his music, specifically tracks like ’11’, as a social commentary to talk about race, police brutality, and poverty. But, for his next mixtape Wave[s], the thought-provoking introspective poet explores a different sound with upbeat tempos and energizing hooks, letting us know that he can have some fun too.
At a towering 6’5, Jenkins arrives to Milk Studios directly from a Men’s Fashion Week presentation. Dressed in a button down and cut-off shorts, he is as animated and charismatic as he is tall, evidenced in the way he laughs at himself every so often. The rapper sat down with us – a bag of gummy bears in hand – to fill us in on his favorite poets, his sense of style, and his greatest fears.
Where did ‘Mick’ come from?
I actually made it up before I was even rapping. I was going down to college and I wanted to re-invent myself. I was like, ‘I can introduce myself as Mick and nobody’s gonna know the difference.’ I thought that was cool. This is a little embarrassing but this was around the time ‘swag’ was really popular to say, and on Facebook people had crazy names, so my name on Facebook was ‘Mick Swagger,’ but once swag started dying down, I just changed it to Mick Jenkins and then once I went to college, I decided to keep going with it. I introduced myself as Mick and it stuck for a couple of months, but once people found out my name, which is actually Jayson, it was either-or. But once I started rapping, I went with Mick. That’s the story. [laughs].
I know that you started out writing poetry and moved on to hip-hop. I read that you haven’t written a poem in a while, do you think the two are different?
For sure, for me I do. I think not everyone does, but because I do and I want to be expressively different, I’ve fallen out of how to write a poem the way I used to. I think I would have to take a break from writing rap, because it just always comes out in a cadence— always— as if there’s a beat playing [laughs] and there’s not. I didn’t have it in form like that, it was very free-flowing before, it didn’t always rhyme — sometimes it did. I just wrote what I was feeling, and its just harder to do that with structure now, so I don’t even try anymore [laughs]
Do you have any favorite poets?
Shel Silverstein. For real. Or some deep shit like Langston Hughes. I had to study him a lot when I was in college, I think by default that’s the only other poet that I’m familiar with all their work, but other than that I watch Def poetry jam and hear tons at open mics and things like that, but Shel Silverstein— keep it simple.
You have also been going to a bunch of men’s fashion week presentations. Is fashion an important part of your life?
It always has been, style. I like clothes in general. I don’t think I’ve ever been gutted the way I am now, I’ve never been in an arena to go to fashion shows and go to fashion week. It’s different. It’s cool though, I think the access of being able to see what’s next is really cool. I really liked seeing the Wieland collection out of everything that I saw so far. I appreciate shit like that. But, music industry people are on thing, fashion industry people are one thing and I’m just being exposed to a lot of different attitudes and characters, but it’s cool.
How would you describe your own personal style?
All of your songs and videos have really powerful messages. What are you going to be talking about on your next EP?
That shit’s mad stressful. Unfortunately it’s a reflection of things that I see in my life, all the way up, all throughout my 24 years. So, Trees and Truths was like that, The Water[s] was like that. After I recorded one of my more powerful social commentary songs called ’11’, I just was kind of — not tired of it, but that shit’s sad. I wanted to talk about something else, I wanted to take a break and Waves is definitely a break from the super conceptual, the super serious. It’s not a switch on content, but it just feels different. There’s a lot more musical elements, the hooks are more melodic. There’s up-beat tones on there just because I don’t want it to be sad, I don’t want there to be this daunting reality every single time you turn Mick Jenkins on, so I definitely experimented with different sounds and even singing a little bit.
Do you talk more about your personal life on this one?
For sure, I speak on relationships. Not just ‘love relationships,’ but just relationships in general and how they are strained doing what I do.
Visuals are also very important to you. How did the concept for ‘P’s + Q’s’ come about?
There’s really classic hip-hop songs like Nas’ ‘Rewind’ or Jay-Z’s ’22 Two’s’ where they use literary devices to get their point across and I wanted to experiment with that. I couldn’t really think of too much, but I knew the phrase ‘I been on my P’s and Q’s’ and that’s really how I feel about the music I’ve been putting out and I tried to go with the alliteration. It turned out pretty well. There’s actually a ton of P words and we wanted the video to portray the same thing in the video — that nothing can stop or phase me and that’s what all the chaos was supposed to represent. It’s the chaos of moving through these arenas with all these people and all these influences and all these decisions, and just remaining cool, calm and focused throughout it all.
You’re a very unique hip-hop artist. Where do you want hip-hop to go?
I like where it’s going. It’s not as uncommon for someone to actually be saying something. People are exploring another consciousness. It seems like society wants to be smarter about things. I think that’s why things are happening the way they are in the news and in the world, outside of music, but it’s at a snail’s pace right now and I want to see that amplified.
You’re also going on tour soon. Do you have any pre-performance rituals? Do you get really nervous?
I stop smoking like an hour and a half before I go on. I usually smoke a lot, so I make sure to stop at least an hour and a half before or else I fuck up lyrics. But I just need like 5 minutes before the stage to just clear my mind and I’m good. I don’t really have any rituals. I’ve definitely gotten up straight up from a nap to go on stage, so I’m pretty cool about it. I’m ready to perform usually.
Are there any musicians you want to work with?
All of my favorites. I don’t listen to a ton of new music. Probably the new artist I’ve checked out and gave an honest listen to is James Blake. So it’s really like Jill Scott, Corinne Bailey Rae, Lauryn Hill and Andre 3000. It’s lofty thoughts, but these are who I listen to on a regular basis, where I draw inspiration from so It would be amazing to get a chance to work with those people. Other than that, I just kind of run into talented people all the time and we build relationships.
Do you remember the first record you ever listened to that really impacted you?
‘Let’s Take A Long Walk’ – Jill Scott. For real. My mother listened to Jill Scott, Sade, Prince, Kem, Maxwell — just neo-soul religiously. Jill Scott was definitely in rotation all the time and I just remember that song from my childhood playing all the time [laughs], so that sticks out the most for me.
Is there anything you’ve learned over the past few years that really stuck with you?
Do it yourself. If you can— but not like a ‘fuck it, I’m going to do it all by myself’ thing. There’s just lot of things we wait on other people for, that we could do ourselves and it might hold up a process of something bigger, but it might not. Sometimes you have to wait on somebody else but there are definitely situations where you don’t and we could do things faster. So do it yourself, you gotta go out there and get it.
Do you have any fears?
I fear I won’t get into heaven, I fear that rap is going to destroy some relationships, I have a ton [laughs], but those are just two.
Is there anything people would be surprised to learn about you?
I think people would be surprised to know that I’m a vegetarian. I’ve been a vegetarian my whole life. When I was 14 or 15, my parents let us make the decision. I’ve tried hella meat, and no good. [laughs]
Do you cook a lot then?
What’s your favorite thing to make?
Mac and Cheese. I eat a lot of cheese. [laughs]
Waves will be released on August 21st. Listen to his new song ‘Get Up Get Down’ in the meantime here
Mick Jenkins photographed exclusively for Milk Made by Andrew Boyle