In The Lab with Mick Jenkins

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By Eric Diep

Mick Jenkins has had a helluva year. After receiving a large response for his provocative single “Martyrs,” the Chicago MC impacted hip-hop with his latest mixtape, The Water[s], which displayed his poetic rhymes over sleek beats from OnGaud, High Klassified and more. It’s almost the end of 2014 and rap fans are still talking about The Water[s] and playing it from front to back. The project’s concept, where “water” represents well-being, spirituality, purpose and other essential qualities, have been held to the highest regard to listeners who want to get lost in Jenkins’ message. As much praise as the Cinematic Music Group signee has gotten from music critics, it’s only the beginning of long and promising journey as a songwriter and rapper.

To get better acquainted with Mick Jenkins’ recording process, Nah Right got on the phone with him to discuss his studio habits, the process of creating The Water[s], his progression as a rapper since he started, and what we can expect from his upcoming EP and album slated for next year. This is how Mick Jenkins gets down in the lab.

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Studio essentials

“I don’t mind different environments in the studio. I record with OnGaud, who was all over The Water[s], and ThemPeoples mostly. If I am anywhere recording, it’s probably at one of those two places. And then if you can include different vibes, OnGaud works with so many different people that people, like, [really] be in there. For real, for real, I can never tell who will be in my session. And admittedly, that’s a problem that we are fixing. [Laughs.] I gotta fight for time. Literally, I’ll be in there, and three motherfuckers—not necessarily people that I don’t know—but it’s like three random people will pop up. And they just be in my session playing video games or brainstorming on a video. You know what I am saying? There’s just so much that goes on in that studio. That’s never really bothered me. It’s starting to, which is why we are going to fix it.”

“For the most part, that’s how it was when I was recording The Water[s]. It was fine for me. I don’t mind that. When I was recording the actual song, “The Waters,” I have a behind the scenes footage of that on YouTube. It was a lot going on in that studio. I was in Montreal and somebody was hanging in there. There were people taking photographs in High Klassified’s apartment. I don’t mind shit like that, I think because I pay attention to people all the time. I want my music to be a relatable experience. I want my verses to be relatable experiences, so when I talk about things and use certain words and details for a bar or a couple of lines, it’s taken from real life. It’s taken from what I saw people’s reaction to be to a certain extent. How I saw a nigga hate on somebody. How a nigga’s scheming, you feel me? And I get that insight from people. I don’t always mind when people is around me.”

“When I am in New York with [Jonny] Shipes, those are the times when I am recording by myself and it’s just me and the engineer that also produces. In OnGaud’s studio, there’s everything. There’s TVs. There’s girls. There’s weed. There’s other niggas. There’s other shit going on. In New York, it’s me and the engineer and water. He literally has water on the thing. That’s clocking in hours. I’m going in to do work. When it’s just me and the other guys, there’s nothing really to waste our time. I’m just doing work.”

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Recording The Water[s]

“The book that most influenced the project is The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho. I read that when I was done with four songs. I think “The Waters,” “Martyrs,” and “Jazz” were done. I read that book and it just took me to a completely different place, as far as what I was doing in life period. Not took me to a completely different place, but definitely changed the way I thought a little bit about what I was doing. In turn, I just sat down and did the music. I can’t say exactly how, but I was definitely inspired by the book. I don’t know. It just got me going creatively. Songs just started really, really coming and I think you can see that by the way I was releasing music ‘cause I released a lot of songs. I think I released like seven songs right before the tape dropped. That shit was crazy for me. I just picked up two new books—The Bluest Eye and Sula by Toni Morrison. I’m excited to start them shits too.”

Working with the producers on The Water[s]

“Something that I learned from working with producers on The Water[s], again, a lot of this shit is known but it’s just shit that wasn’t known to me. It’s more effective to be in the studio. I can make a good song by just hearing a beat, but those instances when I was actually in the studio from the inception to the creation to the chopping of the sample, I feel like I captured the feel more. I feel like capturing the feel of a song, even if those bars aren’t harder. They are more important to the nature of the actual song rather than try to wow somebody with what I am saying. I think that’s more effective.”

“Songs like “The Waters” when I was in the studio with High Klassified. I felt it was more of a song than “Drink More Water,” where I was just with the beat. Even though I am snapping on both, you just felt “The Waters” more. You felt “Martyrs” more than “Dehydration” because I wasn’t in the studio with [DJ] Dahi. I think you can tell the difference, so Iplan to continue shit like that through all songs and future projects.”

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People in the studio

“I don’t mind people in the studio. My cousin Denzel and my nigga Devin are usually with me. People who got some sense, you feel me? Literally, there will be three people who got some sense in there. My nigga Devin, my nigga Denzel. Brian, who is the engineer. It’ll be [Green] Slime who is my DJ. He’ll be on his tables, fucking with some shit. That’s already five people.”

“I got a couple of people [whose opinion I trust for my music]. My cousin Denzel, my nigga Devin. My manager Jon, of course. I think those three people. I asked other people, but I could care less. I just want to know what you think. Those three people have the power to change my music. They can tell me some shit and they can really decide whether I do it or not. That’s why they are there. I fuck with the music that they like. We have some of the same tastes, some of the same influences. We grew up the same way. They are definitely more in tune with the culture that I am. Not to say I am not in tune with the culture, but they definitely pay way more attention than I do. I need that.”

“There have been times where I have been like, “Nah” or “Yeah.” And I went the complete opposite of what they are saying and I proven to myself that I know what I am doing over and over. But, I do like their input. For instance, “Martyrs” was on a different beat and I changed it to that beat. They did not fuck with the change. Clearly, I made the right choice. “The Waters” had a different chorus—I changed the chorus ‘cause it’s easy to sing now. The chorus is way more complicated before. They didn’t fuck with the change. Like, little shit like that, where it’s like Ima go with my first one on this as opposed to them. They’re useful when they’re useful, you feel me? For sure. Sometimes it’s like, well, “Nah, you can’t make the decisions cause you not in my head.” I take their opinions highly.”

Working with Free Nation members Prop, J-Stock, Burman, and Maine The Saint

“It’s five of us. It’s Nashville, its DC, its Columbus, Chicago, and Huntsville, Alabama. We are all split up right now. Stock, who is one of the closer people to me, he comes to Chicago often because he’s in Columbus. That’s not too far. And I’ve been putting more bills just on my shows and just introducing them that way. We’re here. We’re strong. I’m not in a position to force Free Nation on everybody when you don’t even have access to who those other people are. You don’t have access to their music right now. You don’t really know them right now, but it is cool. We are cooking. It’s cool to do it slow. We ain’t going nowhere, so they will forever be my niggas. The world will know when it’s time.”

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Working with Cinematic artists

“Joey [Bada$$], for sure. I haven’t met K.R.I.T. I don’t know K.R.I.T. personally. I worked with Joey before. We plan to work again. I really, really fuck with Kirk [Knight]. Like, that’s my nigga. I connect with Krik in a different way. I fuck with Krik heavy and we are about to do a bunch of shit together. I’m always down to build with anybody. I think got some shit with ASTR too. They are a different aspect of the music world, but I fuck with them as well.”

“Since the first time [Kirk Knight and I] made “Jerome,” it was easy. The chemistry was just on point. He’s a cool dude, he’s a smart dude. I don’t want to box him in and I hate when people do this shit. On some production shit, I relate him to Q-Tip. I think he has a forward ass mind and he finds those grooves that are crazy. When we talk about the music and the inspiration, building a beat together was really easy. When that shit happens, there is chemistry right there. You have the right to figure out [things] outside of the music. I fuck with him on a personal level, which is crazy. [He’s] one of my best friends.”

On the progression of his raps

“Since I first started rapping, it has completely changed. I used to want to come off like it was so easy. I used to try and sound like it was easier. Like this is easy. I am bored of this. [Laughs.] I don’t know where that came from.”
“I really want you to feel it. It’s really about the feeling and how I made you feel. For all of the bars, glitz and glamour, there are too many rappers who do that well that don’t make me feel shit. I’m trying to make you feel it, so the voice inflictions are more prevalent. The singing is more prevalent. The melodies, period. Even if it’s not straight out singing. Shit you hear in the background, like melodies and layers, all that shit, it’s more of an experience. “

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Writing rhymes

“It’s kind of all over the place. I can write without a cadence. I can write without a beat if I want to. That’s definitely harder. I do that more for starting it off. Once you get the first line or the first two lines, then it’s easier to build. But when you are starting with absolutely nothing, then it’s just like, “How am I gonna start this?” A lot of times, I’ll just write down randoms that are just to keep me going. Even if I don’t end up using a line or taking them out, there’s a bunch of lines on my phone that just get me going.”

“Then fucking sometimes “Negro League” or “Dehydration” or fucking “THC.” Notice how they are one long song. Those are written as soon as a heard the beat. As soon as I heard the beat, I was like, “Oh.” And it took me like an hour and I wrote that shit. Then, there are songs that are purposeful like “Martyrs” and “Treat Me Caucasian” and fucking “Jazz” that took longer. I wrote that couplet in the first 15 minutes, and the rest of the song it took like three weeks of dedicated effort to write. I am meticulous, you know what I am saying? I write the shit and rap the verse to myself 50 times and change a couple lines and change some more lines. Finished the song and then not like it and go back and record a different verse. That shit happens too.”

“[When I was recording] “Black Sheep”, I was in the studio with Statik Selektah and I just did not want to leave without finishing that shit in front of him. It took me like two hours, but everything isn’t like that and it don’t gotta be. I just let it come. If I am really in a groove and I just hit a wall, I’ll just stop. I’ll just come back to this later. Even though I really, really want to finish it ‘cause it’s cold, like, “Ah, this shit is amazing,” I’ll just stop. I’ll come back to it later. I’m hitting a wall, but sometimes that shit flows. It just depends on how I am feeling.”

On his creative writing and poetry background

“That is the basis of all of this shit. That’s where it came from. The creative writing seemed pretty approachable, and the poetry started when I was in high school. I will say that the poetry helped me think differently about how to rap and how to set up a cadence or bars or whatever. Whereas rappers who don’t have that poetry background, they probably don’t think that way. It’s probably harder for them to stumble upon thinking that way.”

“I have this song called “P’s and Q’s” It is because I was thinking of literary devices. “22 Two’s,” fucking Nas’ “Rewind,” fucking Big L’s “Ebonics.” Nas has a couple of these, actually. Those are literary devices. Can’t nobody redo that shit ‘cause all we gonna say is “Oh, he did Twenty 22s again.” Chance did “22 Offs,” but we automatically knew what that was. Anybody who raps backwards, we automatically gonna say “Rewind.” I wanted to do something like that. And I was like, “What can I do?” I was looking up all these literary devices that you can do. There’s like cacophony—other shit that I could do, but the shit that would be unrecognizable in a song. You have to actually read the shit to know the shit. Well, alliteration. The P’s and Q’s. The common phrase. I’m on my P’s and Q’s. On top your game or whatever. I just go crazy with the P’s and Q’s. That shit’s fire.”

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Recording vocals

“I hate doing a lot of takes. I’m really big on getting that shit done. I don’t really go to the studio unless I am ready to record. I don’t be in the studio writing a lot of the time. Sometimes I will. But it’s just like if I feel I need to add a bridge. I go into the studio and lay down the basis of a song and then build on that. Or maybe I should add this. Or maybe I should ad-libs. Or maybe I should layer this. Or maybe I should harmonize here. I’m not trying to be in there doing things over and over. I ain’t got it because I didn’t write this shit a week ago. I don’t fuck with that. I feel like that’s a waste of time. I am paying these niggas. I’m not trying to be in here wasting time. If I am in here, I am working. I definitely don’t do a lot of takes. I try to make sure I go in with that shit.”

“I saw Chance in the studio, when we were working on some shit, he was doing it in different voices, which I thought was cool. I never really thought about that, so I started doing that shit. I started off my voices in different octaves and figure out which one I want to go with. Other than that, I’m trying to get it done in 15 takes or less.”

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Learning from other Chicago rappers like Chance The Rapper and Vic Mensa

“They are dope as fuck. That’s what dope about Chicago is because we really are making different music. So I don’t have a problem taking their little shits that they do and applying it to myself in way that fits for me. They are really creative. They are really dope. They are making really good music, so I look to them all the time. When they release music, I’m like, “Fuck this is ill.” I gotta figure out how to do something better or take from what I can or learn. I think Vic made me more comfortable singing, more melodic shit into things. I take inspiration from a lot of people. They are in Chicago and I see them on a regular basis, so I fuck around while they are in the studio creating. I learn things from them all the time.”

On what he wants to represent for Chicago

“I lived in whatever hood you want to call [it] in some of the worst parts of Chicago. Nobody represents [the streets]. It’s either you gotta represent this or you gotta represent that. But nobody represents that kid who was in the hood and went to the bad school and knows the gangsters. Whatever narrative you want to paint, nobody represents that person. I came up on all that shit. I know how to move through all that shit because I came through all that shit. I’m involved with those people. I robbed a nigga before. I got jumped before. Niggas have banged on me. All that shit that niggas can talk about. I sold drugs too. I can talk about all that shit too. But nobody represents that person ‘cause I know a ton of people like [them] and nobody represents that person singularly. People think “Oh, the streets is this.” That ain’t true. Just like everything out there, there’s all different aspects of that shit. You can’t say I am not street ‘cause I don’t talk about killing niggas. That’s not valid.”

On his upcoming projects:

“With The Water[s], I was so worried about making this amazing project and speaking to the concept. There was just pressure. It was a lot more pressure during the creation of that project to where I am now. Coming off that, I was able to breathe; I was able to concrete on music that wasn’t geared towards a certain sound or certain mission. It produced all kinds of stuff. Actually, some shit is going to catch people really off guard. I’ve been going into the studio or whatever—a sample that we were coming up on our own. We just went with it and did whatever we felt without a purpose. It’s always, “Oh, we are doing it for this and we are doing it for that.” It kind of changed that sound up a bit and makes it fit the other song. I didn’t worry about that at all. It’s a breather. It’s like my break. [Laughs.] I’ve got a bunch of songs already. I don’t know what they’ll be for. It may be some songs that we saving for the album.”

“I like to experiment with different ways. I did that with Trees & Truths and The Water[s]. With this EP and this album, I’m doing things—like Trees & Truths. First 15 songs I recorded, that was the tape. So for The Water[s], I was like, “Well, let me make more than that.” I made a lot more than what was actually on the tape. If you paid attention, I released a lot of singles that weren’t on The Water[s]. That’s because they were songs that we decided, “Aight, these are the songs that aren’t going. Aight, let’s just use these as promo.” That was different than what I did for Trees & Truths. Now, for this EP and the album, I’m trying a new method of creating and putting a project together of where I don’t even have a concept right now for either the EP or the album. I’m just trying to hash out the concepts after all the songs are done. I just wanna try different ways of doing things and it also comes with my environment for creating as well.”

Images via Mick & OnGaud‘s Instagram, Youtube

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