“Momma In My Ear,” Mikkey Halsted featuring Pusha T (prod by Young Chop)

Mikkey Halsted has been one of your favorite rapper’s favorite rappers for years now.  Not to mention a favorite of the entire blogosphere, particularly those that follow the Chicago rap scene.  That said, he’s faced over a decade of label woes and near misses.  He’s been in the same room with the greats and earned respect and shout-outs from raps biggest superstars.   He’s been so close the breaking through for so long, that it would be easy to have doubt about his career prospects at this point.  That said, something about his new street album Castro feels markedly different from his past endeavors.  It could be the all-star production lineup of No ID, The Legendary Traxster, Don Cannon, and Young Chop.  It could be that he sounds as hungry and ready for commercial success as he ever has.  Regardless of where responsibility lies, it’s clear that there’s an energy to his latest work that is undeniable, and he seems poised once again to make a run at the majors.  I caught up with Mikkey to talk about Castro, No ID and his new team, the old days, Pusha T, Killer Mike, and to find out why after so many years of unfruitful record deals he feels his time is finally about to come.

JB: First of all, why Castro?

Mikkey Halsted:

Really, like I say in the intro, it’s really just a tale of survival.  Like I go through so much just trying to navigate this minefield of an industry, but I feel like I continue to survive.  One thing about Castro, regardless of what side of his politics you might be on, everyone has to acknowledge is that he’s the ultimate survivor.  Basically, being about 90 miles away from the strongest government on the planet and surviving as long as he has, it’s definitely something where that part of him inspired me.  It was so crazy, they have this documentary out called 638 Ways to Kill Castro and it just blew my mind, and I’m like, “that’s the name of this tape,” and that’s when I went in and recorded that intro.  Once I did that intro, the tape kind of fell in place.

JB: Yeah, so I wanted to ask you about that, you’ve been talking about this Money Makin’ Mikkey Season project.  Is that still on the table or did this replace that?

Mikkey Halsted:

We’re still working on that.  That really turned into something that I’m really doing exclusively with Traxster. Me and Traxster got in the studio and did what I believe is an amazing project.  And all of those songs are going to be the Money Makin’ Mikkey project.  That’s going to be the next thing you get from me.  Castro kind of came, working with No ID and Don Cannon and it just came together so fast, all of a sudden you look up and we’ve got 50 records.  We’ve got the Traxster records, we’ve got the No ID and Don Cannon records, and Young Chop came in and gave me a couple of records and all of the sudden we had a tape.  It was like “Wow, now let’s strategize.”  Let’s put this out first, then we’re going to follow that up with Money Makin’ Mikkey with Traxter, it’s just going to be like another side of the same coin.  So people are going to definitely be in for a treat.  And we’re already planning on a Castro 2, as well.  So we’re just going to keep it going, I want to give the people high quality music and I want to give them real albums for free.  I feel like to make my mark and be where I want to be – because my goal has always been the Mt. Rushmore of hip hop – I just wanted to start by giving the people, to set the mark, three really solid projects before we step into the label situation and take it to the next level.  So things are falling in place and working according to plan.

JB: You made a big move, moving your whole family out to Cali to record with No ID and Traxster.  Talk a little bit about that and what motivated you to do that, and how you feel about it now having been through it.

Mikkey Halsted:

I feel like it was a great move for me.  I don’t know where I would be if I hadn’t done that. No ID was living out here, Traxster was living out here, Don Cannon lives out here.  So many industry people live out here I feel like it’s Chicago West Coast (laughs).  BJ the Chicago Kid who just did a deal with Universal, shout out to him, he lives out here.  Really we have the incubator of Chicago talent where we can get that same Chicago feel, but we have the industry right at our finger tips.  So it was just a great move.  It was just a step up basically.  And with me getting out of Chicago, I think i was able to tell Chicago’s story clearer, because I’m a little removed from it.  I’m making clearer, bigger, quality records.  I believe that people have my best work to date, and the response I’ve been getting from it really proves that.

JB: Talk about your relationship with No ID, how far it goes back, and how it’s developed and evolved over the years?

Mikey Halstead:

Me and No ID go back until I really made my first forray into the music business.  A lot of people know I started with Kanye West, so I started rocking with him, and all of a sudden Kanye comes to me and tells me, “Man, No ID wants to manage us.”   I said, “No ID? (laughs) Stop playing with me.”  He was like, “No, he heard the music off the demo we’ve been working on and he liked it.”  I was like wow, that’s an incredible compliment, of course.  Through everything I’ve been through in this music business – although he stopped managing me a year after we started, because he was doing certain things and I was moving to a different part of the country –  he’s always been there for me and every time with anything I was working on we spoke, and connected again.  Like I dealt with Cash Money for a second, and when that didn’t pan out, or work the way it was supposed to work, I got back with No ID and we started making music again.  We’ve always had this chemistry.  We did a deal over in Virgin Records together, Virgin got bought out and it folded and turned into Capitol, so it was a big thing, no urban department anymore and things got moved Island Def Jam and everything kind of stuck.  When that didn’t work out, it was me and No ID again.  We just got back to doing records, me and him, doing dope music and giving it to the people.  Now he’s the senior VP at Def Jam, and a lot of people thought it was a forgone conclusion that I would go there, but really we just want the best situation for the music. So, man of course we’re talking with Def Jam we’re talking with a lot of different labels and I’ll probably be making an announcement on where I’m going to land real soon.  But I’m just in a blessed situation to have somebody who’s just such a pioneer, a person who I consider to be the best in the game, period, of all time on the hip hop and black urban music scene.  And I feel he’s number one historically as well, and I could make that argument intelligently.  And so I feel like man for him to just believe in me the way he’s believed in me.  I was a teenager when he met me, so for ten years to be rocking with me still, he really believes in the talent.  And he feels like Chicago’s story won’t be told until I get my shot and really get to say my piece.  And I’m really just no starting to say it.

JB: A lot of people feel that way, like you’ve been the missing piece for a long time to really get on and tell that story.

Mikkey Halsted:

No doubt.  I feel like timing is really everything and I’m excited.  I’m excited to be in this space, in the position that I’m in right now.

JB: Talk about your writing process.  How do you construct your songs from start to finish?

Mikkey Halsted:

Basically for me I generally start with the track.  I listen to beats, I go through beats.  I might have concepts that I want to do.  Sometimes I go and if you look at my iphone, in the memos, you’ll see titles.  I write titles and I write titles all the time.  It might be “Full Moon,” it might be “Bulletproof Dreams,” it might be any kind of title.  And the title I guess is where the inception takes place, of the song, the concept comes from these titles.  I might be reading a book or looking at a movie and the title comes to me, I’ll write that title down.  When I go through beats often I’ll go through my titles.  I’ll look at my titles and certain beats just fit.  Once I hear the beats, it’s like a freestyling process.  I really don’t like to be restricted to the paper like I used to be, so I just really freestyle.  If I’m not at the mic right then, or not in the studio right then, I just put it down in my memo, I’ll write in my iphone and the song just takes form.  Once I get the first line it’s like everything else just falls in place like a puzzle.  I guess you know, I’ve also been into writing, like when I was in school that was one of my favorite subjects, I’ve always been strong in language arts.  If you really listen to my music you really see a strong narrative format.  You know a lot of rappers are kind of just everywhere.  My songs are cohesive, they come together, they have a central idea, every line ties to the one before it and the one after it and I try to be cohesive like that.  So you asked me my writing style, that’s how I come up with records, once the beat comes on, I get a certain feeling or certain emotion.  I might have a concept, I might not, but when I hear the beat the beat really inspires me.

Working with people like No ID, Don Cannon, The Legendary Traxster, and my homey Young Chop, it’s like I just kill it.  It’s like “Momma In My Ear,” I heard the beat, it’s like instantly I just start freestyling those words that became the hook.  So the song was born.

JB: Does the hook usually come first for you, or sometimes do you start with the verses and that leads to the hook?

Mikkey Halsted:

It’s either or.  Sometimes it starts with the hook or the strongest part of the verse becomes the hook.  It just really depends on the record.

JB: Let’s walk through a couple of the tracks on Castro, talk about “Obamanomics

Mikkey Halsted:

It’s crazy because, that’s a beat that I’ve been wanting from No ID, you know he works with so many great people.  He works with Common, he’s been working with Nas.  I can’t even drop the beans on who he’s working with now, can’t spill those.   A lot of times I hear a beat and me and Dion (No ID) talk about it.  I start saying stuff and some of the lines started coming to me, talking about Reagan, and he was like “Man, you need to tie it all together though, people have talked about that before, but you’ve got to bring it to date, bring it current.”  And he thought of the title of “Obamanomics,” because I was saying, “I’m trying to think of the title.  I’m thinking of ‘Reaganomics.'”  He’s like, “Nah ‘Obamanomics.’ Bring it all the way back from the 80’s to 2012.”  And I did just that and the record came out dope.

JB:   Rap with socio-political messages.  I know this has always been something that you’ve been involved in, but I wanted to get your perspective on the resurgence of this kind of music.  It seems like there have been more rappers taking that back up lately, one that comes to mind is Killer Mike…

Mikkey Halsted:

Ah, The Pl3dge?

JB: Yeah, he did one this year too, R.A.P. Music

Mikkey Halsted:

Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, that’s my joint.  Killer Mike is one of my favorite artists and one of my best friends in the industry.  I love what he does.

JB: Definitely. And both you and Mike have always had music with socio-political commentary in it, but it seems like more and more artists are starting to take up that charge again, obviously it was huge in the late eighties and early nineties, but then you kind of hand a dead period for that kind of rap for a lot of years, and it seems like it’s started to creep back into the picture in the last few years.  I just wondered your thoughts on why that is.

Mikkey Halsted:

I just feel like people stopped believing that it was commercially viable.  There was a time when PE sold records and when something is commercially viable – as artist we are entrepreneurs and businessmen – it’s just industry.  So like any other industry if people are into brick homes and brick homes are selling.  If you’re in the construction business, you’re going to build brick homes.  If frame home start to make a resurgence then people are going to lean more towards building frame homes.  I feel like some people just believe in the craft of building homes and they’re into brick and mortar and they’re not for the cheaper frames, even if frame homes now are more popular.  They know that the brick homes are going to maintain value longer.  Artists like myself, Lupe Fiasco, Killer Mike we’ve always respected the craft of the artistry of socio-political conscious music.  And we believe that, that is always going to be back in style.  Even if it goes out of style for a minute and everybody is not on it, regardless of that, I believe that is part of our job in hip hop.  Some people just do it for the money, so when you do it for the money, then you just do it for the money and whatever is in style, you do.  That’s why people were wearing the African medallions instead of gold at one time, and everybody was doing it, because it was the style.  But for some people it’s really in their heart, so some artists just stay true to themselves.  And you bring up Killer Mike, and I talked about Lupe…  like I’m really on Lupe.  I believe his courage is just incredible, I applaud him man, he inspires me man.  And he’s a friend mine and a peer.  We really came into this thing together and I’m just proud of the path that he’s taken.

JB: Talk about “Occupy

Mikkey Halsted:

That record is another No ID record.  Man, that beat came on and immediately I came up with the first line, “Pretty boy gangsta, intelligent thug shit,” and by the time I got to the end of the verse I just said, “Occupy,” and once I said that I was like, “Ah shit.”  I knew I had something special on my hands and we just fleshed the whole song out.  Dion (No ID) is a revisionist, so he sent me back to the lab on the third verse a couple of times, until I nailed it perfectly.  And when I nailed it he was like, “Alright, that’s it.”

JB: Talk a little bit about that.  I know creative control is very important to you, but I’ve heard you mention before that No ID is someone who watches that for you, and makes sure you bring your A game.

Mikkey Halsted:

He’s like the quality control police.  A lot of times I’m in the studio and the homies are in the studio, and we do a song, and I’m like man it’s incredible and everybody is saying, “Oh man it’s so crazy,” and he’s like, “Nope.”  And I’m like, “Man, what?  What’s going on?  Did you hear what I said on there?”  And he’s like, “Man, you could do better.”  You know, the crazy thing is it always comes better, and gets better.  Sometimes I get discouraged and think, man I can’t do better, but he always gets better out of me.

JB: Yeah it takes a special ear, to be able to hear those things in the moment when everybody is excited off of first hearing a new track, to say, nah it’s not quite there yet.

Mikkey Halsted:

Exactly, he’s like “It’s good.  Is it special? Call me back in when it’s special.”  Shit, what it does is it just makes me go harder and I tear those verses up and by the time I get to the finished product, I’m calling him to say, “Thank you, I never would’ve got this verse out if you didn’t say something.”

JB: Talk about “Momma In My Ear,” which you mentioned a bit before, but also talk about working with Pusha T on that.

Mikkey Halsted:

We’ve had this mutual respect that we’ve always talked about.  Me, him, and my homie Ab Liva used to always talk about how people that are really spitters, that are really dope rappers, really respect and fuck with each other.  We always used to joke that it’s like a secret society.  So when you see each other whether it’s on tour or whatever you give that other artist that nod, like man, thank you, I see that you’re one of the elite spitters in the world.  And I’ve always felt that Pusha was elite.  I felt like that secret society that we have among people that are elite level talents, when we talk about that it’s just lyricism, it’s bars, it has nothing to do with how successful you are, it has nothing to do with how much money you got, it has nothing to do with who you’re aligned, what clique you’re in, it’s just talent to talent, you recognize each other.    We’ve been planning to do something together for so long, and I got that record.  I just knew that was it, and I called him.  He was like, “You got something to send me, send me something.”  I sent it to him.  He did it immediately and sent it right back.  It was just a blessing.

And you’ll notice that’s really the only feature that I have on Castro.  I’m really not into features like that.  I want to give the people me.  I feel like a lot of people just take short cuts, and you can do that, but I feel like I need to give it to people in that form like that.  So him being the only feature is really something special to me.

JB: You’ve been asked a lot of questions about Chief Keef and the drill scene, and I know you recently work with King Louie and Durk on “Chopper Music.”  I understand your perspective of applauding them for doing whatever they can to get out of the hellish situation they’re in, but do you worry that there is too much light being shed on their scene by the media and that they’re being exploited to the detriment of other black youth?  Who will look up to them?

Mikkey Halsted:

That’s my only worry is that the media exploits it.  When you take a 16 year old kid to do an interview at a gun range, it’s like what the fuck is that?  Come on, man.  It’s so much that’s been said about it.  Rhymefest wrote an article on it.  I just want to see them do well.  I don’t want to see them being exploited.  I want to see them grow in their craft and be allowed the room to grow in the craft, keep making their music with the energy and the fervor that they’ve been making it at, don’t worry about nobody else, but just do what you do.  If they do that, then I believe that you’re going to keep growing your fanbase, whatever your fanbase is.  I never felt like that’s my competition or we’re competing for the limelight.  I don’t feel that way.  I feel like it’s different pieces of the pie.  It’s like when Soulja Boy comes out, they don’t think that’s a threat to T.I., T.I. is T.I., Jeezy is Jeezy, Soulja Boy is Soulja Boy.  It’s just different lanes and they’re killing their lane right now.  And I’m just happy they’re killing their lane.  Really they carved a lane.  Really, because nobody gave them shit, so they carved it.  And they’re killing it.

JB:  Yeah, I’m sure you probably know David Drake…

Mikkey Halsted:

Yeah.

JB:  But he’s done some really good work covering Keef and one thing he really pointed out to a lot of people, was the fact that they had hundreds of thousands of youtube views before anybody knew who they were on the blog scene.  The reality is that they were creating their own scene in Chicago among public school kids, before any major media outlet blog or otherwise even caught on.

Mikkey Halsted:

Yeah.  They were doing it.  So you know it’s like this is what people want to shine the light on, so they’re going to shine the light on that, because it’s negative.  I mean there’s a lot of arguments that could be made on both sides man.  I just hope that they parlay it into some long lasting stuff.  That they can feed their children and their children’s children off of it.

JB:   You’ve worked with a lot of major artists over the years, I’m sure you’re beyond the point of getting star struck by another rapper, but what has been the most humbling experience in terms of working with somebody you really looked up to? 

Mikkey Halsted:

Yeah that’s a tough one man.

JB: If it’s not that, then give an example of something you look back at now, where you’re like wow, I was just a kid right on the same playing field just chilling with those guys in the basement or the studio and look where they are now.

Mikkey Halsted:

I was in the studio with Jay-Z when I was actually on Cash Money, and I was in awe.  Recently I was in the studio while No ID was working on Nas’s record and I was in awe.  When No ID was working on Common’s record I was in awe.  I’m a fan first.  When I meet certain people like even the fact that Jazzy Jeff sent me a message and was just like, “Man, I just got put on to your music, man it’s dope. Man, anything you ever need…”  I’m like, man that’s Jazzy Jeff, to me that’s the #1 DJ in the world.  Premier has hit me like, “Man, I love this record, can you get me this record.”  So when Premier hits you it’s like, “Oh, Wow.  That’s Premier.”  It’s those moments.

In terms of people that I’ve worked with and I’ve been around.  I’ve been around some heavy weights from Wayne to Kanye, and from working closely with people like that, it’s hard to be starstruck off of other people.  One day I ran into Jadakiss.  I didn’t see him and he’s like, “Mikkey!”  And in my mind I’m just like man, Jadakiss knows my name, that’s crazy to me.  And he said he fucked with my stuff.  So you’d be surprised some of the people in the industry that are fans of the music, like Biggie’s ex-manager, Mark Pitts hit me and when I saw him he just gave me some compliments and for him to have managed Biggie Smalls and to think that I’m dope and that I’m worthy of meeting with him at any given time, that’s the kind of stuff that just humbles me man.

JB:  At what point did you go get your Master’s in Education.  At what point did you go and do that, and what propelled you to do that?

Mikkey Halsted:

What happens is in the industry you get stalled at certain times.  I’ve had to get out of two contracts and one was with Cash Money and one was with Virgin.  I’ve always been a proponent that when you’re in contract disputes – that sometimes have lasted two years, sometimes almost three years – do something productive.  I went back to school and education has been easy for me.  In those times hiatuses where I was in contract disputes or limbo whether I’ve got to stay on this label or I’m going to be free, then I’ll go to school and try to better my back-up plan.  So that’s how that always works for me.  That way my momma’s happy.

JB:  And did you teach for a while?

Mikkey Halsted:

Yeah, I did.  Not a for long time, it would always be short stints.  I would always start and then somewhere the music would snatch me right back.  I taught at the school I actually grew up going to, Higgins Elementary, I taught there.  I taught in Inglewood, right in Chief Keef’s neighborhood.  And I taught in another neighborhood called Sirconn City, one of the toughest neighborhoods.  It was like man, I’m like a big brother to a lot of kids, because I’ve come in contact with them and they’ve known me from hip hop or playing basketball, because I’m kind of a well-known basketball player in the city of Chicago too.  I just felt like, I never had strong male figures that’s given back in my educational history, growing up in Chicago Public Schools, so for me to be able to do that that’s something that’s really not work to me.  It’s really like being a big brother.  So when you get paid for that, it’s really not about the money, it’s about giving back to the shorties.  And the energy that they give you is worth so much man.

JB:   I read in an interview that while you were at Cash Money you recorded over 70 songs while you were there.  I’m sure it will never see the light of day, but how would you describe that material if you had to?

Mikkey Halsted:

Intelligent ghetto music (laughs).  That’s what it was, it was dope man, it was dope.  You had some Kanye production, everything else was really Mannie Fresh production, a couple songs produced by Jazze Pha.  It was something that I felt could’ve made a real mark, but we just couldn’t make the business work.

JB:   Basement Recordings – what are some of the craziest records or moments early on when you were hanging out with No ID, Kanye, Twista, etc back in the day?

Mikkey Halsted:

I mean we just did the craziest records man, at Kanye’s momma’s house.  In his bedroom with him man.  I mean we didn’t even have a booth, the closet wasn’t even the booth, the booth was you could sit on the bed and record.  Those sessions man, it would be me Rhymefest, Shawna, Teefa, man so many Chicago artists, Twista would come by.  The older generation No ID, Common, Twista, everybody, it was just such a who’s who, GLC, my sister Ms Criss.  There was just so much talent over there it was just incredible.  Those sessions that I would never forget.  Those are the sessions that taught me how to rap and really taught me what hip hop was all about.

JB:   In describing the song “Liquor Store,” you once referred to your music as gospel music.  A way of reaching the masses not in church.  Would you still describe your music that way or how would you say your perspective on it has changed?

Mikkey Halsted:

I don’t really think it’s changed.  The gospel is like… I believe it’s street gospel music, because it’s trying to reach people, it teaches, people it inspires people.  That’s what the gospel is supposed to do.  It teaches, it inspires.  I feel like if you dig into my music, if you dig into the Castro album, you get so much.  You get just fly shit, but you get introspection, you get depth.  I feel like in order to be a mega star there has to be a certain level of depth to you and your music.  That’s something I’m never going to walk away from.

JB:      You make a lot of shorter songs.  Not all of them, you definitely make some longer songs too, but a lot of your songs are in the two and a half to three minute range.  I just wondered is that like a “half-short, twice strong” GZA philosophy?

Mikkey Halsted:

Yeah there’s a lot of philosophies that go into our music.  I just don’t believe in always sticking to a certain format.  I feel like when you’ve said everything you needed to say on that song, move on.  I don’t care if it’s one verse, two verses, three verses, three long verses, two short verses, if you got to do a twelve or an eight (bar verse), whenever it’s over, it’s over.  I think sometimes you water down music by trying to make it longer than what it is.  Thinking it has to be three sixteens (bar verses), and thinking it has to be four minutes, well maybe it’s two minutes or maybe the song will be seven minutes.  You never really know, it’s just so based of the feel of the record.

JB: You’ve obviously been through a ton in your history with this record business, what advice do you have to young artists, guys that are 18 or 19 years old, or younger out there, in terms of how they should handle themselves?

Mikkey Halsted:

My advice to them would be to visualize what you want to be, who you want to be, what you want to be and go after it with all that you have, while at the same time making the proper preparation to have a life beyond rap, period.  Whatever kind of preparations those need to be, you have to be prepared, just be realistic with yourself.  Understand that this is a real grind.  “Before you build something,” my daddy used to always say, “consider the cost.”  And so I just want young people that get caught up in the glamour, the glitz, the women and all of that, to stop and consider the cost.  And if you’re willing to pay it, let’s go.  And if not, thank you, be gone.

JB: If you had to take every situation you’ve been in.  All of your label situations that haven’t worked out, you’ve always said you don’t regret them, because you learned from them.  So share something you’ve learned from every situation that you were in.

Mikkey Halsted:

What I’ve learned is that the more prepared you really are for every situation, the better the outcome will be.  That’s why we’re dealing with this situation the way that we’re dealing with it.  We want to be prepare where we have real control.  I don’t want to just sign a deal and everybody say, “Oh, he’s with this label,” and you don’t have a release date, you’re not on the schedule to come out.  There’s a lot more to music than signing a record deal.  The music business is about getting a release date and coming out.  The work just starts when you get a deal.  And I didn’t know that growing up, because you just think, you get a record deal and you’re going to be on TV, and you’re going to be a rap star.  It doesn’t work like that man.  So be prepared and have the proper team in place.  The proper team has to be in place for you to be successful period.

Comments
  1. […] my interview with Mikkey about a month and a half ago, he referred to MMM Season as merely “another side of the same […]

  2. […] case you missed it.  You can check my interview with Mikkey Halsted and check out Castro and MMM Season both of which are still available for […]

  3. Chief Keef says:

    Keep Chief Keef out of it, poor kid is a ghetto kid trying to make money for his daughter, focus on your own music not him in interviews.

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