Wednesday, August 1, 2012

A Random Moment with The Hired Gun

The Hired Gun, Hip Hop MC, writer, critic, arts educator

We totally dated ourselves when we realized we knew each other since the heydays of Myspace. Yes, that Myspace. Since then we've been connected through the music and poetry circles and the occasional hot button race issue. At the Ace Hotel, on a Saturday afternoon we discovered we were neighbors in Brooklyn, kindred in the artist lifestyle.

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My name is Mikal Amin Lee AKA The Hired Gun, Fresh Roots Music, Nomadic Wax, Urban Word. I am a Hip Hop MC, artist, writer, cultural critic and arts educator. I’ve been based in New York City now for the last 13 years—born and raised in New Jersey—been reppin’ Brooklyn since 2000, officially. Unofficially, I’ve been reppin’ Brooklyn since Big Daddy Kane in 19- [muffles his voice] I’m not gonna say when cause I look very young.

As an MC and artist, what is the message behind your music?

My influences have been people like Chuck D, KRS-One, Brother Jay, The Native Tongues, Freestyle Fellowship and regardless of the political message or the artistic message, the thing that I took from them and what I try to carry on is I want you to think. I want you to ask questions. That’s what my music is—it’s to inspire thought, it’s to provoke thought—what’s going on with you, what’s going on with the community around you, what’s going on with the world around you, why are things the way they are, where do you fit in all of that. So that’s really what my music’s about regardless of what the topic or the concept or the theme is ... I’m not afraid to say I love Black people, so I try to celebrate us as much as possible in my music and I try to show a different angle because I’m not what this country or what people think are stereotypical of us so I try to represent that as well in my music.

I read somewhere that when working with your students, you want to teach them the “spirituality of the freestyle”. Explain that.

Well, when I began making music or began writing in my teens and trying to understand the whole art, freestyle was something that was shown to me or what I knew to be improvisational, free association, stream of consciousness; basically being able to take the environment around you and create stories from it, create images, something cohesive, something coherent but something that was truthful because it was the reality you were experiencing. That’s what I try to have them do, to tap into the things that they know and who they are and tap into all of the experiences they are having or had and then create from there because in the freestyle that’s ultimately what it’s about. 

Those are the things I learned from my own experience because I was one of those kids. I grew up on the East Coast so I always listened to people like Supernatural and KRS-One on the radio, which I thought were freestyles for real but it wasn’t later until I experienced people from the West Coast—people like Freestyle Fellowship with P.E.A.C.E or Aceyalone or Mikah 9—it wasn’t until I really experienced them and did a little bit more of my own hip hop research that I realized a lot of the freestyles that I heard from the East Coast were not necessarily freestyles but the West Coast was really where people were really like, “ok, I didn’t write this down anywhere, this is right now, I’m at the barbeque right now…”

What’s your favorite word and why?

My favorite word … Wow, I gotta think about that for a second … Free. Because that’s what I would like to be, that’s what I hope we could all be. I’ve said this before, I feel if everybody in the world could do what they love and were truly moving in a place to do what they love the world would probably not have as much violence, pain, suffering.

Aight, 30 seconds, one verse, a freestyle using your favorite word…

OK, it’s time to play
as I slay the track on the microphone
When I get melee
As you can see
This place it isn’t free
We have to look at a menu to buy and what we can see
So see
I’m about free
Not about the price I’m about the spirit and the mind
This is what I do when I combine the words to find the time to design something out of the mind or off the brain
If you’re saying that we’re all not free and we’re in somebody else’s lane
I’mma make my own
With a little poem
And rock off the beat but there is not one
But what I own is myself
The self is true, and that’s what I do for you and you and you
This is the crew it’s Fresh Roots
And this is what we do
If you can see in the place to be and I see my homegirl that is Genesis B
She’s a waitress at the Ace it’s crazy
I’m in this place
I might have to say somethin’
Maybe get a taste
‘Cause we might get something free
as you can see
‘Cause hey when you know someone
you can go to someone
and get something for really nothin’
And this is what I’m lovin’
Maybe I get something free a coffee or a muffin

Wow, Genesis works here, that’s funny, she’s an MC.

This is a very artistic hotel. I would work here.

Yeah, that’s crazy.

What power do your students hold?

The biggest thing why I love working with young people so much is that there’s an honesty and an optimism that experience tends to erode; the belief that everything is possible, that anything is possible, it’s inspiring just to be around that energy in and of itself. I just love that. The power that young people hold is really that, that honesty. They don’t really bullshit. I really feel like it’s something you learn, I feel like it’s a survival tactic especially in a place like New York where there’s so many people vying for things you find these ways to be strategic and tricky—it’s not always so straight up like, “yo, this is what I think” “this is what I think about you”. I had run into another artist friend of mine, we were talking about how you try to get things like funding for a  particular project you might have to deal with someone that’s a complete asshole, you can’t tell them they’re an asshole. But young people if they don’t feel something, they don’t vibe with something, they just not vibing with it. They’re not gonna pretend, and I love that and I appreciate that and I wanna hold on to what little bits of that that I have left with me. That’s been the most powerful thing that I feel that they hold and I’ve been able to be in the presence of.

Would that be your advice to them, to newcomers, to hold on to that?

Absolutely and also that dreams are real but they’re work. You can dream about something but you actually have to go in and do it. And it can happen. It can happen if you stay true to it and stay true to yourself you can make anything that you want happen.

When you’re not listening to Hip Hop, what style of music are you listening to?

Oh man, you got time? I listen to so much. My first influences music-wise were Paul Simon, Huey Lewis and the News, like rock stuff. So I listened to a lot rock, a lot of electronica, I’m a big fan of drum and bass, house music, I love dancing to house. So I run the gamut. But also I love classic music. One of my favorite labels of all time is Stax Records -- so funk, soul music. I love stuff off the Impulse label for jazz, so mostly, a lot of Black music, pretty much everything that falls under that category or genre -- jazz, funk, rock, electronic music, all of it. All of those things find their way into what I’m doing sonically with my music as well.

Do you cook?

Yes, but I don’t like to.

When you’re creating at home do you prefer to sing in the shower or while you’re cooking?

You know what, I probably freestyle everywhere. When I do cook I typically have music on so I listen to music and I cook to the rhythm of whatever I’m listening to which is usually jazz. I have soundtracks. When I’m working out, I’m lifting weights, always rap music. If I’m cooking, it’s always jazz. If I’m writing, it’s jazz. Like if I’m writing a lesson plan, I listen to, on repeat, Bitches Brew, if I’m doing any type of academic, intellectual writing, or I’m preparing a speech, I put on Bitches Brew—it’s like a ritual. I put Bitches Brew on and I start writing.

Ok, but pick one, what’s your preference, singing in the shower or singing while you’re cooking?

Ummm… shower.

Your thoughts on the new Barclays Center—positive or negative?

Listen, wow, you know, and this hurts me doubly because I’m from New Jersey so I was a Nets fan growing up so on the one side it’s like ok so, I love Brooklyn, I will be buried in Brooklyn but I can’t front, I’m from Jersey so…

I was thinking gentrification…

But that’s what I’m saying it hurts me two ways. On the one hand, I’m like so ya’ll took my team, but at least Brooklyn took the team, but it’s the situation where again the people with money, the people with power, do for themselves and leave everybody outta the equation. So the Barclays to me isn’t anything positive for Brooklyn. I think 80,000 people lost their homes. I don’t know how many businesses. None of that’s being replaced.

The thing about Brooklyn is, to understand Brooklyn, Brooklyn’s flavor, its atmosphere; its personality was purposely anti-the city. “The City” is where you have skyscrapers, where you have to buy an 8 ounce cup of coffee for a buck-fifty, things are expensive, people aren’t friendly. That’s Manhattan, that’s what Manhattan does. Brooklyn is a family place, it’s community so to have the Barclays, and don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge sports fan, but what sense does it make to have a team where the average ticket price is probably gonna be like a hundred for a midsection seat? How do the people of Brooklyn benefit from that? I’m already seeing you have brothers and sisters running around, they got their Brooklyn Nets hats, they got their shirts and that’s cool and that’s great and there’s pride in that but meanwhile Jay-Z, Ratner, all these people, they’re making money so that you can have a little pride? I don’t feel that. If the community doesn’t get to benefit from a financial standpoint then you don’t really need to be there. We already have enough people leeching.

In the very early parts of the process back in like 2003, 2004, I was briefly helping the organization that was trying to save the Underground Railroad building on Duffield Street, so even the history is being erased. And for me, I lived in Park Slope for about 6 years so I saw firsthand the ripple effects because the zoning changed, people were getting kicked out, I almost got kicked outta my place. I had a landlord that wasn’t fixing anything purposely so they could get us out and jack the rent up because all on my street, on 16th Street, we had like 10 and 12-story high-rise buildings that prior to Barclays were illegal, you couldn’t even build those things there because of the personality of Brooklyn.

Can you rank the countries/cities you’ve visited?

Probably my favorite place to be, one and 1A is… it’s actually a 3-way race. It’s funny we’re talking about this now because my boy just asked me about this. If someone offered me a job in Berlin or Brazil, today, peace. Here’s my American passport, fuck your life, I’m out. ‘Cause that’s the myth we teach; America’s the only place where you have freedom, America is the only place where you have opportunity. It’s not true. And it took me traveling to understand that. We like to convince ourselves that we have the exclusive rights on living a life that you can create that’s your own that can be prosperous. Prosperity looks different in Brazil—prosperity is community, prosperity is family, real family, time with friends. Most people in New York, the quality of life, you spend most of your time working so that you can pay your little bit of rent, that’s most people, or you’re shucking and jiving folks out of their shit so that you can live comfortably. It doesn’t work that way.

So my triple is Berlin, Brazil and I loved being in Zimbabwe. After that, it goes to Czech [Republic] and then Paris last. It has some really cool people there that I love but as a city it reminds me too much of New York. It’s like New York without English. People are real rude, people are real cutthroaty but just in Paris. French people aren’t that way, it’s just Parisians seem to be that way.

Berlin is the shit. Berlin is dope. I like people that are direct. You don’t like my shit, tell me. Tell me why. I’ll accept that. If you don’t like it cool, you got a good reason then aight I’m not for you. But we don’t have that type of honesty, people aren’t honest enough to do that. I had the most interesting, intellectual discussions in Berlin. A really intelligent city and [they] love all types of art… and we talk about New York being the city that never sleeps? New York can not fuck with Berlin. It’s 8AM in the morning and they’re drinking beer and been in the club and it’s, “ok, this club’s closed so we’re gonna go eat breakfast and then we’re gonna go to this club.” They don’t play. Berlin is the truth. Berlin is real.

How do you deal with artist burnout? How do you prevent it?

You know, honestly, I don’t get burnt out as much by my art as I do by all of the things that I have to do so that I can do it. I will say that when I feel as if I’m becoming stagnant, I go back to my early principles of what I did to get to the point I’m at. What I mean by that is the little exercises in my writing. One of the things I used to do all the time when I was younger in this is I would get on the train and put on a beat and however long the train ride is, whether it’s 30 minutes, 40 minutes, I have to write a verse in that time. About anything, it doesn’t matter. Once you get to a certain point if you put out records, if you produce shows and tour, sometimes you get away from the little things that help you find new flows or help you get out some of your ideas so I’ll try to go back to some of the basic exercises that would spark things or just keep me sharp in terms of doing what I’m doing. [I] definitely try to read or listen to another style of music. I do that often when I feel like I’m rhyming about the same thing or [at the] same cadence. I’ll get another artist and really study them and get into what their sounds are like and cadences and stuff like that. That’s kinda what I do to keep myself fresh and lively but I feel like I never really do it enough. I love doing it. I can’t think of a time where I ever felt like I don’t wanna rap. That never happens.

What are your upcoming projects?

A lot of stuff has been going on. Right now, I just released 2 singles from the latest EP called The Devastating Masterpiece; it’s part 2 in a series. A few years ago, right after I released my solo album, The People’s Verses, I started working on tracks with some of the producers from that album and realized that I had enough for these smaller projects. So while I'm writing the next album, Nice Guys Finish, which is gonna be released Spring 2013 at this point, I'll release these EPs called Hits and Pieces, 6 track EPs with my producers from my first album and thematically it’s more about the sonnet of each producer, it’s like highlighting producers like Ice Nine, Mista Mayday from my crew ESP, Acee which is actually going to be the epilogue that explains my album called The Hard Ship. All of these are coming out. The first one’s been out since January. And the next one The Devastating Masterpiece, the 2 singles “Ghost of Ocean Ave” and “And For My Next Trick”, those are already out on soundcloud and just circulating on the internet. But the actual The Devastating Masterpiece will be in September.

Complete this statement: If my muse were an animal, it would be…

A panther.


I’ve always just felt like the panther’s my totem. Um, partly because I’m a big fan of the panther party, Black Panthers. My favorite superhero from the Marvel universe is Black Panther and it’s always been one of the totem animals of Africa so that’s just my connection to it.

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