The Dark Room is out and so far I’ve seen nothing but glowing reviews for the album. That has to feel good.
Man, it feels good that people appreciate the music, especially the critics. I really did this album for the people. For the people that are all over the world that have been watching me on the internet and out in the streets and for all the people that have seen the evolution of Mikkey Halsted and have seen me grow. This album is a labor of love. It’s the music that I wanted to put out. The songs that I wanted to put out. It’s the message that I wanted to convey. I feel it’s done in a pure way before the pressure of commercialism creeped in. I just really feel like it’s pure and I think people, when you do something pure, I think people understand it and they can gravitate to it because they can feel the authenticity in it.
That comes across very clearly in your music. How did you get to that point to where it comes out so naturally?
Man, because it really comes from an honest place inside me and it’s me. Evertytihng I say, it’s like I can not…certain things can’t come out of my mouth that aren’t in my heart. Every verse was crafted with the purpose for it to be authentic and to be real and it just naturally comes from an honest place. You start as an artist and I started so young being an artist that once you find your voice, then you really got it and then it becomes easy. So now that I’ve found my voice, it becomes so much easier and even other artists that I’ve watched, when I watch their evolution, as soon as I get to that point and I hear him, I can tell he’s found his voice and from that point on, he’s excellent. The Kanyes and the Waynes, they found their voice. That’s why they sound so authentic and that’s why you can hear the angst and tension in my voice, because it’s coming from a pure place. I believe that whole-heartedly for every lyric that’s coming out of my mouth.
What’s your writing process like when you put these rhymes together?
It’s freestyle in a way. And I think a lot of people, when they say he freestyled that, I use pen and paper as the final process. So when I hear music that inspires me, say No I.D. puts on a beat that inspires me. I zone out and I start rapping and I just start going line for line and whatever comes out is generally what I keep and that’s the beautiful thing about it. The thing about is it that I’m not blessed to have thousands of hours or studio time like artists with big budgets. If I’m in a car and I finish a verse, I gotta go write that verse down because I might not get to the studio next week. I have to plan it out more. If I lived in the studio I probably wouldn’t need the paper. I feel like putting it on paper in a way inhibits you, but that’s where I put the final draft and edit it and treat it like an essay because I’m really trying to convey a point. It’s really like school when you think about it. I’m freestyling and getting all of my ideas and patterns out. That’s my rough draft. That’s my brainstorming process. I’m a storyteller, so I edit it and the final process is putting it on paper and making sure every word and every syllable is cohesive and everything is right. The editing process is my last and final process. I go to paper last because I feel like it has to be natural. The cadence has to be natural. Everything really starts from a freestyle. That’s really my writing process, man. I put the beat on and it inspires me and it makes me feel a certain emotion.
For example, when I heard the “Liquor Store” beat, it inspired me and that’s what it felt like. So I have certain concepts that I might wait on until I get the beat that gives me the right feeling to get that off. When I heard the track, I knew it was “Liquor Store” and then I just got into it and put the words into it.
In the intro to your mixtape The Best You Never Heard, you said “Dudes hang off every word I spew.” Is that a conscious effort to make people listen to every word you say?
Yeah, because I don’t like to be predictable and if you listen to certain rappers, then you know and you can tell the words what they’re going to say the first time you hear the verse. The words are kind of predictable. I want to say something provocative and I want to say something fresh and I want to use vocabulary that’s not often used in rap. I want to be cutting edge and come out of the box sometimes and not be confined to basic rhyme patterns. Everything I do, I just want to be innovative and hopefully the people hear that. What a lot of that lyric was that a lot of the people that I have come across that are big artists will tell me they know all of my lyrics or they’ll rap a lyric to me. It amazes me that people are paying attention and you wouldn’t know they’re paying attention but the fact that they are into the lyrics like that and give me props, they really cherish every word and hopefully this is the beginning of putting the hip-hop community at large in tune with Mikkey Halsted and I think they’re going to really appreciate the consistency, the honesty and the persistence in the music. That’s the intent behind it.
When you listen to a Lupe Fiasco, who’s one of my favorite artists, you can’t tell what’s going to come out of his mouth. It’s the same with Kanye. We’re cut from the same cloth and that’s the way that we do it with all of the greats out there.
Do fans and artists quoting your lyrics mean more than mainstream love at the end of the day?
It really does because you know you’re really connecting to the people. When they say a certain song connects to them or I see people quoting my lines on Twitter…I may not have a million followers, but the few thousand that I have now, they really get it and they have my back and they really understand. To me, it’s always been about building that core. Once you build that core, you can grow exponentially from that core. I think that I’m building that core and that core audience and that core fanbase, they really get it and it really grows. People will come up to me and tell me that their man put them up on me and they listen to the lyrics and they’re really blown away. I think with each one, somebody tells their friend and they put another on. It’s like a secret society, almost. Those who know, know and to know what’s coming next is something dope. Like Jay said, “It’s a secret society, all we ask is trust.” (laughs) But I was talking to my good friend Ab-Liva from the Re-Up Gang. He’s a real slept-on lyricist and we joke all the time. He’ll play my stuff for The Clipse or whatever and he’ll be like, ‘Man, it’s a secret society. There's only a few pure spitters out there and we all know who we are and we connect with each other. Even though the masses may not know, the people who are inside this elite community of rappers know.’ It’s dope to be in that club.
You’re also in the club of MCs working with great producers. What was it like having No I.D. executive produce The Dark Room?
Man, it was great just to know that No I.D. believed in it enough to attach his name to it. He is the forefather of the Chicago hip-hop scene. Him and also The Legendary Traxster. Those two guys were both instrumental to this album and No I.D. is at the helm of the album and I really feel like that’s a blessing. It’s a blessing to work with somebody like that. Before the Grammys he’s always been legendary and a hall of fame producer to me. At the end of the day I feel like No I.D. will go down as one of the greats of this generation. This project and the next album The Photo Album and the next album that we’re working on, I think people are going to hear production that’s going to blow their minds. It is gaining awareness and I think No I.D. is gaining the respect that he deserves, but even before the Grammys he was No. 1 on my list.
How does No I.D. make you a better MC?
Man, because he’s a tyrannical ruler, man! He sends you back to the drawing board without hesitation. When you play a verse for him, it’s tough. He’s hard. He’s very, very hard on you. When he approves it and when he smiles and says that’s amazing, like, for him to say that’s amazing, I be like, ‘Wow!’ It really has to be! (laughs) He’s a big brother and jokes and really gives tough love. I really, really love that about him.
What was it like putting The Dark Room together?
It was beautiful putting The Dark Room together and knowing I didn’t have the pressure of an A&R telling me I had to do a song like this or a song like that. I had No I.D., who’s hip-hop in its purest form. We could do what we wanted to do. Laying that groundwork was amazing.
You opened with a powerful accapella on The Dark Room. What do accapellas allow you to do that you can’t do with music?
Man, it just allows you to be heard without any interruption. And that’s the thing that I really love. A lot of times at a Mikkey Halsted show, I might stop the beat three or four times in a 30 minute set and make sure the people really can hear what I’m saying.
“The Exorcist” is one of the standout tracks of The Dark Room. How did that song come together?
Man, it started with No I.D. and that beat and the production was so moving to me. When it got to the chorus part of the track, it felt like an exorcism to me and it inspired me to make the song “The Exorcist.” Hip-hop really needs an exorcism to get back to the days when it was pure. What better beat to do that on than that? When I started rapping it just came out natural. It’s one of those songs that was written in 15 minutes because I really said what was on my mind at that moment right there. It was dope but those songs always come easy to me.
On “Running My City,” you said, “The race is not given to the swift / It’s a marathon.” How important is that approach to music?
It’s crazy because I started off with that and then came with “They want to blackball me like Barry Bonds.” At the time I really felt that way. People will tell me they saw me signed with this person and with that person here. But shit, I’m still young. I thank God I started in my teens. It’s not overnight. I’ve seen a lot of people come and they’re gone. I know that it’s a marathon. Once I get here, I’m here to stay. When that album came out, it meant that Mikkey Halsted was here to stay and it’s not a marathon. It’s a sprint. A lot of people may have sprinted out ahead of me, but man, I’m going to catch up! (laughs)
I’m going to catch everybody. My goal is to not be an underground MC and I respect all underground MCs but I think every underground MC’s goal is to be the best MC in the world. I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t think my name could be mentioned among the greats. That’s really who I do it for. This is just the beginning. Where I’m about to take you on the next album, man, I can’t wait to get to it. But we’re going to work this album and we’re going to do our due diligence with it but The Photo Album is coming soon. We’re about to shoot a video for “The Exorcist.” I’m in Starbucks waiting for the director now. We’re going to put together a chilling video for that.
What was it like putting together the “Field N Blues”?
“FNB” was so dope to shoot. It’s like we went back into the 20s and it really is a period piece. Freddie Gibbs came up on it so dope and the costumes and the clothing was dope. Everything really matched that era. The venue matched that era. It was dope shooting that, man. The beat was so crazy and being able to get up with Freddie Gibbs and BJ the Chicago Kid, one of the dopest soul singers in the world that I think a lot of people will know soon, that was just a great experience.
How important were those powerful images?
I wanted to drive the message of the song home in a non-conventional way. I believe that art should be art and it shouldn’t be so predictable and I think when those images came on, I think it immediately put people in a certain frame of mind that I wanted them to be in. I think it went against the grain enough to make a statement and that’s what it’s about.
In “Running My City” you also talk about “hanging in the slum where I hung like a jury.” How much does your experience growing up in the Wild 100s section of Southside Chicago affect who you are as a person today?
Man, it affects so much of who Mikkey Halsted is. What it gave me was what it gave me. It doesn’t define me. The ghetto shouldn’t define you, I don’t think. What it gave me was an incredible experience base. Like, my experience base is great, like seeing drug use in the home and seeing gangbangers and seeing friends die at an early age and holding my friend as I could see them take their last breath after they’ve been shot and the bullet could have hit me the same way it hit him. The things I’ve seen, experience and the things I’ve been through, all of those give me a bank of information that I go back to when I need to. That’s the beautiful thing about it to me. It gives me that experience base. And that is almost a resource that you can go to at any minute and you can pull from and it’s a rich experience base. I’ve seen it all. I’ve done a lot of it, but I’ve seen it all. I escaped that and to come out of that and be successful and to be getting notoriety for putting words together is really amazing, man.
I went back to my old grammar school and one of the parent volunteers who was there when I was told me I might have been the first person who might have ever made it out of Ragtown. That was what our area was called. She told me I might have been the only one who made it out of there who was doing it on a higher level. I don’t think that’s true, but if someone sees me on MTV Jams, the perception is that I’m doing something better but I’m sure that there’s some guys who have made it out but there’s not a lot of them. I’m just blessed to be in that position to represent for the 100s and represent for the Southside of Chicago and show them that there’s so many of us and you can’t put the Southside in a box. It’s not just Kanye or Common or Bump J. Chicago is not just Twista. It’s Mikkey Halsted and Lupe Fiasco. It’s gangsta music and L.E.P, who’s really doing their thing. If you really pay attention to it, I’m the embodiment of it all. Chicago is known for Kanye, Twista, the Cool Kids Common, Bump J…I embody all of that; the streets, the intelligence, the story-telling. That’s who Mikkey Halsted is and when you get a Mikkey Halsted album, you’re going to get all of that. I think I’m one of the only MCs who can do that and is a true representation of the city.
How can you help others come up like you, whether it’s in music or another field?
What I did with putting this album out independently shows that you can put the project out without a label and jumpstart your career. Your career doesn’t start when you put an album out and all of a sudden you’re official. We’re just trying to set a blueprint. With sites like HipHopGame and all of the blogs and internet love that I’m getting, you guys give us a voice and a platform to show our voice where there was no other platform. There’s other outlets than 106 and Park and the radio for people to hear you now. That’s so important, man. And it’s so integral to what we do. You can’t even see hip-hop videos on TV unless you got a few specific channels that not all cable providers provide. It’s not like Rap City back in the day. You guys provide that platform. I’m trying to show that you can do it this way. So now that labels have been calling, we got great meetings set up for January and we’re really excited, man, to really partner with a label now that we’ve put our first look out and we managed it the way we wanted to. We did it our way. I used to be scared to death to be on a label because I knew you only got one chance to make a first impression and on a label, you can not control your first look. I’ve controlled everything. I’ve controlled the “Liquor Store” video and The Dark Room and the video for “Field N Blues” and the video for “The Exorcist” and how I want my first look to be. MTV Jams is about to start running the “Field Nigga Blues” video and the support is just unbelievable. The fact that I’m doing an interview with HipHopGame now blows my mind. I’ve been a fan of you guys since you first started and ever since then I’ve been wondering how I could get a song up there. It seemed so far away and now I’m doing an interview with one of the real heads of it. I’m happy to be here.
Thank you. How are you going to use your experience from being signed with Cash Money and being independent to make sure you have a good experience at the next label?
Now I’m so much wiser. You know, I’m not 19 anymore. I’m wiser. I understand the game. I understand that even when you’re with a label, you have to work and grind like you’re independent. I’ve learned from watching all of these great people that I’ve been around and been blessed to have real relationships with and win. Now we understand and we took our destiny into our own hands and now I’m partnering with a label after we’ve branded ourselves makes so much more sense. We controlled the original brand and the people who follow HipHopGame, they got The Dark Room album and they understand Mikkey Halsted and my pedigree, but you gotta start from the ground and the grassroots and that’s what we’re doing. Now we got room to grow beyond the stars. That’s where the major’s gonna take it – beyond the stars and increase the popularity 1000-fold. That’s where we’re at. I never really wanted to do the music just for the homies on the block. I wanted to be global and take this message around the world and use the label as the machine to drive me. It makes all the sense in the world.
How’s your next album The Photo Album coming?
Man, it’s almost done, actually. You remember how DMX did the game dropping two albums in a year? I want it to flow continuously like that. So when we shoot the last video for The Dark Room, you know, the next week I’m shooting the first video for Photo Album. I’m ready. I’m ready to go. It’s going to be like the continuous thing. You’re going to go from The Dark Room right into The Photo Album. It’s going to be seamless. The people want music and I think the people really want albums, man. They really want something that they can feel, not just a mash-up of different verses and all of that. People want albums and it’s my job to put out albums and I really feel like we can do it. We got the music to do it. Me and No I.D. have talked about doing a project almost like the Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth or a Gang Starr project. I got the group Blaxploitation with Rhymefest, Juice and Twone Gabz. I really want to flood the marketplace with this music and let the chips fall where they may.
Your beats are always secondary to the lyrics in most songs. What do you listen for in beats?
Beats that are open, beats that have space for my voice to be used as an instrument. A lot of the times the beats are secondary. When a ‘Pac album dropped, I wanted to hear every word. When a Jay-Z album drops I want to hear every word. When a Nas album drops I want to hear every word. I would buy it and digest every word and their beats were open and it allowed the MCs to do what they do. I look at rap like public speaking. The music is more to set the mood. And we do take it to the club on some records like “Get Money.” Those beats do move people and they get a lot of love in the clubs and we get down on those too. But I really love the melodic and soulful records and I think people really appreciate the lyrics because they get to stand out on those types of records. I love all kinds of beats but those open, soulful, melodic beats really do something for me.
On your “Power” freestyle you talk about hearing the S1 beat via Rhymefest. Did you think that would be a hit when you first heard it?
I knew if ‘Ye got it then it would be a smash. See, ‘Ye does hip-hop and because he’s a star, the world accepts him as pop. And so the beat was that powerful that when he does a hip-hop record, it’s a pop record and when you get to that status, what you do becomes pop because you are popular. So when the masses of people get to hear that, everybody who hears it is going to understand the power in it. I knew it was going to be something special, period. When ‘Ye did it, I knew it was out of here. I knew it was out of here.
Did you ever have a shot at that beat?
Yeah, we did. We were going to do it but I knew that he was shopping it to Kanye so I fell back. When I heard something special like that, I let it go through the proper channels. ‘Ye has that outlet and Rhymefest said if ‘Ye didn’t use it then we would definitely have to use it. ‘Ye was working on that album at crunchtime. If it wasn’t for Kanye, I wouldn’t be rapping. ‘Ye really gave me and Rhymefest our chances. He believed in us first and we’re always going to be team players, man. We all want ‘Ye to win, first and foremost, because he opens the door to what we do. We’re all champions for his cause and Common’s cause and Twista’s cause. It’s all family, man. It’s all Chicago.
Kanye produced your original demo. Do you still talk to him?
Not as much. We’re both working so hard but I know we’re about to get back at it soon. I just want him to see the work and the grind that I’m putting in and we both watch each other from afar. I know he’s busy and I don’t like cramping him when he’s doing his thing, putting out a project at his level. It’s a real process so I just wish him the best for what he’s doing and when we come back together, it’s going to be something epic. I feel God has that in the plans. I’m just being patient. I’m right in the circle. It’s a beautiful thing. I’m just rooting for him right now, man. I’m loving everything that he’s doing.
How’s Bump J doing?
Man, I talked to Bump J yesterday. He’s doing good. He’s holding his head in the penitentiary right now. We’re just waiting for him to come home and I feel like when he comes home, it’s going to be something special, man. We were going to work on a project together with No I.D. right before they snatched him up. We’re holding it down for him, man. We’re holding it down for him until he gets back home.
What are your goals for 2011?
2011 is to take over the rap game all the way. I started it in 2010. It’s just the beginning of the takeover. I feel like at this time next year, I’m going to be on everybody’s radar. I’m trying to take this to a household name status. I should be on my third album by the end of 2011 if the third album ain’t out already! (laughs) I’m just working hard, man, and whatever God has in store for me, I’m ready. That’s all.