Rhyme Assassin: Mykki Blanco Discusses Her "Glam Hip Hop"
, February 14th, 2013 05:57
Mykki Blanco's Cosmic Angel was one of last year's most remarkable rap mixtapes. Following an incendiary London show last month, she speaks to Laurie Tuffrey about dropping out of art school, performing in drag, and why having no limits in art is important
It's fair to say that Mykki Blanco's set at Birthdays last month doesn't start too well. That's nothing to do with her, mind: she briefly emerges at the outset, wearing a cropped jet-black wig over a baseball shirt, to explain that the DJ's going to warm us up before she comes on to "help him out". She disappears and leaves the DJ to his heating duties for a little too long: there's all sorts of Balearic fluff poorly mixed with good-time house, until, out of this bland melange, Blanco reemerges and the blunt-force beats of 'HazeBoogieLife' are suddenly deployed. Within seconds, the entire atmosphere in the club changes: Blanco towers atop the stage, surveys her rap contemporaries and decides to take on all-comers: "They all wanna go far but it's survival of the fittest / So a spitta killa likes me comes around and fucking ends it". Whether or not the DJ was an intentionally shoddy preface, Blanco soon makes good on her promise.
Last year's Cosmic Angel: The Illuminati Prince/ss mixtape provides a critical mass of material: there's the dancehall banger 'Wavvy', the stuttering clatter of 'Fuckin The DJ' and, best of all, its juke-tinted centrepiece 'Riot'. Brooklyn producer Gobby maps out a ghostly vocal sample over which strings slide, before Blanco appears, her voice pitched artificially low - "got a hottie full of molly / Now we fuckin' this club up" - and the bass kicks out of the club's PA like a depth charge.
Mykki Blanco, otherwise known as Michael Quattlebaum, is no stranger to violent sonic assault. As a teenager Quattlebaum founded his own performance art collective in his hometown of Raleigh, North Carolina, while at the time listening to hardcore - a pair of influences that converged when he started performing work from his 2011 poetry book, From The Silence Of Duchamp To The Noise Of Boys, over industrial noise.
It was also at this time that Quattlebaum had been posting videos on Facebook as Mykki Blanco, a teenaged female bedroom rapper. When he took Blanco onstage, the two identities galvanised and a fearless MC emerged. While those initial acidic, poetic cuts formed the main part of last year's Mykki Blanco & The Mutant Angels, it was Cosmic Angel, Blanco's second release in 2012, that proved to be the game-changer. The focus there was more on straight-ahead MCing, but with beats provided by a cabal of leftfield producers, willing to match her mercurial verses with potent experimentation. As well as the sparse minimalist beats favoured by the underground NY scene, there's a pair of cuts from ascendant New Yorker Brenmar - 'Wavvy' and the tropicalia-infused 'Kingpinning' - set alongside the future-shock of the Gatekeeper-produced 'Squanto'. (The mixtape is available for listening and free download from Blanco's Soundcloud - click here - or via the embed further down the page.)
In advance of Blanco's next EP, Betty Rubble: The Initiation, set for release next month, we caught up with Blanco to talk about being an art school drop-out, cultivating her own mythology and why she couldn't work on Wall Street.
You ran away from home to New York at 16 - what was the appeal of heading there?
Mykki Blanco: When you're an American, New York is the most cosmopolitan city in America, hands down. No other city is as cosmopolitan as New York in the northern hemisphere.
I used to worry if I was going to be, not a homeless person, but there was so much pressure at school to be a certain kind of student and be a certain way and getting into the colleges was a big deal. I knew that I didn't have a lot of money to not afford to not get a scholarship, so it was actually kind of stressful. I feel teenagers don't even vocalise how stressful it can actually be! So I needed an escape from that, and I was reading a lot of this book called CrimethInc., anarchist literature, and I was also reading about Arthur Rimbaud and listening to Lauryn Hill's Unplugged and I just left. I peaced out. I wrote my family this long letter saying "I'm not trying to ditch you guys, but I have to do my own thing."
Was it a formative experience?
MB: Super. New York then, in 2002, was a very different place. It was even less gentrified than it is now. It was during the electroclash time - I remember people were raw. I remember taking the train. My dad still tells me the fact that I did that even just shows how fiercely independent I was, but I didn't really think about it like that at that time, more like I'm going to get out and live my life.
You then attended and dropped out of two art schools, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and Parsons The New School For Design, in succession - what did they give you, if anything, in the long-term?
MB: Well, I don't have any student loans because I was never in college long enough! Yeah, I went to SAIC for two semesters then left, and then Parsons for one semester. I had read enough biographies, I had interned for enough people, I just realised that I didn't have to do that and spend so much money. I had this one teacher who was very strict about me learning how to formally draw and I thought that was really elementary, and I thought, 'Why am I running into the same thing in college?
Then, when I went to Parsons, I thought I was going to learn internet art and 3D and video stuff, but it takes a certain type of person to sit behind the camera and learn how to edit. I'm also really not that kind of person. Being a performer, being an entertainer is something I'm good at - I really want to work sincerely and continue. It makes you somewhat of a puppet figure, so I think there is a responsibility to remain sincere to who you are.
What made you engage with rap as the genre you create music in?
MB: The poems in my book that I published I used to perform live, as an industrial, punk act called No Fear. When you watch Mykki Blanco, that is a No Fear performance, it's just now the Mykki Blanco element has been added into the ingredients. When Mykki Blanco began, I feel it was just another outlet; it was really an outlet of my femininity, where I can start to play with this character as my video art character. I had personally never done that before in my art. Drag and cross-dressing was a new thing for me to explore. And once I began doing it, I honestly began to cross-dress every single day in my regular life, because it was like a Pandora's Box had opened and it was like a new, whole entire experience for me.
This was me coinciding with my realisation that if Mykki Blanco was going to play a teenage female rapper, then instead of just doing the diaristic videos, I should make Mykki rap, which is when I did the first video, 'Anime Angel Spice'. I just started making these Mykki raps as video art raps, then I started performing out. Then people said 'You know what, you can really rap, you should keep going with this.' Well, lo and behold, the perfectionist in me, the person that starts to get driven by a project, I started to see more and more when I performed out... I basically had one Mykki performance, at this party I threw at Lucky Cheng's in New York, and that show changed everything. That was the first time that I performed as Mykki Blanco, really as an act. I'd combined the aggressiveness and the combativeness of No Fear with all of the feminine energy that I feel I had bottled inside from doing that project.
At first, the Mykki Blanco project really felt like a big 'fuck you' to a lot of people that I realised were more close-minded or uncomfortable or weirded-out by something that I had imagined. I mean, honestly, it really created a dimension of interest that I had never anticipated. And everything just seemed to work. They say when the universe sends you a message, you have to follow it, because I wasn't necessarily. Doing it, I was not defying any part of myself that existed; it was like a part of myself was exploding.
Why do you think after that performance there was this spike in interest?
MB: I think that from the Mykki Blanco videos, when a lot of people see someone in drag, they kind of expect that performance to be that of a drag performance, which I think can be a bit in contrast to my act, a bit more campy, and there's a lot of lip-syncing involved. There aren't that many drag performers that will perform their own original music. That's also an element of interest in itself, that it is someone in drag that's doing their own original music. What I realise is that I was basically doing the glam rock version of hip-hop - it's like glam hip-hop.
Stemming from that, is dressing up as Mykki Blanco a conduit to creativity? Could you perform the Blanco material as Michael Quattlebaum?
MB: Honestly, for me what it really feels like is that I now actively - and they're definitely not my only thoughts - but I explore life now in my natural gay, homosexual, masculine way, and in this very different feminine way; the themes that I think about, the motifs that I think about.
I feel like my place has been as a character, and I liken it to people like Wu Tang and Nas and other rappers who built a mythology within their own arena. I think that honestly, it plays out, and monetarily you'll always be taken care of, and you'll have tons more fans that really fuck with you because you're true to your style and what you're about. That's what this new EP, Betty Rubble: The Initiation is about. All of that music was recorded in the same month period, when I worked with Sinden, Matrixxman, A-Trak and Supreme Cuts. I feel like with the mixtape, with Cosmic Angel, you can see so much it [going] from art project into musical project. Before I was just dropping singles, then a month later doing a video, drop a single, do a video. Then I got a manager and everything started to come together - he said 'You know, you do write a lot. You've just got to record in one fell swoop.' That way of working, of learning how to work like a musician, has all been something I had to learn in that period; it wasn't something that I just innately knew. It wasn't like 'Okay, I was doing art, now I'm doing music'. I had to learn.
You've also said: "I am definitely the art world's post-Generation X pomo baby." By this, are you affirming your place as an artist in 2013, where there's a kind of three-way fluidity in terms of the art you make, the hybridisation of genres, and your own identity?
MB: I'd completely agree, because I think that that's the one thing that I pride myself on, that I don't give myself any limits. And that took a long time; that wasn't an easy thing. If I can congratulate myself on anything, it's that I was able to break down my fears of myself, or what people didn't like, or what maybe at one time my parents or even those close to me didn't like, and really just did what I wanted to.
I've seen now that when you really do open yourself up to whatever your mind imagines, it actually draws people into your art - what else could you hope for but to communicate your vision as an artist to people? I think that social element is something that I'm not afraid of. I think that's why it's been such a crossover from art into entertainment - which probably comes from me also being a kid actor! - I don't really mind exchanging my ideas with people, that's my bread and butter, that's all I've got. I'm not brainy enough to be an accountant - if I could be a Wall Street guy I probably would! But I know what to do, and I do it really well.