The loudest voice in North Philly graduates from the streets
Meek Mill's story used to be the standard. A hustler-turned-spitter gets his name up in his hood with a flood of freestyles and battle victims, builds a groundswell of supporters and cosigns from local radio and mixtape DJs, catches the ear of established MCs, and hones skills over years before breaking on a national scale. Throw in a jail bid here and a rap feud there, wash, rinse, repeat. But as rap's checks and balances have been shaken up by new platforms and broader audiences, Meek may be the last of a generation of MCs that had to earn ears instead of eyes—which may be why he arrives so enthusiastic to play us tracks from his upcoming sophomore effort Dreams Worth More Than Money (so enthusiastic, in fact, that he blew out our speakers thirty seconds into the first cut). Casual fans recognize the dope boy bars and infamous full throttle delivery—HOLUPWAITAMINUTE, YALLTHOUGHTIWASFINISHED?!—but Meek's true gift is lucidity: sharing his truth loudest and clearest. We listened close, and spoke to Meek about what he's dreaming up next.
What was it like to do “Dreams and Nightmares” on stage with Nas at Summer Jam? After Drake said the song was such a major hip-hop moment. It always feels good when you have one of the greatest artists in the game cosigning, you know? To give you confidence. Rap is a confidence thing. Every time I’m around Nas, Jay, Swizz, Timbaland, they always give me good feedback. Telling me what they do like, what they don’t like.
So you and Nas got to build? Yeah, me and Nas got a song together on my first album, so, you know, first time we went to the studio together we builded. We have a relationship, he told me he’s a fan of my music and I told him he helped create young guys like me.
I just saw some of the stills from the Khaled video shoot “They Don’t Love You No More,” which is my favorite song right now and might end up being my favorite video. What was that set like? That was the best video I’ve ever done so far. People taking more time and putting more art into the videos that we create. They had the 18-wheeler behind us on bikes, playing basketball in the middle of the ocean.
Dirt bikes are huge in Philly and NY. What’s the culture behind it? Dirt bike culture is like a lifestyle man. When we were growing up, everybody played basketball or sports, everybody hustles—you got kids in them neighborhoods that just want to do something different. Bikes are an adrenaline rush. They fast, fun, and we don’t really got too much dirt, things like that, where we from, it's like concrete everywhere in the city. Doing stunts and having fun, just like when the kids skateboard downtown. When they skate down the rails they might hit somebody, it’s the same thing with the bikes. You might cause an accident, but this is how we have fun, instead of a guy running around on the corner selling drugs, who might rob bikes all day off young kids. It’s your freest moments: you can’t hear your phone ring, you can’t hear nobody, you’re moving. We’re willing to fight for the right to have bikes and be able to ride them. We just like having fun. In the hood you usually don’t see two hundred guys from different areas all together as one. It brings kids together.
Do you still get to ride often? Yeah, I get to ride a lot when I go into my house. I got a driveway now, and my neighbors got dirt bikes so they ain’t really mad at the sounds, so I be out all riding with the neighbors kids and stuff when I come home.
"I don’t like to promote violence or guns. But there’s people from my neighborhood dying, and kids really grow up in that. I was one of those kids."
You’ve been very vocal about race, which may come as a surprise to some. You’ve sounded off on Donald Sterling, and your probation officers. It’s a perspective we usually get from “conscious” rappers, not necessarily street rappers. This isn’t even about color. I’m a kid from the streets, the ghetto, and I didn’t go to college, but I turned out to make a lot of money. Some people feel that I’m not entitled to be making a lot of money because they’ve been working a long time and think they deserve more then me. I do street rap, and a lot of corporations don’t really want to deal with people that’s rapping about the streets. But this is actually where we came from, and this is the stuff that we see. I don’t like to promote violence or guns or anything. But there’s people from my neighborhood, family, really dying, and kids really grow up in that. I was one of the kids who grew up in that type of stuff. I can’t rap about things I never really experienced. There’s all different types of racism. I like what Mark Cuban said: “If I see a black kid at night time with a hoody on, I’m going to cross the street.” I might cross the street too if I see a black kid with a hoody on at three in the morning. You see a white guy with tattoos on his face with a trench coat on, you going to cross the street too—I might cross the street too, it's just reality. Some types of racism are unnecessary though. We don’t live in that type of world anymore.
You would believe so, but stuff like that keeps popping up. I had a lawsuit against a cop. He was black, I was black. I filed a lawsuit about him detaining me and locking me up on the day of my album release. The jury wasn’t from the city, they were from the suburbs, so they didn’t really know how things go in the city—that’s not a life they’ve ever lived. It’s my word against a cop’s word, and you know how that turns out.
I feel like that’s a part of the reason why so many kids really fuck with you, cause you can talk about those experiences in a way that other rappers can’t. They can talk about it, they just choose not to take on that battle. Me, I’m always a guy that’s going to speak up. That’s why I always loved Tupac. Tupac don’t give a fuck about what nobody saying, he going to speak up and say what he got to say. You can have me locked down in the cell, can’t come out for 24 hours, and I’m still going to show you what I got to say at the end of the day and express how I feel.
Talk to me about writing “Traumatized,” off your first album. You speak about your father being killed when you were five. Was that difficult to write? No, it wasn’t difficult cause I don’t write. I go in the booth and make it piece by piece. I haven’t been writing since I was like 17. That song was real from the heart. I’m talking to the killer that killed my dad. That was like the easiest rap in the world for me. All the heartfelt songs are always the easiest.
I don’t know if you heard about this, but the American Psychological Association used “Traumatized” and “Dreams and Nightmares” in therapy sessions that they had with kids as a way to get them to open up. There were kids that didn’t want to talk or even go to therapy, and then they played your records and it helped subjects articulate how they felt. I thought it was crazy that of all the artists and all the music, yours opened them up like that. I didn’t know about that. That’s what I make the music for, to be able to touch people. Even if you didn’t come from the hood. You don’t have to come from the streets. Like Eminem—I didn’t come from a trailer park, but the way he would deliver the music, he was able to take me on a ride, like a safari trip through that lifestyle. I want to take people around the world on a ride through where I come from.
Summer Jam got a bit hectic this year, with Slowbucks allegedly getting his chained snatched on stage. Somehow your name got in the mix, and you shared some words on Twitter about it. What happened? (Publicist gestures to not answer question) Nah man, it’s cool. It’s real. Shit happens, it's real life when you in the streets, all these rappers and guys come from the streets. It’s not a good thing, cause they already think “You put a bunch of rappers in the same room, nothing goods going to come out of it.” And it's actually true most of the time. Some people would say, "You’re racist for saying that," but it’s true. They be doing dumb shit sometimes. You know, things happen. And that’s what it is.
So you’re all good? You see I still got all my chains on (laughs).
How did you approach creating this new album differently than your debut? I grew way more. I learned how to rap way better—I made about a hundred songs, over the past two years, that’s a lot of practice. I’ve seen more, I’ve experienced more, and I learned music better. I learned how to pick bigger beats, not just use the simple trap beat that I usually would, all the regular street symphony type beats. Bigger selection now, a better delivery—I might yell at you on these tracks and give you some energy, and sometimes I might just give you a calm flow just to let you know I can rap good. Everybody’s going to be able to hear that I grew more in these raps.
What marks success for you this time around? When I first came in the game I had one target: making a lot of money so I could save my family from the streets. I never cared about being the top rapper, one of the best, I was just trying to make millions of dollars. I had a son on the way and felt like he couldn’t grow up in the streets, I just came from living that life. My mom raised me my whole life, I wanted to save my mom and pay her back. Now, I’m back in the race. I’m worth a lot of money, but we could be gambling for a dollar, anybody that know me, we going to shoot till I win. I don’t care if we winning six dollars, I want to play all the way till I start winning again.
So you still feel competitive? Yeah man. French just beat me for $40,000. He had Khloe with him and used that as an excuse, like she had to leave. And when we gamble, you can’t leave unless somebody quits. I think they set me up (laughs), she jumped out the car like, “No, I got to leave right now,” and I’m like, “Yo, I’m down $40,000, you can't leave.” So he ends up leaving, winning $40,000. The guy I make beats with named Mike Mechanics, I hated having to beat him but I was down $40,000. We start shooting it out, I end up taking his rollie and $10,000 you know what I’m saying? He ain’t really got no money like that but, you know? He wanted to get it so he had to get it.
Hey man, ups and downs, wins and losses. Yeah man, I was down fourty grand, anybody could’ve gotten it that night.