There’s a very special energy bubbling in the New York’s DIY rap scene right now, and 18-year-old Bronx rapper MIKE’s newest project May God Bless Your Hustle is a product of — and for — the community that is honing it. The tape is something of a 50-minute audio-motion-picture that documents a journey through his New York, featuring a handful of notable friends like Wiki, Mal Devisa, Standing On The Corner, and more. It spans stumbling L train nights, missed calls from mom, dealing with depression with success in arm’s reach, and grappling with what it means to be a young black man in America today.
He’s a natural-born storyteller, whose laidback, matter-of-fact bars can at one moment capture the mundanely stressful minute your phone’s on one percent, and with a few words flip that into a gut-sinking moment where he contemplates using it to tell his mother he wishes she was home in the States. This effortless self-expression is accentuated further by production from the likes of fellow sLUms member Sixpress, Tony Seltzer, Navy Blue, and MIKE’s own self-produced tracks, like “years/Alone.” “The project’s about maturing, leaving and arriving at new places,” MIKE shared with The FADER in early spring. With May God Bless Your Hustle, he gets that sentiment across beautifully, and it’s crystal clear he’s moving toward something even greater.
Over the phone from the B Room at XL Recordings’s New York studio space a week before the project’s release, MIKE talked about how his interest in rap was first spurred by watching grime videos, the collaborative energy that emanates throughout his new project, the importance of his relationship with his mother, and his plans for the future.
What first got you into rap, or making music?
This one day I was with my sister, was back when I used to live in England. I was watching this little grime channel. There's this guy rapping, I thought he was so fire. I went upstairs to my sister and was like trying to rap like him. And then from there I was just like, "Yo, matter fact, let me a be a rapper." Then I just started writing little raps. I had to be 10, 11. I started taking shit serious when I was 14 years old.
You lived in England, and moved around a bit more before settling in New York. Where all did you grow up? What was your upbringing like?
I was born in South Livingston, New Jersey with my pops and my mom. Then I moved to England with my mom when I was five. We moved a lot in England, from Hackney to Essex. We moved a lot in Essex. After that, I came back to [the U.S. to] live with my pops when I was around 10 in Philly. I was in Northeast Philly ‘till 15, 14. Then I moved to Brooklyn with with my pops and his ex. I stayed there for two years. They broke up and I moved in with my aunt, because I wasn't trying to go back to Philly with my pops.
When I was in England it was just me and my mom and my sisters. The closest bond between everybody is me and my mom. It was hard because I always had my mom’s back and she had mine. It was like a little tag team type thing.
It’s super clear from your music, too, that you’re really close with your mom. Tell me a little bit more about the relationship you guys have.
My mom is currently in Africa. Before I moved back to America, she was visiting Nigeria at the time because she had to work on this job that she had out there. During that process, her papers got fucked up. I wasn't able to see here for a while. I still haven't seen her since. I haven't seen her. She checks up on me. She calls me every now and then, just trying to keep that same type of relationship. It's always hard to keep a relationship with somebody that's in a whole other country from you. It's one of those things where it comes with maturing. I feel like the absence of that person may affect the way you grow in a way where, I guess, I just had to learn how to replace that motherly figure. You know?
When I'm with friends, you can see how their moms have played a role. I also have wonderful women who've been in my life, who've tried to play that role for me, which I appreciate a lot. My older sisters, even teachers that I went to school [with], just friends, play that role because I guess they knew my situation or whatever. I appreciate that.
The name of the tape is May God Bless Your Hustle, but when we premiered “Pigeonfeet” you mentioned that you changed the title from By The Water. What’s the story behind the title and change?
The original name was By The Water and it was basically about me and my friends going to the water and talking about all this shit we wanted for ourselves, wanted to achieve. All that shit ended up coming to life. That's what the whole project's supposed to be about. Getting from one point to another. During that whole time planning the project, there was this weird dissociation phase where I was distancing from a lot. I was just in a very weird spot. I was just looking for something to really reflect on who I was. My mind was and the gutter for a long time. But then, once I started calming down... I have people who, family who were there for me. Just talking to me and trying to give me advice. One thing I've always been raised with is motivation. Knowing that even though some crazy shit happens in life, some bad shit happens, it's not the end. You can always get back up and keep on going.
Then I remember seeing my mom post, "May God bless your hustle" on Instagram, and it changed because before By The Water was just going from one place to another, and May God Bless Your Hustle was like... It's kind of like, “I know you're hustling out there on your own type shit and Imma send you these blessings and these gifts and positive energy, just so at least your hustle is... you got family with you.” May God bless your hustle. It just became more.
How did the project come together? Was it a way to cope with that phase that you were going through?
I started working on the project I think the start of this year, to be honest. When I started working on this it was supposed to be 22 tracks and a lot of the tracks that were on the original are not on what May God Bless Your Hustle is right now. I was going through the weird phase I was talking about earlier. My mind just wasn't in the right place. I feel like I wasn't being very true to myself for the whole project. So, taking that step back to see what it was really about helped me out.
And yeah, that's what music has done for me. The only other time I felt this way was when I was 14. Between 14 to 16. I dropped a project called Bells and Butter, which was just about being very depressed. It helped me get out of that deep place. Music definitely plays that role for me.
I recorded some of it in this new crib in Bed-Stuy. And then, I recorded the other half in XL Recordings. I got invited by the homie Matt [Lubansky], and then I was over at one homie Wiki’s sessions. I met the engineer, and I guess he knew about me and was fucking with it. Then he invited me and my friends over for a session. First session we just started working on May God Bless Your Hustle.
You recently started producing your own tracks.
I started last September. I feel like producers are mad weird. They're just always so weird. I can even see myself becoming mad weird. Even my homie Sixpress, that's my brother straight up. He's mad weird because he's a producer, for real. I was studying from Sixpress for a long time. He uses Ableton as well. He pretty much put me on to the juice or whatever. I was watching what he was doing. That was my jump start pretty much. I hate waiting on beats and I also hate having to wait [in general]. It was easier being able to do your own shit. As I slowly became more and more personal in my lyrics, it was also better just to be able to reflect 100 percent what you're feeling.
You can feel that coming out of the project as you listen. There's a lot of collaborative synergy from beginning to end. Whether it's someone who's featuring or producing. It's the same kind of energy I feel is happening in real life in this New York scene right now.
It's mad beautiful but I feel like it's just waiting for that jump start. I've had a lot of talks with a lot of people about that. Everybody's getting the attention they deserve. I feel like everybody's been working really hard. People are being true to themselves. People are showing real reflections of where they're made, what it means to live in New York City right now.
Especially, there's a lot of black and brown artists that are on their shit OD right now. To see them get the exposure that they been supposed to have just because — rap is a black thing, straight up. They've been supposed to have this exposure. Now to see all of them together, it's bringing such a cultural energy back to New York City.
When I look at it, I think about when Outkast was really going in. I think about how Chicago went crazy with Save Money, those are black kids who were just putting shit together and trying to burst that bubble that. It's just a beautiful thing to see. And it's a family at the end of the day. To me this seems like one big push.
Even for younger kids, to be able to look up to you guys.
Yeah, because it's easy to be in a place where you feel as if you can't go up because, you just don't know who to look up to, or you don't feel as if you could gain the same opportunities of those people. This spot that we're in is such a important place to be in just because people are watching and kids wouldn't know that they're able to do this shit.
One thing I talk about is division between state and community, who's gonna be there for you more. Because once we have that understanding it's — the state is not built for blacks. Like black and brown people, straight up. Pass all the bullshit so you could build your own community. You have to be down to be there for your community.
I also wanted to ask you about Mal Devisa being on the project, which is so awesome. How did that happen?
The homie [Matt] Lubansky invited me to the studio because she was doing this session. They wanted me to play beats , and so I just played her this one joint. Then she listened for 30 seconds and was like, "Yo, I got a chorus for this." She just went inside the studio and really went crazy. She didn't even hear the full beat. I didn't even have no idea what that beat was about to be about. Everything on that beat came out of her. If you listen to it, it’s like we've been friends for mad long but that was straight up the first time I ever met her. I'm so grateful for that. That's such a beautiful thing to do. Especially with somebody you hardly know.
You talk a lot on this project and on some older songs about disliking growing up, or the idea of getting older.
As a youngin’, I feel like I've interacted mostly with older people than young. I feel like these years right now kind of reflect what I’m going to have to be in the future. It's just mad scary. Me not wanting to get to that point. Also, besides that, being a black man — my father, he used to be into basketball and boxing and as he got older, when I see the situation, he's a black man in the United States. It's like you can tell how all that extracurricular shit just became garbage to him because he had to live a super-real life, that you can't have time to play around and shit. Dealing with having to think about that side of life is mad scary for me.
What goals do you have for yourself for this coming year? And what do you ultimately hope to accomplish in music? What's your vision?
I'm trying to save mad money this year and then move out to England next year. Cop a house or some shit. I'm trying to hold it down for my mom so she can get that.
My whole thing for me right now is I just want to build a place or just like a platform for people that deserve this shit that they need. I want to bring a lot of money back to where it's supposed to be for people who are really out here blood, sweat, tears with this shit. People that are really putting their backs on the line for this shit. Because there's so many people who have so many positive messages and worked so hard for this shit, but do not get what they deserve. When I made May God Bless Your Hustle, all that shit is for those type of people just pushing all that shit.
On “100%,” you mention people tried to pave the way for you, but you don't feel trained for this. Who paved the way? Do you feel ready now?
Like my homie Joygill. Say if I'm on the pavement, he'd be on some like watching from bird’s eye view type shit. I go back to all the homies at The Cabin. Even TB, Mehdane, Slauson Malone, Standing On The Corner, Thebe, and my homie Sage, are just all people who have been there and been there for me to talk to , and try and learn how to grow. These are all dudes who are older than me and also have been doing this shit longer than I have.
Having that type of backbone and support is very — they showed me shit that me being young as fuck wouldn't be able to see. That's what I mean by “birds eye view.” It's like they've already seen the shit before, so they helped me make this path a little bit clearer. It's like the thing about the support is that it's not even basically off of music but just as people period. Everybody just wants everybody to be okay at the end of the day.