Goin' Up Every Other Day With ILoveMakonnen
Outsider hip hop borne from a long time inside - the days that came before 'Tuesday'.
If your knowledge of ILoveMakonnen is limited to "he's the club goin' up on a Tuesday guy", you’re probably in the same boat as a lot of people, given that the track was a viral hit (40 million + Youtube views) that blew up the hip hop world in late 2014 – even moreso after Drake blessed it with a verse. Produced by high-profile hitmakers Metro Boomin and Sonny Digital, Tuesday marked the then 25-year old’s first mainstream moment, and has prompted the rise of Makonnen’s star: a signing to Drake’s label OVO Sound, beats from Mike WiLL Made It, sharing the stage with Rihanna, collaborations with Miley Cyrus. But there’s hundreds of Tuesdays leading up to Tuesday that you don’t know about, hundreds of Tuesdays when the club was certainly not going up. In fact, for a while back there, Makonnen couldn’t even get to a club, given that he was under house arrest for two years.
“There was seven years overall that I was on probation,” explains Makonnen. The Atlanta-raised singer and rapper, real name Makonnen Sheran, has had an unlikely path to success. As a 17-year-old, he was involved in an incident on the night of his graduation, where his friend was fatally shot. While it was ruled accidental, his friend’s parents fought hard to get Makonnen charged, during which time Makonnen was put under house arrest for two years, before he was eventually charged for involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to a further five years probation. “They tried to give me 25 years and shit,” recalls Makonnen, “they were trying to take away my life. It was just childish shit.”
To Makonnen, what happened was due to his being a product of the Atlanta environment in which he was raised: one plagued by gun violence and drug culture. However, he sagely says the situation’s not limited to his own experience: “Everywhere in America you can find places to do the wrong thing, and get in trouble. You’ve gotta keep the right crowd around you. Atlanta was a good place to grow up, but at times it felt backwards… not up to speed with the rest of the world. I think the education system in Atlanta is the biggest issue right now. The support’s not there for teenagers and they get caught up in distractions. I’d encourage young people in Atlanta to focus on educating themselves, and bettering themselves.”
Makonnen used his time locked indoors to do exactly that, channelling his energy into bettering himself through music, making art, and writing stories: “I liked doing music, but the confidence came from knowing that this was my last chance. It’s sad that a tragedy had to happen for me to put as much force into it as I am.” It was during this time that Makonnen grew fond of The Killers, and discovered Lil B (the two would later become firm friends, and share the stage more than once) through Myspace. Inspired by the singularity of Lil B’s weird, artistic take on rap music, Makonnen started uploading some super-raw demos of himself singing to Myspace, and interviewed Lil B, from which point the two formed an online relationship. “Lil B gave me the inspiration to accept myself and share that message with others. I accepted myself when I had that ankle monitor on me, and nobody gave a damn,” reflects Makonnen.
Makonnen’s non-conformity to ideas of what a rapper/hip hop artist should be, have both challenged and evolved the genre hugely over the past year, working up the listening public’s appetite for “outsider hip hop”. “It's not about being marketable anymore. It's about being unmarketable,” he told Fader recently. Indeed, as artists such as Death Grips, Kendrick Lamar have proven, successful modern rap artists have done away with lyrics about drinking, club culture, debasing women and drugs and replaced them with conceptually rich narratives that draw on reality over its glamorous veneer, and adopt more artistic, or (in the case of say, Danny Brown or Odd Future) screwball, carefree approaches, as well as experiment with more unorthodox vocal styles (Young Thug). Makonnen’s biggest selling point here may be his warbly, untrained voice – in a world of Auto-tune, it’s (sometimes abrasively) real – he’s capable of conveying tenderness, and infinite melancholy, yet also playful glee, especially when he cracks into the higher registers. However for all the talk of outsider hip hop, Makonnen’s work has good songwriting at its heart (as pianist Chilly Gonzales so brilliantly revealed in his Pop Masterclass video series where he broke down the successful chords making up Tuesday). Makonnen writes most of his songs on a Roland keyboard; and his sound is as indebted to bedroom pop/chillwave and Makonnen’s love of The Killers, as it is to the Atlanta trap scene and the studio producers who’ve since come on board to hone his sound.
Part of that non-conformity included a series of whacky DIY videos, that the young Atlantean first began uploading online under lockdown; that prominently featured a mannequin’s doll head, the same doll head that then went on to be the cover art of his self-titled EP. Her name is ‘Martha’ and she’s more or less the artist’s official mascot. Explains Makonnen: “I was studying as a cosmotologist (the study of hair, skin and nails) in Georgia. My mum worked as a hair technician there, so it’s always been around me. When I was on probation I had to do something positive with my time and that was it. I had this mannequins head I’d use for for practicisng, and I wrote my name on it so people would know it was mine. I needed a subject to film and I couldn’t film myself, so I started using this mannequin’s head, filming it with my music behind, making videos. It started catching on so I kept doing it, made the head the cover of my album, and now it’s my whole thing. There’s been head doubles since then, but I’ve still got the original doll head.”
From raw demos and doll-head videos on Myspace to the real world: after being released from house arrest, Makonnen got a job working full time, still doing music on the side (“During this whole time, my goal was to be a rapper, to release music, to tour.”) and in his fifth year of probation Makonnen quit his job to “make music shit happen”. He spent a period of time working out of his cousin’s studio in LA – who was in the chillwave band Dream Panther – and began travelling, booking himself gigs and house parties wherever he could: New York, Vegas, LA, Phoenix... many of the venues were underground art/music hangouts, such as Brooklyn’s The Silent Barn. The time Makonnen spent on the DIY grind contributed an indie-minded sensibility and self-assuredness he maintains to this day: “You have to get out there yourself and meet people, relate with them, you shouldn’t have anyone speaking on your behalf. That time was really important, it taught me not to be scared, shy, that not everyone’s going to like everything you do.”
Continues Makonnen: “Before I was making music with radio producers, it was the DIY indie kids that really got behind me. It was a good two years of doing it independently before I started to experience success. I think young rappers and producers need to know its not going to happen overnight - don’t think it’s going to be an easy task, be prepared to make sacrifices and go all the way in, you have to put up the hard work and it will pay off.” Indeed – in the past year his hard work’s taken him around the world - including Australia - and is estimated to have a net worth of $3 million (USD). But Makonnen maintains that he still doesn’t “know shit”and isn’t as bigtime as everyone thinks. To quote his words to GQ recently, that nicely sum up his humble outlook: “People think that when you get famous you hang out with Drake everyday…and you hang out with all these fashion people, and people give you free clothes, and you party, and your drugs are free, and everything’s just free, free, free. And you’re rich! You’re rich! You can drop twelve hundred on a bitch tonight. And I’m like, where do they do that at? I don’t know. Everybody thinks I’m Drake Junior right now and that I’ve got a big-ass compound with a big-ass loft in Tribeca, and Jay Z’s my neighbor… ’cause I’m Tuesday." But I’m just a regular person. I’m a nobody.”
A ‘nobody’ whose now helping others be somebodies: never one to forget the value of a second chance, Makonnen’s doing his part to give young DIY rappers a leg up. His latest track Trust Me Danny sees him bring on board budding 18 year-old Mexico City born, Atlanta producer, Danny Wolf. “We’ve got a few more songs coming up together,” says Makonnen of the partnership, “It’s nice to be able to use my position now to give younger artists opportunities - the kind I needed back then. It always feels right.”