Exclusive: The ‘Rent Is Too Damn High’ Guy, Jimmy McMillan, Tells Us About His Musical Career, His Past as Soul Musician Jimmy Mack


“Jimmy Mack” is a well-circulated name in R&B. There was a Holland/Dozier/Holland song, recorded by Martha and the Vandellas, James Brown, and Sheena Easton among others, and at least two or three dudes who cut singles under that moniker, for Motown and elsewhere. But only one Jimmy Mack–the one who released the legitimate nugget, “A Woman Is So Hard To Understand” on Hamster in 1975–would go on to be a karate expert, stripper, and our very own black-gloved mutton-chopped gubernatorial candidate for the Rent Is Too Damn High party.

“I’m a guitar man,” says the 64-year old mythmaker better known as Jimmy McMillan, who recorded the single when he was 25, just after his return from Vietnam. “Let me put it in the back of my head.” He lifts his arms over his shoulders, Hendrix-style, and air-shreds, the distortion from his mouth startling everybody in the SIRIUS lobby, where he is waiting to tape an appearance on Eminem’s Shade 45 channel. Eminem, Led Zeppelin, and Otis Redding are his favorites.

“It’s a one-man band,” he says of his musical efforts. “Just like I created this political party, it’s a one-man show. I couldn’t meet a musician who would be on time. I practiced with a drummer, he wouldn’t be on time. I met with a guitar player, he wouldn’t be on time. I met with a keyboard player, he wouldn’t be on time.” Here, McMillan thrusts his fist in the air, doing everything but extending a black-gloved middle finger. “I don’t like nobody being late. Don’t meet some girl out there in the audience and next thing I gotta find you.”

“When I did ‘A Woman Is So Hard To Understand,’ I used a Tascam-234,” he says of the early four-track home unit. “I recorded every single instrument separate, and then mixed it out. That’s me playing everything.”

Convenient then, that album releases and Election Days both fall on Tuesdays, because McMillan also has a new album, The Rent Is Too DAMN High, v. 1, ready to go next week on iTunes. (A new Twitter feed, too.) And if the 50-plus songs scattered around his website until a few days ago were any indication, including a concept album of sorts about Vietnam, McMillan might really have a musical future, if he can continue channeling the uplifting political angst of the ’60s Staples Singers or his one-time labelmates, the Chi-Lites. Like Mike Jones, McMillan drops his hook–“The rent is too damn high“–into every cut, modulated, screwed, chopped. There’s a 14-minute epic, “Never Seen.” And a Christmas song, “Rent Is Too High Christmas.” (“Santa Claus got evicted, ’cause he couldn’t pay his rent…”.)

“Everything is digital,” says McMillan, who records at home on Cakewalk. “My mind is digital. I know what I like to hear. Everything is private, me by myself, because I feel a better groove when I’m by myself.”

McMillan plays mostly virtual instruments–drums, bass, lead guitar, violin–but he’s no neophyte. Back in the day, “I was just a musician. Anybody who wanted to use me as a guitar player or a drummer, I did it, I filled in,” he explains. “I sang my own songs whenever somebody couldn’t show up. If I went to a club, and the singer didn’t show up, I sang the songs. I played at the Manhattan Center, before it was the Manhattan Center, with the Stylistics and all those guys.”

Scoring a contract with Brunswick Records, McMillan waited for his turn. “The way record companies worked, they wouldn’t put your record out if they had another record going, and the Chi-Lites had their song, ‘Have You Seen Her.’ And as soon as that died out, they came out with their next song, and the record company told me I had to wait. I grabbed a stick, and said ‘You’ll play my goddamn record.'” McMillan giggles. “That didn’t work. I just went and recorded my own, even though they had me under the contract. I said ‘To hell with y’all.'” He released “A Woman Is So Hard To Understand”–songwriting credits to McMillan, Ridley, and Webley–on his own Hamster Records.

Now fetching up to $40 online, without the sellers’ apparent knowledge of Jimmy Mack’s later career, “A Woman” has also been featured on at least one compilation (The Northern Soul Story, v. 7), without his approval. “I had somebody steal another song of mine,” he says. “But you know what, I’ll write another.”

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