Last month, Maino bounded into a recording studio in Midtown Manhattan during a playback session for his new album. Dressed in a flappy hat, goggle glasses, and with pants sagging precariously low, he slid the volume on the mixing console up to an ear-quavering level and bopped around the room as songs from The Day After Tomorrow boomed out of the speakers. He seemed in happy spirits, and between tracks he joked about how the rap gossip world thought that he was still in love with his ex-girlfriend from way back, Lil Kim, after the DJ and producer Green Lantern had leaked a song titled “I Still Love You.” He took the spread of mis-information well—tittle-tattle, of course, helps fuel any album’s promotional push, and these days Maino is firmly ensconced in the rap industry. But it didn’t used to be that way.
For the early part of his career, the Bedford-Stuyvesant-born Maino was better known as another New York City rapper with a nefarious background (he saw out a ten year jail bid for attempted kidnap) who traded in block-corner crime rhymes to the extent that he was as much someone in the street who also happened to rap as anyone approaching an artist. As he puts it today, “People thought I was more about making trouble than making music.” Slowly though, he shifted himself into the industry, and on the way he scored a platinum-certified hit with 2009’s T-Pain-assisted “All Of The Above.” It’s not a bad career arc for a rapper whose music in the main sticks to a quite unfashionable east coast template—but it’s a template and heritage Maino is proud of, as he tells us here before clearing up those pesky Lil Kim rumors.
There’s a line on your new album where you say, “Looking in the mirror, I’m a rapper now/ What’s supposed to happen now?” Has it been hard to adjust to working with the record industry?
Yeah, that comes from when I first got into it—before then I had this notion that once I did get in to the game everything would just be alright and all my problems would go away and life would just be great. But then I wake up and look in the mirror and I’m like, “Damn, I’m a rapper, but now what?” It was supposed to be me sitting under palm trees drinking champagne all day but it’s not. You still have to deal with life issues regardless of success. So that line is me reflecting on how far I’ve come and where I’ve been and where I wanna go. It’s me looking at myself and critiquing myself. I felt like sometimes success brings happiness, but then why the fuck ain’t I happy yet? That’s what it is, right there.
How have people close to you reacted to your career taking off?
I’ve had to adjust to how people perceive me. A lot of times, you may feel that you haven’t changed but the people around you have. People expect more from you, so you’re dealing with the shift in energy and relationships whether it be family or friends, you know? I try and deal with it by just maintaining. I just stay true to what I am and work and continue to move forward regardless of what else is going on around me.
Do you hear a lot of rumors and mis-truths about yourself?
Yeah, one of the big misconceptions was that people thought I was more about making trouble than making music. But I think slowly but surely I’m starting to change that perception of me. I just don’t think I’m appreciated as much as some other people are. But I understand that I’m not in a camp, I’m not part of an organization, I’m not with other people or some other label—it’s just me on my own grindin’ and doing whatever I can to stay relevant and put out records.
These days, is it a disadvantage to be from New York City if you’re a rapper?
It’s harder to be from New York. You had a shift in the game where New York music may not be as popular as it once was and it’s music that doesn’t go down well for the rest of the country. You could be putting out record for a bit in New York and people in other places may not even notice you. That’s crazy.
Why did that shift come about?
I can’t say why it changed—the game just shifts. It evolves and I think the times we are in are a change and it started in New York and it snowballed into other cities and countries and it’s like you got rappers all over that love hip-hop and I just think it’s an evolution, you know? It is what it is, a natural progression. You’ve got rappers in Florida now and stuff like that. There are prominent rappers that come from these places but according to 15 or 20 years ago it was a little different. But it is what it is.
So what was the record that first got you into hip-hop?
Probably the first rap song that made me think about rapping was “Juicy” by Biggie. I remember exactly where I was when I heard that—I was in prison.
What grabbed you about “Juicy”?
I felt connected to it ’cause I felt like it was someone who came from my ‘hood directly. It made me feel good to hear a representation of my ‘hood and where I’m from, Bed-Stuy, on the radio.
What’s your earliest memory of growing up in Bed-Stuy?
Just everything, man: Just the ‘hood and being outside and family and music and you know the streets and gun shots and broken glass and the noise and school… Chinese food!
Was this good or bad Chinese food?
It was great! Fried chicken wings and fried rice—it was classic!
Can you remember the name of the Chinese spot?
It was just a Chinese restaurant—it didn’t have a name.
What were you like as a kid growing up in Bed-Stuy?
I think I was pretty cool, man. I think I was pretty shy very early on in my life until I got turned on. I feel like that to this day, like when I walk into a room I like to fade it out especially if I don’t know nobody in it, like I’m not just gonna start talking. I think I was pretty cool but circumstances in my life lead me to the street pretty early… But for the most part I was a strong kid, who was raised strong mentally. This is why I’m able to deal with the things in my life, like gangs and not doing ’em. If I set my mind to it, I did it.
Is there anything about your upbringing or pre-rap days that you regret?
Nah, I don’t regret anything. Everything that’s meant to be will be. I deal with things as they come and move forward. I work hard and hopefully people know that everything that I’m doing is from the heart and it’s true.
You have a song on the album called “Nino Brown.” Is that in homage to the New Jack City character?
I wasn’t actually comparing myself to Nino Brown. There was a saying that’s very popular that came from the movie where he said he was speaking to Nino, speaking to Nino… I took that and made it the hook. I invoked Nino Brown. That’s it.
Finally, what’s the story behind the song “I Still Love You”? Can you clear up whether it is or isn’t about Lil Kim?
Right, the Lil Kim thing! I mean, it’s a song called “I Still Love You” and it’s one of those songs you write about when you may have a friendship or relationship with someone and you’re no longer in it—a lot of times that happens in life—and you fall out with them but we know that while we may never be friends again we still have love for them and want to see them do their thing. That’s what that was about.
So it’s not about Lil Kim specifically?
Nah, it’s not aimed at anyone.