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Describing Mykki Blanco (a.k.a. Michael Quattlebaum) is tough. Is Mykki a he? Is Mykki a she? Is s/he a rapper? A performance art project? An alter ego? A stage name? A poet? A nu-industrial bandleader?
The problem (or, really, the fun) here is that Quattlebaum has been some combination of these things in the past two years, and he is constantly revising and reconfiguring, redrawing the borders around Mykki; assuming (as I did) that the Mykki on Cosmic Angel: The Illuminati Price/ss, his rave-spiked mixtape, sounds likes the Mykki currently touring with Death Grips is not recommended.
It’s impossible to predict which direction Quattlebaum will take Mykki in next. Yet after chatting with him on the phone before he and his tour mates headed into Canada, it seems safe to say that Mykki’s future is also in thoughtful hands.
Let’s start with the tour with Death Grips. The energies between your records are very different…does that manifest itself on stage at all?
Well, if you’d seen my last show you wouldn’t say that.
But there are two different things you have going on.
If you’d read any of the reviews you’d know my last show was really intense. It was like being at a punk show, even though I do hip hop music. When you see our shows together, it makes a lot of sense.
You used to be in No Fear for a while, and one of your earlier releases, Mykki Blanco & the Mutant Angels, has a quasi-industrial feel to it. What’s it been like trying to negotiate performing in a hip hop mode versus performing in an earlier mode?
I perform hip hop music, rave hip hop music, but I perform it in a punk way. You’d understand that the songs that I do are a mixture of both, and they’re reminiscent in energy to both, so it’s really not hard for me to negotiate the two. The only thing about me that’s hip hop is the fact that I rap, and the fact that I’ll do hip hop-styled shoots some times. But lately I’ve been really coming into my own in a way that makes it harder for music writers to just lump me in with hip hop. You can say I’m hip hop, but really I’m doing a lot of things, things with rock n roll and rap that have been touched on before, especially in the early 2000s. I was a kid who came of age during the whole rap-rock thing, and that’s the kind of thing that I look to, that sort of rap with screams, that I feel like I put myself into.
Both ethics were happening at the same time, so it wasn’t so much about one eating the other one so much as it was about different ways of performing and doing both. Now I feel like I’ve come full circle, where I can have hip hop performance with an industrial edge.
Obviously, hip hop is central to Mykki as a character; none of this stuff materializes without the idea of a teenaged Myyki wanting to rap on YouTube. But: now that Mykki has become a thing you inhabit more wholly and something that’s valenced by a lot of other things, how central do you think rapping will be moving forward?
As long as I write songs, I’ll rap. Even if I sing or choose to sing in a punk style or a style of singing and shouting associated with Metal or even gay house music, I’ll continue to write where I rap because I’m good at rapping.
So let’s talk about the music you’ve got on Cosmic Angel. You met Brenmar and a lot of those other guys in Chicago, right? What was that phase of your life like? Had you been into clubbing much prior to that?
My life then and their lives then were not so much career-oriented in the same way. Many of us were in school, or doing other musical projects in other genres. I was very much still involved in a contemporary art practice of performance and installation art. I was very into music but much more lo-fi stuff like Ariel Pink, John Maus, Syd Barrett. I think I really came into electronic music culture as I got older, certainly after the vibe really started sweeping NYC again in this really organic way.
In the past year, you’ve gotten a ton of press, and, as so often happens, you’ve been forced to answer the same questions over and over and over again. What kind of effect do you think that’s had on the evolution of Mykki Blanco? Does it help you focus on where to take it next, or do you think having to constantly correct and deflect has a negative affect on its evolution?
I think this is going to help things grow, because it’s been the exact same organic process: every time you put out a new single, you let people see a new side of yourself. About six months ago, if you were interviewing me, I guarantee every single question would have been about gay rap. I’ve probably answered every question that could possibly come up–“No, I do not vogue” ; “No, I don’t know about that culture”–to describing and having to talk, in an interview ostensibly about me, about five other people for 20 minutes.
When “Join My Militia” came out, everybody was like, “Ahhh, gay rapper gay rapper gay rapper!” And when “Haze. Boogie. Life” came out, just four songs later, all those articles about gay rap had already been written, and so they just had to accept it for what it was: a good song with a cool video. And every single article, for the most part, was about the song and the video, and that’s what got passed around. And with Cosmic Angel, everything that’s been written about it has been about the music. And some people who are late [laughs] to writing about me, are writing about the gay rap stuff, but it’s mostly been about music and the choice of artists. So I don’t worry about that stuff.
Also, when people read about me, that stuff about me being a kid actor, that stuff is very real. I have a very, very showbiz personality. Things that are really like, tissue paper feelings, touchy-feely shit that some musicians get hung up about, I don’t care about those things. I’m very much an entertainer. And so that like, sensitive soul thing, I don’t really have that. It’s kind of like been swallowed by my drive and feeling of, “Oh, you didn’t like that? Well guess what, I’ve got a lot more coming!”
I don’t get sensitive about these things. I used to, but I realized that attitude is stupid, and that all the people that I really respect, the real entertainment go-getters, they keep pumping out their creative vision and people either accept it or it’s time for them to get stoned.
That’s a pretty important moment for any artist. When did that happen for you? Was there a singular, revelatory experience that changed everything, or did you just notice one day that you’d stopped giving much of a shit?
That’s the thing. In media, people do love to say, “I don’t give a fuck, I don’t give a fuck,” but in society, there’s a common need to feel accepted, and to feel validated by people, by society and by your community. Everybody wants that to a certain extent, at some point. And I think what I used to have trouble with was I’d only performed in these artsy bubbles. I’d performed in London and I’d performed in L.A. and I’d performed in Miami and Vancouver and Toronto and Montreal.
And I believe in myself as a performer. Whatever you think about the record or whatever you read, the thing that gets you real fans is the quality of your performance. So I knew the quality of my performance was good, I had room to get better, but I had something going that was working for me, no matter what. I knew that if people saw me, no matter what they thought of the music, they’d go, “I don’t know what I just saw, but that was a damn good performance.”
So I knew I had that security going, but I was afraid. I wanted to have a certain level of success–I don’t want to be niche. My mom always used to say to me, “You think you’re so underground, but deep down, you want to be successful. You know you do.” I was worried that I’d have to tone down something about myself to kind of fit, or take something out. And not in a way of like, changing anything, but just in a way of toning things down to ensure that I’d be accepted. But what I realized on the tours, as I’ve removed myself from these cultural centers, is that people come to see me because they want to see the whole entire thing. There’s nothing I have to tone down, and in fact even when I’m not toning down there are people who are doing way crazier stuff than I am. Maybe the things I do that I think are shocking really aren’t that shocking compared to the rock n roll lineage.
Perhaps the whole entire idea of [my being] hip hop wasn’t even my idea. Maybe it was just the press using the term hip hop around me, but in this surface, subversive way that really doesn’t describe what I do at all. And perhaps I don’t belong at all to the hip hop community. And I’m not trying to make any public declaration that way, but I think that when you see me perform it’s not hard to see which lineage of performance I come from. And I think I’m coming into my own in that lineage.
Going forward, I know exactly who the people are that I want to target. I know who my audience is now, and I know who I can get to come over to my side. So for me it’s not like, “What am I going to have to compromise on?” It’s thinking about what I’m going to have to do to make sure all of those people come with me and see where I’m coming from.
I like to show a different side, but then I like to come back to me. For this project, I went through this very fashion-y period where like, I met David Lachappelle and did Interview and Italian Vogue and high fashion shoots. That’s stuff I like doing because it brings attention to me and the other stuff that I do, but after a while it was getting to be a little too much. People were treating me like a dress-up doll, which is why I had to go and do the “Join My Militia” video. I started to get away from what I thought people would perceive as the superficiality of the persona, the stuff that might reach people in a really negative way. I think I’m learning about myself more every time I go on the road, and so when I’m ready to execute another body of material, it’s going to make me stronger in my execution, because I’ll be more in tune with what goes into the whole Mykki Blanco package.
It does sound like you feel more comfortable identifying as a performer coming from the lineage of punk or rock music. Are you sure that rapping won’t take a back seat, or just disappear, on future records?
I have no idea. Probably not, because then that would delete my role as a songwriter, but there are ways in which I hear music, especially electronic music, where I listen to samples and I think, “Why sample when I could make original ‘samples’ that could be spliced into my own original songs?'” I’ve been thinking more about my own original songs having more of a “remix” feel. [laughs]