FSD Interviews Mikkey Halsted

Andrew Barber

You only have one chance to make a first impression on the world, and Mikkey Halsted’s time is long overdue. A storied Chicago emcee and one of, if not the most, ferocious lyricists in the city, Mikkey has been patiently waiting for his shot at hip hop domination.

As the first artist signed to Kanye West’s Kon Man Productions, he was later recruited and signed by Cash Money Records only to see his record shelved and energy wasted. After a brief stint at Virgin Records during the Jermaine Dupri tenure, Mikkey is currently in a bidding war and is ready to unleash his No ID executive produced, Chicago: The Photo Album to the world.

We checked in with the master degree holding emcee to discuss his plans for the future, the backlash he received from the Arab community over his street single “Liquor Store”, his years of hell with Cash Money – not to mention his memories from the Kanye days (where he and Kanye were almost both Cash Money artists).

AB: Now, I’ll start by saying this: you’re definitely one of my favorite artists in the city, and in Hip Hop in general. My only problem is that I don’t have enough material from you. I know the world is ready to hear more from you too

Mikkey: (Laughs) Well that problem is going to be relieved shortly. Chicago: The Photo Album, is basically done, and if it needed to be put out today, it could be put out today. But I continue to work and I continue to add new joints and improve what I have already done. Some of the joints that don’t make it on Chicago: The Photo Album, are going to go on an independent album that me and No ID are throwing together, it will be pretty much download only.

The Photo Album was all set to drop on Virgin back in ’07, right? I’m glad you’re sticking with that concept

It was ready to come out on Virgin, then the big coop went to down when Jermaine [Durpi] left and Virgin got swallowed up by Capitol. I couldn’t trust Capitol with that album, I couldn’t let them get a hold of it and let it get botched up. I know how it feels to be on a label, have an album done, and then it just sits there. Back when I was on Cash Money, I had an album done, that I can’t even get now, but this time I was able to walk away with everything, so now we’re just trying to find the right major and the right distributor so it doesn’t get lost in the shuffle.

When do you expect that to happen?

I don’t really believe in rushing this project, so I want to make sure everything is perfect before releasing this on a larger scale. I think we’re very close with one label, and I’m in talks with a couple others as well. I just want to make sure that the numbers are right and that they’re behind it 100%, because sometimes they can do you like the rabbit chasing the carrot. Because if they don’t feel like you have the right single then they send you back to the lab and you’re consistently trying to come up with what they want exactly. I feel like that takes away from the creative process and doing a collected work, without all that pressure to make a certain type of song, and I’m trying to avoid that. I want to make a pure classic, I mean an album that can stand up to the Reasonable Doubt’s, the Illmatic’s, the Makaveli’s – I just want it to stand up against some of the seminal works of our period. So that’s what I’m shooting for and think we’re about there.

Yeah Capitol probably would’ve dropped the ball on your project had you put it out there. I can’t see them giving you much creative control, and you’re really not a pop artist

Exactly. Although I have written [pop records] for other people, and I can do those kind of records, it’s just not what I’m about and it’s not how I want to come out. So thank God the album slated to come out on Cash Money didn’t because you only get one chance to make a first impression and that’s very important to me.

Let’s talk about this digital album you’re doing with No ID.

We’re going to work it though the No ID vs. Traxster site and probably work it, in conjunction, with iTunes as well – or whatever digital outlet Dion [No ID] has in the works. It’s going to be more than a mixtape, kind of like an appetizer for The Photo Album, and really just giving the people some material.

I put out three mixtapes, and I have three more slated to come out every 45 days, because I really want to flood the market. I’ve been sitting on so much [material], but I wanted to wait for the right time, because timing is everything. When I stepped away from the scene, I did it for a reason and I did it for a purpose. Now I want to be a breath of fresh air, and I didn’t want to put myself out there too much. You know, I did a couple things with hiphopgame.com and other little sites and updated my myspace here and there, but I really wasn’t big on just flooding the market with my music. I’ve kind of established myself as having quality music, but it ‘s about to be about quantity – both quality and quantity now.

You must have a lot of records in the stash

I have a couple hundred songs in the can because I never stop recording. But a lot of time, due to the fact that it doesn’t make sense business-wise, I just kind of fall back and chill. But now I’m ready.

What’s the time frame for the mixtapes and the No ID release?

The first mixtape will be out this spring, and the No ID album will be out sometime in June, and hopefully my major label deal will be done by June also. Once I do that we’re really trying to hit the ground running,..I plan on shooting a video for the first single in June as well.

I’m also about to hit a sub-market tour, and hit the Midwest real heavy and then after that hit the north, south, east and west. I’m gonna jump in a van that’s wrapped with the logo and jump out and get with the people and get with the streets – personally. I’m going to do about three or four Chicago dates, and then we’ll hit places like Rockford, IL, Racine, WI, Iowa, Ea
st Saint Louis. I’m really trying to do what no other Midwest artist has ever done, and that is to hit the sub-markets – like they do down south.

The Chitlin Ciicuit…

Yeah and you gotta get on it because they are starving for this music. So there’s no reason we shouldn’t go to Gary, IN or Nap-Town [Indianapolis] and be politicking, networking and having a presence down there. No Chicago artist has ever done that.

Then I’ll go to the bigger cities where I already have a small following: the Miami’s, the Atlanta’s, the LA’s, the Philly’s. But I’m doing my hometown and my region first.

How do you feel about the way Chicago hip-hop has recently been represented? Do you feel like the street element is missing from the way the city is being repped? Do you feel like we’re missing a balance?

Well, you know, there’s gotta be a balance. I love all the stuff that’s going on right now, and I’m happy that we’re getting some diversity, but I do Intelligent Street Music, and that’s about to come on real strong right now. Sly Polaroid just got home, so I’m getting with him and Boogz to do a joint called “Freedom”. Another Chi-Town guy that I’m about to work with is Mick Luter, me and him are about to put a track together. So I’m about to start reconnecting with all the people who are the movers and shakers emcee wise just to prove my pedigree again. I want to reestablish myself as, hands down, the best rapper in Chicago, period. That’s what I’m going for, because I feel like the best in Chicago is the best in the world. I feel like I’ve had that title a long time. I had that title back when I was working with Kanye, and even though I might get inactive for a little while and let somebody else hold the belt, I’m about to come get the belt again.

You also have your masters degree in education, correct?

Yeah I went to Saint Xavier here in Chicago to play basketball on a scholarship. It was a five year scholarship since I red-shirted one year due to an injury. I took all the classes I needed and was able to get a masters degree under my belt by the time I was 22. I was also a teacher for a while, I had a class and all. I use all of the experience I have to my advantage – because any artist that’s going to be iconic, has to have a certain level of depth to them. They can’t just be one sided, there must be a dichotomy or even a trichotomy, so my music can be best described as Militant Street Music. It puts you in the mind frame of an Ice Cube, a Nas, a Jay-Z – but there’s always wisdom in it because I always try to drop jewels. I just don’t see a lot of artists with as much depth as me, and I know that’s what builds greatness. I’m not a rapper with just one side to my story – being from the hood where I’m from, I’ve seen it all, I’ve seen the country and even the world, so I want to share my experiences with the people.

You know, our people aren’t reading books anymore, they’re now listening to music. This is the soundtrack that we provide. Back in the day when you would read a book it would take you on a journey to another world, where you could live another life and see or think like someone else would – and that’s what I do with my music. That’s what “Liquor Store” was, and I have a new track, “Miss America”, that’s really going to shake things up and take people to another place.

So I’m guessing “Miss America” is a metaphor for something

There are layers to it. It’s the vain of “I Used To Love H.E.R.”. I’m talking to a young lady, about our relationship – the lady is beautiful, like Miss America type. But I’m really talking about the relationship between the black man and America. So it’s a love/hate relationship that we have in this country. It’s like when you really love your girl, even though she’s kind of mistreating you, but you think there may be something better out there, but you may not want to go and try it because the grass may not be greener on the other side. Sometimes you want to leave, sometimes you want to stay, and you kind of feel like you made her what she is today. You love this woman, but you don’t know if its reciprocated, and it has all the twists and turns of a real relationship.

So “Miss America” could shake things up like “Liquor Store” did. Speaking of “Liquor Store”, is that going to make Chicago: The Photo Album?

Absolutely. Even though it’s over a year old, we’re about to shoot a video for it, and it’s still new to a whole, whole lot of people. That record just leaked like crazy and we couldn’t even stop it. No ID gave the song to DJ VDub [Chicago Radio DJ] because he wanted to hear some Mikkey, and the next thing you know it’s on the radio. So then we had to run with it, and the label was ready to run with it, even with the controversy of the song. We were getting ready to shoot the video, we had the budget from Virgin and then Jermaine [Dupri] leaves Virgin Records the next week. That video would have been a great way to introduce myself to the public, but it came to a standstill.

Are you still feeling any backlash from the Arab community over the track?

Man, it’s kind of calmed down a little bit. I actually have this girl from New York, who’s writing her dissertation for her PHD on Arab/African American relations, and I play a big part in that. I’ve been told that the song has been a topic in sociology classes around the country. Some of the stores that boycotted me, I haven’t been into, and I won’t be into until I try to service my new mixtape. You know, all of the little hood shops in Chicago are mainly run by Arabs, and I received so much backlash initially. I don’t think they [the Arab community] understands the true significance of this track, and when you’re an artist, you can’t censor yourself even though you know that certain subjects may be taboo or provocative.

Originally there were only two verses on “Liquor Store”, because I knew the third verse was going to be very provocative, but those were the emotions I felt at that time. I kind of held back and almost didn’t record that last verse, but then I thought about it like: An artist or a painter doesn’t hold their expressions back, so why should I.

But I did receive some threats from the Arab community. One of the threats that I got, actually No ID posted it on his myspace blog, you can read it in his archives, I got a real threat and I answered it. It gives my in-depth views on the Arab community pertaining to the song. I also got a lot of Arab backlash from overseas as well. They were threatening harm on my mother and all kind of craziness.

I remember reading a piece in the Chicago Reader last summer about “Liquor Store” and how many Arab run businesses stopped carrying all Mikkey related material, regardless of whose mixtape it was

They wouldn’t sell my shit, period. Nothing with me on it, period. I didn’t like how [local DJ] Sean Mac handled the situation either.

Hasn’t Sean Mac refused to place Mikkey content on his mixtapes going forward?

Correct, he won’t use any Mikkey, period. And I’ll never do another Sean Mac mixtape, even if he wanted to. This is the crazy thing about it, the song was on my myspace page, and I get a message from him and whether he sent it or not, someone in his camp did, because his picture was attached. He asked if they could use “Liquor Store” for his mixtape, so I sent them the track. So he has his little business or hustle, where he sells these mixtapes to some of these Arab-run stores and I guess they played the track and found it offensive, so they pulled all of Sean’s CDs from their stores. So then he goes around telling everyone that I made a diss record to the Arab community, and that I’m fucking up his money! If that’s your little hustle and you’re getting consignment on them, then that’s fine, do you. But what’s that got to do with me? I didn’t even ask you to put my shit on your mixtape! I don’t even know you! I know you’re a DJ, but you really didn’t come up in the Chicago scene – I don’t even know if he’s from here. I’ve never seen you, never met you. And in the heat of it, a lot of my people, who he thinks are his people, he’s talking crazy to them about me, and they come right back to me and tell me about it. At that point, if he would have bumped into me, he wouldn’t have liked it. He wouldn’t have been happy to see me because I didn’t appreciate that shit. That shit was phony. Because “Liquor Store” wasn’t a diss record – I wasn’t trying to diss Arabs, it was about the liquor store!

So these Arab-run clothing stores were boycotting me, and I wasn’t even talking about them on “Liquor Store”. I was talking about things that go on at the liquor stores in our neighborhoods. They’ll play a mixtape in their stores that say “N*gga” a million times, and they’ll “kill a million n*ggas”, but one mention of Arab and you’re never going to sell Mikkey material ever again?

Hip-hop is social commentary, so if you don’t like what you’re hearing and you find it offensive, don’t listen to it, period. Just like the Bill Maher show – if you find that shit offensive, turn it off.

My case though, was that black people have always been more sympathetic to the Arab cause, to the Palestinian cause, then others. It’s to the point where we accept you into our communities and we patronize you, and you become part of the fabric of our neighborhoods. With that should come some kind of mutual respect or admiration, period. We are the people that’s putting food on your table, so treat us as humans. We are not sub-humans and we need to be treated with the kind of respect that comes with being in our neighborhoods – that was my whole thing. I’m not anti-Arab at all, I’m not against Arab-run businesses either, but I do try to support black-owned businesses in our community. I feel that we have to be self-sufficient and economically independent, so that we can build our own cache, so to speak. But we have to take care of ourselves first. I don’t have anything against non-black businesses in our community as long as they welcome us into their stores and treat our women and children with respect. No one put a gun to their heads and made them open up their stores in our community, so when you’re in our community and you automatically feel like you have to hide behind this thick ass glass, maybe you shouldn’t be here. If you feel like our people are too animalistic and too wild then maybe you should move your business somewhere else.

So will there be other songs on The Photo Album that will touch on similar social issues?

Well, every song on The Photo Album is a snapshot, so everything has to fit. I have some really crazy stuff on there – one of them being “Church” and it’s crazy, it may be more controversial than “Liquor Store”. As you can tell, I pull no punches. Also, I got a record called “Love Song”, and it got a great response when I leaked that out there. I have a record called “My Dead Homies Talkin’ Through Me”, I got a record called “Hustlaz Need Love Too”, “Rebel to America”, “The Exorcist” which deals with how we sold our soul for hip hop. We’re going to limit the album to about 12 or 13 tracks and we already have about 40 that are in the running, and we argue everyday about them. Dion [No ID], who is executive producing, is one of the best people to have on your team because he isn’t a “yes man” in any stretch of the imagination, you know what I’m sayin? He plays it for his people to get their thoughts and then me and my brother Rico link up and really try to trim the fat.

Who else is producing on the album?

If you even want to submit a track for Chicago: The Photo Album, then you have to go through Dion. Even if I get a beat CD from someone else I’m going to forward it to him. He’s not going to produce every track, but he definitely has his hands in every aspect of it. Some of the people you can expect to see are Brian “All Day” Miller, Prolyfic, I’m going to do some more work with Boogz, Soundtrakk, 1120 – I have so much from the Chicago producer circle, because it’s so strong and dope right now. I’m going to get something from Traxster also, so I don’t think the world is ready for that.

Do you think Kanye will be involved?

Well, that’s the only person that I wish was working on the project that isn’t at this time. I haven’t talked to him in a while, but I still love him, and he’s still like a brother to me. He’s doing his thing right now, so I really don’t want to cramp his space, but he’s the kind of person that, if he hears my shit, he’ll probably come in at the 11th hour and want to get involved. But once he hears the quality of it, and he sees the level where I’m taking this album, he’ll see that I’m coming for his spot. Lyrically, I know that nobody can fuck with me, just as far as rapping, and he knows my pedigree. He was the first person that said I was the best rapper in Chicago – he’s the first one that gave me the belt. But now he has the belt, and that’s cool, but he knows I’m coming for it. But Kanye inspires me to do what I’m doing and I love his music and what he’s accomplished. So I’m really proud when I hear his shit because there isn’t 1% of hate in it. So regardless of whether I talk to him everyday or not, he is a friend before everything else, but right now he is the superstar of superstars, and it’s not easy to get in touch with people on the Michael Jackson level of this shit (laughs)

(Laughs) Yeah he’s at that level now. Something the readers may not know is that you were actually the first artist signed to Kanye’s Kon Man Productions

Yeah I was his first and lead artist and then I left. Everybody knows that I made a bad decision – well, I guess there are no bad decisions in life, and I probably wouldn’t be where I am now, or know the people I know now, or have built some of the relationships that I hold important in my life. So when I signed to Cash Money, I wanted him to sign also, but instead he chose Jay-Z and Roc-

I really wish that I didn’t sign with Cash Money because that was two years of pure hell in my life.

Didn’t Cash Money offer a deal to you and Kanye at the same time?

Yeah, this happened through one of my connections, a street dude named Patrick White. Patrick White hooked up with Cash Money because he signed a white pop group through them that never came out. They approached Patrick White about doing a Cash Money Midwest, almost like a Bad Boy South type of deal, and that was the thing they were selling us on. Cash Money heard our music through Patrick, and Pat came back to Chicago and told us that Baby loved our shit – I mean loved our shit. So Kanye flew down to New Orleans to meet with them first, even though they were into to my shit the most. So when Kanye was down there all they kept asking was “Where is this n*gga Mikkey, bring Mikkey, what do we have to do to sign Mikkey?” Since they heard the stuff I did with Kanye, and loved it, they wanted to bring Kon Man Productions over to Cash Money. You know GLC, and everybody else who was with us at the time – and I say everyone because EVERYONE was with us at the time. At one time, Kanye had everybody in his Mama’s house in that little bedroom of his – whether it was Shawnna, Me, Christina, GLC, Rhymefest, Twone Gabz, Boogz, B Miller – man everybody. Every time I see another Chicago rapper coming out I be like “Ahh man, he was in Kanye’s bedroom too”. We had a sick, sick, sick click.

So I thought they were going to sign everyone to Cash Money Midwest and they were going to hire Patrick to run it. But Patrick was a street n*gga, and a reformed gang-banger. However, I have ties to him, my family has ties to him, so I knew him, and I wasn’t intimidated by him– but Kanye was. Patrick did and said a lot of intimidating things to Kanye, because he was still on that gangster mentality at that time, so that’s why Kanye kind of got away from that situation. But at that point in my life there were so many things going with me personally, that the pressure was on me.

So once I realized that Kanye wasn’t going to sign with Cash Money, I was kind of upset because, you know, Kanye was my guy, and I never have ever wanted to do music with anyone else besides No ID and Kanye West, period. I knew they were all that I needed to take over the world. But you know what, I said “Fuck it”. They offered to give my sister, Christina, the same deal, so I said “fuck it”. At this point I had family issues: drug abuse in my family, bills were late getting paid, threatening to lose our home, people are starving, cousins need things, and this was after we moved from 116th and Morgan to Country Club Hills! Everything was falling apart while we were in the suburban part of Chicago. My family life was in turmoil, so I needed the money, so I signed the deal – and it was the wrong decision.

Cash Money told me they were going to put my album out three months after I signed, and that since Juvenile had just left, I was the one that was going to take his spot. So I signed the papers, and after I did that, everything changed. It went from Kanye producing my entire album, to Kanye getting no tracks. They were mad that Kanye didn’t sign, so they didn’t want to pay him to do any tracks on the album. They wanted Mannie [Fresh] to do it all. And at that point I told them, “I don’t care what you do with the contracts, because now, I quit. I’m going to quit rapping if Kanye can’t get tracks on my album.” So I walked out the office. If they weren’t going to let Kanye, who gave me the confidence to do what I do, to produce on my album, then I was going to walk away from rapping. So they finally changed their mind, and they bought a handful of tracks from him – that’s the money he actually used to move to New York when he finally left Chicago.

On Kanye’s “Last Call” [from College Dropout] he’s talking about you, right?

Yep – that’s me. But we still used to talk everyday. Like when I’d come to New York, I’d go up to Bassline to see him, and we’d go get some jerk chicken and shit, or go chill and kick it or whatever. He’d play me a lot of his tracks and share his ideas, like how he wanted “Workout Plan” to be his first single, and I told him not to do it. Then all of the sudden things started taking off, so I wanted Cash Money to do a song deal with Kanye, so he could get some more money before College Dropout came out. I wanted them to give him this deal, so they could all get something in return for letting Kanye produce my whole album. I mean, I love Mannie Fresh, but I wanted to get back to my roots. So I’m threatening to quit every other day, me and Baby are getting into it and I feel like my back is against the wall. There’s a bunch of bullshit going on while we’re on the tour bus – I’m starving, not getting paid for my services, n*ggas was acting funny, so I had to put one dude in the hospital. That’s when I finally just left. I realized that they were snakeish in their ways and they were using me to suck up their energy. I was tired of teaching their artists how to write songs, and teaching them patterns. Baby’s using my energy so he can become an artist on his own, and he still couldn’t do the shit right (laughs).

So I was just hoping that they would put my album out, since it was done and just sitting there. But after I beat dude up, I just quit.

What happened with that situation?

Well, dude just kept saying slick shit, you know, “oh you think you better than us because you have a college degree, you think you’re smart, and your album is never coming out, blah, blah”. So I got real frustrated and told him not to say shit else. He said something slick, so I gave him what we call a “Chicago Pumpkinhead”, where his head swelled up like a pumpkin. I looked at him while he was laying on the ground unconscious and I initially thought he was dead, so I was thinking “Man, this dude is dead, now I gotta go to jail”, so then I just left. I knew that was one of their guys, so it was time to get out of there, because I know how they play. Baby wouldn’t be man enough to act like he wanted to fight me – even though we have almost come to blows about three or four times. I just couldn’t take it anymore. I was living in hell, and I was missing working with No ID and Kanye, so I knew I needed to get back around my element before I lose everything that I have.

I still haven’t received any of the my publishing money from all of the writing that I did while I was there, but I still have a good relationship with a lot of the people who were there at the time, like Stone and Lac and even Lil Wayne. Those are people that I love and have love for to this day.

Yeah I remember seeing you rap for the first time in the video for Lil Wayne’s “Shine” with you and Mack 10 on it

Yep that was back in 2002 – that’s crazy. That was like my debut for coming out and that’s why I thought I was on the fast track at Cash Money – but it didn’t work out like that. Then they offered me $10,000 for 50% of my publishing…

What? (Laughs)

(Laughs) I said “you gotta be fuckin stupid!”, because they own everyone else on the label’s publishing. That shit’s crazy, man. I wasn’t gonna let them rape me completely. I mean they still got me a little bit, but I wasn’t going to give in like some of the other people.

So finally, we got the lawyers involved and a bunch of other labels came knocking like SRC, Virgin, even the people at Universal.  I had some shit over there that will never see the light of day, but once I blow up, they’ll finally want to put it out.

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