Interview by: Martin Bauman
If you haven’t taken notice of the music that’s been coming out of Chicago lately, now’s the time to start paying attention. The Windy City is experiencing its biggest surge of hip-hop talent since the likes of Kanye West and Lupe Fiasco, in no small part due to the SaveMoney camp and perhaps its most versatile member of all, Vic Mensa. With a sharp wit and an excellent ear for melody, the sky really is the limit for the 20-year-old from Hyde Park who put out one of our favourite free releases from 2013, Innanetape. The Come Up Show caught up with Vic Mensa to talk about Innanetape, believing in oneself, what he wants his legacy to be, and lots more. Read the interview below.
TCUS: You’re in Toronto on September 6th for what will be your first headlining show here. How does that feel?
Vic Mensa: It feels amazing. It’s amazing to be 20 years old and from Chicago – 47th Street – and to have shows of my own, headlining gigs in other countries. It’s a blessing and a testament to the clarity of vision.
TCUS: These past 12 months have been pretty big for you in terms of getting out on the road. You were on tour with J Cole, Danny Brown, and Disclosure. Was there anything that any of those artists said to you – any advice they might have given – that has stuck with you?
Vic Mensa: Yeah, Cole was listening to Innanetape with me – I played it for him on [the tour] bus right after it dropped – and he commented after hearing the song “Holy Holy” that it was really special when I slowed my flow down and said exactly what I meant to say.
TCUS: So that would be as opposed to something like “Lovely Day,” which is much more of a rapid-paced delivery. You’re simplifying things.
Vic Mensa: Simplicity is key. Undoubtedly.
TCUS: Speaking of advice, I want to bring up a tweet of yours: “Utmost appreciation to that short list of teachers that changed my life in small, impactful ways.” Who’s on that list?
Vic Mensa: Mr. Brady, my third grade teacher; Mr. Thompson, my fifth grade teacher; Mr. Armanderes [sp?], my eighth grade teacher and now principal of the grammar school that I went to, that all three of those teachers are from; and I was really thinking about Miss Leckie [sp?], my high school British literature teacher. Man, she’s just amazing woman; I went to visit her not long ago. She gave me confidence in my decision to not go to college and follow my passion, in addition to just being someone that is genuinely an amazing person.
I think teachers are like the backbone of our society – although I think institutionalized education has its major issues. [But] the people that choose to dedicate their lives to bettering the youth, and trying to lead young people in a positive direction, those are amazing people, because that’s not only a task, that’s a selfless ambition; there’s not much of a self-gain, past goodwill that you take from it. You’re not being a teacher to get rich.
utmost appreciation to that short list of teachers that changed my life in small, impactful ways
— FINESSE, DA PLUG (@VicMensa) April 16, 2014
TCUS: Let’s get into some trivia. What can you tell me about “Bury Me a Bo”?
Vic Mensa: Ahh man! Is that what I called it? That’s so crazy! I did that over the “Bury Me a G” beat. Wow. That was the first solo song I ever recorded. I was in Dave Coresh’s session, which is crazy, because I might’ve been with this guy called Jack Johnson. I’m in the studio with Mike Posner right now, and there’s this dude that knew him when he first started in Atlanta, which was around the time that I started with Dave Coresh. That was the first song of my own that I recorded, just like three minutes of rapping. I had that beat and wrote a long-ass rap to it, and at the end of one of my big homie’s sessions, I was just like, “yo, let me record this. It’s only gonna take ten minutes, I promise,” and I snuck in my little recording. I thought it was hot as hell, though.
TCUS: Tell me about another part of your upbringing, going to The Bassment store in Chicago.
Vic Mensa: Yeah, The Bassment was the shit. We used to go there and buy spray paint, and vinyl records and shit. Me and Nico used to breakdance battle. We would get the Jimmy Castor Bunch and James Brown records from The Bassment, [Nico] bought some turntables – I think he got them for his birthday, in like sixth or seventh grade – and we would spin them in [Nico’s] basement and breakdance.
“Jumpin’ out the gym like Space Jam/ I used to breakdance in Nico’s basement/ Now we’re both touring around the nation; it’s crazy.” – Vic Mensa on “Magic”
TCUS: I’m gonna spit some lyrics; tell me what these mean to you: “I’m ’bout to hit you with that traditional style of cold rockin’/ Givin’ options for head knockin’, non-stoppin’/ Tip top and lyrics be droppin’, but styles can be forgotten/ So we bring back the raw hip-hoppin’!”
Vic Mensa: F—k, whose song is that? I know the verse! [Recites verse].
TCUS: That’s KRS-ONE’s “Step Into A World.”
Vic Mensa: Ahh, that does sound like KRS-ONE. That was the first rapper I f—ked with, because of [that song]. I found it on a Zoo York VHS tape. It was just hard, man. I was into rock and roll, and I wasn’t that into rap, and then that shit hit and it was just hardbody. [Mimics beat]. I f—ked with that joint.
TCUS: Moving to some another artist, I know you’ve mentioned Tupac as your favourite rapper growing up, but I want to ask you about another rapper closer to home. What significance does Common’s Like Water For Chocolate have to you?
Vic Mensa: It’s one of my favourite albums. It’s my favourite Common album. I spent a lot of time with that album. I had days when I was a kid when I would just put that CD in my boombox in my parent’s basement, and [I would] turn all the lights out and just lay there and listen to that shit with my eyes closed.
TCUS: Moving from Common’s album to your own album, you’ve described Innanetape – and so has Peter Cottontale – as a story of transformation and evolution. How do you feel you evolved during the creation of Innanetape?
Vic Mensa: I mean, I came into my own in a lot of ways. I learned a lot about myself as a person, as a man, as a musician. I did a lot of things I didn’t know I could do, and just found a lot within myself lyrically, artistically, and everything. [Innanetape] was kind of like an open letter to myself.
TCUS: Now, around the same time that this is happening, as you were making Innanetape, Kids These Days was in the midst of breaking up. On the one hand, you’re getting out of this label and group situation, and on the other, you’re coming into your own as a solo artist. You’ve mentioned before that in order to succeed, you need to be selfish, in a way. Tell me about that.
Vic Mensa: Well, I’ve said it before, the king is not a selfless man. And I want to be the king. I think that anyone who does [want to be on top], to stand out, internal focus is the most important thing. Compromise breeds mediocrity, and it hurts the people around you. You should just be you, you know? No holds barred. Bar none.
Never forget your vision. Believe in your ideas
— FINESSE, DA PLUG (@VicMensa) April 8, 2014
Vic Mensa: Chance was getting a lot of dope shit, with people f—king with him. I was just like, you know [what]? I could do this shit [too]. Chance ain’t better than me. So I was like, if he can link with that person, [and] if he can get that blog to post his shit, then I could get that blog to post my shit, you know what I’m saying? But more than anything, I feel myself. It’s not so much Chance got this, I gotta get it. It’s me, Vic. I’m like, I’m that n—a. I deserve this. Not so much because anybody else has it, but just because I believe that I deserve it all. [And it’s] not that I’m entitled to it, but that I’m capable, you know?
TCUS: When you first thought of the Innanetape idea, it was during a mushroom trip, and you recorded a bunch of verses right away before actually fleshing it out over the course of a couple months. Did any verses or songs from that initial burst of inspiration ever make the finished project?
Vic Mensa: They actually weren’t the verses that ended up on the tape. [Laughs] Nah, but that was the idea, yeah.
TCUS: In those fourteen songs, you manage to pack a lot of content and thought-provoking lines. I’ve picked out a couple that I want to ask you about. This one comes from “Magic.” You say, “my biggest win always been when I knew they didn’t believe.” Tell me about this.
Vic Mensa: That’s the biggest triumph: triumph over doubt, [whether it’s you] doubting yourself, or other people doubting you. I’m not the type to say “I told you so,” because I’m enough confirmation to myself, but success is a good payback.
I been had it. The utmost love goes to everyone who has seen my vision since before it was popular
— FINESSE, DA PLUG (@VicMensa) April 4, 2014
Vic Mensa: Yeah. An arrowpoint reflection of myself is narrow, direct, and also like the barrel of a gun. It’s like staring at your reflection out of a tiny mirror inside the barrel of a gun. It’s knowing you’re in the line of fire, which is the way that we feel in Chicago: not always confident about the strength of our possibility of living, you know? As I was a kid, I’m sure my mom envisioned her son would be 18 years old and he would go to college, and then he would get a good job – maybe change the world somehow through that. Will I make it there? I’ve already deviated from the path. Will I end up being what my mom wishes of me, or will I die?
“Could’ve been the one that never dropped/ Could’ve been the one that got shot/ Could’ve never seen what it means to be mean/ Be trapped in a box, strapped in a box/ Chevy with lil’ Eddie back home on the block.” – Vic Mensa on “Time Is Money”
TCUS: One of the recurring topics on Innanetape is just how many brushes with death you’ve had, from falling off a bridge and getting electrocuted, to surviving a car crash, to even growing up in Chicago. You have the tattoo “Still Alive” to prove it. How have these things changed your outlook?
Vic Mensa: Life is impermanent, you know? It can be taken from you at any point in time. It’s a difficult principle to implement into your everyday life, but I try to take that knowledge and manifest it in action by [doing] the most I can with what I have, because shit doesn’t last forever.
TCUS: When you think about all that’s happened to you – falling off of a bridge, getting electrocuted, and surviving – do you ever think in terms of destiny for why you’re still here? What’s your take on that kind of thing?
Vic Mensa: I go back and forth between acknowledging or consciously believing in the existence of a singular God. But I definitely think that whatever the gravitational pull is that’s kept my feet on the ground, it’s for a reason.
“My footing slipped; I fell off of a bridge/ But thanks to the grace of a greater power, I didn’t fall on my head/ Could’ve landed on my neck and snapped it.” – Vic Mensa on “Magic”
TCUS: I guess that’s as good a time as any to segue to talking about your song “Time Is Money.” One of the things you rap is, “I’d like to think I’d ask the right questions if God was right before me/ Like, “why you let babies get shot? Why babies is killin’?”/ All because the system that raised me from grade school made me the villain.” Tell me about that line.
Vic Mensa: Man, school is just institutionalized education. It’s a weight against us. When I say us, I mean any inner-city minorities – black kids, Mexican kids, growing up in Chicago. I’ve witnessed it in myself and the people around me, you know what I’m saying? Just being in public schools – good public schools, at that – but if you’re raised to believe that you’re a bad kid, it’s very possible that you will grow to believe that within yourself and internalize that.
“Tryna be optimistic when the politicians cut schools, buy guns, but when the shots is lickin’ at the ones that’ll lose they son/ Instead they send ’em to private school and pull back on the public funds/ While functioning as is they can begin to fathom where the f–k we’re coming from.” – Vic Mensa on “Time Is Money”
We all know the black kids get suspended at an astronomically higher rate than kids of any other race, so it’s like from third grade, or as early as I can remember, it was [always] little black kids getting suspended from school. Basically, it’s an introductory level of the prison system in ways, you know? It’s training kids to believe that they’re the villain. That’s what I meant by that line.
I remember the first time I came in contact with the police [in a] negative [experience] was in school. I was a sixth grader – you know, an eleven year old kid – and I had a marker, and I wrote on a trash can in the alley by my school. I got caught, and I thought I got arrested. I got caught by a schoolteacher, and then they took me to the library or something, and they had the school police officer come and write me up. That’s just the beginning of making a kid think they’re a criminal, you understand? It perpetuates the belief that black kids are bad.
TCUS: You know, thinking about what we were talking about earlier, when you were talking about some of the positive teachers you’ve had, to grow up in a system like that, it has to make the good teachers stand out that much more.
Vic Mensa: Right. That’s for real.
TCUS: Moving on to another song, on “Orange Soda,” you ask, “why is it what seems important seems always to be misleading?” Tell me about that line.
Vic Mensa: I’m scatterbrained a lot of the time, and focused on different things, and it’s easy to trick yourself into thinking the little things – or the seemingly big things – are what’s truly important. Sometimes I having trouble placing importance in the right places, because it’s not always easy, you know? I think that sometimes the things that seem like the biggest deal, in the grand scheme of things, don’t matter. It’s something you have to step back from a lot of the time in life [and put it in perspective].
TCUS: In retrospect, you realize certain things aren’t as important as you once thought.
Vic Mensa: Yeah, but I mean, hindsight is 20/20, so it’s just the shit you go through. A lot of my raps, and the shit I say in music, is just my feelings about being a human being, just going through life, and doing the same type of shit – or different type of shit – that everybody else does. I don’t necessarily write things for a reason; I just write ’em ’cause I think ’em. The same way that you have a thought – a thot [laughs] – and she seems so important to you, then a week may pass, and that bird has flown.
TCUS: You mention the things you write from your perspective may be from doing things differently than everybody else. Do you feel as though you’re an outcast in the music industry in some ways?
Vic Mensa: No, I feel as if I’m an individual: not so much an outcast, [but] an outlier.
TCUS: What’s the status quo that you’re an outlier to then?
Vic Mensa: In modern music, in hip-hop, it’s generic and untruthful. It’s built off of sick little stories that are perceived by a lot of people as reality. You know, storytelling is one of the most powerful devices a writer has at their disposal, but there’s a line between being a storyteller and just being a liar. I can’t tell you exactly what that line is, but I stand on one side of it, [whereas] a lot of people stand on the other side of it.
It’s not only about truth, depth, and dexterity in music; it’s also about ingenuity and inventiveness. I think that a lot of people just copy formulas. I copy shit all the time, but what makes it different is that I copy different things, and I combine them to make new things. A lot of people just copy what’s on the radio or what’s on the blogs, you know? [They’ll copy] what a contemporary of theirs is doing, and that’s not creative.
“I’mma say this just one last time, this one last thing/ People are sheep to the radio, heard it don’t take too much to make a dumbass sing.” – Vic Mensa on “Hollywood LA”
TCUS: On “YNSP,” you say, “wonder how I stay afloat/ When the pressure on my name could probably make a levee sink.” What’s that pressure like right now?
Vic Mensa: It’s not that bad. It’s not the worst, you know? I’ve got a lot of dope shit up my sleeve. I’m not mad at life; I enjoy it. [I enjoy] making music and living. You just have to keep a calm head, a cool mentality, and recognize the power within yourself. [Laughs] I sound like a philosopher. But yeah, you know, it ain’t the worst. Sometimes it’s a lot just to wake up, and it makes you want to go back to sleep. It’s like, ahh, I gotta do this and that; I gotta talk to this person and that person; I gotta handle this and handle that. But the point at which you don’t run from that, and you embrace it, and you look forward to taking care of business, that’s when you become a boss. And I’m sure that as much as people aggrandize themselves and act like they never worry about shit, and never get nervous about anything, it’s all a lie. But kings among men don’t show too much.
TCUS: Speaking of the business side of things, and being in the position you’re at right now and looking at the success of independent artists lately – someone like Macklemore and the Grammys he’s won – is there even a point in signing a major label deal anymore?
Vic Mensa: The bottom line of business and relationships is trust and benefit. There are benefits to be taken from signing to a major label, and the point at which that is combined with real trust and balances heavier than what you can do on your own, it makes sense. But different people and different things grow at different rates. It’s about being able to be you and having people that want you to be you, you know? That’s why they want you: because you’re you, not because they want to make you something else.
“First off, tell ’em Vic back!/ To bury the bullshit n—-s been signin’/ To be honest, yo I told No ID that shit wack/ Wasn’t even tryin’ to be arrogant/ Bearing comparison to us, I mean it’s kinda just fact.” – Vic Mensa on “YNSP”
TCUS: This is a tweet of yours: “Having fans [and] being famous is fools gold. Do it for yourself. It’s so much more fulfilling.” Can you elaborate on this?
Vic Mensa: I remember writing that. People idolize these golden statues on social media and blind themselves from refracted light [laughs]. For real, though! You think you’re looking at one thing, but you’re really just seeing a reflection of something else. It’s not everything that people think it is. I can’t say what it feels like to be Kanye West [and] be mega-world-famous, but all that shit is fickle, man. It’s here today and gone tomorrow.
“What would people think about if I died?/ I wonder sometimes if this music I/ Make would keep me alive/ But what if my tape never dropped or my album had flopped/ Or I stopped at a red light and a semi-truck ran into my ride?” – Vic Mensa on “Holy Holy”
Any great artist is driven by themselves – not just an artist, any great person. Michael Jordan didn’t win basketball games because he wanted to impress fans, or because he wanted to sell sneakers. The n—a won basketball games because he’s a f—kin’ winner.
TCUS: Well, Jordan especially, was driven by sheer competitiveness.
Vic Mensa: And that’s what we are as artists, you know what I’m saying? But the thing about competitiveness on a level like Jordan’s is that it’s not just competitiveness of beating another person, it’s what I was talking about with you [earlier], where I should have these things not because somebody else has them, [and I want to] outdo somebody else or match up to somebody else, it’s because I believe in myself. I believe that I should have it. I need to beat the loser in me, you know?
TCUS: You have the confidence in yourself. You’re aware of what you have up your sleeve. Is the greatest challenge right now just waiting for people to become aware of the things you’re doing?
Vic Mensa: Shit, my greatest challenge is just f—kin’ staying alive every day and having a better day than the one before.
TCUS: I want to ask you about two collaborations before we wrap things up. When I was speaking with Mac Miller back in November, he was telling me that he was going to have you over to his place to record. Has that happened yet, and how did it go?
Vic Mensa: I’m still trying to catch up with Mac. I’ve been in L.A. for a little while, but I think he’s been in Pittsburgh. We’re definitely gonna connect, though.
TCUS: I have to ask about a Canadian connection as well. Is there anything in the works with Kaytranada?
Vic Mensa: Hell yeah, me and Kay got hits, boy! Kaytranada’s my n—a, man. That’s one of my favourite producers in the game. We’ve got some hits off my new shit.
TCUS: Final question for you: what do you want your legacy to be?
Vic Mensa: I’m still writing that; I’ve got a couple lines down, but the book’s gonna be way longer. It’s hard to say. I can’t say necessarily what it will be or what I want it to be, but I can describe it. I want it to be one of broken ground, you know? Earthquakes. I just want to have left a significant crater in history – in a positive way, but in a real way, and my way.
I think that every person – I won’t say every person, because there are a lot of stupid people in the world – but so many people have so many things to say and so many thoughts. Few can vocalize them. I’ve tried hard enough for a while that I’ve learned how to express my thoughts pretty well, in a cool way that shocks me sometimes and mesmerizes other people. So my legacy is just gonna be a reflection of saying what the f—k is on everybody’s mind. If I’ve been able to do that and carry a meaningful, overarching message that’s bigger than me, then I’ll have been successful.
Stay tuned for the podcast version of the interview in the future. Want more? Check out our previous interview with Vic.