Detroit native MRK SX steps back from producing for the greats, to release his own track ‘Good Life‘ alongside legend Royce da 5’9″. A veteran in his own right, MRK‘s recent project 40 Year Old Rapper is a statement of his hard graft and honed craft. We sat down to talk Detroit’s hip-hop legacy, classic production methods, ageism, and what it’s like to work with D12, Kxng Crooked I and more…
“Somebody has to be first and I wanna break the barriers.”
You’re a multitalented artist, why is it so important these days to be more than just a single threat?
“Number one, every time you need something you’ve gotta pay. It’s cheaper to learn yourself. I started out just rapping and I didn’t have any music to rap over. This was at a time over 20 years ago when you used to be able to buy cassette singles, CD singles and maxi singles. They would always have the song, a remix and the instrumental all on one thing. I’d take this home and start recording myself over the music into a karaoke machine. They had what they call ‘overdubbing‘, where you have a tape in one side and a tape in the other, and you could record things. By chance, I learned that if I plugged in my headset, it turned into a microphone. All of a sudden, I’m a very low-budget recording engineer. I ran out of tapes to buy, I’d recorded on everything they had in the store, so I asked friend of mine who I knew knew somebody who made music, ‘How do they make the tracks?’ He starts telling me about drum machines, I was living in Oklahoma so he tells me about this little store an hour and a half away where they had these drum machines. When you would walk into the store, mostly what you’d see is guitars, drums and pianos, so the type of stuff that we would use was in the back of the store. He showed me this small box, it was a Roland DR-550, and when he started pressing on the pads, I was like ‘Oh my god, that’s exactly what I need!’ It wasn’t a sampler and it took batteries for god’s sake, but I took it home and now I’m programming beats and learning to become a producer.”
“It was a matter of necessity.”
“Then, I wanted to know how to make more sounds, so I went back and he said ‘It sounds like you need a sampler.’ He took a microphone and plugged it into the back of the box, and he said ‘Say something,’ so I did, and he played it back on the pad. Now I’m chopping samples. All of these things happened by necessity. Then, I needed a way to record myself, so he sold me a four-track tape recorder. Now I’m doing engineering, producing, and recording, but how do I get this stuff out? I bought a cassette deck that made a lot of tapes at once, so now I’m in the duplication business, but they needed covers, so I bought a computer and learned how to make covers, the digital editing part of it all. See where I’m going? It wasn’t a decision to learn how to do everything that I do, it was a matter of necessity. At this time in the very early 2000s, the difference between the people who were making music and not, was about a $2,000 decision. Not many people were doing it. Little by little, I was piecing together a studio, who knew? But these days, it’s very cost effective and they’ve done a great job of making computers fast and smart enough. My goodness, they have apps on the phone these days that you can record into and it sounds like you went to a studio.”
Detroit holds a lot of hip-hop history. How has the city influenced your sound?
“I’m born and raised in Detroit, but I’m physically in Atlanta right now. I would say I was a big fan before J Dilla before I knew who he was. At the time, ‘Stakes Is High‘ by De La Soul and ‘Runnin‘ by The Pharcyde were my favourite records, but then people started talking about this Slum Village group. I was reading articles in The Source about these guys and they were talking about JD. I thought they were talking about Jermaine Dupri from So So Def in Atlanta because he often called himself JD in his raps. So I thought Jermaine Dupri was working with artists from Detroit, but I was wrong. But when I found out that Dilla was from Detroit, I’d never heard of anybody on a national scale who was doing music that sounds like that. Obviously, we have a rich history in R&B and soul music, but in terms of hip-hop, and especially with people he’d work with like A Tribe Called Quest and Erykah Badu, I became a J Dilla stan. I was living in Japan at the time, and actually more of his music was on the racks out there to be honest. A lot of people think that when you sign a record deal, that it automatically means your music comes out around the world – that’s not actually true. Stores in the UK have to order them from me, especially if I’m independent, and I have to ship them there. Or, I can do a deal with a company in the UK to distribute my album just in the UK. In that time, that’s what a lot of these guys were doing. Everyone from that Rawkus era would drop stuff in America and then do things overseas that had a little extra music, just for that part of the world.”
“I became a J Dilla stan.”
“So, I was coming up on a lot of Dilla music. So he influenced me a lot, not that I copied his sound, but everything was always so fresh, I never knew what he was gunna do. I became addicted to not being certain what I was gunna hear, ‘cos everything else was so formulaic, and he would never let me down. I’d buy an album that had one song on it produced by him, even if I’d never heard of the artist, but I had to hear it because I knew it was gunna be incredible and it always was. So him, specifically coming out of Detroit, influenced me in that way. I was introduced to another one of my favourite artists, Elzhi, from one of Dilla‘s projects, and Guilty Simpson too. Slum Village, they went off and made mixtapes that introduced me to the production crew B.R. Gunna, who had Black Milk, so it sent me down a rabbit hole of understanding these guys, aside to what was happening with Eminem. Even though I love and respect Eminem, my story is not like his. I could listen and appreciate, but it was an ‘outside looking in’ type thing and I couldn’t really connect to it. Now, when D12 were coming up I could vibe with what they had going on, but at that time it was what was happening with J Dilla or Eminem, and Dilla influenced me a lot.”
You’ve worked with some big names, who can you namedrop for us?
“Let me see… I did some recent work with Royce da 5’9″. I’ve done a lot of work with Kxng Crooked I and his group with his brothers, Family Bvsiness. I’ve worked with every member of D12 except Bizarre, I’ve not done anything with Bizarre. I’m tryna think of who people will know… ah! The group Arrested Development, and Speech, matter of fact, his new album came out today and I did some production for him. I’ve worked with a lot of people, but recently, that’s what’s been coming out.”
What was it like linking with Royce Da 5’9” for your new single?
“Number one, shout out to the big homie Royce da 5’9″ who has been my favourite MC for the last 10 years, easily, him and Crooked, before I even met them. It was great man. He’s a very humble guy, very knowledgeable, always willing to give you advice, he’s gone on to still be a nice, big homie of mine, somebody I can call when I’ve got a question about something. How I met him, I’d done some music with Kxng Crooked, shout out to him too, and subsequently we wound up on tour together. We kinda got to know each other on this tour and he told me that Royce was a producer now. Long story short, he said that the next time he was in Detroit, that he’d make sure to link us, and that’s exactly what he did. He came to Detroit and he called me, and I came to the studio. They were working on the Family Bvsiness project, which is Crooked and Horseshoe Gang, and Royce was producing their album. So, I did a few things on that and at the same time, Royce was working on The Allegory, so I started doing things for that. None of the things for Allegory made the final cut, but during the process, the creative relationship was so seamless that he started giving me music to just work on for myself. So that’s what I did, and one of the outcomes was the song ‘Good Life‘ that’s featured on my latest project. It’s been great working with him man, I’m looking forward to doing more in the future.”
What does the tune ‘Good Life’ mean to you?
“I’m a slave to vibration when it comes to music. When I heard it, the first thing I thought about was ‘Reminisce Over You‘ by Pete Rock and CL Smooth, like it put me in a sort of melloncholy mood. I feel like we’re all going through the same struggles, but we make the mistake of taking some of the details a little too serious, ya know, what other people believe in, stuff like that. I feel like people need to get over themselves. It’s serious man, but it ain’t that serious. You’ve gotta figure out how to simply enjoy life. You have to figure out how to appreciate what’s going on, everything is not a battle, everything is not a fight. Look man, people don’t really have this shit figured out, they’re just really good at making it seem like they do. That was the point of that song, just to tell people to get over themselves. We’re all here for a time and we try our best, then we give it to the next. That was the whole point of the record man, light-hearted, but at the same time, asking people to really examine this whole idea of truth.”
What’s the thinking behind your 40 Year Old Rapper series?
“The series idea has been around for a while, I just kept chickening out ‘cos I was scared to tell people I was 40. You know, in rap, 40 is like a senior citizen, it’s like old age. But I had to own it because I’m an artist, even outside of hip-hop and rap, I’m an artist, period. I’m never gunna stop creating so it was my way of facing down the fact that yes, I am 40, and yes, I am going to continue being a hip-hop artist. I’m not a well-known hip-hop artist yet, so it’s gunna come up eventually: how old are you? So I figured I would just tell the public that’s what it was. The other purpose it serves, is that I consider rap specifically to be a sport. It’s a bloodsport to me and in any violent sport you have weight classes. I have 20+ years of writing songs, I can’t compete against people who have only been writing songs for five or six years. It’s not fair to me and it’s not fair to them, they’re not in my weight class. It doesn’t mean that what they’re doing isn’t good, it just means that we don’t draw from the same life experiences. The same for artists that came before me, I can’t compete with Rakim or KRS-One, they’ve got an extra 15 years on their pens than me. So, it was a way for me to identify where I am in terms of my artistry. Who are other artists that are 40 +/-5 years that are doing it? Most of them are some of the best to be doing it. So, I consider myself to be in their weight class. When people interact with my music, I want them to be directly affected by the fact that even though they’ve just heard of me, I’m not a new artist.”
What’s the biggest goal you want to achieve in music?
“I want my name to be spoken among the greats when people talk about Detroit hip-hop. When people say names like Royce da 5’9″, Eminem, even Big Sean and anybody you talk about in the legacy of Detroit hip-hop, I want my name cemented there. That’s what I wanna leave my city. That’s what I wanna leave this game. I wanna be somebody that came from the city and represented the city well. I also wanna be the first 40+ artist that blows up. Nobody’s ever seen it. I wanna be that guy. Somebody has to be first and I wanna break the barriers. I wanna show that even at my age, I’m still improving. I’m still 10 times the artist I was 15 years ago when I was in my 20s.”
What’s next for MRK SX?
“40 Year Old Rapper Episode 2, it’ll be out very soon. I don’t really wanna say when, ‘cos it’s depending on something else that I’ve done with some bigger artists. When that comes out, it’ll be the best time to put out Episode 2, but it’s ready and I’m getting visuals together for it right now. It does not sound anything like Episode 1, matter of fact, none of them sound anything alike, except that I’m the artist on them. It also begins what the series really is, which is a relationship between me and specific producers. So this year I’ve decided to do something that I never did, which is to put out projects that are just me as an artist and one producer. That begins with Episode 2, you’re gunna hear just me and these producers from the Ukraine, they go by Justchillbeats. They have a very, very great sound and I did a whole project with them, and that project will be Episode 2 of the 40 Year Old Rapper series.”
Final shout outs?
“Man, my sponsors The Plugs, I’m also part of a company called The Plugs, they sell earbuds and other electronics. Shout out to my record label, I’m also a record label owner, the name of the label is DatFeelin, and shout to all of the artists and producers that are on there, A&Rs, and yeah, shout out to you – thank you man.”
Interviewed by: James Wijesinghe