McKinley Dixon on Representation, Sean Price and Toni Morrison
As we await the Rising rapper’s new album, The Importance of Self Belief, McKinley Dixon takes us through his literary influences, representation and the musical forefathers who have championed his career.
There are tons of traditional hip-hop breaks and boom-bap inspired rhythms in your lyrical patterns, but what informed your style as it is today?
I think it was the stories I would read growing up. I read a lot of books by black authors that really inspired me. I loved stories that were told analytically and not romanticizing the black experience, the street life, everything to do with that. There’s a disconnect and no middle ground for people putting jazz into their music and not really personifying in their music. “Circle the Block” is me making a rap song and telling my jazz players to play a punk song at the end of it.
Toni Morrison’s whole collection of novels, like Jazz, really informed my vocabulary. They were such densely packaged novels. She had this very deliberate approach of how to disseminate information.
Did your parents have anything to do with your musical aspirations?
Honestly, not that much. They were more artistic in the sense of fine arts. I was dabbling in rap music since I was in 11th grade. My first mixtape was called Peter Truman. It had a track called “We Lovin’ That Jazz” that went a little viral. After that song, I was able to take that to other people at my college, VCU, who played music to support me. All these years later, and they are some of the best musicians and people I know.
What was it about the authors you read that you gravitated towards?
I’m from Annapolis, Maryland. It’s a very military-heavy area, so there were never fruitful opportunities to express myself. When I came to Richmond and [went to] college, it was really my friends that brought out my creative side and opened up my mind to being a more diverse group of people. They kind of showed me that there wasn’t just this monolithic idea of a black man. Without black women, there is nothing. Without black queer folk, there is nothing. I always thought the identity I held was the only identity, and that’s just not true.
Tell me about being a conductor, of sorts, for your band. You seem to have a great rapport and mutual desire to guide each other.
I started out in college with those guys and we are all still together, it’s great. It’s a great relationship because I’ll write the raps, but a lot of the musical direction is coming from the band and they figure out the arrangements. Since it’s jazz music, there’s always a member being swapped in and out. I feel like I have this role as a leader to people who are masters at what they do. I don’t really have a say to what they play because they know what’s going to sound best.
Your previous album, Who Taught You to Hate Yourself?, really seems to deal with issues of representation. Did you grow up recognizing those problems?
My mother definitely instilled a lot of those thoughts into me because her mother instilled them in her. My mother was from New York City, but was moving to a place that wasn’t New York City, so it was a completely different set of surroundings. She reminded me because she needed to remind herself. I studied animation in college, and I think I was disappointed by the lack of diversity. To find something with characters and personalities I can relate to, I had to search it out, like “The Boondocks” or anything from overseas.
Between sharing songs with Guilty Simpson and Sean Price and opening up for Shabazz Palaces, it seems that lots of rappers in the alternative hip-hop space are supporting you. What is that like?
They are like original New York and Detroit rappers. I was really into that scene. I met Sean Price years a years ago, a few years before he passed. I’d always call him on his home phone; he didn’t have a cell phone. He would never be home because he was a famous rapper and his wife would always answer. I became friends with his wife through missed calls.
Sean and Guilty really dug it because they loved hearing live instruments. I’m not even sure Sean would really fuck with the music I am making now. He was so brutally honest.
How do you, as a musician who favors live instrumentation, feel about the wave of rappers that have popped up recently?
I dig it. Ultimately, what it is, for the most part, is black youth in their room having fun and being themselves. Sometimes, I just think, ‘Daaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaamn, I just mixed a track in my bedroom, and it had 83 tracks, and no one is fucking with it.’ I don’t really get bitter about that stuff. Sometimes, I have to just see it as something that is temporary, and I don’t want that — something temporary.
Let’s talk about new music. Where do the themes of this record come in, and do they kind of take off from where Who Taught You To Hate Yourself left off?
I was starting college when I made Who Taught You, and I was just obsessed with the idea of discovering and understanding blackness and being a black man. It’s a lot of you being able to hear a young boy going through things that he thinks only he is going through. On the new record, The Importance of Self Belief, I think I am trying to figure out more than one model of identity.
How do you feel about being possibly heard as left of center or alternative? Is it motivating to fill in the gaps of themes missing in hip-hop?
I think it is motivating and makes me want to do something specific, because, for real for real, if I had to tell these stories and I couldn’t gravitate towards it, I’d rather have a homie come in and tell the story. I’m just trying to get to a spot where I can put other people on.
How do you hope your music is received by people?
I’m not going to lie, a lot of things I talk about in my music are not cool. They are personal. If someone takes something away from my music, it’s incredible. I want to inspire, but not dictate.
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