"I put it all in this poetry / You take the time to listen you just might end up knowing me."
Those are the words of Don Mykel, rapped by the Harlem-residing, New York City native on a track titled "The Journey." It's the eleventh song out of twelve onG.O.D Mykel: The Martyr, a mixtape the rapper dropped last month.
His music features elements of New York's Golden Era -- a sound he grew up listening to -- mixed with modern trap influences. Accompanied by cunning and thought-provoking lyrics, it's clear Mykel is creating an enjoyable path and style of his own in the genre.
As his quote above explains, after listening to his discography I felt like I had been given an up-close shot of Mykel's life and perspective. So, to help me further understand his intentions and views on music and society, I got a chance to speak with the artist last week. It's safe to say that my eyes are open wide fully to his determination, confidence, intellect, all of which combine to create his intricate personality.
Our conversation was edited for conciseness and clarity.
Could you give us a history of your involvement in music from a kid to where you are now?
My dad was a producer and an artist and my mom sang a lot in the house. She liked poetry, too. So, I really grew up being into music. I remember, in my old apartment, I had a bedroom, a living room, a kitchen, a bathroom, and then a laundry room that my pops had turned into a home studio. So day-to-day I experienced walking past the studio going to school and leaving the crib. Then, when we moved to Harlem, my dad took a basement and turned it into a home studio. That's what I really experienced growing up. I was always around music and involved in music because I always had a studio in my crib.
My parents have an old VHS video and it was me at 3 years old, before I could really put words together, but I was just mumbling flows and sh-t; it was crazy for my parents to see my talent early. I mean, I did my first show in second grade at my school's talent show, and when I was 14 years old I decided to take music seriously. I decided it was gonna be my career and so I started to really sit down and study and do my history on rap and music, in general.
I made my first mixtape when I was 17 in high school and it got a cool response in the lunch room. I was rapping really good for my age, anyone who heard me was impressed that I was only 17 spitting like how I was. And then, from there, I went to college and released my second mixtape. After leaving college I released my debut independent album and it got a great response. So, I'm just trying to push my own boundaries and creative limits, you know what I'm saying? I just kept trying to perfect my craft.
Who were some of the people you listened to and studied growing up? I know in the past you've referenced Big Pun and Jay Z and Nas as influences, but who else?
I was heavy into Lupe Fiasco, Mos Def, Talib, guys like that. Rakim. I was getting into Common. That's what I meant by doing my history. And you gotta remember, growing up in that era, I was watching MTV videos and Music Choice On Demand every morning before school. And not only did I do my history on the Golden Era stuff, I'm also really in tune with the new age culture -- that's how I keep balance. Now I'm listening to T.I. and Rick Ross. I listen to J. Cole, of course Drake and Kendrick. There's a lot of guys I'm really inspired by.
You mentioned the NY influences in Nas and Pun and Jay, guys who've featured that boom-bap, East Coast vibe in some way. Do you think the city still has that common sound and atmosphere? And if so, is it still being revived and added on to by modern artists today?
Yeah man, I like where New York is at right now. I mean, we got A$AP Mob, we got Pro Era. We got DyMe-A-DuZin, Flatbush Zombies, French Montana. RIP Chinx Drugz. I think we got a balance for sure. Guys figured out how to make New York music relevant in 2016. But yeah, I like where New York is at. We still got Nas, we still got Hov. (laughs) And gotta mention Dave East, he's doing big things for Harlem.
Let's get into your music. Do you think you have a defined sound?
I don't think I've defined my sound, but I know what my sound is. I mean, I'm always trying to push my creativity and I'm always trying something new. So, I can't really put a definition on what my sound is. I can't tell you exactly, because I don't really know.
I don't know man. I'll give you that pain, that dungeon sh-t, I guess. I make and then share whatever sparks an emotion in me. Stuff just comes out of me sometimes.
What would you say is a good way to describe the environment and atmosphere your music creates?
If you want to hear and feel my pain one time, man...Look, if you want to turn up and still get that message, learn some sh-t right quick, holla at me. When I get really passionate about something, I can get serious about it. But I also can turn the f-ck up and do some ignorant, immature sh-t. (laughs) That balance is just me, that's the duality of who I am. That's really the only way I can describe it.
Last month, you released G.O.D. Mykel: The Martyr. Now that you've had some time to digest the feedback and response and aftermath of its release, what can you tell us about your mindset on that tape?
Yeah man, this is really an independent body of work that I went in on and put all of my creative energy into. The feedback's been crazy, people are starting to see my vision. There's been a lot of love so far, so I'm just gonna keep the ball rolling, man. I got another project half to it that I'm working on; a side B. Nobody really knows about the secret side B to G.O.D Mykel, but that's coming soon.
Did you ever have a moment where you felt discouraged by the industry?
Hell no. Hell no. Hell no. I never thought that. I can't think that. How can I achieve anything if I'm coming in with that mindset? You gotta remember, I've been rapping since I was 3, so it's nothing for me to good at now, know what I mean? Like, I'm supposed to be good at it. Everybody that taught me how to rap is great at it, so I'm supposed to do this. I'm the next evolution of my bloodline. I've never felt like, 'man, this sh-t ain't gonna work.' Like, there have been moments where I've been disappointed because I thought something specific was gonna work out but it didn't go down. But that never made me feel like I should give up or go get a job. Hell no, ni--a. (laughs)
I don't need a Plan B, because I know my Plan A is gonna work. I know this is gonna work. And I'm getting a little bit of attention now, but it's nowhere near where I want to be. So, I'm still a heavy dreamer and heavy believer.
Building on that, where would you like to be in the future?
I mean, I plan to be at the top. I don't really know how to answer or describe that, man. I want to be in the conversation at the end of the day. I want to be someone that's talked about in the next few years.
Moving to the content of your music, one thing that I think separates your music from others is that you will include spiritual references in lyrics and artwork, which really helps to build the character of your music. Where did that spiritual side enter your life?
As a kid, I was always surrounded by those types of messages from my pops and other folks who were spiritually conscious. When I grew up, I went to Catholic school and being there I learned the bible and learned about religion. But, you know, as a kid with distractions I didn't always keep it with me when I was young. So, when I matured and grew up and started to find myself, all of those words and things came back to me. That stuff just shaped and strengthened my mentality as a person; I'm always willing to learn and always eager to question everything. The people that live in the type of hood I grew up in don't usually question everything and instead accept the reality given to them. I try to push that a lot in my music, the idea of creating your own perceptions. Create your own belief, you know what I'm saying?
A lot of your music touches on growing up in the hood and the realities of growing up in that environment's cycle of life. How did you become cognizant of the lifestyle ills in your area?
I just knew from very young that something wasn't right. Growing up in the South Bronx and Harlem, I saw a lot of diversity in the city from street life to calmer life. Growing up in Harlem was crazy because one area the block was hot but in other areas it was growing more and more gentrified. Seeing so much diversity and so many different faces of the hood, but also seeing areas with the same old cycle, really confirmed that something isn't right. The system really is against us, the system really isn't for us. It was not built for me to succeed.
Why do you think that cycle continues? Is it maybe that lack of diversity and vision during kids' childhood?
You have to remember. I grew up in an area where dudes were ill -- we grew up in the same area. But the difference with me was that I had my father who was there and was once a young street legend, and I had my uncle who came back from there. Both were spiritually strong dudes who weren't trapped in the ghetto and in that state of mind, so they raised me to think differently [from the common cycle] and to be strong minded and strong willed. And there are still guys who have role models like that, but some just don't have that willpower to overcome and turn down those other paths.
But, I've never always had that willpower. I had to learn that s--t. Growing up, I had friends all over the city and I got to see the different lifestyles, so I had to learn how to have my own perception and have the willpower to be like, 'just because y'all are doing one thing or moving one way doesn't mean it's something I'm gonna do.'
How important is it for you to include that message in your music for kids listening to you?
It's important for me. Because you know how some geniuses have all this knowledge but just don't know what to do with it, you feel me? Sometimes I just got so much I want to explain. I've got so much creative energy and and perceptions and views that it's my duty to put it in my music, it's my responsibility. Because if I wasn't putting that type of s--t in my music, I'd be making every other club or radio record. Don't get me wrong, I still like those records because I still like to get ignorant -- I've got that side, too! I like to turn the f--k up, too. But, it's crucial that a balance is there and that the end message stresses something important.
With every project, that's my goal: to at least have a message within it. No matter what the beats sound like or what route I went musically or creatively, it's gotta be a message that touches on something I feel is important to me.
I've got tunes for everybody, especially the youth -- that's my target. I look at them and say, 'my music's for you.' The youth gotta know the truth. That's just how I feel.
Follow Don Mykel on Soundcloud