MIKE: Turning Sadness to Sound-Waves

Note: This will mostly only focus on MIKE’s 2017 record MAY GOD BLESS YOUR HUSTLE, as I believe it to be the one I know the most intimately. It felt wrong to try to speak about the power of his other records when they don’t impact me personally as deeply as Hustle does. 

Hip-hop is changing. The genre’s humble beginnings in the dilapidated 1970s/80s New York City, a place torn apart by crime, with songs which tried to bring the city back together and to preach positivity to politics (with tracks such as Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s stone cold classic The Message, one of the most easily to recognise tracks for their overall impact on *so* much other hip-hop) lasted through to the 2010s as hip-hop slowly became morphed by its own stardom. The focus became hedonism, it became misogyny and capitalism almost in spite of itself and the positivity that it tried to focus on in its beginnings (at least in the mainstream, chart topping tracks) and even the rivalries between rappers were played up as innocent when behind the scenes bloodshed stained the happiness of the genre. It was joy, it was escapism, even if sometimes it would be drawn back into gang warfare largely because of the media’s representation of the genre. 

Hip-hop comes from hardship for the most part, but it was focused on escapism. This is what is changing. As time has passed, artists have become more introspective. It’s hard to pin exactly where this begins – it seems that Kanye West’s classic 808s and Heartbreaks has a part to play with its innovative sound and focus on personal hardships such as loss and depression, and Drake likely drove the change further with some of his biggest hits being more introspective than most other hip-hop stars’ have been. However, there is a true difference between these tracks and what we see now from a relatively new collective stemming from hip-hop’s birthplace of New York City with something new to say and a new sound to help push their words forward. 

The sLuMs collective is what I’m speaking about. A group of young hip-hop musicians working together and collaborating on a range of projects since the mid 2010s. The group is quiet and hasn’t been reported on too largely, but it seems that MIKE is largely responsible for the group’s existence and appears to be their figurehead, their leader, their frontman. And with larger artists such as most notably Earl Sweatshirt falling into their fold with his 2018 record Some Rap Songs (and his subsequent EP, Feet of Clay), the sLuMs impact is growing, evidently. And with their growth comes the growth of *truly* introspective hip-hop, hip-hop focused on knowledge of self, personal growth, depression and mental health, etc. Some of the most emotional hip-hop of all time has come from this group in spite of their recent inception, with records such as Sixpress’s On The Road… Sunny Path, Medslaus’ collaboration POORBOY, Earl Sweatshirt’s aforementioned Some Rap Songs and, as this article will go into in much more detail, MIKE’s MAY GOD BLESS YOUR HUSTLE, the most apparent masterpiece of the collective thus far. 

There is a deep focus on poeticism within the group, on very obscure samples (this seems to come largely from Slauson Malone’s involvement as producer, but it has spread within the group to develop their trademark sound) and on introspection. MIKE seems to come from depression, with his explanations of the dingy New York streets painting vivid pictures of walks and train rides home through bitterly cold winter evenings, the heartbreak of missing times that he wished had never passed and the lethargy that comes with the struggle with mental illness that leads him to ‘reach home and hit the mattress quick’. The mix of seven total producers (including sLuMs members Ade Hakim and Navy Blue, the latter of which has also made some incredible records over the last year) would usually be a warning sign that the record would be messy in sound, inconsistent in its musical approach, but somehow it remains entirely intact as an overall experience, a singular one. 

MIKE Is Ushering in a New Generation of New York City Rap | Pitchfork
MIKE photographed by Chandler Kennedy for Pitchfork

MIKE’s record is absolutely devastating, to say the least. One verse worth focusing on is the opening to FOREVER FIND FLIGHT, the record’s longest tracks clocking in at 6 minutes, with an odd beat with shattering cymbal hits, overlapping robotic voices and a stunning beat switch in the middle that switches to a more positive sound of light piano notes. The first verse says it all, acting as something of a manifesto for the mood of the record as a whole: 

‘I’m stuck inside my head,

I swear I miss the Earth, I swear I miss the Earth,

I swear I’m missing her; I swear I miss my momma

I wish she told me how the kitchen worked, 

I miss the drama

And all this stressing really isn’t worth the shitty product.’

In just a few lines, MIKE summarises the mood of the entire project – a bitterly cold portrait of a man drowning in his depression and anxiety that cuts through you like the Winter wind does. The bass heavy sounds that follow the track after, Brick Blues, compress the soundscape in a way that seems inspired by the brutally tinny sounds of Kanye’s Yeezus or Earl Sweatshirt’s underrated I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside which played a monumentally huge part in creating this new, grim hip-hop. MIKE ‘pray[s] the future bright, although it probably isn’t’, he continues to act in spite of his fears and in spite of the part of himself that tells him that none of this is worthwhile. His self hatred grows, personified by the sounds of MIKE singing and drowned in autotune and heavy sound edits on the track Rainforest. 

The most depressing track on the album by far has to be the shortest on the record, track 2, HUNGER. Hunger speaks about Mike’s lack of satisfaction with his life, his depression, his yearning for better times which have passed and seemingly left him behind. The sound of the organ in the background is just soul crushing with the repetitive looped sound and the jagged samples as MIKE explains how ‘my mother’s face seems new to me every time [that] I hit the photos for a better time’, once again capturing that harsh reality that he feels subjected to rather than a part of. I distinctly remember walking aimlessly shortly after starting university, in a city that I didn’t know with people who I couldn’t get along with feeling very much the same way – experiencing that disconnect from where your feet stand and where your head lay, nothing seems to bring any solace other than sleeping (if you can manage to do so).

The inclusion of Wiki for a feature on the song STANDOUT is also interesting as it creates something of a collective web between underground hip-hop groups. Wiki links to the small clique involving Lil Ugly Mane and his peers, another group of people creating impossibly grim hip-hop, and so it seems that the movement continues to grow outwards. These new songs may come from dark feelings of loneliness and depression, but there is undoubtedly a togetherness felt in the music making itself. Here’s hoping that, emotionally, they can grow upwards. The self expression can’t hurt. 

Mike (musician) - Wikipedia
MIKE performing at Highland Park in November 2019

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