Fresh off the release of his Pieces Of A Man album, we spoke to Mick Jenkins about the influence of Gil Scott-Heron on his music, trading bars with Ghostface, and how he balances the demands of the music industry with maintaining a private life.
Mick Jenkins’s Pieces Of A Man is one of the most smartly composed hip-hop albums of the year. While writing the project, Jenkins came across Gil Scott-Heron’s “The Ghetto Code” and the recording inspired him to aim for a style of delivery that avoided sounding too preachy whilst at the same time conveying his inner emotions and his worldly views. It’s a balance that the Chicago native confidently strikes throughout the 17 song project, which builds on the success of his breakthrough 2014 mixtape The Water[s].
Pieces Of A Man was named after a Gil Scott-Heron album, right?
Yeah, it was. During the creation process I was listening to a lot of different stuff for inspiration and that was one thing that stuck out for me. I wasn’t directly listening to that album [Scott-Heron’s Pieces Of A Man], but more to his speeches – a joint called “The Ghetto Code” was really dope. Coming across the album title, Pieces Of A Man, made me self-reflect on what it meant and it directed and inspired me when trying to highlight that idea in relation to myself.
What was it about Gil Scott-Heron’s voice and speeches that resonated with you?
He spoke to a lot of people at the same time. I kept running back “The Ghetto Code”: it was funny, it was serious, it was jarring, and I felt like he seamlessly oscillated between talking to you, rapping, rhyming and poetry. To speak like that and to be able to hit the intellectual side as well as engaging with people who may not be thinking so deeply or with the same sort of effectiveness – it’s entertaining and you’re not boring any part of the crowd. To me, that’s the art of MCing.
Which song did you finish first on the album? Did it set a template for the rest?
The first song was “Plain Clothes.” It’s actually an old song. It was produced by High Klassified in maybe 2014 or 2015, in Montreal. I had the opportunity to make beats from scratch with him and that’s one we made. But it didn’t quite fit with what I had going on at the time. When I wanted to use it again last year and I asked him for the stems, he didn’t even have it anymore and so he had to remake the beat! So we definitely got the best version going around, for sure!
You also have a couple of Black Milk productions on the album.
Yeah, Black Milk is a super dope producer and rapper and he came down to Chicago to fuck with me. I’ve got my own studio here and it’s a really organic link up. I think him being another Midwest guy, it made for a good synergy on those records.
How did you go about collaborating with Ghostface on “Padded Locks?”
Ghostface was another person I was listening to throughout the creative process for this album. My DJ is a super crazy Wu-Tang Clan fan. The first thing we’d do while recording is look for inspiration through music, play some other rappers, play videos, play documentaries … both Gil Scott-Heron and Ghostface stood out. He finally came through with his verse about a month before the album was ready to go.
On the song “Ghost,” you talk about being an artist but not always wanting to be in the public eye.
It’s about dealing with everything that being an artist involves: being in the light, what it is to be surrounded by people all the time when you’re on tour, not having a lot of personal time, always required to be at an event or on the scene. This song is my “Fuck that” response! You never see me out: I’m on the road or in the crib or working on my penmanship and my relationship. That speaks to the things that are important to me, like having my personal space and being with my lady.
I’ve watched people in this industry suffer because of how hard they’re going for the product. The product becomes successful but they suffer. I can’t do that. I can’t live like that and I will not allow myself to do that. It’s way more valuable to me to be attentive to my relationship and my artistry and my family, to make time for those things. If some of the things that are keeping me from are superficial things, then nah, you’ll never see me out for that!
You also collaborated with the jazz group BadBadNotGood on the album. How was that?
Always amazing. They record analogue so every time we do a song it feels like we’re recording it live. I think we did the song in four takes. That’s the coolest environment, to be around musicians who are checking each other and correcting pitch and things like that.
What sort of message were you trying to convey with the song “Consensual Seduction?”
Just that — how there’s a lot of confusion in consent. Personally, I hold an opinion that I think it’s unreasonable for men to be so confused about consent. But when I listen to some of the stories about how it can be confusing for some of my homies, I begin to understand a little bit more about where it can come from. [Pauses] Even though I feel like it’s largely pretty obvious! So, I decided to make a song about it. While it is sometimes confusing, there are some things that just rely on a person’s integrity.
Did you give the featured singer Corinne Bailey Rae much direction in terms of what you wanted her to bring to the concept of the song?
Not even. I definitely wanted it to just be a response from a woman, whether it was endorsing my behavior or not and that’s exactly what it was about. I like the way she took it. I think that when I request a conceptual response from a woman, it’s best just to let her do whatever she wants!
Mick Jenkins, Pieces of a Man
Read our interview of Brian Jackson, the longtime collaborator of Gil Scott Heron