RH Interview: Mykele Deville

In only 3 years Mykele Deville has become a leading light of conscious rap in Chicago. Starting with his debut Super Predator (a reference to a Hillary Clinton quote where she used the phrase to describe young black men) which was quickly followed by Each One Teach One (which came out 3 months after his debut) we knew that Mykele would have an impact on the scene and on his listeners. At times his music seems therapeutic, a source of nurture that can shelter listeners from the problems surrounding them. Yet at the same time his songs can act as a magnifying glass showing the deep inequalities in our society. Having cut his teeth as a performer in basements across Chicago as well as having run a space (shout out The Dojo) Mykele takes a DIY approach to everything and his do-it-myself attitude has gotten him pretty far. His poetry collective Growing Concerns released a book last year and has performed in the Art Institute. After a busy 2017 he took 2018 to recollect and work on his upcoming album Maintain which  is also his label-debut, set to release February 22nd via No Trend Records. I sat down with him to talk about his writing process, building a musical legacy, and creating a space for yourself. Check out the full interview below.

rubyhornet: I want to start off by asking about your approach to writing. You were a poet before you were a rapper, as far as I’m aware, so do you think that gives you a different writing process?

Mykele Deville:Yeah, I think it’s always growing, and it’s always evolving. I’m currently in classrooms trying to teach the connection between writing poetry and writing hip hop, and how they are sort of akin to each other. But they are different processes. So with poetry, I feel a lot of freedom within that process, that you don’t necessarily have to rhyme or have alliteration going throughout your entire piece. You can get freedom of how you deliver what you want to say.With hip hop it has to take a form. It has to have a structure to it in order for people to be able to follow it ,and sing along to it. Or in order for you to make something that people can relate to, or hear each line. At first, I was writing poems, and looking at those poems, and transposing those poems into hip hop format. So I started there, because I didn’t know how to write a hip hop song. I didn’t know how to write verse-chorus-verse, and bridges, and all these different things. Then when I started to get a little bit more comfortable in finding my voice, and finding out the difference of a song versus a haiku, or a small manifesto poem, or something that I’ve written in my journal. I used those poems as thematic starting points to write hip hop.So now I feel like I write both poems and hip hop songs, and I’m still trying to find a way to meld both of them. So how can my hip hop songs have some of this poet poems to it, and how can my poetry have elements of hip hop to it? Which has to do with my poetry collective, I’m a part of Growing Concerns poetry collective. I’m finding ways in which to fuse that hip hop and poetry into one thing. I’m just trying to wear both those hats without saying I’m 100% a poet, or 100% a rapper.

rubyhornet: Totally. I think that’s a nice little spot to be sitting in. And it works with everything that you’ve been doing. How long have you been rapping?

Mykele Deville: It’s been three years.

rubyhornet: Wow, so what was it … Super Predator was in 2016?

Mykele Deville: Yeah, Super Predator was the first. Yeah, 2016..

rubyhornet: That was the first time that you were starting to rap?

Mykele Deville: Yeah, that’s the first time I started rapping. I was an actor for years before that, then I graduated with my degree in acting. That acting background really helped to form my voice, and helped my articulation, and tension when coming to write my own personal stuff. And I was always, during that time, also writing poetry. So when it was time to transition into … try my hand at hip hop, I already had this backing, and basis of training that allowed me to skip some of the hard parts that you have to learn when you’re out there actually performing, and when you’re doing things for a crowd.

rubyhornet: Right. Comfortable in front of people. That makes sense. You’ve been writing poetry longer then that though, it seems.

Mykele Deville: Yeah, I’ve been writing poetry my entire life, and just kind of dabbling in it. I used to, back in Pay I used to play guitar in a bunch of little bands and stuff, on the west side of Chicago with my friends. You know, and sit closely with the lead singers and stuff like that, and help them jig out their lyric writing, but I never really wrote lyrics, I just wrote poetry and played the guitar. Then with the theater and acting, dropped that a little bit. And then after I got out of acting for a bit, really got into the punk scene and the DIY scene. And growing the DIY thing in myself for about two years. I got to see the new kinds of flows there are out here, and the main kinds of different musical song composition there is, and that inspired me to take my poetry to the next level in that way.

rubyhornet: So how did Growing Concerns come about?

Mykele Deville: How did Growing Concerns come about? Oh man. Growing Concerns was the thing that I always wanted to do. You know, hip hop … I was rapping for maybe a year band a half, and I was performing twice or three times a week. I was really enjoying it, but I had left behind the basis of where I started, which was poetry. And I wanted to have another vehicle of performance where I could, with no pressure, just get on stage, and just have my notebook in hand, and read from my journal. Read things that I couldn’t transpose into hip hop. And I got with the musician Jeff Austin, who was with me when I first started rapping, and he was down to explore this art form. So kind of made these cinematic, indie beats, that would lift the poetry up a little bit. So we tried this format, and it was really cool. We tried it in basements, and stuff like that. I found different lanes for what I wanted to do poetically, but after a while I realized such things were mimicking what was going on in my hip hop set, and also that I couldn’t tell all the stories that I wanted to tell. You know, just inhabit in the body of a black male cis person. I get to do that a lot with my own hip hop, and tell my story in that way, and so how was this group different? So enters McKenzie Chinn, who is a brilliant poet, and oh my god, an actress and a director, and a producer in city, a concept creator. She came aboard, and we started to collaborate. She was already writing a lot of poetry, and already had a lot of poetry as well. And we started to fit together and put those themes in conversation with each other, in the same room. And Jeff would go through his beat Rolodex, just score some of this stuff, and we realized, hey we’re able to say a lot with a lot of different styles when it’s both our voices, and both our art in conversation with each other. That’s kind of how that started. And we had a big reverence for the word, and Chicago’s just a really wonderful city for poets. But we really understood that our voice is a little something different then the typical way that slam poetry has evolved in Chicago. We were trying to create a lane for ourselves that shows that poetry is accessible. It’s as accessible as hip hop, or R&B, or any of these things. Poetry is something that we can all do. And through our love of teaching, and acting, and all these different things, Growing Concerns just highlights a narrative, and poetic storytelling with cinematic scores. So that’s an experiment in the making. We’ve got a lot of cool success with that one because we’re not just a band, just to tow the line of being a band, but also being literary.

rubyhornet: And you guys put out a book.

Mykele Deville: Yeah, we wrote a book. That was a really wonderful experience to write a book, and be able to be published. And also operate, and do our release shows, in theater spaces, and museums, and art shops. Things that I as a hip hop artist, wouldn’t necessarily be able to access. I’m able to access it with that group, and be this new molecular level of hybrid entry. It’s a lot of hyphenation going on in Chicago when it comes to artists, and we want to embrace that with that group. So I’m really proud of that, where that’s going.

rubyhornet: It’s really cool. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of anybody else rapping at the Art Institute until this next Pitchfork Midwinter Festivall this weekend, but … I remember when that happened, I thought that was the coolest thing.

Mykele Deville: Appreciate it.

rubyhornet: So I guess I want to ask what is your goal with your music? When someone listens to Mykele Deville, what should they walk away feeling?

Mykele Deville: Oh man, that’s a huge one. That’s it. I want them walking away feeling. I remember when I used to sneak into concerts, being a kid and going to the Common concert, or the Mos Def concert, or the Badu concert, or something like that. I just remember feeling like these are the kinds of artists that this music will last, and not just in the sense of just legacy, but it lasts with me. It lasts with me as an audience member, because they bring up such complicated stories and narratives that happen in the crevices of Black life. That don’t get reported. And they do it in such a way that seems simple. It rolls of the tongue. Songs like “Bag Lady”, you know what I mean? And Mos Def “Love”, and Black on Both Sides, and all of these different things. They speak to an essential part of our experience, but in a simple way. In a way in which you can sing along, and then years later those lyrics still mean something, but mean something different as you grow up. I think rap has always been a political art form, and an art form for us to be able to get out our unseen and unheard stories. That’s why it’s the most popular genre in all the world, currently. Everybody wants to be a part of the hip hop wave, because it’s catchy, it’s fun, but it also has a power to mobilize and bring people, not only together, but make them critical. Aware of everything that’s going around. And can paint a picture of the time period like no other. Because whatever that MC, or poet, is feeling and what they see, that version of the world is uniquely their own. They get to become the author of what the world looks like, versus being told what the world looks like, and being told what we are supposed to be. So when people hear my music, I want them to understand that they’re not alone in feeling the kind of anxieties that this country shovels on us. Through hyper access, and through news stories, and 24 hour news cycles, and all of these connotations about what our lives are supposed to be. I want people to have perspective into what it’s like to be Black in America today. Not ten years ago, or five years ago, but right now. What that looks like, and what that feels like. For some people, that’s going to feel very close to their own experiences. Other people, it’s going to seem very far away. But the empathy needs to be in the music, and we need to get back to a point of having our music be those lessons for people those … People walk around listening to motivational tapes, and books, and things like that all the time, and I feel like lots of people don’t even read books anymore. They listen to music. This is where they get their mantras, this is where they get their dogmas for the day. If they’re constantly getting bombarded with messages of materialism, and messages of greed, and messages of … spite your neighbors … you know, just jealousy and things like that, then that’s what they want to embody. So if my music can be that drop in the ocean of all this cynicism, if it can be a drop of motivation, and hope, and a sense of strength to folks, that’s all I can hope for it to accomplish. I don’t want to necessarily be famous. I don’t care about being big, or anything like that, I just want my music to really help people. So hopefully that’s what it does, instead of just making everybody turn up. It’s cool to turn up and stuff like that, and dance, but also use it for that.

rubyhornet: It’s a cool approach.

Mykele Deville: Yeah, I’m finding that middle ground, man, of figuring out how to … you don’t want to make people sit through a lecture all the time when you play, you know what I mean? You don’t. They can read the paper for that. Some people come to concerts, and as I get older and continue to do this, some people just come to tune out.

rubyhornet: Right. To get away from their problems.

Mykele Deville: Yeah. To get away from their problems, and things like that, and so I understand that’s a thing. On the other hand, I do feel like music has that power to not only remind us of those problems, but let’s have a good day. Creative solutions, whether they work or not, at the very least there’s hope in the music, and there’s music that makes you feel lifted afterwards. But sometimes you have to go through looking at hard truths in order to get to that point where you can celebrate.

Mykele Deville: So I want to be that kind of artist where I can make you feel great, and I can also tell a story that breaks your heart, and I can also tell a story that motivates you.

rubyhornet: Do you think that your involvement in the DIY scene has given you a different approach to your career as a musician?

Mykele Deville: Oh yeah, man. First of all shout out to Chicago DIY. Chicago DIY scene has been going forever, and it probably always will. Like I said, I’m not a conventional … I didn’t grow up wanting to be a rapper. I didn’t, until like three years ago, know that was something that I could even do, or even attempt. But the DIY scene allows anybody to try anything, and it will give you an audience. It allows you to be free, and be messy, and make mistakes. And call those mistakes truths and triumphs. It really gave me a lot of agency to test out all of this theory about can poetry be hip hop? Can hip hop be poetry? Can my theater degree and theater background really actually help me be a better performer, even if I was not reading a script, but doing music.DIY had spaces for me when nobody would. When no bar knew my name, or anything like that. Conventional hip hop looks a specific way right now. It sounds a specific way right now. And is there room for people like me, who want my music only to go further in order to help spread messages of positivity and hope? Is there room for that in the industry? And if there is, does it look like me and does it sounds like me? That’s the question I’ll continue to ask until I’m shaking hands with Kendrick Lamar, or Chance, or something like that, who knows. But for the right now, and for the present, the DIY scene really opened its arms to me. The punk rockers opened their arms to me. The underground hip hop artists really opened their ears to my sound, and really helped me out on those first couple of records. I always say those first two records “Super Predator”, “Each One, Teach One” isn’t my sound, it’s the sound of Chicago. It’s the sound of all different kinds of musicians coming together, collaborating together, to kind of elevate me. And they’ve helped me become a better rapper, to the point where I can come into my own in a record like “Peace, Fam”, and a record like “Maintain”, and start to have that identity of DIY with a little bit of 90s kick, with a little bit of more political rap, and some fun tracks. Come up with stuff … I was able to find that with the space that the DIY scene was able to give me. It’s still growing. It still has its issues, and its problems, but it started to expand and allow voices like mine to be heard. So shouts out to DIY scene, for real.

rubyhornet: Are you still playing with All That Melanin?

Mykele Deville: No. All That Melanin, everybody is in ten different bands, you know what I mean? Everybody’s figuring it out. And All That Melanin was definitely this experiment in… I wanted to have a live band because, I just love live music, and I love the sound. I love my DJ sets too, but it’s something that having a live band does to a sound that just electrifies the room. It was an experiment in hand picking people from the DIY scene who reminded me of myself. Who were young black men, in whatever bodies they plan to inhibit … they all come from different kinds of musical backgrounds. Some Punk, some a little bit Noise, some sit in players, and stuff. But the unifying principle was to have all these people from all the corners of the DIY scene who could typically, usually, be the only black person in the room at a DIY venue, to come together and have a band full of black men together on stage having fun. And speakings about vulnerability, and love, and things like that. Really just enjoying having that space together. So it was fun because it was messy. It was all of our interpretations, mixed into a pot of what my music is. And we all got to learn a lot about things, playing lots of different stages together. I think we’ll always play together, but in terms of their own growth, they have to go out and find what it is that makes them individually unique. And they were already on the train before All that Melanin started, so I’m proud of everybody who got a chance to rock with us. But everybody’s in their own new thing, and they’re figuring it out. I’m excited to support their plans and be around when that happens. Yeah, I’m also figuring out my live sound, and where that’s going, or whatever. So my next show is going to be figuring that out, and seeing what that’s like.

rubyhornet: Awesome. I was looking at your releases, and you put out two albums in 2016, and two in 2017, is that right? And then there was a pause. So I want to ask what you were working on through 2018?

Mykele Deville: Nothing. The world was kind of crazy at the time, and I was pretty much downloading. I was in my download phase. 2018 I was getting my life together. And after recording so much music seriously, I could have continued to keep going, and push and put out more things, but as an artist we have to take time to experience life. And we have to breath before we start hating what we’re doing. I really used that time to focus a little bit more on Growing Concerns, and the book. And thinking about the trajectory of my own personal and solo career, and what am I not saying yet. The ideas of Maintain started to come up because it was the first time in my life that I was pretty happy before recording a record. Before even thinking about approaching a record, sometimes we need the impetus of being sad, and tired, and all these difficult things in order to have something to feel. But what is it like to be comfortable in your life and create art? And not create from a deficit, but create from surplus? Create from when you do have a lot? Moving in with McKenzie and living with her, in finding love, and having a home, really helps. It seems I’m able to look at my other work with a better eye. Getting older, and being an older rapper. Not being 16 out here rapping, but being closer to 30, and understanding I’m a storyteller, I’ve got a lot of stories to tell. I don’t have to rush it all the time. I wanted to do Maintain not to say that there’s a right or wrong way to actually release stuff, but I wanted to do it in a way… I had put out four records, three of my own personal, and one with the group, in the course of three years. That all went as far as my own socials. I wanted to give myself some time to create the connections, and create the atmosphere around one project, and release it in a way that I have not yet. Which is release the singles, release the videos, get a publicist, and get a label. Do it the way to which you can maximize your reach with this music, and see where it all hangs after that. And if it goes somewhere great, if not, then hey I put out a new record the way I wanted to, and I’m able to gain a little bit beyond just new fans. I just needed a year to really think about my approach to everything, and where I was in life, so I wouldn’t ended up writing another album that was just like Peace Fam part two, you know what I mean?

rubyhornet: So what should we expect from Maintain?

Mykele Deville: Maintain is that experiment man. It’s an experiment in brevity. Which usually, as you can see from the way I speak, is really tough for me a lot of times. To condense down to the essential meaning of the tracks, versus like saying a lot to say a little. I don’t want to fill it up, pack it with three verses, four verses per song, and just for people to not understand what I’m talking about. I wanted to do this thing quickly. I saw the trend right now is to release EPs. We have a fish bowl memory when it comes to music, because we have such access, and everybody’s dropping all the time. If somebody’s dropping an album that’s 14 tracks you’ll probably listen to the first half of it, and put it to the side because something else has come out, and then you’ll listen to it again. I didn’t want that with this record. I wanted it to be precise. I wanted it to be a reflection of me, and a reflection of what Black people are going through currently. I wanted each song to feel like its own individual pocket universe, and to show people that I can do all these sounds by myself. I can hold down this track that feels more up, versus this other track that is more political, and this other track that’s more introspective. I wanted to give as many sounds as I could in a short amount of time, so the replayability of it, the longevity of a short album can really sit in your favorite category for a long time. You can listen to it, and if you’re a lyricist, you say enough in a small amount of time it feels like a full album. It feels like a full helping. Versus if you ain’t saying anything, you got filler tracks on a seven song album, then it’s not an album, it’s just a couple of singles, you know what I mean?

rubyhornet: Right. You’re trying to write a paper and you’ve already said everything you want but you have to hit the word count.

Mykele Deville: Right. Yeah, man. I don’t want it to … I wanted to see if I could … because Kanye did it last year with a couple of different albums, and to me some of those albums didn’t do what they were supposed to do. Like in my mind, if you’ve got seven tracks, you have no time for filler. You have no time for tracks that can be just tossed away. You can do it, and it can be effective, but it has to feel like a meal instead of a snack. That’s why everybody was saying why is he calling this an album, this is more like an EP. If you can make it feel like a work of art, and things have resolution… or not even resolution, but the themes have story, and experience and so on, whatever. They become anthems, they become motto’s, and you don’t feel like you overstayed your welcome as an artist. I’m not trying to overstay my welcome. Also this is an introduction. This is an album that is a synthesis. I want people to hear the trajectory of my work, and hear that I’m still trying, and I’m still growing. I’m still in the infancy of figuring out my voice. So this album is me being comfortable. Being comfortable in my life, and being comfortable in my flow. and who I am. And not sounding like too many other people, just sounding like myself. So Maintain is an exercise in all of that. In just saying “Hey, here I am.” And hopefully you can get something out of this, and then when the next thing comes out it will be bigger, better, and more receptive, and something more than what you can expect.

rubyhornet: That comes out on the 22nd?

Mykele Deville: Yeah, it comes out February 22nd.

rubyhornet: And then there’s the show on the third? The release party? [Lincoln Hall 3/3]

Mykele Deville: Yeah, the release show, yup.

rubyhornet: Okay. Is there anything else that you want our readers to know? Or is there anything else that you want to say?

Mykele Deville: Yeah, man. Support the Chicago sound. There are many geniuses here. It isn’t just one. You know what I mean, I think there’s so many different sounds, and so many different peoples, and styles. Chicago is the epicenter of creation right now, and my voice is one in so many. I just want to break down this idea that there is only one spot for one person out of Chicago, or five people out of Chicago to really make a name for themselves out here. I think hip hop is everywhere over this planet currently, but Chicago has something really special happening with it. It’s a lot of experimentation going on with formats, and flows, and formulas. So I just want everybody to dig deep past who is playing Lolla this years Pitchfork, or whatever, and really look at us local acts. Look at us out here supporting each other. There’s no hate. Stop the hate. Stop the clout chasing, and everybody let’s make this meaningful again. I just hope everybody enjoys the record. Come out to the release show at Lincoln Hall. It’s my birthday show as well. It’s the first time I ever played at Lincoln Hall. And support local, man.

Pre-order Maintain on Bandcamp and get tickets to the Lincoln Hall show here


Stephen Kaplan