In Orange Soda, the first solo single on Vic Mensa’s 2013 INNANETAPE mix tape, he makes a reference to one of his influences, Nas. “Be twenty before I know it. I’m trying to write my Illmatic.”
The song is about Mensa’s desperation for success and desire for recognition. Though he’s been making music since he was in his band Kids These Days, it wasn’t until appearing on close compadre/competition Chance the Rapper’s critically acclaimed Acid Rap mix tape, followed by the release of INNANETAPE, that Mensa really came into the spotlight. Since then the 21-year-old has been touring internationally and has appeared on a variety of “ones to watch” lists.
Slowly but surely he’s reaching the success he desires in Orange Soda. Despite all this, there’s a deeper side to the hip-hop artist that has shaped who he is today and his music.
Growing up in Chicago he encountered near-death situations, he did the drug hustle thing, experienced friends dying. In 2014, Chicago topped the list of the largest US cities with the most number of murders. A pocket of Chicago rappers of a similar age are using these themes and immersing themselves in the drill rap scene – an aggressive type of music with gritty, violent lyrics focusing on the reality of street life.
But this is not a class Mensa belongs to. Lyrically, his music speaks to some of those experiences, but sonically he creates music that’s equally party and positive in vibe.
Even when he’s spruiking his “Film the Police” message — a response to the spate of police brutality on young African-Americans — he does so in a way that empowers and encourages young people to pull out their phone and document what they see.
Currently in Australia for the first time doing the Laneway Festival circuit, as well as solo shows, Vic Mensa spoke to Music Feeds about Chi-town, his lessons from success so far, his attitude towards the “system”, and why he’s just grateful to be alive.
Watch: Vic Mensa – Feel That
Music Feeds: You’re from Chicago, which has been breeding all this amazing talent over the past few years. What’s making Chicago so unique in the hip-hop sense?
Vic Mensa: Chicago’s just a city with its own perspective. It’s a realistic city that has a lot of different faces to it. There’s dirt-broke, dangerous places in Chicago, and there’s affluent, government-supported places in Chicago. Just a lot of different walks of life all jammed into the same street sign. And it represents itself in the music just from being true to life and real balls-to-the-wall.
MF: So how has it shaped you and your music? ‘Cause at the same time there’s the drill rap scene, which is quite aggressive, and I don’t really hear your music being reflected in that.
VM: I’ve lived in Chicago my whole life so I can’t even say in one way that Chicago has influenced the music I make, cause it’s everywhere. I grew up with a lot of people that went a different path and a lot of kids that make drill music live that lifestyle, and that’s just a different side. But that’s just right across the street from me so that’s something I know well.
MF: So do you have much influence because of that?
VM: I have some influence. I just have a different perspective, different take on those emotions and those situations cause my life has never been dictated by the lifestyles that drill music represents. Like, that’s never been me. I mean, I’ve sold drugs, and fuckin’ did drugs, and go running round the streets acting stupid, but I just had different goals, I guess.
The thing about the hood is that it can be all-encompassing. I moreso maybe teased around with the hood as opposed to really, really fall in love with it. Like my dad’s from Africa; my mom is from upstate New York and met my father in Nigeria. A lot of people in Chicago, their parents ain’t never left Chicago. So I just had a different outlook on life from day one.
MF: I like how you reference your father in [INNANETAPE‘s] Time is Money. I really dig the line, “My pops told me, ‘Make money, but the money you make don’t make you.'” So what have you learnt so far in terms of success and money?
VM: I learnt that Biggie wasn’t lying when he said, “Mo money mo problems.” I’m still living from show to show. I’m not sitting on a big bag of money. I’m just blessed enough to be at the point that I’m at and able to support myself and help support the people around me. More cheques just mean more people to break off.
MF: You’ve been in some near-death situations — like getting electrocuted when you were trying to sneak into Lollapalooza — and have grown-up and had friends die. Do you have moments where you’re on stage and feel, “I’m lucky.”
VM: Yeah, I do a song pretty much every time I perform, from the INNANETAPE, called Holy Holy. It’s one of my favourite songs I ever made. And it’s a song that I dedicate to my big bro, Dare, who passed away in Chicago from gun violence, and [a] couple of guys I knew growing up that I don’t get to see anymore. So I always like to lose myself in that one and just feel fuckin’ spiritual when I have thousands of people with their hand in the sky with a peace sign singing the song and shit.
So I’m blessed to be here, for sure. I’m the type of person that’s always looking at tomorrow and I have trouble letting go of things. But I definitely have those moments, often, where I feel very fortunate to be alive and well and able to keep pushing the fuckin’ envelope and the bar.
MF: You’ve been quite vocal about the whole Ferguson issue and your catch phrase is “Film the Police”, but we’ve seen that that doesn’t always work, especially in regards to Eric Garner. It’s incredibly frustrating. Are there times when you’re just like, “Fuck the police,” even though that’s counteractive to solving the overall problem?
VM: As far as “Film the Police”, nobody’s really seen me pushing [it since] the Eric Garner issue happened. It doesn’t mean that it’s not still important to have a wall and a level of accountability for the people that are put in place supposedly to protect and serve. So it’s still important to pull your phones out and film the police and make light of what’s going on.
But I been “fuck the police” from day one. I don’t like police. I cant, y’know. Just, intrinsically, my life experiences growing up where police have been like pull up on me riding a bike at 12 years old. “Hey. you remember us from yesterday?” “No.” “You have a twin brother or something?” “No.” “Get the fuck off the bike!”
Police been on bullshit with me since day one. So I’ve been like, “Fuck the police!” But it’s not like just saying “fuck the police” is gonna solve any problems. There just needs to be like a mass exodus of opinion of public servants to really put that shit under the magnifying glass because it happens all the time. Police live in a completely…
MF: Like a bubble?
VM: They live in complete impunity, or immunity to jurisdiction. They don’t go to jail for killing people. That shit needs to stop. Like, the next cop that shoots somebody, which is probably today, needs to go to jail, but it doesn’t happen. So everybody needs to be realising that this system is set up to destroy, set up to fuck us over, and we need to get out of this system.
MF: Do you think Obama’s done enough with the whole issue?
VM: No, not at all. I don’t see the federal investigation of Darren Wilson or Eric Garner’s killing. Where’s the follow-up? Where’s the Supreme Court case? Like, it goes to a State Court and it’s put to a hung jury and let off. Like, fuck that! Obama’s made huge strides for immigration and other issues but has more or less looked past the people that look like him.
MF: You mentioned that you’ve experienced police harassment when you were young. How about now? Do you feel a disconnect, say, from being on stage in front of thousands of people where everyone knows you, to then when you’re in a public space or just in your hometown and perhaps you’re getting harassed?
VM: It’s ingrained in our minds to be afraid of the police. It’s a fear that I don’t like and I try to break in myself to be like, “I’m not fuckin’ afraid of these people.” But in actuality I’ve grown up and learned to be afraid.
I know if I’m driving down the street at night or I’m sitting on the corner, if the police drive by me they gonna slow down, they gonna look all in my car, just look at me crazy-like. And I probably have some weed in my pocket, and my heart’s probably gonna start beating. That’s just how it is, y’know?
MF: So how about the new music you’re working on? Will we hear those themes reflected?
VM: It’s influenced by everything that matters to me, and all the shit that really pushes my buttons that’s going on in the world and going on in my life. The issues of America and Black America and Black people and authority and the crooked system. They run my mind, and it runs in my music.
Vic Mensa is currently touring as part of Laneway Festival 2015, with sideshows lined up in Sydney and Melbourne. Details below.
Watch: Vic Mensa – Down On My Luck
Vic Mensa Laneway 2015 Sideshows
Tickets on sale now
Wednesday, 4th February 2015
The Hi Fi, Sydney
Tickets: Live Nation
Thursday, 5th February 2015
Corner Hotel, Melbourne
Tickets: Live Nation