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Warped Tour 2012: Machine Gun Kelly on Frat Rap, "That Shit Is Wack as Fuck!"

Warped Tour 2012: Machine Gun Kelly on Frat Rap, "That Shit Is Wack as Fuck!"
photo by Shareif Ziyadat

Machine Gun Kelly's slot on the Warped Tour may surprise some older fans of the multi-stage summer extravaganza. The 22-year-old specializes in an unapologetically brash, aggressive style of rap that makes no attempts to go pop or "cross over," unlike some of the other young, white rappers currently on the come-up.

You won't find any feel-good suburban tales on his handful of mixtapes and EPs so far. Instead MGK prefers wall-shaking, bass-heavy beats and a thick, almost barking delivery that's largely influenced, he said, by the Cleveland underground in which he spent his teen years.


For the Warped Tour, historically made up of punk and related acts in the past and more pop in recent years, it's an unexpected booking. But for one thing, the tour has almost always included the odd rapper, including, in 1999, the Midwestern white bad-boy rapper of that decade, Eminem.

At the same time, MGK himself also reflects a truly '90s-baby, multi-genre, multi-scene sensibility. Kelly's a proud former skate rat who also grew up on punk rock, and his live shows are infamous for out-crazying most guitar acts. So, in advance of his upcoming slot this Saturday, July 28 at the Warped Tour's stop at the Cruzan Amphitheatre in West Palm Beach, we gave him a call. Here's what he had to say about tours as bootcamp, the evils of frat rap, the XXL Freshman cover, the perils of social networking, and more.

County Grind: So you guys are coming to South Florida this weekend, and --

Machine Gun Kelly: Oh fuck yeah, that's my shit. We go ham every time we go there. We have a great fan base in Florida, an individual fan base that calls themselves the Sunshine Ragers.

Right, you've been here a couple times to perform in the last few months, the last time with Tech N9ne. So you're on the road a lot -- how has your experience been on the Warped Tour so far?

It's the gnarliest shit ever. It's so sick. It's so dirty, but it's still so sex, drugs, and rock and roll -- well, except for the sex, because all the girls are like 15. It's just really raw and uncut and cool. You've got to shit in a bag. It's awesome.

Is it even really that different from your other tours?

I guess not, since we don't get hotel rooms on this tour either and it's still pretty grimy. But the food is really good and the people and acts are so fun. Our fan base on this tour is so much bigger than on the Tech N9ne tour. It's just all positive, and I've also become a lot happier person. The Tech N9ne tour, I think, was straight-up bootcamp for me. Tech taught me a lot of shit, but I wasn't really finding my happiness. I found it on this tour and it was awesome.

Why do you think you have more of a fan base represented in the audiences at Warped Tour than on the previous, more hip-hop-oriented tours you've been on?

That's a great question. I don't know, I think my stage presence precedes me. The first day we performed, like half the bands on Warped came and watched our set because they had heard we have a crazy-ass set. Some people just aren't ready for it, where these kids are. They come knowing what the fuck is about to happen -- their bodies are going to be destroyed and they're potentially going to be taken to the hospital.

You keep saying "we." How many people are in your crew on Warped Tour?

Shit, how many people do we have with us. Eight? Eight. Machine Gun Kelly's not one person -- it's a fuckload of kids.

So, uh, you're not Machine Gun Kelly?

I mean, I am, but I'm just the face of it. Machine Gun Kelly is so much more. When you talk about Machine Gun Kelly, you talk about the fans, about Cleveland, the team -- it's not just the tall, white skinny kid with the mohawk and tattoos.

Did you always conceive of it that way?

Hell yeah. Well, originally, Machine Gun Kelly, you start out thinking it's just me. But then people start embracing so much more than just you. These kids come to meet other kids, it's not just about coming to see me in concert. We have a really close-knit fan base, with all these fan pages. People from Canada will come meet people from the U.S. It's a fun family.

Why do you think your fan base is so particularly close-knit?

They're fighting for the same goal, which is to see this kid that is just like them succeed. They got to watch every step of it. I've filmed everything I've ever did.

Your stage show is known for being really intense, like you said. Where did that come from? Did you grow up going to a lot of shows?

Hell yeah. I mean, I grew up going to Warped Tour and other shit, as a super-heavy punker and skating and doing all that troubled-youth, white-boy shit.

Knowing that, when you wanted to start making your own music, what drew you to rapping, then? Did you ever play in any bands while you were growing up?

Yeah, I played in a band called the Dumb Bunny Trio when I was a kid. I was the lead guitarist. It was super funny.

 


Did you actually play shows?

No, we were just a little fucking garage band bullshitting and doing dumb shit. But rapping, I just fell in love with rapping, and I couldn't really scream or sing, so rap just helped me find my voice.

When you first discovered it, what artist really spoke to you?

DMX was the first for me.

I know you were living in Colorado before you moved to Cleveland at age 14. When did you start getting really heavily into rap?

I was battling in Denver, but Cleveland really brought the side of me that really made me into a rapper. You've got to have some street sense about you, and so much shit happened in Cleveland that really turned me to the right mindset I needed to be successful.

When you talk about Cleveland molding you, do you mean the personal experiences you had there, or the music world there, or both?

The personal experiences. The music there as well, but it was the personal experiences that stamped me. You can't really question shit about my past or credibility. Everything that someone could go through to fight for a dream, I fucking fought for it and did it. You can't down my shit because I've been through so much to get it.

One argument a lot of people make when they talk about new hip-hop is that you don't really have to be from the streets any more. So do you think that's still an important part of credibility in hip-hop?

Fuck yeah! I hate that shit, when you come out and have no street sensibility or credibility. I roll with a very thorough crew. We don't pretend to be thugs or gangsters or anything, but we know where we're from and we know where we can go back to any time. There's something beautiful about that shit, which is that I can go to a summer jam with an audience that's all black, and then go back the next day and rock the Warped Tour.

In the press, you often get unfairly lumped in with artists like Mac Miller, just because they're white.

Yeah, they're so wack. I sound and act nothing like that. I could never see that comparison, so it's all good.

So since you're saying street smarts are still so important, what do you think about the so-called "frat rap" movement that's so heavily suburban, and unapologetic about it?

That shit is wack as fuck! It's like, go take your talents and your fucking education that you fucking have, and do something, man. Don't interfere with my lane and take food off my table. The biggest passion I've seen from someone who's left college is my fucking camera man. That's a person who left everything and has proven himself. That's commendable.

I got fucking disowned by my father because of this. So unless you're leaving fucking everything behind, get the fuck out of here. Stay in school and fucking make something out of yourself.

You're saying you got disowned because you wanted to pursue music?

Yeah. This is all I had. If I didn't have this shit, I'd be done. It wasn't like I had those smarts. If I had had the opportunity to do something big with my life, I wouldn't be doing this. But in turn, this now is what i'd rather be doing than anything else -- helping people out, seeing all these different places, seeing all these fucking fans. It's way more worth it.

People on the coasts have certain preconceived ideas about Cleveland and the Midwest. What would surprise people the most about the city environment there? What was it really like?

It's a blue-collar town. There are no handouts given in that city. None.

You were 14 years old when you moved there. So do you think it's the most important city that shaped you?

Do you remember what the fuck you were doing when you were nine years old? It's the teenage years that matter. Nothing that happened to me when I was five years old could mold me as much into who I am right now. It was when I was old enough to realize what the fuck was going on in life.

With all that said, at what point did you realize you needed to really get serious about the music and your career?

When I had my daughter, when I was 19 -- or, I knew she was coming when I was 18. I had to get serious then.

Some people would use that as a point at which they'd stop pursuing their dreams and get some job.

Exactly. That's what makes me different from everybody else. That's what drove me -- I'm not scared of shit. I'm not scared to fail. 

 


Is there a particular failure in your career you can look back to which turned out to be an important learning experience?


Hell yeah, I fail all the time. My attitude's the biggest failure at all. I've burned so many bridges and apologized way more times than any grown man should have to apologize.


Do you think that's changing now?


Somewhat. It's something that everyone is working with me to try to change. It's a real bad problem. I have a huge attitude. So there's that, and I think drugs were a mistake. Shit, man, I think even me giving too much of myself is a mistake. A lot of people feel like you have to keep sacrificing yourself for them, and then it goes unappreciated, so you become depressed.


Do you mean in your personal life, or in the industry, or both?


Both. The fans are so personal to me it crosses over into my personal life.


Do you think you're giving too much of yourself directly to your fans? Do you feel you've made yourself too accessible?


Yeah, but that's also what put me on. Sometimes I wish the dumbasses wouldn't fuck it up for the masses. Like I'll be out there talking and trying to be a regular person, kicking with with friends -- when I say "friends," I mean "fans" -- and someone will come up and bother me for something and will be like, "Fuck you, dick!" And I'm just trying to chill.


To ask you about Cleveland again -- were there any artists in the Cleveland underground who you felt were particularly influential or helpful when you were coming up?


The whole city in general. I could name 50 rappers but it wouldn't do us any good. I never had any problems with anybody.


Was there a specific sound in the Cleveland underground?


Everyone was focused on making sure they had a thick voice over the beat, instead of letting the beat dominate. I think that's how my voice became so raspy, because I had to really be heard over the beat. Down South, it's more like the beat is over the voice.


Were you surprised to be included in the XXL 2012 Freshmen Class?


Nah. If it was last year, I would have been surprised. But this year, even though we get denied by critics, there's no way you can deny this shit. My fans would have raised hell if I wasn't on that shit. We tour everywhere, you know? We sell out venues, and people on billboards can't even say they can do that.


We played in Connecticut on the Warped Tour two days ago, and they put us on the pavilion, and the entire pavilion was packed, on some John Mayer shit. I've never had that before in my life. That was crazy -- thousands and thousands of people.


But on the Warped Tour, the size of stage you perform on changes every day, right?


Yeah, it changes, there are six or seven stages. You actually usually don't ever want the pavilion, though. The pavilion sucks, because there are chairs, it sucks. You want the outside stages with flat ground.


Back to XXL, how familiar were you with the other artists who were selected?


Pretty familiar with most of them.


Do you think you have anything in common with any of them, artistically?


We'll see.


What does that mean? You can't judge yet?


Yeah, I can't judge by what they've done. I've gotta see a lot more. I've been doing this for a long fucking time. Well, Roscoe Dash has been doing it a long fucking time, too. I listen to his stuff and I'm like, "Oh shit." He's been through all kinds of bullshit, so he knows what's going on, so that's someone you can listen to and respect. Everyone else, you've got to see if they can weather the storm.


Alright, so you said, "We'll see" about the other XXL Freshmen, and you obviously want to distance yourself from Mac Miller and those guys. Is there anyone else coming up now who you think is like-minded?


I think Kid Ink is doing his thing. He was also on the XXL cover with me. He's a real humble guy, a good guy to talk to and smoke with. He's fun.


What do you think is the biggest misconception people have about you as an artist?


I had this one line where I said, "Went from homeless to a hometown favorite/Broke every stereotype I got named with." I think everything you label me as, I don't give a fuck. I have so many real people around me it's ridiculous. They're un-yes-men. My people are no-men! They'll tell me, "That's corny as fuck!"


If I was doing some weak-ass shit, I'd know already. If I do a weak move, they'll tell me, and I'll say, damn, you're right. I'm sorry.


 

How have you been able to keep honest people around you?


I think just learning that fighting is good. We fight all the time. A lot of people can't take it, and they're like, "Fuck you, you're out!" But you just hold your fucking tongue and you take it, and accept that these people want the best for you. These are smart people, and everyone can branch off and do their own thing, but they're all here believing in me, so I know they want the best.


You said earlier you've been able to sell out venues and people on billboards can't even do that. What's been your secret?


We still have rough patches -- it's not like we sell out every show. But we have a great performance record. But we hit those C and D markets, and the kids appreciate that. Places like Idaho.


Obviously you're getting a bigger and bigger profile, so is that still going to be important to you as your fame rises?


Fuck yeah. They go way harder anyways. They go super hard!


Hip-hop writers love to complain about the new generation of hip-hop fans, and '90s babies. On the flip side, what do you think is great about the younger hip-hop audience now?


I don't know. Actually, I think social networks fucked it all up. They don't want to be just fans any more. They act like you owe them everything -- they think you can criticize any- and everything you do, when back in the day, all you owed them was good music. But now it's like if you don't follow back someone on Twitter, it's like, "Fuck you, I'm not a fan any more."


What's the positive aspect of all that?


Well, it's a lost generation, so they need the music now. My fans need the music.


Why do you think these fans need the music more than they would have, say, 10 years ago?


The world is fucked and everyone sees it. There's a lot of depressing shit happening. You can't even see a movie without getting shot. 


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