Mic Capes’ “Concrete Dreams” mixtape is one of our 11 favorite Portland releases of 2016. The emcee’s sophomore effort “rewards attentive listeners with subtle, but pointed, wordplay and never lets up.”
I meet Mic Capes at the grand opening of the new Laundry, Portland’s much-buzzed-about shop for vintage ‘90s gear. It seems a fitting place to talk to the MC, a Portland native and a person highly instrumental in nurturing the nascent rap scene in a city mostly populated by indie-psych and post-punk-pop outfits. His latest album, Cold Blooded, Vol. 1, is something of a departure from his 2016 debut, Concrete Streets, which garnered Capes something of a reputation as a “conscious rapper,” (a term that’s often bewilderingly derided, as if speaking critically about social issues isn’t what rap does better than any other type of music). Capes doesn’t mind the title, but with Cold Blooded Vol. 1, he shows a different side than we’ve seen from him before. It’s a more concise project, and while it still wrestles with ideas of black ownership and artist empowerment, it does so from a bars-first perspective, never sacrificing the energy for the sake of the message. I spoke with Capes about making Cold Blooded Vol. 1, growing up in St. Johns, hip-hop in Portland, and getting paid in full for your art. Check it out below:
ELEVEN: So, Mic Capes, Portland’s own. From St. Johns Originally. What was it like growing up there? How has that neighborhood changed?
Mic Capes: It was more rough then, when I was growing up there. You had the gangbangin’, you had the drug dealin’, but mostly it was just blue collar. A lot of hardworking folks. It’s changed mostly due to gentrification. Prices going up all over Portland, so a lot of folks I grew up with can’t afford it no more. That’s the main difference, but it was dope growing up there. I grew up with Illmaculate, he grew up right down the street from me. He was actually the first person I ever heard rapping out of St. Johns.
11: Was there a rap scene really, back then?
MC: All I really knew was Illmaculate, the battle rapper. But it was just him in the beginning. He was in school when I was. Three years older, but he was always battling folks and always making music. That was my first inspiration.
11: The hip-hop scene here now has a lot of interesting things going on, a lot of more vibey stuff, and lo-fi beats, but to me your stuff sounds closer to the classic West Coast style.
MC: I don’t know if it’s classic West Coast. I just do what I feel over beats, man. I feel like, we’re here in Portland. I don’t try to take a template from anybody. There are West Coast elements to it, but I go over all types of production. It could be trap, it could be boom-bap, whatever. I could see where you’re saying West Coast though.
11: I mean, you’re doing you, but it’s more West Coast than some of the more indie-rap in Portland.
MC: Yeah, more traditional.
11: So on your new album, Cold Blooded Vol. 1, you’ve got a lot of beats by Drae Slapz.
11: And you’ve worked with him before. In 2017 you guys put out an EP together, called Sheesh. Can you speak a little bit about your relationship with him, and how you guys work together?
MC: Always, man. We grew up in the same neighborhood in North Portland. I’ve known him since the 8th grade. We both ended up at the Charles Jordan community center working with Farnell Newton. He’s a dope trumpet player. He had music classes there, and he would help us, showing us how to record beats and vocals. Drae gravitated more towards the beats and I gravitated towards rapping. I’ve been writing since probably 5th grade. But Drae, that’s my partner. He’s more than just a producer, he’s the homie.
11: Could you talk a bit about the other producers you got beats from on Cold Blooded?
MC: Yeah! It’s mostly local producers. Stewart Villain is from here. Dead Brainz is from here. Tony Kalia is from here, or maybe Seattle actually? Drae Slapz is from here. Trox is from here. Who else? Bravo Domo is from here as well, he made Missed Calls. “Show Love” was made by Ton Fresco, he’s from here as well. “Hussle Flow” is from Loner Beatz. It’s about 80% local producers.
11: I do love the vibe of “Hussle Flow.”
MC: That came in last minute, man. It was inspired by Nipsey Hussle passing away. He was a big influence on me, so I felt like I needed to make a track inspired by him, or influenced by him to hit the vein of what he talked about, so that was “Hussle Flow.”
11: Do you prefer getting beats from all over, as opposed to working with just one producer?
MC: I like working with everybody. If it’s dope and if it brings the feeling out of me, I’ll work with it. I work better with different producers. I don’t want to put all the pressure of everything I want sonically on one person. It’s like Illmatic. That was one of the first albums with different producers all over it. Nas is one of my influences, so I just feel like it’s dope to find new things to challenge me.
11: Speaking of Nas, you’ve got a track on the new album, “Mansa Musa,” which uses the same sample as Nas’ “Represent” off Illmatic. Did you pick that beat for that reason?
MC: Man, what happened was: Vinny Dewayne, he’s also from St. Johns, his nephew makes beats, and he’d been sending me beats for a few months. They were cool, but none of them really grabbed me. Then I heard that beat, and it grabbed me instantly. I didn’t recognize the sample at first, I just started writing to it real quick, and then as I listened, I was like, this sounds familiar. Then I realized, “Oh, this is ‘Represent’ over some trap drums! I like it.”
11: And that track is named for Mansa Musa, who was the emperor of Mali and who was reportedly the richest person in history. How did you come across that story?
MC: I’m a fan of history. I’m a fan of black history, so when I came across that story I wanted to represent it. I feel like with a lot of black rappers, we tend to give wealth credit to your Bill Gates’, your Warren Buffets. But I wanted to do something different and use an African king. I wanted to put that in a track. I wanted people to ask, “Who is Mansa Musa?” and go look it up. I wanted black kids to be inspired by somebody who looked like them. That’s what Mansa Musa came from.
11: You’ve got the other possible throwback as well, your song “Paid In Full,” which I figured was a reference to the classic Eric B and Rakim album.
MC: Oh yeah, that’s not a sample, but it shares the name. “Paid In Full” is also one of my favorite movies. Just the subject matter, when we’re talking about artist empowerment and artist ownership and, you know, being paid for your work. That song was really an homage to the movie and to artist empowerment.
11: To me, it seemed like that was really the central theme of Cold Blooded Vol. 1, that idea of artist empowerment, specifically financial empowerment.
MC: Yeah man. It’s that. It’s just speaking with your chest, going in raw. I wanted to be raw on this project. I want to have balance. I want to give all different sides of my self. I feel like that’s what I did. I call this bap and bounce. The first half is bap, and the second half is bounce. I wanted to give people different angles of me. People tend to want to box me in as a conscious rapper. I’m cool with being called that, but I’m a human. I’m complex, so I wanted to express different things, and bring an energy that I hadn’t brought before.
11: You have that skit, where it’s talking about how you can do the “lyrical miracle spiritual” stuff, but we need something we can ride to.
MC: (laughs) Yeah man, it’s comic relief.
11: The track “Bloodsport,” though, that song sounds like a diss track. I mean you’re going in on that one. Is that about someone in particular?
MC: “Bloodsport,” the last 16-24 bars is aimed at someone in particular. But the rest of the song, when I heard the beat by Trox, it felt murderous. I wanted to come from that angle, on a rap level as far as it’s a bloodsport, it’s competitive. The last part though, that’s aimed at this Internet troll. I didn’t even know the dude, but this dude started making diss tracks about me, trying to get my attention. For a while I was like, “I’m gonna let this slide, I don’t wanna give him no attention,” but at the end of the day, I was like, “You know what? All it takes is one person to do this, and then more people will start to think it’s cool.” So I figured, why don’t I squash this over one track and bury him? Sometimes you gotta leave a body outside the gate so people know not to step on the line. He’s gonna go unnamed though.
11: Yeah, we’re not going to give him the publicity here, but I’ll say that the beef is squashed.
MC: It ain’t no beef, man. It’s somebody who wants attention. It’s a fly getting swatted.
11: For sure. Anyways, you’ve put out videos for your last couple projects. Are you planning on doing visuals on this album?
MC: Yeah man! I’m trying to do at least eight out of eleven tracks. I look forward to working with Riley Brown, and a few other videographers. It’s in the works.
11: I did notice that this is a shorter tracklist on Cold Blooded than on your previous projects. Was that an intentional choice or did it just happen that way?
MC: I wanted to be more concise with what I put together. It started out as a five track EP, but then it kept building. I still look at it as an EP, even though it’s eleven songs.
11: Is that how you usually put projects together? Do you just get beats you like and keep adding?
MC: Nah, I usually start with a concept in my head and we build on that. Whatever number it lands on, it lands on. With this one, I wasn’t even expecting to make an EP. I was writing an album and I realized I was writing tracks with a different energy than what I wanted on the album, so I just went another direction and figured I’d put those tracks together in a project before I put out the album. Those tracks ended up being Cold Blooded.
11: This is Vol. 1. So does that mean Vol. 2 is in the works?
MC: It’s gonna come. I don’t wanna say too much, but it’s gonna come. A few things are gonna come.
11: So you’ve got the release going on here, at Laundry?
MC: Yeah, that’s a release party, so it’s not a show. But I’m gonna have physicals, and some merch.
11: You do have some shows coming up, right?
MC: I do. I’ve got one on July 12th with Mal London and Rasheed Jamal, that’s at the Jack London Revue, and then I’m throwing one on July 27th, which is probably gonna be the release show, and that’ll probably be at the Fixin To, in St. Johns. I just wanted to keep it at home in the North.
11: For the physicals, are you printing CDs? Any plans for vinyl?
MC: Man, bro! I’ve been getting a lot of demand for vinyl! I want to do vinyl for this record actually, I’ve just got to figure out the costs and everything. But I’ve had a lot of people asking about it and I think this is the right project to put on vinyl.
11: Yeah, you’ve got the scratches on the opening track…
MC: Yeah, that’s DJ Fatboy, he’s from here too. That’s Cool Nutz’ DJ.
11: Part of the question of ownership and music as a business is having the physicals and the merch, but a part of it is accessibility too. I mean, you had your first mixtape up on Datpiff.com.
MC: Oh, you found that! Yeah, Rise and Grind! I love that tape.
11: Hell yeah! But how do you navigate the world of the internet, putting music out in a way that’s accessible, but also that’s financially viable.
MC: For my fanbase, I like to push the physical merchandise, whether that’s CDs, vinyl, shirts, stickers, pins, buttons, everything. I try to push that. I’m not one that feels I need to play the game that everyone else is playing. I like to make myself particular and unique, so having different types of merch is what I like to do. These days most artists make their money off of merch and shows, so that’s where I put a lot of my attention. People can stream the music as well, it’s convenient and I’m ok with that, but I try to push the physical stuff as well.
Don’t miss Mic Capes July 12th with Mal London and Rasheed Jamal, that’s at the Jack London Revue! Check out Cape’ newest album, Cold Blooded Vol. 1 below: