by Karl Nelson II, Intern Media
DJ’s provide the soundtrack for the environment and for the people within that environment. A good DJ can change your current emotion at any given moment with the scratching of a record.
A lot of people place their main focus on the performer (the singer, dancer and rapper), but the performance isn’t much of a performance without the soundtrack. That’s what a good DJ provides. They make sure everything is on one accord with what’s being played, whether it’s a party or a performance.
DJ Lil Mic embodies what being a true mixmaster is all about. When Lil Mic is on the turntables, you’re in for a treat.
DJ Lil Mic has been a prominent mixmaster in Baltimore and beyond for over 15 years now. He’s performed with some of the country’s most talented artists, which includes the likes of MC Lyte, Raheim Devaughn, Mario, Mya, Jazmin Sullivan, Marsa Ambrosius and Cee Lo Green.
Lil Mic’s been mixing since he was nine years old and playing records since he was 18 months. One might say that he was maybe destined to be a DJ, but he says that DJ’ing is something that chose him, not the other way around.
He found joy in working with technology, speakers, gaming and sound equipment at an early age. It’s these things that made mixing second nature to him.
Lil Mic is currently pulling double duty as a radio DJ and club DJ. He DJ’s for the educated listener, providing them with a sound that goes beyond the norm. He takes his crowds back to their high school, middle school and elementary school days with music you haven’t heard in some time.
He goes by the motto, “It’s not what you play, but how you play it.” That’s what makes Lil Mic one of the hottest DJ’s out there. Oh yeah and how can I forget about the spiffiness of Lil Mic when he walks on the scene to DJ. He comes suited and booted every time with a suit and the famous bow tie. Now, here’s a man who takes his craft serious making DJ’ing a gentlemen’s game.
It was my pleasure to chop it up with one of the best to ever do it, DJ Lil Mic.
Q. What’s the transition been like for you, going from a locally known D.J. to having a presence that reaches far beyond your local community?
A. It’s kind of weird, honestly. Some people don’t know who I am and then some people do know who I am. I think it’s because I wear a few hats. I try to keep it as humble as possible because at any given moment, you can be absorbing that shine realizing that God gave you that opportunity and gave you the light and at any given moment, he can just snatch it away. So, I try to remain as mellow as possible and I tell these cats that you can do whatever you want to do if you work hard and stay disciplined.
Q. Who played a major role in you getting to where you are today?
A. My parents supported me. I remember the last time I was carrying pounds of records. I’m talking about 80 pounds of records. I was going to St. Louis to DJ. My mother dropped me off at the curb at the airport. I had a lot of luggage and the cases of my records were in some of my luggage. Some of my records fell into the street. My mother parked and got out the car to help me maneuver all of my records.
My parents supported me and I was both a drummer and a DJ as a kid. You’re talking about two of the loudest things a kid could do, I did. It got to the point that when I got to Morgan, I had to make a decision. I asked myself, ‘Alright, are you going to be a drummer or a DJ?’ Clearly, DJ’ing was making me the most money and had the most prestige at the moment. DJ Quicksilver played the drums as well. I can name you a lot of DJ’s that are musicians first, so when they play and how they play is very rhythmic and melodic.
Q. Did you ever think about trying to become a rapper or a producer first?
A. Hell no (laughs). Sike nah. Yeah, I did produce at one point and I’ll probably get back into it, but it’s just like you can’t serve two different gods. You can’t be the best producer and the best DJ. You can be a great producer and the best DJ or the best producer and a great DJ, but can’t be the best at each.
Q. So, what do you say about an artist like Kanye West who has produced his own albums in the past and rapped on them?
A. I think he’s a better producer than he is a rapper. I think he’s a great rapper, but when he’s on, he’s on and when he’s off, his material can come off as really weird. What I do like about him though, is the fact that as an artist he’s not concerned about what people think. He’s going to do what he wants to do. He’s so far out on another level, so I understand what he’s doing in that sense. I’m not mad at him, but at the same time I’m not a fan of that style.
Q. It’s clear that you chose to master the turntables and allow everything else to fall into place. Do you feel like these young D.J.’s are taking the same “masterful” approach today?
A. Well, I feel like a lot of these new cats aren’t paying their dues. Earlier, I mentioned Quicksilver. Me and ‘Quick’ used to sit down and draw turntables. Yes, draw them. Before we had the DJ’s turntable, we would draw them. We visualized what we were going to become one day. There’s no visualization these days. There’s no process. These kids just get money and go out and buy the equipment. Some don’t even do that. Some go use an iPad or something and then they’re just bedroom DJ’s with a name and everything.
We actually went through different DJ names. The guy who named me ‘Lil Mic’ is like a big brother to me. He’s actually my lawyer. I was actually ‘DJ Micky’ at the time. I changed my DJ name, as you should because you have to mature to get to where you want to be. Before you tell people that you’re a DJ, you should be good. However, there’s a lot of people that just jump out and say ‘Yeah, I’m DJ such and such’ and they’re whack, but if you play the right record at the right time, then it doesn’t even matter because there are so many other things going on. Back in the day, you could be in the park, but if the DJ was rocking, it was a party. The DJ is the essence of Hip Hop. The DJ is the original MC that controls the party and brings that energy. I feel like a lot of that has been lost today.
Q. Now, you started off with an internship with WEAA 88.9, right?
A. I started off DJ’ing in the house doing neighborhood stuff, but I used to sneak out of my parents’ house and hangout with the older guys over there and then they just gave me a shot. So, it really wasn’t the proper internship because clearly I was in middle school and these were college students. I was doing this for about a year and a half and then they were like ‘Okay. We gotta tell your mother yo.’ I was leaving the house and leaving the door unlocked in the middle of the night. Between midnight, 1am and 5 in the morning, I would leave the door unlocked. My parents wouldn’t know I was gone and it wasn’t safe.
Q. That’s inspirational to guys like myself. People who are trying to get a head start in their career and really trying to get that first big break. Was it easy for you to get that first break? During your internship, was there any point when you asked yourself, ‘Man, what am I doing?’
A. My motivation was never money. Even now, I’m just blessed to be able to do what I do and make money doing it, but my motivation was never money.
Q. Yeah, you talk about how you don’t even look at your work as an accomplishment, but more so as a blessing.
A. Yeah, to be able to do what you love to do and make a living doing it is just great. And sometimes I’m annoyed by certain things and might not be in the mood, but when you think about all the other things you could be doing and you’re just playing records for people and they’re having a great time, even though you done put 20 – 30 years into it, it’s still that ‘wow’ factor. You’re making people happy. You’re making them smile.
Q. You’ve been a prominent D.J. on the Baltimore music scene for over 15 years. What’s the biggest obstacle you’ve faced and how did you overcome it?
A. I would have to say that the biggest obstacle would have to be myself. Anybody in the game has goals that you set and I feel like the only one who can hinder you from your goal is yourself. I always describe it in terms of sunlight. There’s enough sunlight and sunshine to shine on everybody. So, what God has for you is not going to block me and what he has for me is not going to block you. The only person that is going to block you from reaching your goals is yourself. There are certain things that you’re used to doing, but in order to get to the next level you have to change and re-discipline yourself in order to elevate yourself.
Q. What would you say is the major difference between today’s era of D.J.’s compared to your era?
A. I think the difference between DJ’s of my era and new DJ’s are we grew up with great music. Now, good music is scarce and you have to look for it because there’s an abundance of bullshit. Let’s take ‘Cupid Shuffle’ as an example. That’s a great record, but Cupid is going to be a one-hit wonder. I’d be very surprised if Cupid had another record where as let’s say when Rob Base ‘It Takes Two’ came out in ’86, that record lasted like two or three years. That was still a big record two or three years later. So, now, a classic may come out, but it doesn’t get its length of run the way it should because there’s so many records coming out at a fast pace. And of course the radio is still beating you in the head, playing the same twenty records over and over again.
It’s hard to really feel the impact of a record because after one is released another one comes right out. You know how back in the day an artist would do an album and then take two, three or four years before coming out with another album. Now, like Rick Ross has been out for like six or seven years, but it seems like he’s a veteran hip-hop artist because he drops another album every 12 to 18 months. In between those 12 to 18 months, he’s dropping a mixtape, which is like an album. So, it makes you feel like he’s been in the game for a long time, but Rick Ross has been in the game less than 10 years.
Q. That makes me think about Kendrick Lamar and admire him more because a lot of people have been giving him a hard time due to the fact that he hasn’t come out with another album yet. It seems he’s just taking his time to make sure he puts out quality.
A. Absolutely. I think you have to live your life and have something to talk about. Kendrick’s album was a concept album, but we haven’t had any strong west coast albums like that in a long time. Lyrically, Kendrick is up there. I say top 20 or top 30. I say that because people will be so quick to say, ‘Yo. Top five. Top three.’ You know people will give you the whole Jay-Z, Eminem, and Nas spiel. They might throw Andree 3000 in there, but you’re forgetting The Canes, Rakim, and Caresse. You’re forgetting a whole list of MC’s that, in their day, were the best. Even Funky Dividends from Three Times Dope out of Philly.
There are people lyrically from that era that you have to put in the top 20 or top 30 and then add on to that list, but Kendrick is up there. I mean even Big K.R.I.T. I’m a Big K.R.I.T. fan. His albums are okay, but his mixtapes are incredible. People’s mixtapes are like albums now. I think you need to take your time and do your process. There’s enough garbage music out there that when you come out it’s like ‘Man that’s all I’m listening to.’
It depends on what you’re listening to music for. Are you listening to it for thought? Are you listening to it for enjoyment? Is it something to help you turn up in the club? Turn up records aren’t records to me. Turn up records are not house records. Those are specific club records. Club music is for the club. You shouldn’t be in the car trying to eat somebody’s heart (laughs). That’s not for that. So, I just feel like certain music has its place and even some of Kendrick’s records aren’t party records. They’re thoughtful records. While there are other records out like that that can play at a party, the vast majority of records out now are just promoting sex, drugs, and foolishness.
While hip-hop used to be informative and educational, and there is still some education and information, it’s just camouflaged. Bad has gotten worse. Big has gotten bigger and dumb has gotten dumber. But, on the other hand, intelligent has gotten more intelligent. It’s just scarcer now because it’s camouflaged by the foolishness. So, you’ve got your Kendrick’s. You’ve got your Andre’s. You’ve got your Drake’s, even though he sometimes sprinkles in some bullshit too. Drake’s like the most emotional rapper ever. Even Lil Wayne’s got some gems for you, but he got his teeth taken out and all diamonds in his mouth now. When you look at Wayne, clearly you have to look past all the bullshit, but it’s very hard for us as humans to look past all of that.
I believe everybody has something great to share, but do you camouflage it or do you make it very easy to get to? Sometimes too much is literally too much. Instead of art imitating life, it’s like life is imitating art. There can only be one rapper, but there can be 40 or 50 people behind-the-scenes helping support the art and even change it.
Q. You preach education a lot. It’s something that you value as a Mixmaster, a musical educator and as a father. Tell me about that.
A. Let me tell you about the school system. School was not originally designed for education and then our school system was not designed for entrepreneurship. It’s designed to put you back in the workforce to work for somebody else forever. While it’s very blatant, there are a lot of things that aren’t blatant. There are a lot of things that are secrets and we’ll never get to the bottom of the knowledge because it wasn’t designed for us to have it. I don’t mean us as black people, but us as in poor. Rich and poor. Educated and not educated.
The biggest library in the world is the Vatican and they have the power to take books out of circulation. That’s powerful. And now when we don’t even look in books and we just Wikipedia or Google it, it doesn’t even matter. We don’t even have to have books. We just listen to what we’re told so quickly and believe it. Instead of doing our own research and asking questions, we believe what we’re told. We’re taught to say yes and agree and nod rather than to ask why and then when you ask why, you look it up and you figure it out. If you ask greater questions, then you’ll get those answers.
Q. Music is very influential. As we’ve both said, it’s the soundtrack to life in a lot of ways. It’s no secret that some of the music out here today doesn’t contain the most clean or positive messages. As a music mogul, what do you think about the state of our music and how it plays into the lives of our young people?
A. I do think that parents should educate the children on what’s right and what’s wrong because the songs are meant to enjoy. When I play ‘turn up’ records, I’m playing those records for people who go to the club and they literally turn up in the club. They’re not going to necessarily come outside of the club and just fight somebody. The problem is when we play those ignorant records for people who live that ignorant life or have that ignorant mind frame. When you play ‘Knuck if you Buck’ or ‘Dreams and Nightmares.’
Back in the day, before ‘Dreams and Nightmares,’ we had Mob Deep’s ‘Shook Once.’ That was a really aggressive record. That was the most insightful record of the day. You also had Slick Rick’s ‘Hey Young Girl,’ you had very intelligent, strong, positive-message records. You had ‘Self Destruction.’ You just had people who knew the balance of art. Albums back then had ‘Parental Advisory’ on them. That’s crazy. In fact, when I met MC Lyte for the first time, I’m like ‘Yo you’re like one of my favorite artists, but my father wouldn’t let me buy your album when I was younger because it said Parental Advisory.’ And then I found myself DJ’ing for her and she’s now one of my good friends. When your life comes full circle like that, it’s crazy.
Q. Do you think artists should take that into consideration? That younger generation that wants to hear some Hip-Hop and wants to hear some good music. I know when I was younger my parents weren’t letting me rock with any of that kind of music.
A. I believe it’s the responsibility of the parent. I shouldn’t have to change my art because you’re ignorant enough to allow your kids to listen to what’s not for them. My art is life. I teach from the standpoint of the life lessons that I learned that I want to impart, but I’m only giving you the tip of the iceberg. You need to dig deep down below the surface and figure it out. So, I teach from the standpoint of life skills and music. A lot of the life skills impact how you play the music.
If my crowd of individuals is 35 – 60, I’m not going to play French Montana’s ‘Pop That.’ Like a lawyer, doctor, speechwriter, and an actor, you have to survey your audience. Your audience relies on you to know what they need. It’s a leadership role. It’s a powerful role. I feel like a DJ can start a fight and a DJ can also end a fight. A DJ can send you home with a shorty and a DJ can breakup your relationship. A DJ can also make your relationship. Think about how many wedding receptions you’ve gone to where everything was great, but the DJ was whack. What you remember is the DJ being whack. Nobody cares about the ceremony because you’re married now. People want to know if there was a party. A DJ makes you feel good. A DJ plays on your emotions, but guides you to the right place because a lot of us don’t look at the role music plays for us. Music is in us. That’s something that can’t be taken away from us.
Q. In your career, you’ve traveled the world with some well-known artists. Name a few. What was it like working closely with them?
A. I would say the first person I consistently traveled and worked with is Raheem Devaughn. I’ve been working with him since the beginning of his career. I also worked with Jasmine Sullivan in the second part of her career when ‘Need You Bad’ came out. She’s a great person and super talented. I’ve worked with Cee Lo Green. He’s a wild character and also super talented. I’ve worked with Mya who is super talented and has a lot of energy on stage and even though she doesn’t have a lot of prominent records out in America right now, internationally she’s still heavy. I’ve done some work with Marsha Ambrosius, MC Lyte, Mario and CJ Hilton.
Q. What do you admire the most about these particular artists?
A. Well, almost everyone that I just named has either been nominated or has won a Grammy aside from CJ. CJ is new, but to have worked with a bunch of Grammy-winning and Grammy-nominated artists, it’s powerful. I was in LA with Jasmine when she was nominated for five Grammys on her first album. For your first major release to have five Grammy nominations is a major accomplishment. To have been apart of that run and that momentum was very strong. It was a great feeling.
Q. Rapper and Entrepreneur, 50 Cent, was on one of your first mixtapes when you started out. He’s respected as an overall business mogul and for having a record- breaking album early in his career, but he catches flack for his music today. What are your thoughts on 50?
A. 50 understood that this rap thing was not going to last forever. And 50’s not a timeless rapper. LL Cool J is timeless. Big Daddy Kane is timeless. Rakim’s music is timeless. Andree 3000 is timeless. Bun B is timeless. I can name timeless rappers all around the world. Regardless of what coast you are from or what country you’re from, there are timeless rappers. I don’t think 50 is timeless. ‘In the Club’ was hot at the time. ‘Wingster’ was hot at the time. ‘Made You Look’ was another record that was hot at that particular time. Mob Deep has some timeless material. There are timeless rappers and 50’s not one of them, but he made enough money at the time and he’s a businessman.
Q. What makes D.J. Lil Mic a “heavyweight” in terms of the caliber of D.J.’s in Baltimore?
A. I always say that eagles fly alone. Do you want to be amongst the elite? Do you want to hang with everybody and be mediocre or do you want to do what nobody else is willing to do and be the best? Because when you’re the best, you’re by yourself. You’re the one who’s willing to do the most work when everybody else is doing the least work. You might have a lot of people who have 95’s, but there’s only one magna cum laude or summa cum laude. You have to be willing to say, this is what I’m willing to do to get to the next level. Personally, I was at a place where I was willing to do that. Then you get to a level of success and realize you have to do the same thing all over again to get to the next level up. That was me and still is to this day.
Q. What makes you a special breed?
A. I think I’m special because God made me special. My process is a little different. Nas has a record on his last album that talks about the process. Sometimes the journey is better than the destination. Who I am and the things that my parents did. You know church, school and band and all of that, that’s made me have a greater appreciation. A lot of people have that Bughatti and Bentley frame of mind. So, when I come in with the ’66 Lincoln Continental frame of mind, which is the classic frame of mind, it’s like wow. That’s like when I DJ. I wear suits when I DJ. I’ve always been into branding. I had a logo 20 years ago. I had a mixtape. I had a website in ’98. Dudes barely had email accounts back then. I had mixtapes in high school. I had freestyles from guys like 50 Cent. Before 50 got shot, I got a freestyle with him.
My mom would front me the money and I would sell tapes in school. It was underground hip-hop at the time. Cats would buy the tapes. I would have them selling up and down the east coast. I remember when I got my license. I remember the first time I went to New York to buy records. I didn’t even have enough money to get home as far as toll money goes. We were dedicated man. I have good childhood friends who really supported me and are still friends of mine to this day and friends for life.
Nowadays, one guy can walk into a party and set up to DJ, but back in my day you had eight or nine guys walking in the party with all of this equipment. It was a learning thing for us. I have students now that are very dedicated to each other and stick with each other. They went to the same elementary school, but are now in different high schools. They understand that they are still very young in their DJ’ing and because I’ve explained to them the process, they don’t take it lightly. When they have the party rocking, they love it and when they mess up, they’re hard on themselves, as they should be. Music is the soundtrack to life. It’s the universal language. So, when you understand the weight of being a Mixmaster, understanding that you can hold the sound that impacts someone’s life, it’s major.
Will Smith has said that when you’re doing something, you shouldn’t have a plan B you should only have a plan A because plan B will get in the way of plan A. He said ‘The difference between me and someone else is not my talent. It’s my undying discipline and my work ethic.’ He said ‘While the other man is sleeping, I’m working. While the other man is eating, I’m working.’ So, I’m playing this over and over again in the car trying to feed my mind that energy.
Q. What’s your message to D.J.’s and people in general who are pursuing their passions?
A. I’d say never give up. Even if you have to slow up your pace just to get back on track, that’s cool. I’m not saying kill yourself, but what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. As people, we have to figure out if we want to contribute to people’s lives or if we’re going to be takers or simply consumers. No one can be all of one or the other. Individuals like Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and John F. Kennedy were motivated by their communities needs. The question becomes, ‘What is your ultimate goal?’ I feel like Jay-Z is probably the most notable hip-hop figure today. He could have every kid in the streets reading books. I don’t know if he’s doing that though and if he is we’re surely not hearing much about it. I’m not knocking Jay, but I’m saying that powerful artists like he and Beyoncé could be that influence. I know Jay has the S Carter Foundation, but when you sow that seed in your community, you would think that one would become even more popular.
Q. As a D.J., what adversity do you hope to never come across?
A. War scares me the most because nobody goes to the club when there’s war. The 1920’s was the era of the Big Band. What happened to the Big Band? World War I happened. World War I killed the Big Band because everybody had to go to the army. Elvis was one of the major artists in the army. So, you go from having a band of 30 people to Miles Davis and just a few other artists.
Q. Who are some of the D.J.’s from back in the day that were inspiration to you and your artistry?
A. You had the Mally Malls, the Red Alerts, P Rock, Jazzy Jeff, my man DJ B, Jay-Skee from Philly, and Irin from DC. These guys aren’t too much older than me, but I used to listen to them at a very inspirational point of my life. I listened to this Jazzy Jeff mixtape during that transition from high school to college and it changed my life. What he was doing was called multi-tracking. It just changed my whole focus on how I could do things. But, I was a student of everybody like Primo. I was a big fan of Premier who’s like a big brother to me from Brooklyn. It’s crazy to meet these people after watching them on Rap City and on videos and all of that and then when you meet them and it’s love, it’s like wow.