On his third studio album, Compton, Dr. Dre spits “Mentally I’m on a whole ‘nother level / And don’t forget that I came from the ghetto,” capturing the quintessential come-up story for so many, himself included.
The story of south-central LA’s Mike Rebel could also be soundtracked by Dre’s “Talking To My Diary,” while the rising rapper, through his own music, details his own trials and tribulations not letting himself be defined solely by his environment growing up. Interestingly enough, the rapper and producer later found himself signed to a production company closely affiliated with the doctor himself, led by then Dre protégée Mike Elizondo.
The son of a militant Islamic father, Mike learned early on that one of life’s most important missions is to rise above social conditions that a history of oppression had landed him and his peers in.
“My father always taught us that we were to civilize our people, teach them a knowledge of who they really were before we were reduced to this barbaric state you see in the hood,” Mike says. “Of course, my friends were street dudes and I adopted the fondness for the lifestyle. My mom always said ‘just because we lived in the hood that we weren’t ghetto’. She was always trying to move us out somewhere safer that we really couldn’t afford. She was a dreamer. That’s where I get it from.”
While learning things the hard way and serving a sentence in a state penitentiary and drug rehab, Mike found himself turning to music to help share his story and express the perspectives he’s gained through his experiences.
On his latest track, “Twisted & Laid-back,” Mike Rebel navigates through elements of jazz, bluesy rock and Hip Hop, in a vocal delivery of the same demeanor as the track’s title. His sound showcases the ways in which he is a student of music, experimenting with different styles and covering a lot of ground in one three minute display of his talents. The result is captivating, and his ability to translate his character and background strengthens his own approach to setting an experimental, calm vibe.
Mike Rebel took some time to chat and dive in deeper, as he readies his debut contributions to the culture that has inspired him to share his creativity and forge his own path.
In what ways has your personal background found its way into your music? Do you feel as though its inevitable for your stories of overcoming hardship to be expressed in your music?
Needless to say, my background helped to shape me as a person. In my art, I just try and convey whatever emotion the music inspires. Whether it’s sparked from a line played by an instrument, or just the way I was feeling at that moment. It’s like translating what the music is saying through lyrics and melody. And the story is all mine. But emotionally it belongs to anyone. When it’s honest, this is true ….
For me this is impossible to avoid. But it’s also bitter sweet in a way. That’s the addiction I get to art. It’s the most potent pain reliever in the world. When you can relate to someone’s pain, or laugh and cry all together – Or dance to a song about heartbreak.
Overcoming, or rather finding balance through struggle or hardship can provide inspiration.
Not that I’m trying to inspire, but more so to relate. To say, when it’s bad, it’s not that bad..
Is it safe to say that learning to express yourself through your music saved your life?
God saved my life, but music has always been with me throughout. But I can literally say in many occasions, when we would do things that put our lives in danger, or our freedom at risk, the fact that I was an artist just doing dirt on the side, that saved me. Many of my partners weren’t as fortunate and paid with their lives and their freedom.
The production really caught my ear on this project. Tell us a little bit more about how you got into production yourself.
I could never play an instrument but heard them in my head always. I always had a respect for how the same instrument could sound so different played by a different person.
After I left Sony Records, I got “locked up” in Boston, and released under the stipulation that I remain under strict drug supervision after serving the remainder of a 2 year sentence, one year suspended.
Stuck in Boston, knowing no one, and by a stroke of pure fate I came across the Berkeley College of Music. I never took a class, and at that time, I was very anti-music industry and dove head first into live performing and music.
I formed a few bands, wrote with a few acts, two of which are now signed to major labels, and focused on the production and song writing aspects of music. Not exclusively hip hop. Rock, folk, blues, jazz, classical, I found music that spoke to me. No labels or classification.
I find music is all about collaboration. Even if you are singing by yourself with a guitar, as art, you want someone to relate. So you need another person or persons. In that sense, I see production and music as collaboration.
I was signed to a production company closely affiliated to Dr. Dre in 2002. Led by (then Dre Protégée Mike Elizondo.) Being in that camp, seeing Dr. Dre assemble the right musicians in one studio, give them stations and collaborate under his lead was the blue print I used to make this project.
I present the stories and ideas and paint the picture and sculpt the magic. Shout out to the team of musicians in my camp – 13th floor “nobody up here but us.”
Which came first, making beats or writing songs?
Song writing was first. I’ve been writing songs, or trying to since I can remember, maybe since 9 or 10 years old. Performing since seven. Talent shows in the neighborhood park gym. Or the “African market place” events in Leimert Park.
I only got into production when I knew musicians but no producers. My relationship with my musicians and my need for music specific to my brand of story telling is what prompted me to do it myself.
What is your writing and creative process like?
It varies. A phrase or lyric may come first. Or a melody may come first. Everything ends up coming together for the same purpose eventually. So what comes first is irrelevant and I don’t know why or how. I just try and snatch it when I feel it from wherever it comes from.
I find it in a mood, or a realization. But rather it comes from a melody or an instrument, or a certain event, the feeling is what sparks it for me. I just pray it keeps coming. These feelings from these places and people so I can keep translating. And hopefully relate to others feeling the same.
What does your favorite environment to write songs look like?
Doing things through the day. Or sitting in a studio with the track playing loud. Or after a run. Or taking a sh*t. Or whenever I hear a dope new song that’s innovative and I should have thought of.. [Laughs] I guess living is the best environment to write in.
What do you listen to on a daily basis, given that your music has influences from several different genres?
Too many to name. Today for example looked like Alicia Keys, Big L, some old LL Cool J, Kid Cudi, The Weeknd, The Band Perry, Delfonics, The Black Keys, Michael Jackson, Citizen Cope and Marvin Gaye.
What do you want people to take away from your first project?
That I’m here and (God willing) and there’s much more where that came from.
Who would you love to work with in Hip Hop?
Andre 3000. Always been a big fan of Andre. I would also like to work with Quentin Tarantino and David Fincher, for live direction and videos. And anyone who wants to tell some stories.
Tell me a little bit about what you would like to achieve this year.
I’m just excited to see what I can create when this is all I’m doing 24/7. Now it’s still a hustle to make the music comfortably. But that’s a part of it too I feel. To work hard to get to the position where your sh*t is quality and dope. I feel I’m almost there. And never will be at the same time.
I want one of the top three stages at any festival in the world. And everything that comes before that.