Chi-Town State of Mind
Mikkey Halsted, one of the Windy City’s finest MC’s, sits down with SLAMonline to talk about music, life and basketball… From a Chicago perspective.
by Bryan Crawford / @_BryanCrawford
Common is mostly lauded for his consciousness and intelligence on the mic, while Kanye is noted for his brashness and braggadocio. But those are just two distinct sides of what is a well rounded Chicago coin. And not just for entertainers who hail from the Windy City, but for regular folk as well. It just so happens that Mikkey Halsted is the one rap artist who can gracefully embody both on the microphone.
Mikkey is not just your regular, run of the mill rapper. For starters, he might be the only artist in hip-hop who holds a Master’s degree. Secondly, at different points in his career, between giving back to the streets by cranking out tracks that Chicagoans – regardless of the side of town they’re from – can feel, he’s given back to the community by serving as a teacher in Chicago Public Schools.
Not only that, but he also played college basketball at St. Xavier University, an NAIA school in the ‘Wild Hundreds’ section of Chicago; the section that he calls home. And he still hoops regularly in different leagues around the city, sometimes in as many as four different ones at a time.
Mikkey is the embodiment the Chi-Town street culture and the largely overlooked fact that people from Chicago are well educated in both book smarts and street smarts. He sat down to talk with me about this dynamic as well as his music, his new album The Darkroom, and his love, knowledge and unbridled passion for the game of basketball and how it has played a part in making him the man that he is today.
SLAM: You’ve been in the rap game for a minute. You the first artist that Kanye ever signed, you were with Cash Money Records at one point, and you were signed to Virgin Records by Jermaine Dupri. But as far as rappers go, your background is a little bit different in that you have a college degree; a Masters degree. Do you ever feel like that ever held you back in terms of being a huge artists like some other people are?
Mikkey Halsted: Well, in a way, yeah. The best way to explain it is… Sometimes people want to benefit off of people that know less, and those people are easy to benefit off of. And sometimes being too intelligent kind of holds you back because this game is all about profiting off of somebody’s talent and when you don’t allow people to really use you, it takes a little longer. You gotta go the hard way. You gotta go the long way. And in between me starting my rap career, I went back to school. I took a little hiatus; I stayed taking classes here and there, when I could, because I know that you can’t do this forever. Eventually, whenever I stop making music, I wanted to have something to fall back on. And nobody in my family ever got a Masters degree, so I wanted to be the first. I was the second person in my family to graduate from college, and I’m the first person to ever get a Masters. So that’s just something I wanted to do for my family, man, and more than anything, I wanted to set an example. I’m happy I did it and yeah it might have delayed things because people always say that I could’ve went all out earlier because I did everything at a young age. Not only did I start school young – a year early – I also skipped a grade. I was always a little younger then my grade, but I’m blessed to have all the experiences that I’ve had. I think it made me a better emcee and I think people appreciate that well-roundedness. So at the end of the day, I think I’m gonna get my due respect. I really feel like 2011 is gonna be my year. I just dropped my first full-length album, there’s a couple of deals on the table already. I really just feel like 2011 is gonna be my year. So I’m happy with the place that I’m at.
SLAM: You talk about being well rounded where you have the educational side and the street side. How do you manage being able to stay connected to the streets while at the same time not compromising your educational background?
MH: Man, you know how it is. The streets is where we’re from. I’m from 116th and Morgan (the ‘Wild Hundreds’ section of Chicago). When I went to school and originally came back out, people will tell you, there’s been years where I’ve been battling to get out of certain contracts. And because of rap, I can’t be a full-time teacher, but I went back to the hood to teach and to connect with them shorty’s. I taught at my old school, Higgins Elementary. I taught at Madison Elementary in Sircon City on 75th and Dorchester. I taught at Hinton Elementary on 71st and Lowe in Englewood. So it’s like, my whole thing was to use my education to give back to the shorty’s. I can’t not be connected to the streets. You know how it is in Chicago, you’re in the street. I live on the South Side. My family is from the South Side. My cousins is out here. My homies is out here that I grew up with. And so we’re the streets because we came from it. I came from it. I’ve been through the gangbanging. I’ve seen my homies die and held them as they took their last breaths. I’ve seen the wars between the Folks and the Fo’s (Four Corner Hustlers) in the Hundreds. I’ve seen police run up on the park and seen people swallow crack. My homies was the ones who would go and try to shit them bags out that they swallowed because the police came and then try and re-bag ‘em. I’ve seen everything, and you don’t have to do everything to see everything. So being a Chicago person that’s from where we’re from, we’re well-rounded by nature. That’s why I play basketball in the hoods all throughout Chicago, still. Basketball has always been a way to help keep me connected with the streets because that’s just part of the culture. In the street culture of Chicago, basketball is a big part of that. So you know, I stay connected. I stay in the hoods. I stay giving back to the shorty’s. I stay going to the same stores. People can see me on 79th getting jerk chicken. They see me at the barber shop off Cottage [Grove Ave]. They see me. I’m accessible. They see me on Roosevelt [Ave] at the Whole Foods. They see me on 53rd street, they see me everywhere, you know what I’m saying. I want people to see that I’m a regular person, man. I’m a man of the people and I feel like when the people see me, they appreciate it and the more popping the music gets, the more I get recognized. I can’t go to the gas station on King Drive without somebody saying, ‘Aw man, I dig what you’re doing. I seen the Liquor Store video. I heard your album in DTLR [clothing store].’ So it’s a blessing, man. I stay connected to the people because the people, that’s the pulse. That’s where we get the music from, man. That’s who the music is for.