The Los Angeles-bred Doomtree rapper opens up on his troubled past and sees a bright future.
Video: Mike Mictlan: The Brink
He was born Michael Marquez. He took up an Aztec name in his late teens to honor his pre-colonial Mexican roots. He worked as a butcher out of high school. He has a 6-year-old daughter whose cuteness sharply contrasts with her dad’s art. His own upbringing in Los Angeles was truly ugly at times.
This is all stuff the average Doomtree fan might not know about the Twin Cities rap crew’s most volatile-voiced, maniacally mannered member, Mike Mictlan, who moved to Minnesota for a year at age 16 when things got really bad in L.A.
“I very easily could’ve wound up dead or in jail,” Mictlan said, sounding ashamed and amazed.
One thing that most Doomtree fans can and will tell you about Mictlan, now 32, is that he deserves more recognition. You won’t catch him saying that, though.
Pitched a story line about how his wild new solo album, “Hella Frreal,” could bring him out from under the shadows of his better-known cohorts Dessa, P.O.S. and Sims, the shortest and stoutest of the group’s MCs gave a long, deflective answer.
“Their successes don’t cast a shadow, because we all share the same light,” said Mictlan, who comes off surprisingly mild-mannered and refreshingly uncynical offstage compared with his music.
“Since I was a kid, I always wanted to be in a rap group. I always pictured we’d have a group name, with a DJ and an MC, like EPMD. I never thought it’d be a solo thing.”
How perfect, then, that he stayed in touch with some of his classmates from Hopkins High School after moving back to L.A. He returned to the Twin Cities permanently in 2005, just as Doomtree was turning into a real, viable group.
“When we started working together, it was like a V formation. I fit, and I was traversing through my experience, flying among people at the same level and same speed. We all made sense together. Our successes and our failures are shared together.”
“Hella Frreal” is uniquely all his, though — the most Mike Mictlan of the Mike Mictlan records so far.
The lyrics are personal, emotional, funny, sometimes crude or scary, occasionally sweet. He variously touches on his troubled youth, his proud “Mexi-melt” heritage, his still-fledgling rap career and a slew of recent struggles. That includes battles with addiction and depression, and even a short, forced stay in a psychiatric ward.
“I’ve seen defeat / I’ve seen the bottom,” Mictlan raps in the mid-album highlight “Less Talk,” a song about not making excuses for his problems. “Believe you me, there is no god / And there is no devil / just a mirror.”
The music on “Hella Frreal” boasts a broad range of styles that suit the intensity and nervous energy of Mictlan’s raps, from the ’80s-gangsta-rap-echoing opener “Benicio del Torso” to the grinding techno beats of “Super’Merica.” Cecil Otter and Lazerbeak produced some of the tracks, but he mostly worked with collaborators from outside the Doomtree camp, including beatmakers Cory Grindberg and Dylan Frank (aka Red Velvet Beats) from Audio Perm, 2% Muck and Mike Frey, and vocalists Greg Grease and Aby Wolf. His DJ at upcoming shows will be Brandon Allday of Big Quarters notoriety.
“I think it’s his best stuff yet,” said P.O.S., who is Mictlan’s oldest friend in Doomtree. “He raps harder than ever, but the words and ideas are also clearer than ever. His lyrics are a lot more personal in a way that’s not coded, where the rest of us [in Doomtree] are more guarded about what we write.”
Mictlan met P.O.S. on his very first day at Hopkins High.
“He had a little patch of blue in his hair, and he came up and asked me if I wanted to buy this homemade punk zine he had for $1,” Mictlan recalled.
That hardly seemed weird compared with the “completely 180-degree life change” he experienced that summer before school started. He went from hanging around the Crenshaw area of Los Angeles — specifically the Baldwin Village neighborhood, aka the Jungle, where “Training Day” was filmed — to working as a caddie at Interlachen Country Club in Edina.
Mictlan’s family shipped him to live with his uncle, Augie, who “was the only family we had living anywhere other than Los Angeles,” he said. Without much dramatic flair or embellishment, he listed a litany of wrongs his family was hoping to right, including drug dealing and robbery.
“I wasn’t a part of any gang, but I was around them a lot,” he said. “I wasn’t afraid of them. I was more afraid of police there who acted like they were gangsters.”
His home life was equally messed up. His mom had been mostly absent since he was 8, an addict who wound up in jail, he said. His dad, a Vietnam veteran, was then battling his first of several victorious bouts with cancer.
“There wasn’t really anybody to handle me,” he said.
Resetting the game
He revisits a lyric from his 2008 song “Game Over” on the new record: “I said rap wouldn’t save you / Didn’t say nothing about me.”
Hip-hop most definitely made his life better.
“I felt I was going to make a living off making rap music going back to when I was 11 years old,” he claims. He was first inspired by his older brother, Rich, who would later DJ with Dilated Peoples and other L.A. scenemakers. Mike wasn’t allowed to touch Rich’s turntables, so he became a rapper. But it took a while.
After a few years of back and forth from Los Angeles, he delivered his first raps long-distance on a 2001 record by one of P.O.S.’ pre-Doomtree groups, Cenospecies. Mind you, this was before recordings could be easily made via file-sharing.
“I got teary-eyed listening to it when it came out, thinking it was the biggest, greatest thing — and it was actually recorded over the damn phone,” Mictlan recalled with a laugh.
But he was on his way. When he joined Doomtree in 2004 for a short tour opening for Sage Francis, Mictlan recalled, “Everything just clicked. They insisted I move back.”
“Tired of jobs / Ready to grind till I retire,” he insisted on “Prizefight,” the standout track from his promising if tentative 2008 debut album, “Hand Over Fist.” After a foray into more rowdy, raunchy tunes on his well-received 2012 EP, “Snaxxx” — “I made [it] to mess with people and show another side of me,” he said — he wanted to make something truer to himself.
The opening track, “Benicio del Torso,” opens up right away about his turmoil of late, including a 72-hour lockup in a mental facility after a drug-induced threat to kill himself not long after coming home from Doomtree’s 2012 “No Kings” tour. (“I don’t even remember saying anything, and definitely didn’t mean it,” he says now.)
While most rappers with a hint of street cred jump at the chance to write songs about gun violence and inner-city strife, Mictlan makes his first real stab at addressing those topics on the final track (and first single), “Clapp’d.”
“Not everybody from the hood is a killer or a dealer or a villain / Everybody in the hood wanna do something better for their life and their children.”
“Hella Frreal,” he said, is just the beginning of a new approach to songwriting that will further explore his rough past and personal side. He’s excited about his next album, which he plans to record this winter and put out soon after Doomtree’s new all-crew record arrives in January.
“When I moved out here and joined Doomtree, all through my 20s, it was more of a self-discovery period,” he said. Now in his 30s and a dad, he thinks he has a better perspective on his youth. “I feel like a lot of people do their best writing later in life. I have a lot of stories that I haven’t told about me growing up.”
But don’t go thinking that he’ll back away from Doomtree now that he’s carving out his own identity. The group announced that December’s eight-day marathon will be the last of its popular Blowout concert series, but it’s definitely not a farewell.
“It’s just time to try something different, but Doomtree will always be,” he said. “For me, it literally changed my life.”
Chris Riemenschneider • 612-673-4658
With: Sims, Mac Irv, Mundo Libre, Ander Other.
When: 9 p.m. Sat.
Where: 7th Street Entry, 701 1st Av. N., Mpls.
Tickets: $10-$12, eTix.com.