For almost a decade, Lawrence McKenzie relished being one of the best-known basketball players to emerge from Minneapolis’ North Side. For the past half-decade, though, he’s been trying to trade that identity for another: rapper Mac Irv.
It’s looking like he may have finally gotten there.
“A lot of people who see me perform now have no idea about my past, especially when I’m out of town,” said McKenzie. “I’m fine with that. I’ve been working hard for that.”
Hanging out last week at the Robbinsdale house that he shares with his producer, Willie Clay (aka Willie Wonka), the 31-year-old, 6-foot-2 rapper still looked fit enough to be passing the ball instead of the mic for a career. The tattooed words “never” and “quit” bulged out from under his T-shirt, one on each biceps, as he talked about quitting one pursuit for the other.
As a rapper, he has been touring with Prof in recent months and opened the Rhymesayers star’s annual Cabooze outdoor bash last year. He’s playing the Summer Set music fest next month and taking over a sold-out 7th Street Entry on Saturday to celebrate his new album, “Misfit 55411.”
“I’ve had to prove myself as a rapper as much as I did in basketball,” he said. “But in both cases, I knew I had it in me to do it.”
As a basketball player, McKenzie played in four consecutive state championships from 2000-03 with Patrick Henry High School (tying a state record), then went on to play two years for the University of Oklahoma before coming back to the University of Minnesota and earning All-Big Ten honors in 2006-08.
Throughout college, though, Mac fought through pain that turned into hip problems. His injuries came to a head while playing for the Los Angeles Lakers’ Development League team. He faced having major surgery or playing through pain.
“I had a job offer to go play in Germany, and my agent called and asked if I was ready to go,” he recalled. “I just had to say, ‘I don’t think so.’ ”
A harder phone call was the one he made to his dad, Larry, telling him his basketball career was over. The senior McKenzie was also his coach at Patrick Henry.
“He kind of hounded me: ‘Keep fighting. Don’t give up,’ ” Mac recalled. “I said, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore if I can’t do it at 100 percent.”
‘Write it down’
Mac said his mom, Dianne McKenzie, unknowingly helped shape his next endeavor: “When I was upset about something and didn’t know how to express myself, she always told me, ‘Write it down!’ So even as a kid, I was writing poetry.”
Heavily into Tupac, Biggie and other early ’90s hip-hop growing up, Mac also was influenced by a pair of neighbors growing up on Irving Avenue, the “Irv” in his stage moniker: Fred Steele of the Steeles gospel music family lived next door, and R&B/blues vet Cornbread Harris was across the street.
“I always saw music as a real profession,” Mac said.
He had long practiced rapping as a hobby but put it at center court without hesitation once his basketball career ended.
“I saw it like the car I had been cruising in came to a screeching halt, but here was this other vehicle I could jump into,” he recounted. “I had to keep moving.”
And he hasn’t stopped. Mac has been steadily, rapidly tossing out new singles, videos and albums since dropping his 2011 debut mixtape, “Certified Magnetic.” One of his songs, “Game Time,” became a staple at Gophers games. More serious tunes attracted attention online, including the dramatic video for the inner-city crime epic “The Cycle” and his soulful homage to Minneapolis, “No Place Like Home.”
While filming the video for the latter tune, Mac had a run-in with his hometown police that inspired the new song “Change,” which sounds prophetically in tune with the upheaval in the Twin Cities this summer after the Philando Castile shooting. He and his crew rented a high-end Bentley car to use in the video.
“I knew the second we rolled by them, they were going to come up on us,” he recalled of the encounter, which he said involved him and his friends being told to get out of the car at gunpoint and thrown to the ground “for no other reason than we were black dudes in a Bentley.”
“You can die for your block, or you can die from a cop,” Mac raps in the song. “Young black man, please tell me what’s my real worth.”
‘What I was meant to do’
Recorded at the North Community YMCA studio, where the viral hit “Hot Cheetos & Takis” originated, “Change” is one of several tunes on the new album to address the neighborhood of his youth. Others include the more lighthearted party anthem “Wil’ Out” and the paternal ode “Misfit,” in which he raps about feeling like an outcast for being one of the few kids on the block to grow up with his father.
“I remember my dad would come to school for something and I would actually get embarrassed,” he said, shaking his head.
The album even starts with a riling speech by the elder McKenzie, one that sounds straight out of the locker room. He now coaches at Minneapolis North, where he won another state championship this spring. Mac said you can see his dad at many of his shows nowadays, too.
“He knows I’m doing what I love, and he gets it and gets into it now,” the rapper said proudly, voicing his own reassurance that he made the right move.
“Playing basketball wasn’t in God’s plan for me. I know now that this is what I was meant to do.”