Former Gophers guard Lawrence McKenzie remembers first hearing the sounds as a toddler.
There was his grandfather, a schoolteacher, but to the Minneapolis northside youth a musician. There was Fred Steele, the famous gospel artist, next door. There was Cornbread Harris, the singer/pianist and father of Jimmy Jam, who made his home just across the street.
The rhymes and rhythms echo even now, in McKenzie's mind.
You gotta go to the block. You're gonna do this. You don't stop.
Then, it was a game. His granddad rhymed just about everything.
But three years after expiring his eligibility with the Gophers, McKenzie, a northside native, has made those casual beats his life.
"I feel like that was definitely a huge influence on me, just hearing those rhyme schemes, hearing how he put them together," McKenzie said. "I would hear instruments constantly. Fred on piano, Cornbread on Sax."
For two years, after transferring from the University of Oklahoma, McKenzie played for the University of Minnesota, being named to the All-Big Ten third team his senior year. These days, McKenzie -- who graduated with a degree in business and marketing -- has mostly tucked away his high tops, and gets a different introduction that the one he received over the loud speaker at the start of home games.
As "Mac Irv," McKenzie -- who performed at the Pourhouse on Aug. 31 -- has produced three albums, toured the Midwest and done shows as big as this summer's Soundset, which was held at Cantebury Park in May. On Sept. 25, he'll be at The Union Bar in Iowa City, opening for CyHi the Prynce.
It's the second act for an athlete whose basketball career fizzled in 2011 after hip surgery was slow to heal.
For most of McKenzie's life, basketball was the focus. After leading Minneapolis Patrick Henry High School -- coached by his father, Larry -- to four state championships, McKenzie accepted a scholarship to Oklahoma. There, guard had a strong freshman season, averaging 8.2 points, 1.2 assists and 2.3 rebounds a game. But as his sophomore season began, nothing felt the same.
He couldn't stop on a dime the way he always could. He lost his explosiveness. He'd try to go past a defender on a routine cut to the basket and find he didn't have the legs to beat out his man.
But no one could tell that anything was hurt or tweaked so McKenzie kept playing. At Minnesota, he managed 14.9 points a game and 3.4 rebounds in his junior year, but by his senior season, those numbers slid back to 11.8 and 2.3, respectively.
McKenzie was losing confidence, and his love for the game. The NBA, which the Minnesotan always saw as his destined home, wasn't interested. Instead, he went overseas to Macedonia for half a year, then headed to the D-league. Still something was wrong, so finally McKenzie insisted on an MRI.
The results brought the answer to McKenzie's flummoxing slide. The doctor found two torn hip labrums, injuries McKenzie should have had surgery for five years prior, he told him.
First, McKenzie was angry. Then he prayed. His hips still weren't healing. It was time to move on.
He put his frustrations, his love, his loss from basketball on paper.
I've been down this road before
I know exactly what you need
I left you once and came right back
To represent you in the league.
I wore your name across my chest
You stayed so close to my heart
I nearly lost the path to get you my life was falling apart.
"It was a tough 2-3 months, but music came right in as my passion," McKenzie said. "All the passion I had for basketball, I just turned around to music. That's what got me here."
It's worked out well for McKenzie, who supplements the money he makes from music with a part-time job training young basketball players at 43 Hoops in Hopkins -- working long days in the summertime before hitting the recording studio at midnight.
He write about his experiences growing up on the North side; his family; his two daughters, Kailah and Lauren; basketball.
"To be honest, that's all I write about," he said. "I write about my experiences. I write about what I've been through because someone might be able to relate.
"You've got to give people a chance to grow with you, figure out if they like where you came from and if they like how you are built."
Many of his fans aren't aware he even played basketball in a former life. Even for McKenzie, walking into the Barn is like walking into another world. It's hard for him to believe, sometimes, that he once walked out onto that floor, under those lights.
These new lights are different, but they aren't any less satisfying. In some ways, McKenzie feels lucky. He got a new start, and found another dream.
"I'm not exactly where I want to be in life, not at all," he said. "I feel like I'm supposed to be in the NBA. I feel like I'm suppose to be making millions. But you know what? I had a setback. That doesn't mean I have to give up. And people are inspired by that."
Other quotes from McKenzie:
On "Sweetest Joy," which he wrote in honor of his two daughters (who have different mothers): I wanted them to have something that they could understand, even when I'm gone. When they're 18, 19, they can go back and listen to what I meant for them, That's not the way I wanted it to work out. I had a mom and a dad, I had both of my parents. I don't know what I would have done if my parents weren't around. But I just wanted to let them know that I'll be there regardless and I know life's not perfect but we're going to make the best of it.
On "Hometown," a song about where he grew up: I was finishing a mixtape and the producer I'm with now sent me the tune. I just wanted to get the mix tape out, I didn't want to do another [song], but the producer sent it anyway. And it just sparked something in me. I've been the Minnesota guy. Even though I left, I always loved Minnesota. Regardless of where I went, I always wanted to come back to Minnesota.
On inspiring people through music: I feel like my job, especially as an African American male is to give kids an example of what they can do to be successful. On the road to success, I feel like my vehicle got stalled, and I was able to hot-wire another one to keep going ... I've talked to kids that say 'There ain't no way off the streets. The only thing there is for me is dead or in jail.' No it's not. You may think that but it's not like that. You have plenty of opportunities. And I just wanted a voice to say that.
His favorite memories at Minnesota:
The Blake Hoffarber shot. That was one of my best memories. And just being around all my teammates was amazing. I love that I had the opportunity to play for Tubby Smith... and my granddad is passed now, but on senior day, he came. I had zero points in the first half and I remember I thought I cannot be out here embarrassed with my granddad at the game. I ended up having 20 points in the second half and we won the game.
What he misses the most:
The competition out there playing. The arenas, the crowds. I'm a competitor so I miss being out there, I miss going hard. You know what the crazy thing about it is? I miss the workouts. Running stairs, I miss that. I miss sweating like that, I miss being that tired. I really do. Even now, I work out, but I can't work out to that extent because of my injury (and not pushed the same way).
On his impressions of the Minnesota program now:
It's exciting to watch those guys, it's excited to see what [new coach Richard] Pitino is doing, how they play up and down, how they're pressing. I'm looking forward to seeing what happens in the future. I'm just excited to see where the program goes in the future.
I thought it was really good, even from talking to the players. I heard it from the inside source. I hear that they're comfortable and they're enjoying it. Basketball players, you've got to feel comfortable, you've got to believe that your coach believes in you.
I like the way they're playing. I wish that I could play for them.