He’s Mike Lo if you didn’t know.
Underground rapper Mike Lo sings with the swagger of Eminem and smirks like one of the Beastie Boys. He lives in two worlds — the one he needs to make ends meet and the one he creates for himself. His day job consists of tending tables in the Chicago suburbs, where he is known for being exceptionally polite and considerate. But even when he’s tending tables, he has one foot in the world he built — full of swagger, drinking, and raw sexuality. While at work, he frequently uses his cell phone like an artist’s palette, recording snatches of dialogue and building lyrics into the songs he raps at bars and parties.
Those songs become videos — where he parties with his own posse (“Rack City”), lands in jail after drinking and driving (“Bars After Bars”), and laughs like could care less.
His recently released 17-track mixtape, Fully Lo Did, reveals a sound that is at times aggressive (“Fully Lo Did”) and reflective (“Up All Night”) — but it’s always moving fast, with catchy beats (check out the beginning of “This Is Wack” or “Floatin”) and cocky bravado. His songs remind me of what Dr. Dre once said about his own songs — music made for adult ears.
And, yeah, his word play is clever and smooth, whether he’s celebrating the joys of partying or smoking, similar to rapper Wiz Khalifa, whose Tumblr site features fan-uploaded videos including Mike Lo’s. (“Bars After Bars” was featured on Viewhiphop.com as well.)
I asked Mike Lo to describe his songs to me and explain how he constructs them. As it turns out, he lives by the beat. The beats talk to him and fuel his words, giving him energy that he processes and throws back at you through his songs. He lives off energy of the audiences where he performs, whether he’s at a party or a bar. As he says, “I feed off all energy. I even feed off negativity. It keeps me going.”
How did you get started in music?
I come from a very diverse family. My mom is white/Puerto Rican and my father is white/black. I am from Elgin, Illinois, born and raised in the suburbs of Chicago. Music has always been around me. Riding in the car, I grew up listening to my dad playing songs on the radio in the car, and I sang along with everything I heard, whether from Snoop Dogg or NWA. As I got older and started really getting into music, I listened to Eminem and 50 Cent.
I have always been into rapping. I have been writing lyrics since I was in sixth grade, and I’ve never stopped. Back in sixth grade, I played on the boys basketball team, and during road games on the back of the bus, you could find me writing and rapping. I didn’t know I wanted to pursue music as a career until I was about 21. Whenever I heard a rap song, I would wonder, “Damn, why can’t I do this?” So I went out and tried it.
How did your diverse background affect you growing up?
I believe growing up with such a diverse family had a major effect on my life. I never really knew how to label myself, or knew which friends would accept me because I’m a certain color. Everyone was always asking me what my race was, and I simply respond “mixed.” Even if I had labeled “white,” people knew I wasn’t just white. It wasn’t until I was older that understood more clearly. My background encourages me to show people no matter where you come from or what your background may be, you can do whatever you want if you do it with passion and work hard at it daily.
Do you remember the first song you wrote?
I was 12 or 13 years old. I played on a football team my grandfather coached. We had just won our championship and were headed to Florida, and I wrote a song about the football team.
When was your first performance?
The first place I ever performed was a bar. I had just turned 21.
The bar was a small space. I had a friend who was doing me a favor by having me perform, but he knew also I had friends who would come to fill the place. My first performance was really like a party.
I love performing. When I’m up there, I’m in this mode where something just takes over me the moment I hear the music. I don’t even feel like myself. I feel the energy and feed off the crowd. I love that feeling.
Who are your inspirations?
The people I grew up listening to were Nelly, TI, Eminem, and 50 Cent. These were people I wanted to be like. I wanted to be like them and dress like them. For part of his career, Nelly used to wear a Band Aid under his eye — so I wore one, too.
How would you describe your music in one sentence?
Feel good music. Feel good music is what I bring. Even people who don’t listen to rap have a vibe with my music. You have to listen to understand it.
You sound like Eminem’s swagger without the anger.
That’s what I go for. You have to have a little swag in your songs. I don’t express anger except in a song like “Fully Lo Did.” It’s an aggressive track because I’m responding to an aggressive beat.
Who is your audience?
My audience is pretty much college students — people who want to party and have a good time. People who are young.
Let’s talk about the Fully Lo Did mixtape. How did it come together?
I had 17 songs I had written stored up. I got hooked up with a few producers who I’d met through Facebook and Twitter. I knew I was starting up a project, I knew I had a sound I wanted. I picked the beats I wanted and started writing from it. I usually buy a few beats from the same producer (Adam Ivy, J.Mixx, PD Productions). We ended up linking up. It’s kind of funny going to high school and linking up with these people afterward. Some of these guys I work with now went to rival high schools. It’s all love now. In high school, it was all competition.
How would you describe your sound on Fully Lo Did?
Feel good music. It’s all 17 original Mike Lo, songs and it’s all feel good music.
Songs like the title track, “Fully Lo Did,” are pretty raw. There’s a lot of sex and aggression sexuality and swagger, and drugs.
There’s a funny story behind “Fully Lo Did”: I was sitting in the basement listening to the beat, which was provided by Tony Fadd. The beat made me feel pretty mad. I knew it was going to be the title track. The beats almost talked to me. The song came out hard because the beat was hard. I had to go hard with it.
“Up All Night” really slows down the tempo and sounds more reflective and regretful with you feeling so small. What’s the story with that song?
I wanted to slow it down and share something you could relate to and put yourself in my shoes for a minute. The song is inspired by everyday life, either things that happen to me or friends telling me stories. I hear about my friends, put myself in their shoes and sing as if I were them.
In “Seeing Double” you sing about drinking like it’s your last night. What’s the story behind that one?
Those beats talk to me. I remember writing that song and feeling like it was catchy. I react the beat. The beat says something to me, and I come up with something like that.
What’s the story behind “Bars After Bars”? What inspired you to write it?
I wanted to be cocky on Bars After Bars. I had already had a few tracks done. I had done it more recently and had been working on a project produced by Epik. The video was my idea.
The character in the video for “Bars After Bars” parties hard and is thrown in jail. How did you get into character for that video?
It’s pretty easy to get into character. The guy in the video is a reflection of myself.
So the partying and getting thrown into jail — Is that based on real life experience?
It’s not based on my life, but I know of others who have had that experience. I knew I wanted to something to do with a jail cell, and J. Zamudio Films came up with the idea of the cop car. He’s an interesting man, and it’s pretty cool how that video came together. He’s dope.
How about the “Rack City” video? A guy is surrounded by girls and parties hard. What’s the story about that one?
We had a blast filming it. Those are girls I know already. It was a fun night. Real life.
How much of that song is really you?
All of this is really me (laughs). Seriously, that’s a tough question. I consider myself a nice guy. I do like to go out and party. I like to be out with females, and they like to be around me. I’m a flirtatious guy.
Where do the words for your songs come from?
I draw from everything I see happening all around me. I snatch bits of dialogue from what I hear people saying at the restaurant where I work. I find a way to put a twist on the words I hear and out comes a lyric. I always have my phone with me and use it to record words. I might even tweet an idea to myself and work on it later. You might catch a tweet in a song later on because I’m using Twitter as a rough draft of a song.
You use raw language — the N word and graphic sexuality. Does it ever worry you that people might be offended?
Not really. I don’t really care what other people think. In this industry, that’s how you have to be. If you worry about what everyone thinks of you, you go crazy. Not everyone is going to like what you put out, unless you’re Justin Bieber.
You are also pretty liberal with your use of the N word.
Rappers have been using the N word since long before I was around. I use it very casually — maybe too casually. I’m not even fully black. It’s not even a reference to black people. I call white friends, “My nigga.” It doesn’t even mean something degrading to me. I don’t even think twice. But if I go around throwing the “er” at the end of the word — now that’s a little different.
When you use raw language in concert, how do people react?
Well, let me tell you about one time I was playing a smaller venue in Las Vegas. It was an intimate venue, and you could hear what everyone in the room was saying and how they were reacting to you. You could hear what every artist was saying. You can relate to people and they to you. I was doing a song “Feel Good Music,” and I rapped these lines “Houston there’s a problem, I forgot to wear the condom/Don’t know why the fuck I got ’em, what a waste of 3 dollars/That I coulda spent on chips or even tickets for the lott/ Plan A, I pull out, or it’s Plan B tomorrow.”
The crowd started laughing so hard it almost threw me off that I had a hard time laughing. A few people gave me props and said, “You are cool.”
I feed off all energy. I even feed off negativity. It keeps me going.
What’s your opinion of hip-hop today?
Record labels are signing characters now instead of lyricists. You should have music talent to succeed. There are good hip-hop artists out there who write but are not playing a character. Take Riff Raff, for instance — he’s a character to me. I admire the ones who put time and effort into their music like Kanye West and Jay-Z — the ones who paved the way.
How do you get people to learn about you?
Word of mouth. That’s the best form of promotion. I’m talking about people playing my music and putting on some Mike Lo in the mix, which gets them to dance. The live experience is so important to getting the word out. I play anywhere I can, including bars in Elgin. To build awareness, I also use websites like Global 14, Facebook, and Twitter.
What else do you want me to say about you and your music?
Just give it a chance. If you want to have a good time — and you should, because you only go around once — listen to this music and enjoy life.