On the cover of INK :-)
Machine Gun Kelly is straight out of Cleveland, the town that fostered the music of Bone Thugs-N-Harmony and Kid Cudi. But he’s more similar to Eminem, who hails from the other side of Lake Erie. That’s not a lazy description based on race. Marshall Mathers and Richard Colson Baker (MGK’s real name) both grew up in rough Midwestern neighborhoods where they were outsiders, they both have issues with confidence and drugs, and they both express themselves honestly, breathlessly, and with staggering turns of phrase. With candor and a talent for (underdog) storytelling, Eminem gave himself a Hollywood ending; now, a more dynamic Midwestern dark horse is trying to do the same.
MGK won Amateur Night at the Apollo; he was voted MTV’s Hottest Breakthrough MC of 2011; his song “Invincible” serves as the score for a commercial featuring HTC’s Rezound, the first phone with Beats Audio; and he just signed with Diddy’s Bad Boy Records. “But Puff didn’t give me any handouts,” the rapper says. “I have to earn.” Monetarily he hasn’t hit it big yet, but he’s hoping that will change when his first studio album, Lace Up, drops this summer. “My aunt raised me. She still works at Target and can’t wait for my album to come out—” he pauses, “so she can sell it.” He’s going to pay her back for the love and care she gave him, but the blue-collar mentality won’t let her quit her day job just yet.
“He’s a crazy inspiration,” Ryan Yex, a teen with cerebral palsy, told Cleveland’s Fox 8 about MGK. “I know where he’s coming from, what he’s been through. I know that you can come from nothing and follow your dreams.” When Yex met MGK at a Blink-182 concert last summer he promised the rapper that he would walk for the first time at one of his concerts. In December of last year, MGK welcomed Yex up on stage, where he made good on his promise. “I had so much adrenaline going through my body that I was just ready to walk,” said Yex of the night.
Some of MGK’s music is thoughtful and contemplative and some of it is pure adrenaline, like the rhythmic “Wild Boy,” which wouldn’t be out of place echoing through an Ohio high school locker room before game time.
There he go, that’s John Doe.
Unlike other Ohio boys who found fame and got out of Dodge, MGK is going nowhere. He says he’ll never leave, and to prove it, one of his most vibrant tattoos is the I-71 sign on his shoulder. He grew up with two traveling religious missionaries for parents, but he was in Cleveland when they failed him—his mother split, and the mention of his father still enrages him (“he’s a Jim Bakker motherfucker”)—and that’s where he found a new family with his crew, EST.
Part of the reluctance to leave his hometown for what some might consider greener pastures lies in the fact that it’s where his team is, the people who, for the first time, accepted him just as he was. “I started rapping when I was in school to save myself, because I couldn’t fight,” MGK says. “I was always a weird outcast who was socially awkward and had the shittiest clothes. My sixth grade yearbook has no signatures in it.”
“The year after I started rapping, my yearbook filled up with signatures,” he says. “It was what I had to do to fit in. But it was a gift and a curse: One time this dude came up to me when I was writing raps at my desk, he crumpled up all of my papers, saying ‘Why’s this corny-ass white boy trying to rap?’ I’ll never forget that, because years later the same kid was outside of my concerts, begging to get in. I told him to kick rocks.”
Part of not being in during high school was getting no play from girls. “I would be in make-out circles and no girl would kiss me,” Kelly says. “It got in my head that I’m an ugly motherfucker, so I want to cover all of my skin with tattoos—
Getting big was almost terrible for him. “On the east side we used to make fun of kids who put shit up their noses,” he says. “But when I got a little success, there were temptations. Girls started to like me, and pussy is a motherfucker in that it dragged me down into some dark shit.”
He got into some stuff, and to hide it from EST he started to alienate them. His mellow was harshed when a friend saw him tripping on a cocktail of Ambien and hydrocodone and alerted his inner circle. They threatened to abandon him if he didn’t come clean, and he decided to make a change. He had already written most of his newalbum under the influence, and when he tried writing sober, the first attempt was unceremoniously trashed. “Then I got into this good head space, and when I wrote the intro it was the best thing I’ve ever recorded,” he says. “People aren’t going to even get to the album, they are just gonna keep listening to that on repeat.”
With the influence of his friends—and the victory of a sober mind over an altered artistic state—he’s trying to clean up his act cold turkey. “I’m trying not to lean on a psychiatrist because my boy said ‘That’s weak shit, you can do ityourself.’”
The Temptations was MGK’s favorite movie growing up, and he sees now that he went through a lead-singer syndrome much like Ruffin’s. “I had my temptations of doing drugs and leaving my friends for what I thought were bigger and better things, only to come back humbled like David Ruffin had,” he explains.
The first single on his new album, “Rain,” draws influence from the Temptations’ “I Wish It Would Rain.” It’s about breaking away from being held down, and throughout the song, the rap dissolves into crying in the rain. “Rain is like tattoos,” MGK says. “The same way rain can hide your feelings from the outside world, tattoos can be armor.” MGK gets his work done by Seven in Cleveland, and it’s as bold as his lyrics and delivery, from the replica of Salvador Dalí’s The Temptation of St. Anthony to the “MGK” screaming across his back.
Rebellious, not malicious—that’s MGK’s path. He’s weaning himself off drugs, but he and his crew drink enough to flood the Cuyahoga. He got his first tattoo young, but in honor of his elders. “When I was little, my dad said, ‘Son, you have a choice on your 16th birthday—to either get a car or a tattoo,’” Kelly says. “I knew he was testing me, so I said tattoo to piss him off.” He didn’t even wait until his birthday for the ink; when he was 14, his grandmother died on Valentine’s Day and he headed to the tattoo shop. “I told them I wanted it on my forearm,” he remembers. “They said that if they put it on my forearm it would be tough for me to get a job. I told them I would be a famous rapper someday, so I won’t need a job.”
Lyrical postulating aside, humble and modest are good descriptions for Kelly, who refuses to wear anything that his fans can’t afford. “I was doing photo shoots with all these crazy clothes on and I wasn’t myself,” he says. “I was the kid that couldn’t afford anything but the Salvation Army and Chucks. I’m not better than any of my fans—they all are probably really talented at something that I don’t know about. I just happen to be good at rapping.” He also abstains from wearing sunglasses because he wants to always be able to connect with people face to face. “I’ve gotten so many endorsement offers from sunglass companies, but I would never do that shit, money doesn’t mean shit to me.”
Like the disciples of the early grunge scene, MGK fans are a group of people who have gravitated to a new message. Uniting under his battle cry, “Lace up!” (in a nutshell, life can suck, but stop feeling sorry for yourself and take ownership of your own destiny), they’re strong people who overcome adversity and don’t pay mind to haters. And as his first major release reaches an international audience, a whole new group will answer the call to “lace up,” tighten their own Converse All-Stars, and walk with Machine Gun Kelly.
- Rocky Rakovic