“The Apollo Theatre’s, fucking, the most harsh stage ever. Before I even said anything on the microphone, people started booing, and as soon as I opened my mouth, everyone shut up.” On that fateful night in 2009, Richard Colson Baker, aka Machine Gun Kelly, with a baby on the way and facing eviction from his home back in Ohio, took on perhaps the most daunting venue in entertainment. “We went out there on a whim, kind of like, ‘If this doesn’t work out, then fuck it.’ You know, I had a kid on the way. I just got fired from a job. I told my friends, ‘Hey, I’m gonna take this out to New York. I’m gonna try it out and see if it works out.’ And I stayed outside from like, two in the morning until like, one p.m. the next day. I was 49th in line, went in, did my tryouts, they told me to come back.” In the entire history of the iconic Amateur Night at the Apollo, Machine Gun Kelly was the first rapper to ever take home first place. Twice.
Machine Gun Kelly, or MGK as he was known until recently, won his first rap battle back when he was a skinny, friendless fourteen-year-old in Denver, Colorado. “I saw everyone respecting whoever was winning the battles, so I was just like, ‘You know what, fuck it.’ And then I stepped in and started whooping everyone’s ass, and everyone all of a sudden was like, ‘This kid is the coolest kid in school.’” A military brat, MGK had a nomadic childhood, spending time in Egypt, Kuwait, and Denver before finally settling in Shaker Heights, a small suburb outside of Cleveland, Ohio. Frequent moves, bullying, family strife, and drug abuse pushed MGK to look to music as an outlet. “I chose to go the music route rather than keep getting my ass whooped… When my father and mom weren’t there for me, the headphones were. That was my escape.”
In 2010 he released his debut mixtape, 100 Words and Running, and in 2011 he made the pilgrimage to Austin’s SXSW. The Apollo wins, the mixtape and a growing fan base in Cleveland all came to a head when MGK received the phone call that changed his life. “Puff ended up on my phone personally. He was like, ‘You know, I heard you are setting shit on fire. Who the fuck are you? I want to meet you.’” A deal was signed, and MGK officially entered the Bad Boy/Interscope universe. Since then, things have been progressing quickly for the Cleveland rapper, who’s name refers to the “rapid-fire delivery” he became known for. He released an EP, Half Naked And Almost Famous, in March of 2012, and has been singled out as one of the top ten artists to watch by critics. In October of 2012 he released his long-awaited full-length debut, Lace Up. “’Lace up’ is an expression that’s tattooed on thousands of fans now. I have it tattooed twice on my body. It basically just means that you can basically conquer whatever you want. You’re ready to do whatever.”
The fervent fan of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Kurt Cobain and Led Zeppelin pushes himself to the limits. “Man, if we go tomorrow, I don’t want to say that we didn’t take advantage of every second of this experience.” This live-or-die attitude is gaining him nothing short of a cult following, but for him, it is also part of his reality growing up in Cleveland. “Two weeks after I graduated high school, I lost two of my friends that I went to high school with… There was a girl who ended up catching two stray bullets to their stomach, and another one was a guy who caught a bullet to the head… I came from nothing, and this is a city that has nothing, so you just always gotta watch your back… although I don’t consider myself to be a gun advocate or a person who’s violent. My name is from a lyrical standpoint.”
The Cleveland rapper who likes to “go hard” shows no signs of slowing for the rest of 2013 with his Lace Up Tour selling out venues in April, a President’s Day Black Flag mixtape release featuring cameos by Wiz Khalifa, Pusha T, Meek Mill and French Montana, as well as plans to record his second album.
Read on for the full-length, exclusive interview with Machine Gun Kelly for The Music Issue of The Untitled Magazine.
Indira Cesarine: How did you get started with music?
Machine Gun Kelly: Basically just through a different outlet than fighting, because fighting wasn’t really working for me at a young age. I was the skinny one with no posse. Moving from place to place, you don’t the chance to make friends. You have to do it over and over again. Even if you do, you know, I actually stopped trying. You know, you would get picked on. So I chose to go the music route rather than keep getting my ass whooped.
IC: Where were you born?
MGK: I was born in Houston, Texas.
IC: Where do you live now?
MGK: Cleveland. I’ll always be a Cleveland boy.
IC: Why Cleveland?
MGK: Just ’cause it represents who I am. You know, it’s very blue-collar, very humble and friends and family-oriented. As odd as that is, you know. I don’t technically have an immediate family aside outside of a daughter. But my friends, we all live to together, we ride together every day. They’re like my brothers. Cleveland’s a Midwest town. I think blue-collar’s the best way to describe it.
IC: Blue-collar. Do you relate to that?
MGK: Definitely. I was working a shit ton of joe jobs before rap work. Up until twenty-one, I was working little shitty jobs. You can check me at Chipotle, flipping burritos. I was actually doing infrastructure at Red Bull, you know, basically carrying steel tables and bars and deliver palettes and stuff.
IC: That’s crazy. And so how did you get into rap music?
MGK: Right before I made the transfer to rap, I was into Korn and Limp Bizkit. That was the two heavy rotations before rap. And all of a sudden, I hear DMX, and I was like, “Holy shit. What is this?” I don’t know. I couldn’t scream, I couldn’t sing. I just became good at rapping. It was back when battle rapping was hot, and I was good at pointing people’s flaws out and just making fun of them.
IC: So it started out kind of fun and it evolved into an actual career?
MGK: Well I don’t think it was fun; I was really doing it to try and get respect. I didn’t have a friend. I didn’t have any friends and I was a lank. I was wearing the same clothes. I had no style. My mom had just left my dad, so my dad, all he did was sleep all day, so he wasn’t trying to help his kid have a good junior high experience. It was kind of just me being like, “OK. I see that this little battle ring right here is a way for these people to…” Basically, I saw everyone respecting whoever was winning the battles, so I was just like, “You know what, fuck it.” And then I stepped in and started whooping everyone’s ass, and everyone all of a sudden was like, “This kid is the coolest kid in school.”
IC: And you were like, thirteen, fourteen?
MGK: Twelve, thirteen, yeah.
IC: This was in Houston or Cleveland?
MGK: Houston, I was only born there. I was there for like two weeks. I actually moved to Egypt after I was in Houston. I lived in Africa for four years.
IC: And then from Africa, you moved to Cleveland?
MGK: I didn’t move to Cleveland until I was fifteen. I lived in Denver after my mom left, which was like nine, ten, so I lived there until I was fourteen and after that to Cleveland right after the end of my freshman year.
IC: What is the story with your name, Machine Gun Kelly. Where did that come from?
MGK: It comes from the rapid fire delivery that I was well known for.
IC: There’s a gangster named Machine Gun Kelly. Does it have anything to do with that?
MGK: Nah, not at all.
IC: So how long have you been performing as a rapper?
MGK: Professionally, I’ve been getting paid since I was… I would really count 2011 as my first professional year. It was when I signed my deal. Everything before that was a huge struggle. I would have to hustle tickets to be on a show, to open sixteen spots before the headline, you know what I mean. You can say that I was professionally doing it, but it wasn’t professional professional until I was twenty-one.
IC: Do you ever get nervous when you perform?
MGK: I get nervous every time, but Michael Jackson always said that if you get nervous, when you stop getting nervous, that’s when you start loving what you do.
IC: I like that. I’ve never heard that before. What was your breakthrough moment? How did you get your deal?
MGK: I think my breakthrough moment was when I won the Apollo. I was the first rapper to ever win the Apollo. The Apollo Theatre’s, fuckin’, the most harsh stage ever. Before I even said anything on the microphone, people started booing, and as soon as I opened my mouth, everyone shut up. I won first place twice.
IC: Was it a competition?
MGK: Yeah, it was Amateur Night at the Apollo. That was what was cool about it. We went out there on a whim, kind of like my last thing, like if this doesn’t work out, then fuck it. You know, I had a kid on the way. I just got fired from a job. I told my friends, “Hey, I’m gonna take this out to New York. I’m gonna try it out and if it works out…” And I stayed outside from like, two in the morning until like 1 p.m. the next day. I was 49th in line, went in, did my tryouts, they told me to come back, I ended up winning first place twice.
MGK: That was where I got a little bit of buzz from, but I think my breakthrough moment was really when I had Cleveland on lock so much that every record label was calling our phone. It ended up that Puff ended up on my phone personally. This was when I was in Cleveland. He was like, “You know, I heard you are setting shit on fire. Who the fuck are you? I want to meet you.” So he ended up coming to see a live performing of me, then we just ended up tying the deal.
IC: So are you with his label?
MGK: It’s EST 1996/Bad Boy/Interscope. So I’m in with Jimmy and Puff.
IC: Do you have a favorite band or musician?
MGK: On my body, I have tattoos of Red Hot Chili Peppers, I love them. I have a Tommy Lee ‘Mayhem’ tattoo on my wrist, so obviously I’m a huge Crüe fan.
IC: Are most of your tattoos inspired by musicians?
MGK: The reason I got the RHCP tattoo is because that’s when I was going through my issue with drugs and I was reading Scar Tissue by Anthony Kiedis. I didn’t end up going to rehab because everyone around me was not encouraging rehab. They were encouraging just like, “Get through it on your own.” Anthony Kiedis’ story just helped me so much and it helped me stop with the whole thing. I mean, it was a part of it. Obviously, that book didn’t fuckin’ stop that, but it had a big enough effect on me that I wanted it on my body. So I ended up putting the Chili Peppers things on there. I think, favorite band, probably Led Zeppelin, honestly. That’s a huge influence for how we try to live on the road. You just hear all their wild stories and you just look at it and you’re just like, “Man, if we go tomorrow, I don’t want to say that we didn’t take advantage of every second of this experience.” ‘Cause we’re twenty-two years old. We’re not supposed to be here. We’re from Cleveland, Ohio. All my friends are dope boys that never left their mom’s house.
IC: The people you grew up around.
MGK: Yeah. Like, two weeks after I graduated high school, I lost two of my friends that I went to high school with.
IC: What happened to them? They were killed?
MGK: Yeah, there was a girl who ended up catching two stray bullets to their stomach and another one was a guy who caught a bullet to the head.
IC: Where were the stray bullets coming from?
MGK: There were two guys shooting at each other and she was trying to get her little sister in the house, and she ended up just catching some of the stray fire.
IC: Are there a lot of shootings in Cleveland?
MGK: Yeah, but I don’t think more than in any other city. Detroit, Chicago, we’re all the same.
IC: What about ‘Machine Gun Kelly’? You must get a lot of controversial comments on your name? Are you pro-gun? Do you wear a gun?
MGK: Yeah, I have a gun on me right now. Strictly for protection, not anything I would publicize as far as me walking around and just showing. I have my license to carry a concealed weapon. I fear for my life when I’m home. I came from nothing and this is a city that has nothing, so you just always gotta watch your back. If somebody thinks that you may have something… People are ignorant. They think that you have a million dollars on you at all times, which is stupid. I’m not a gun fanatic, but you know, but as young people come up from a violent city, you gotta ride around prepared. But as far as controversy, I wouldn’t even give that off. You would never even expect that from me, so I don’t consider myself to be a gun advocate or a person who’s violent. My name is from a lyrical standpoint.
IC: Have you ever shot a gun? Aside from at a shooting range, have you ever shot a gun in a violent situation?
MGK: Nah nah nah nah. But I’ve shot a gun outside, you know, on a New Year’s or July 4th, just up in the air.
IC: (Laughs) Let’s move away from the gun talk. Who do you think is the most inspirational person in the music industry?
MGK: I would have to say Cobain. This is for my demographic; I’m not speaking for anyone else. My thing with Kurt is this: He plays shitty guitar riffs. I mean, I don’t mean shitty. They’re very notable. But all in all, I mean, Kurt didn’t think he was that good of a guitarist. If you ask a real guitarist if Kurt Cobain was a great guitarist, they’ll be like, “No.” He wasn’t a great guitarist; he played the same power chords. But the fact that you can come in being an OK guitarist but coming in with these crazy lyrics that are, you know… He didn’t think too deep about anything. I would just read his books, just watch him be like, “I really just fucking do whatever I want.” He didn’t give a fuck about what he was saying, he said, “Fuck fans. Fuck everybody.” And everyone loved him even more for doing it. He didn’t give a fuck, and somehow, everyone gave a fuck about him not giving a fuck. It was weird. I just think people like that are…I could say Kanye, but it’s like, Kanye is wanting to be different to be accepted, in my opinion. Whereas Kurt was like, “I am different, and I don’t fucking want you to like me for being different.” But it was funny enough, because everyone ended up liking him enough for being so different. Him, Eminem, anyone that talks to troubled youth, I think, are influential in my view.
IC: Have you ever had a mentor working with you?
MGK: Yeah, the guys I live with. The guys who were at the studio with me at the photo shoot, those guys are all my mentors. We all live together, they kind of help me grow up and turn into a man.
IC: How do you feel about collaborating with other artists? Do you feel like collaboration is more important in hip-hop than working on your own?
MGK: I do. ‘Cause I worked on my own for so long and I ended up seeing so much of a difference when I collaborated with everyone else. I think everyone thought I was a dick, wanting to be in my own world. People just didn’t think I fucked with anybody, because I wasn’t. So when I started to, it seemed a lot more arms started reaching out to me, and I started collaborating more. Honestly, the songs are better, because you got a bunch of different elements in the songs. I would see people that wouldn’t like me that would like my song because another artist is on the song.
IC: If you weren’t in music, what do you think you’d be doing?
MGK: Probably some Ocean’s 11 type shit. Like robbing rich people for art or something. Probably.
IC: Have you ever had a really difficult performing in your career?
MGK: I love questions like that. I’ve thrown up on stage multiple times. But that’s just the liquor. Actually, if you watch the Wild Boy remix video, you’ll see it happen. I was like, “Just bring a trash can on stage, ’cause I feel it coming.” We got wasted off Patrón before we went on stage at SXSW. ‘Cause SXSW is so fucking commercial and corporate, so we were just like, “Let’s just get drunk and do our job and go.” The grossest thing is I never know where the trash can with the throw up goes. I feel like it ends up in the crowd, and people are stoked on it. People are weird, man. I would spit and people would reach for my spit.
IC: You would throw up on the crowd?
MGK: Nah, I haven’t thrown up on the crowd necessarily. The first time I ever threw up on stage was in Reno, I looked at everybody and we were wasted, and I was like, “If you don’t make me throw up by the end of this song, then all of you – this is the worst crowd, you guys aren’t going hard.” And then halfway through the song, I ended up yanking the trash can and just spewing it. What was crazy is that show got even crazier from there, like, “This is the best thing ever! He’s throwing up in front of us right now; he’s going so hard, this is crazy!”
IC: So how did you come up with your look? With all the tattoos and your whole direction, obviously that’s something that you’ve been working on for a really long time.
MGK: I started getting tattoos when I was fourteen. Over the years… actually, last year, I gave myself my first tattoo ever in Humbled County, when someone gave us a free bag of weed and I woke up the next morning, and I was like, “Holy shit, I gave myself a tattoo yesterday. What an idiot.” It was the most punk rock thing I could ever do to myself. Now, I look at tattoos on my body and I kind of regret because it became really accepted in popular culture. Like, when I saw Adam Levine getting it, I was like, “I’m gonna fucking shoot myself in the face.” Now I’m kind of like, “How the fuck can I twist this?” If you have any suggestions, let me know.
IC: Do you have a motto or words of wisdom that you live by?
MGK: Yeah. “Lace up.” It’s an expression that’s tattooed on thousands of fans now. I have it tattooed twice on my body. It’s the name of my mixtape and it’s the name of my debut album. It basically just means… it’s also a greeting when we do concerts. People always throw their L’s up, but it also means that you can basically conquer whatever you want. You’re ready to do whatever.
IC: What is it about music that you love?
MGK: When my father and mom weren’t there for me, the headphones were. That was my escape.
IC: Do you have a favorite song that you’ve ever produced?
MGK: My favorite song that I’ve ever done is “End of the Road”. I made the beat for it, and it’s the last song on the album. It has a beautiful chorus and a beautiful story in it.
IC: What projects do you have coming up that we should look out for this year?
MGK: Black Flag, we’re releasing the artwork and the name on Presidents’ Day, which is a giant contradiction from what Presidents’ Day actually is. A lot of features on the tape; I got Wiz Khalifa, Pusha T, Meek Mill. I got Kellin Quinn, the lead singer of Sleeping with Sirens, I got French Montana.
IC: Are you gonna be touring at all?
MGK: Yeah, my first Lace Up Tour. We did a Lace Up tour in Canada, in December, but I’ll do that in March. That’ll be all US states. Last year we were doing tours that were like sixty, ninety days, but this tour, we’re just gonna do thirty days. Then we’re gonna stop and record the second album and then a bunch of festivals and stuff at colleges.
IC: When does your next album come out?
MGK: I dunno. Hopefully this tape will kind of carry us through the year. There’s a lot of jams on this tape, in my opinion, I just wanna work those as much as possible. My favorite song, we actually did a cover of “Swing Life Away” by Rise Against. The original version was an acoustic song, we put a rap on there.
IC: What are some of your more memorable moments from touring so far?
MGK: I actually engaged two people on stage once. This man kept messages us about wanting to propose to his girl. I set it up, he was back stage, I brought him on stage and called the girl up on stage and she was like, “What the fuck is going on?” They were both fans, too. He read this poem to her in front of like, 2,000 people in Minnesota, and he was like, “I have one more question: Will you marry me?” and she was like, “Of course.” And I was like, “Mazel Tov!” and cracked a champagne bottle… It was the most perfect moment ever.
Photography and words by Indira Cesarine.