This is the second in a series of year-end Q&As with Portland musicians. Read our previous interview, with Natasha Kmeto, here.
Around this time last year, Mic Capes put Portland on notice.
With "Razor Tongue," the barbed, chorusless manifesto he uploaded to Soundcloud last December, the St. Johns MC announced his arrival to a hip-hop scene finally beginning to find itself. It was a preview of a full-scale project still to come, and while that album hasn't arrived yet, Capes still made his presence felt in 2015—becoming one of the first rappers to perform at City Hall, getting props from fellow rhyme-spitter Damian Lillard and dropping more individual tracks to prove "Razor Tongue" was no fluke.
WW spoke to Capes about the status of his Concrete Dreams album, the backlash against Portland Hip-Hop Day, and his knack for starting uncomfortable conversations.
Willamette Week: What was your highlight of 2015?
Mic Capes: The highlight was Portland Hip-Hop Day. Representing this side of the city as far as hip-hop, and representing for the culture of hip-hop here. I had my parents there, a whole lot of family. A lot of people showed up in the middle of the day. It was dope.
What do you feel has been the aftermath of that? Has it had any effect on the hip-hop scene in Portland?
All I can speak for is myself, because lately I've been locked in, trying to write and finish this album, but I think it's yet to be seen. I think there's a bigger audience that knows what's going on, not fully locked in, but they know what's going on.
Hip-Hop Day was a polarizing event. There were certain people who thought playing at City Hall is not something any hip-hop artist in town should be doing.
I think that's bullshit. I feel like if any artist got the opportunity to do that, they would do it. But I also understand some people's reservations. A lot of people thought the mayor put it together, which isn't what happened. If I thought the mayor put it together, I'd feel that way, too. But it was Star Chile and DJ OG One working with the city of Portland to make that happen. Charlie Hales just signed off on it.
You mentioned you're trying to finish the Concrete Dreams album. What's been the delay?
It's just getting everything how I want it to sound, and I don't want to rush it. There's an overaching message to it, and I don't want any major mishaps in it. I want everything to be solid all the way through, as far as cohesiveness and the sound and subject matter.
You performed a lot this year. Do you notice the audience changing at all?
I feel like more people are aware. I feel like the hip-hop scene has been here for a while, but there's a greater variety of sounds. Not everyone sounds the same, so you get more people showing up. Sometimes it's hard as well, because you're competing with clubs and stuff. If people haven't heard an artist before, they're more likely to spend their money at the club. But there's been people coming out.
Did you make a concerted effort this year to perform more year?
Yeah. It's more about myself, as well. Not just to for press, but to get more comfortable. I always want to get better at something that's a passion of mine.
You started rapping as a teenager. You're 26 now. How do you feel your lyricism has evolved in that time?
I talk about shit I've really been through and I've really seen, as opposed to when I was younger, I wanted to rap about what everyone else was rapping about: cars, clothes, money, girls. Talking about what I got and what the other person don't got. I'm totally the oppoiste of that now. I always wrote realer stuff back then but I wasn't sure if people liked that kind of stuff. Now, it's the message, and being confident in that all the way.
What is that message?
It's really uplifting. Enlightening people, educating people to what's going on socially. And hope. Mostly hope. I talk a lot about struggle but I also put light at the end of the tunnel.
I follow you on Facebook, and you've seen your fair share of tragedy this year. Every other week it seems like you're saying R.I.P. to somebody. You talk about giving hope, but is it hard to feel hopeful when you're surrounded by that?
I come from hard shit. I feel like if I can do it, they can do it. Maybe they need those words to keep on going. I don't give up hope, not at all. I believe in God. At the end of the day, I've got faith. I consider myself Christian, but I believed in God before I even knew about the Bible. I wasn't raised that way. I've been so many things where I felt like, maybe I shouldn't have gotten out of that, or I shouldn't be who am I today.
You said on Facebook that you can't trust anyone who doesn't believe in God.
Yeah but I also thought about that afterward. I put it out there without enough context and people take offense, but I didn't mean it, like, "If you don't believe in God, you can't help me with this." I feel like we as humans shouldn't believe we run everything in the world. That's part of the problem with how things are going how they are today. We start wars with people and shit like that, and feel like we have too much power over everyone else. I feel like you have to believe in a higher power. It doesn't have to be a Christian God or a Muslim God, just God in general, or whatever you call God.
You tend to step into landmines on Facebook sometimes.
I don't mind, because I think, through that, you learn. I feel like, through that, you learn. I can't be resistant to people correcting me or giving me another perspective, and that's how I learn, and that's what I want in general. If I say something, I'm willing to sacrifice how I feel in the moment to learn something. It doesn't mean it won't change. Just because you put something on there doesn't mean it won't change.
Do you regret anything you've put on social media?
The best thing I've learned is to word my stuff better, and give more context rather than just a statement. Usually, though, that's how I start the conversation. I put a statement out there and we just talk back and forth. Usually it's OK. Sometimes, people see it and it just sets them off. We've all got triggers.
Are those the kind of conversations you like to have in your music as well?
I'm starting to integrate that into my music way more. I like to talk about social issues. This CD is mostly geared toward inner city youth—black youth, to be specific. But I feel like everyone can learn from it. I want it to be like a time capsule, 10 years later, that a kid from the inner city can pick up and listen to and be able to relate to—find answers, and get more questions.
Do you feel like the experience of black youth in Portland different from other places?
I feel like it's the same as far as being black in America and being in the inner city. I feel like there's different levels. Say, like, Southside Chicago, there's poverty, and over there it's a lot harsher. But for me, I experienced a lot of that, too. I just don't feel like there's one area here where you can say, that's the hood. People are spread out, by gentrification and all that, but I feel like it's pretty much the same thing. PTSD and all that, being paranoid of certain things. It's very similar.
Is it different in terms of being in such a white city?
You don't feel understood a lot of the time. You also get a lot of preconceived notions. Like, there's not one black community here, where you can feel safe in the sense that people are going to understand where you're coming from. I've had people see me and cross the street or pull their purse closer. Microaggressions like that. It can get lonely in Portland, for sure. It's a love-hate thing. [Living here] also makes me able to understand cultures outside of my own a lot more.
Is there stuff on Concrete Dreams that someone who isn't a kid from the inner city can learn from?
For sure. Just with the song "Razor Tongue," there's a lot of things you can dig in to and find out stuff.
That's one of the best hip-hop songs to come out of Portland in a long time.
Thank you. It took me a while to write it. I wrote some of it and then waited a few months and more would come to me.
That's interesting. A lot of MCs brag about how quickly they write songs. You don't work that way?
I can write verses in a short amount of time, but I still don't like to do that. I want to be able to say exactly what I want to say and get the point across. I don't want people to wonder what I'm saying.
You've talked about your love-hate relationship with Portland. Is there any drive for you to get out of Portland?
As a hip-hop artist I have to at some point. Not saying I won't come back, or it's not home, but I have to travel outside of here. I went to New York last summer and I like New York a lot. It's expensive as hell to live there, but I like it.
Do you look at hip-hop as a career?
I see it as a career but I also see it as a stepping stone to bigger stuff. It always goes back to the youth for me. That's what I've always got in mind when I'm doing my music, it's the youth.
Find Mic Capes on Soundcloud.
SEE IT: Mic Capes plays Kelly's Olympian, 426 SW Washington St., with Rasheed Jamal, Lang and Drae Slapz, on Saturday, Dec. 12. 9 pm. $8. 21+.