People who hate Lil B generally don’t get Lil B. His wave isn’t about tiny pants or letting him fuck your bitch or yelling “Figaro.” It’s about having the balls to make the weird art that comes naturally and the confidence to stand by said weird art. There is no better proof of how well that can work than Atlanta’s Makonnen.
A self-proclaimed disciple (and friend) of Lil B, Makonnen’s music started as what could best be described as trap Jerry Lee Lewis, and transformed into something between Future and a less jovial Based God. Beats from Atlanta’s finest (Mike Will, Sonny Digital, etc) helped, as did a series of weird, stylized videos featuring a haphazardly painted mannequin head.
Over the phone this week, we discussed The Killers, the mechanics of Atlanta rap, and why he doesn’t sell molly anymore.
Noisey: Where did you get your name?
Makonnen: Ah, that’s actually my real name, Makonnen. My mom named me that … it’s the last name of the last royal family of Ethiopia. Like, Haile Selassie before he changed his name to Haile Selassie, his last name was Makonnen. He was like Ras Tafari Makonnen and became Haile Selassie and all that.
Are you Ethiopian?
No, I’m not. My mom liked the name. I’m from LA and mixed with fucking African American, Indian, Irish, Belgian, German, Chinese. Everything but Ethiopian.
You’re from LA and you’re in Atlanta. Can you give a brief overview of that transition and how it affected your career?
Let me see ... my mom lived out here, so I came out here for high school. I did the high school thing and then kind of got into some legal trouble and was kind of put on probation and house arrest and shit. I always did music and played my keyboard and tried to make beats … I always wanted Young Jeezy or someone to rap on them, but it never happened.
So I was on house arrest, which pretty much kept me in the house, so I was just like ‘let me try getting on my own tracks now.’ I started getting on my own songs in 2011 and shit. I wasn’t feeling them … I was feeling them, but I was like I would never put this out because ‘this is like crap’ and I wanted to be like Young Jeezy at the time. So, I let a friend here who’s real serious about rapping shit. He wanted to do this music thing but kind of didn’t have it … he was like oh man, you’ve really got it. You should put this out. So, I just started putting it out and then I kind of got more confident in myself and putting out more stuff.
When you started, you were just making like beats, you weren’t actually rapping—you just started singing from the jump.
Yeah, I started singing. I was always into The Killers and bands like that, so I would be into trap shit then really into alternative and people from overseas and shit like that. Trap is so oversaturated and I would be trying to do this different shit.
Who are your influences on the rock side?
Bloc Party, The Black Kids, The Killers. Let me see, uhm. I like a lot of oldies music like 70’s, soul, 60’s. What’s this guys name. The fucking—Steven Tyler from Aerosmith. The Beach Boys. It’s real off the wall. What’s this fucking group’s name? Sigur Ros?
Yeah, Sigur Ros … what was your introduction to rock music?
It was definitely when I was in LA and The Killers had just came out. I was just into that shit so hard. I’ve always been into that older rock music, but when The Killers came out, that really fucking dragged me into the alternative world.
Were you inspired at all by Lil B?
Definitely Lil B. Lil B is like my friend, for real. Before I even started doing music, I was interviewing him on my little blog and shit. This was back in the Myspace days when he had like 155 pages. I was just so into him and inspired by him and was like ‘you’re doing everything I wish I could fucking do!’ Then we kind of had a little online relationship and shit. We kind of stayed in touch through that, but it’s kind of fizzled out. We’ve gone in different directions. I’ve talked to him and we’re all good.
He definitely influenced me and I definitely want to put that on the record to say that Lil B is somebody that made me just say fuck this shit, I’m recording my music in my room and I’m putting it out.
How did you hook up with Metro Boomin and that whole stable of producers?
Actually, Mike Will was the first producer in the fucking world to get into contact with me.
Yeah, I was doing videos online and on YouTube and all of these little sites. This was like 2012. That was the first time I met Mike Will, at the top of 2012. He called me up to the studio in Atlanta at Tree Sound. He was a fan of my music and sees these visions and all this great shit and I was just like wow, what the fuck! I don’t know this guy, but I just know you from the radio Mike Will Made It. I thought he was some thirty year old guy at the time that was doing fucking music all his life, then I fucking met him and he’s 25, my age, and we’re both Aries and all this shit. I was like oh, what the fuck!
You guys really vibed.
Yeah, it was great. We met up in January 2012 and had a little relationship and shit and then he got mad busy. He just popped off … he had the Miley Cyrus and all that great shit. We got back in touch July of last year and we kind of worked again, but he was just so fucking busy. He’s the top producer in the game and I was just like … ‘I don’t even know why you’re calling me? You’re so busy.’
And just through that you just got plugged in with Sonny [Digital] and Metro.
Yeah, well what happened was I met Sonny and Metro and all these guys in March of this year. Mike brought me up to DTP studios one time and Metro was up there and Mike was playing some of my songs for him. And Metro was like who is this guy? He was like that’s the kid that’s on right here. So we were leaving and Metro was like yo, give me your number. I’m going to SXSW and I’ll call you when I get back. I was like alright cool.
He got back from SXSW and called me. I came over to his house. We made six songs. The one day he calls Sonny Digital over, 808 Mafia — I got to meet all of those people at this one great time. They saw me and Metro in there fucking knocking out these songs and they were just like woah. They were impressed so they were like ‘take my number.’
I took his number and we went to his house a day or two later and did “I Don’t Sell Molly No More.” He introduced me to DJ Spinz and DJ Spinz introduced me to like Dun Deal. So, it was just like meet a producer and they refer you to another and refer you to another.
It’s crazy how the producers kind of run things in Atlanta right now because it’s definitely not that way everywhere. There was an article about 50 Cent’s Animal Ambition where they interviewed the producers, they were like ‘I made this beat in 2008 and I haven’t talked to 50 Cent since and it shows up on the album.’ In Atlanta it seems like the producers really have all the power.
Yeah, they are. They’re really the ones that are setting shit off down here. It’s like everybody that really pops off, from what I’ve seen, has had this great production from these guys. It’s crazy that everyone is sort of like friends and shit. I always thought they were like super villains but all these guys are like friends and they hang out.
Is “I Don’t Sell Molly No More” a true story?
That’s actually the truest song I have out right now. It’s like me and my friends, we did a little hustling off of the molly and shit. And then a big ass sort of bust, a drug bust happened out here in Clayton County and the molly, they got like tons of it. The police seized it all and shit. I was like fuck it, I don’t sell molly anymore. It just kind of turned into a song and I was like oh shit, this is real because it’s our real life. They really understood it. Then it turned out to be a really great song.
Were there other dudes that were hustling coming up to you like yo, we feel the struggle. We’re so glad someone made a song about this molly bust because we were really affected by it.
Well, yeah. Some of them, they held onto the molly. I tried to tell them that that wave is over. The molly wave is kind of over. I was like I used to do it and shit and my mouth started bleeding and shit like that. I was like dude I’m tired of drugs. I did it already, the whole molly craze and the wave. I’ve seen ups and downs, I’m over it. I don’t sell it no more.
Is the song “Sarah” about anyone specifically?
Yes, it is. It’s about this girl in LA that I used to date, Sarah. It’s so embarrassing. It’s so embarrassing but it’s like, I don’t care. That’s what I’ve learned from Lil B is like be is fucking embarrassing as possible.
You’ve got to keep it real.
Like really human. You’ve got to keep it real.
Does she know about it? Have you ever talked to her?
No, I don’t even know where the fuck this girl is. It’s so crazy. Half of these girls I mention in the songs, I don’t even know who the fuck they’re with, where they are. All that type of shit. Like this girl Martha, she really moved overseas for the military and shit. You know what I’m saying.
In which song?
She really moved overseas to the military like in the song “Sex, Love, Ecstasy.” She moved to Syria. All those lines have some sort of truth in them.
Damn, you’re really putting your shit out there.
I feel like I’m putting it out there like that, it really helps people connect to the songs. People go through those same, real emotions and like I can rap about Ferraris and shit all day, but I don’t have three friends that have a Ferrari, they don’t know about that shit. The other topics and shit, they get at and love it. It’s so funny. I have some of the so called hardest gangsters, the hardest people out—they love these, I would call them these cheesy love songs sort of thing. This is embarrassing. I would only sing this to the girl. Whatever. I’ll put a whole album out.
Tell me about your videos and how you developed your style.
I was on house arrest and was going to cosmetology school. I was hanging around a whole bunch of girls, learning how to do hair and shit. So, I just always made all of the doll heads look sort of, well they called it scary. But I was just like sort of artsy and circus looking. I didn’t have anybody to shoot my video, so I didn’t want to be in my video, so I just started making the doll head the main person in my video. I was like ‘I’m going to make this bitch a supermodel and everyone’s going to want to be in the videos with her.’ I just went hard for like 40 fucking videos of just a doll head. My manager Prez, he’s from New York and shit, but he came down from Ohio and we just started traveling around the United States with the doll head and shooting more footage of the head and now it’s just the face of our album now. So, it’s pretty much turned into what I wanted it to be.
What’s coming up next?
Right now, after this, it’s going to be a whole bunch of fucking touring and then I’m probably going to be working on the project with Mike Will. Me and him are going to have a project coming out where it’s Mike Will and Makonnen, just us two or whatever. We’re pretty halfway through that, so I’m hoping that at the end of the year that will come out. I’m just hoping at the end of the year to do some touring and to hop on some remixes, do some remixes. Some mingling shit.
Skinny Friedman doesn't sell moombahton remixes no more. He's on Twitter - @skinny412