Wilds for the Night: An Evening of Grammy Nods and the Future of Mack Wilds

We went to hang out with actor-turned-rapper and ended up celebrating his first Grammy nomination.

Jan 15 2014, 6:00pm

Mack Wilds just got nominated for a Grammy. I know this because three seconds ago he bearhugged me and screamed, “YO! I JUST GOT NOMINATED FOR A GRAMMY!”

It’s around midnight on a Friday in early December at Club Infuzion, a pitch-black cave of a venue tucked in an old industrial section of Richmond, Virginia. Mack is scheduled to perform soon, and he’s just arrived from his hotel room, where he received the Grammy news via text. It’s obvious he’s stunned that his two-month-old record, New York: A Love Story, was nominated for Best Urban Album alongside Rihanna, Fantasia and Salaam Remi, the album’s executive producer.

Moments earlier—before the room was full of people hugging, chugging, and retweeting the Grammy announcement—the VIP section of Infuzion was quiet while forty people were busy snarfing down chicken tenders. What was supposed to be a one-song publicity appearance suddenly became a victory lap. Every few minutes, a beautiful server would strut from the bar to the VIP with one arm in the air, holding a blindingly-bright stick of flashing lights and a bottle of Hennessy or Moët Rosé.

It’s pouring outside, and the club isn’t quite packed enough for a Friday night. But as word of Mack’s nomination spreads, more people start trickling in. The crowd sticks close to the bar while the DJ spins tracks with videos projected onto a screen behind him. Hypnotiq is everywhere. Just past the entrance, people pose in front of an 8x8’ Gucci step-and-repeat banner. But Mack mostly sticks close to his manager Gazelle, a name that belies his immense physical size. Dressed in a leather letterman jacket and a novelty-sized Greek sailor hat with a green ankh on top, Gazelle remains incredibly level-headed considering his client was just nominated for a fucking Grammy. Gazelle is fortunate enough to play security tonight, which essentially entails filtering fans to Mack, pouring champagne and snapping photos. Mack, though visibly elated, mostly remains seated with a few dozen people on the VIP platform, while text messages light up his phone screen like Morse code.

Finally, the DJ introduces Mack to the “stage,” which is really just the edge of the VIP platform. A metal column awkwardly bisects the space, but Mack works both sides, sometimes hanging onto it and swinging into the crowd. Mack performs the only single off the album, “Own It,” and the Pete Rock-produced “Duck Sauce.” For the next thirty minutes, he adlibs here and there over the Top 40-est songs by T.I., Ferg, Rocky and Trinidad James. Everyone’s celebrating but the night seems capped by the sparse crowd. Meanwhile Mack’s presence onstage is fluid and relaxed; he’s rapping “Fuck with me, you know I got it” over Jay Z’s verse. Barely an hour passes, and he’s back in VIP replying to dozens of unanswered texts.

/ / /

Earlier that night, pre-Grammy announcements, I meet Mack at the bar in the lobby of a Crowne Plaza just outside of town. I offer to buy him a drink. “Not yet, man,” he says. “It’s going to be a long night.”

Tristan Paul “Mack” Wilds is the actor-turned-musician best known for his role as Michael Lee on The Wire. Over the show’s final two seasons, his wide-eyed adolescent character transforms into a dispassionate, murderous soldier of Baltimore’s ascendant drug lord. But in this hotel bar, he’s the opposite: warm, smiling, charming. Still though, it’s hard for me to not picture his character’s failed struggle to preserve his innocence on the show.

Mack, 24, grew up in Staten Island’s Stapleton housing projects, made recognizable by Wu-Tang and actually home to Ghostface Killah and Shyheim. He was four years old when 36 Chambers dropped, but he practically grew up around the Clan. “Since I was like 3, Wu-Tang would come in my dad’s barbershop and get their hair cut before they went on tour.”

As he speaks, he’s kind and effusive. Publicity tours are grueling and rote, but his answers are unhurried and preceded by careful thought. If it’s an act, it’s a convincing one. He punctuates thoughts by lightly drumming his closed fist which sports a massive two-finger gold ring that gleams “MACK.” Between his thumb and index finger is a Basquiat crown tattoo, a symbol he uses often.

“RZA used to sit in the corner with these four curly rings that looked like they would just rip your face off. Meth was always a jokester. I remember every time we came into the barbershop, there was a whole lot of energy. It was dope growing up around that.”

Members of Wu-Tang still come through his dad’s shop. Years later, Mack would reconnect with Method Man when both starred in The Wire. “[Method Man] didn’t know I was going to be on the show. He saw me walk up on set and it looked like he got out of character like, ‘Yo what are you doing here?’ Finally I told him and he was like ‘Oh, you’re one of the new little shorties?! Yo I known this kid since he was…’”

Mack’s voice trails off. I ask him about the black bandana that he keeps thumbing.

“The bandana, it represents my neighborhood. These are colors that a lot of my peers, a lot of my friends, and kids I grew up with and even kids I’ve watched grow up have died over. And to know that something so silly as a color or something as serious as this dollar flag has created such a unity between us. It’s like, once you have this flag, you’re bound by blood in a sense. So, to know that something has such a serious connotation, I keep it with me so I remember where I’m from.”

Mack’s connection with NYC rap heavyweights continued when he released his debut album New York: A Love Story at the end of September. Of the three credited features, two are Raekwon and Method Man. The third is Doug E. Fresh. The album sounds as nostalgic for old New York as nostalgia gets— Mack’s “My Crib” and Jay Z’s “You, Me, Him and Her” both sample The Moments’ “What's Your Name”; Pete Rock dips his signature boom-bap in “Duck Sauce;” DJ Premier scratches all over “Keepin’ It Real” and remastered Group Home’s “Tha Realness” sample of Mobb Deep; “Henny” cribs Mobb Deep’s “Burn”. Perhaps most overtly, “Own It,” the album’s single, samples “Eric B. Is President.” Were you to pin each sample on a map of New York City, they would almost share the same mailman. For better or worse, blame Salaam Remi, the album’s executive producer and the mastermind behind Amy Winehouse and approximately half a million Nas classics. Mack is Remi’s first big co-sign since Amy Winehouse, and New York: A Love Story is the first release on Louder Than Life, Remi’s Sony Music imprint. The two have worked together for a few years, but in 2012, they started working full-time on Macks’ project.

“I met Salaam when I was about 18. And when I was 18, it was more so that he was a fan of mine from The Wire and I was fan of his music. It all culminated in December 2012 when he said ‘You know what? Let’s see what you can actually do. You’ve been working with all of these other producers and I’ve been hearing what you’re doing. Come out to Miami for a week, let’s see what you can do.’”

In 2013, Remi is equal parts producer and historic conservationist. The album often scans like the Jurassic Park reanimation of an incredibly narrow window of New York hip-hop, with Salaam-as-tour guide showing us Illmatic frozen in amber, reminding us that he’s “spared no expense.”

Without a shadow of subtlety, Mack wants to be mentioned in the same breath as other East Coast greats. It’s a bold move for a debut album, so it helps that he’s getting co-signed by many of his heroes. Sneaking your varsity jersey into the NBA Hall of Fame does not make it so, but can we blame him for trying?

Almost every song is directed at a nameless female, whether it’s a slow-burning paean or an energetic come-on. Mack isn’t exactly blazing trails with lines like “You know you're the flyest/They should call you your highness/And call me king cuz I'm that dude,” but his delivery is as effortless and confident as he is right now, seated in front of me. His lyricism reflects none of the grittiness of his neighborhood or his compelling turn on The Wire, but he says that’s a conscious decision.

“Lyrically, you don’t get all the edge that is Stapleton or Park Hill. There’s enough of it in the newspaper,” he says. “I’m more about uplifting my people so they don’t have to make the same mistakes that our big homies did.”

Instead, Mack’s a romantic. Like Lou, Woody, Spike, and Jarmusch before him, he waxes nostalgic for a New York City that’s never completely existed. In Mack’s world, it’s always summertime in Staten Island. Every apartment window is up and every car window is down. Boom-bap emanates from everywhere.

“I wanted to bring back that feeling of being able to walk around your neighborhood and really hear the songs from other people houses,” Wilds says.

/ / /

After the deafening blur of flying corks, camera phone flashes and garden-variety clowning, the house lights come up. Mack waves the crew over to the exit. It’s time to go to Waffle House. I doubt it’s where any of the other Grammy nominees are celebrating, but it’s the perfect end to the night for Mack. About a dozen people fill 3 tables, but nobody pays any mind to the large crew. I notice a guy in the back of the room that clearly recognizes Mack, but he doesn’t approach the table. Someone mentions a recent SNL skit where Kenan Thompson describes the gravely serious face white people assume when they’re about to start talking about The Wire. Mack laughs; he knows that face well.

It’s past 3 AM and the champagne hangover—arguably the most merciless variety—is visibly crashing down on much of the group. Mack, however, seems unphased. He’s leaning forward in his seat, eyes clear and electrified as ever. He dutifully alternates between the sticky laminated menu and his iPhone, which is lighting up every two or three seconds. “Thank yous” are fired off in bursts. Word travels fast.

“It’s the craziest feeling ever,” he says of the nomination. “I..I..it’s…” He looks around the room as though he misplaced the right word somewhere in this diner. “It’s an out-of-body experience... I feel like I’m happy for another person like ‘Yo, I’m happy for you, Mack.’ For the people who know me more than just my characters, they know how long I’ve been working at this. This is the nuttiest shit ever,” he says. “For me, [the nomination] is for the forgotten borough. It’s for that sound of New York that’s been hidden for so long.”

The waitress arrives with the food. It’s 4 AM. The harsh fluorescent light makes the egg yolks look like highlighter ink. I ask him what comes next.

“I’m just thinking, ‘Ok, we’re nominated. The fuck I gotta do to win?’”

Fletcher Babb has never won a Grammy. Follow him on Twitter - @fletcherbabb