He called from Barbados to chat about the stellar new video, the lyrics behind "M00N," and what it feels like to have the rap game on lock before you can buy cigarettes.
Haleek Maul is insular. Unlike most rappers who boast and brag, he seems lost in his own thoughts. He takes long breaks in between sentences, always trying to sharpen his phrases to express precisely how he feels. Each word is deliberate—just like his music.
Right now, Haleek lives in Barbados. On Sunday night, via a glitchy international connection, I spoke with the 16-year-old New York City-born MC. I usually spend a lot of time prepping for interviews, but Haleek's impressive rap sheet is pretty short. He first appeared on our radar back in June, when he dropped the Oxyconteen EP—a brisk seven-song trip of brooding beats and off-kilter, introspective rhymes.
Like most teenagers making music at home, he didn't think many people would hear the EP. But less than six hours after the debut dropped, Haleek had already received a long email from a stranger (many years his senior) explaining how the rapper's teenage musings on relationships and loss had touched him profoundly. The message came at a time when Haleek's parents and grandmother were worried he might be getting too caught up in this rap shit. It was the kind of push he needed to know he was chasing the right dream.
Haleek followed up Oxy two months later with a 17-track collaborative mixtape with Chicago production duo Supreme Cuts called Chrome Lips. Lips sounds even more confident and considered than Oxy, as a fully realized statement on love and regret. So impressed by the new music, VICE linked up with Haleek to shoot a video for the tape's standout track, "M00N," a song with a sizzurp-slow beat, pummeling percussion, and an uncleared sample from King Crimson's "Moon Child. (The song has since been yanked off of blogs and websites all across the internet over obnoxious copyright claims from King Crimson's label.)
During my chat with Haleek, we discussed the stellar new music video, the inspiration behind the lyrics of "M00N," and what it feels like to have the rap game on lock before you can even buy cigarettes.
Noisey: We're about to drop this "M00N" video. What can you tell me about it?
Haleek Maul: It's got strong Kenneth Anger and Steven Klein vibes in terms of the direction. For the treatment, I gave [VICE Global Editor and "M00N" music video director] Andy Capper a bunch of ideas of films that I enjoy and we just came up with something. There's not much of a narrative to it. It's meant to be visually stimulating.
So there's no underlying message behind the visual aspects of the video?
The video is aggressive—there's a lot of red. I think it encapsulates the track, because the song is about my insecurities. A lot of them have to do with relationships I was in and internal struggles I was having over whether or not I should've made certain decisions… My choices hurt the person I was with at the time I made them, so the song is about being selfless and apologetic.
Can you tell me about the relationship?
I don't want to talk about it. But I made some bad decisions that put me in a position where I just wanted a way to express myself. So I sat and wrote down all the stuff that I was insecure about—even things beyond relationship issues.
Give me an example?
In the second verse you hear, "I'm treatin' her so wrong." When I say "her" it wasn't exactly referring to a female, it was the whole idea of "her" personified as hip-hop. It plays on two parallels—one side of it was the part of me that had emotional problems in this world and the other part of me that was having the same kind of problems in terms of my work ethic and whether or not I was going to be successful.
Do you feel like you're on that route right now? Are the insecurities and questions that you had about your art alleviated?
It's never going to be alleviated. Every artist... Actually, I can only speak for myself. For me, no matter how many ups I get, I try to be as humble as possible.
Are you afraid of getting the big head?
It's not even a situation where I have to force myself to think about it. It's a natural thing. It's a blessing and a curse, because it causes me to over-think things or compare myself. Sometimes, I feel as if the work I'm putting forth isn't good enough, but sometimes a pat on the back really levels things out for me.
Like when you received that email after dropping Oxy?
That kind of changed my life. He listened to my music and removed age and gender and all the other stupid things that people base their opinions on. He stripped all of that stuff away. He was inspired by it and felt happy after listening to it, and that made me happy.
Was becoming a rapper something you've always wanted?
Growing up, it wasn't a career path I thought about. But when I got into high school, I was around people in the music scene and I was inspired by that culture, by the hip hop culture.
Photo by Rebecca Maya.
Was high school the first time you heard hip-hop?
I listened to rap before because my uncle used to rip CDs. I remember listening to the Slim Shady LP when I was nine. Hearing that was liberating.
In hip-hop, what you said wasn't dictated by other people and it wasn't like school where you learned something and you had to regurgitate it. These were all your own philosophies and ideas being projected. You were the mouthpiece for everything that was in your head, as opposed to someone putting something in your head. It was up to me to capture the encoding, my message, my personal whatever. So the power of being able to do that inspired me to make music and push it to the level that I'm going to push it to right now.
Do you consider yourself to be an MC in the traditional sense?
I grew up freestyling and cyphering. I can do all of that, but I often find myself getting tired and bored. I remember yesterday, I was in the studio up the street and this engineer freaked out because I was freestyling over a bunch of instrumentals. He was like, "Why don't you rap like that more often?" And I could do that—it's easy—but I like to challenge myself. I like to sit and take time to write. I find the lyrical punchline-emphasized rap doesn't have a body to it. It's more, "Let me see how many mindfucks I can fit into one song."
Right. It's less emotional and more mechanical.
It's interesting. The whole culture is built on stating the reasons why I'm so cool or the reasons why you should fear me. Hip-hop has crazy ego. I've always been down for shit-talking, but I think for my personal projects, I'm trying to reflect different ideas.
How does that perspective fit in with Chrome Lips.
It's a collaborative mixtape and it gets treated as such. I didn't want to go too deep off the edge for the project. But on "M00N," I tried to give it that edge, that purposeful edge that I give all my tracks. "M00N" is the one track that I put most of my essence into in terms of that project. Did you hear about the King Crimson thing, though?
Yeah, I caught that sample. Are you into prog-rock and that stuff?
Of course, dude, I co-produced that track and picked out the sample. I'm a really big fan of Vincent Gallo and his film Buffalo '66, which features Christina Ricci's dancing to "Moon Child." That's what inspired me. I wanted to write a song about a woman and my issues regarding females and I wanted to pick something that represented that and I just kept flashing back to Christina where she was being held against her will, but at the same time she was enjoying the moment. It's sad and strange. I don't know how to explain it.
Yeah that movie is definitely weird.
All her delicate qualities came out in that one scene and I was like, "I really need to sample that song." I don't know if you knew about this, but King Crimson issued a cease and desist on us.
I picked up on that when I couldn't listen to "M00N" on any site on the web.
They've pretty much aided in the removal of Chrome Lips in its entirely from the Mishka Bandcamp. So right now, we're trying to figure out that situation. I felt there was so much thought that I put into that song—we could've easily made an instrumental that was moody and similar—but that was something we personally wanted. The whole thing was distasteful, because we weren't selling it. They didn't even email us directly, they just went straight to Bandcamp. I guess that's the way the world works.
Yeah that's awful. Hopefully, the band had nothing to do with it, so maybe you could still collaborate with Robert Fripp someday.
[Laughs] Yeah, I'm still a fan, I've been a fan, I really like them. I started listening to Aphrodite's Child the other day.
It must be pretty crazy to be young and on the verge of something so exciting. How do you feel?
It's an incredible feeling. But I try not to think about it too much. You never know what's gonna happen, and I find that I get the best results when I don't think about shit. I remember when I got on Noisey the first time, for "Gully." I wasn't expecting you guys to put it up. And I realized that other times when I thought I had certain blogs on lock, it wouldn't happen and I would get disappointed. Now, I just put it out and hope for the best.
Is it hard being a young guy in the game?
People see you as a weaker member in society when you are a teenager. They look at you as if your physical maturity and mental maturity are things that are not on-par, which I disagree with completely. There are some 16-year-olds that are more competent than people way past drinking age. It's upsetting, because it makes you realize there are certain things you can't do and people discourage you. But when you actually accomplish something, people just say, "Oh, he's a certain age." They don't even look at the art.
Right now you live with your grandmother in Barbados, what does she say about all the music stuff that you're doing?
My family, they're more or less supportive. They're kind of scared for me, because they're realizing this is kind of becoming a part of my life and they want to make sure I have something to fall back on and they don't want me to get disappointed.
I'm sure you won't be. Thanks.
Directed by Andy Capper
Edited by Matthew Caron
Produced by Andre Muir
Assistant Producer Monet Lucki