Published Feb 11, 2014Vic Mensa is glad to be here. A few years ago at Lollapalooza, he tried to sneak into the festival to see a girl by climbing over a fence, only to be electrocuted and fall 30 feet on to the train tracks below. He ended up in hospital with a hole in his elbow, but not before he got arrested for trespassing. Last year, Vic Mensa served notice that he's not the only fast-rising MC from Chicago you need to be aware of when he released the impressive mixtape Innanetape, 2013 also saw Vic Mensa break away from his previous much-buzzed about genre-blurring group Kids These Days (who were produced by Wilco's Jeff Tweedy at one point) and forge ahead with his solo career and Save Money crew.
Showcasing his nimbly elastic flow and eclectic musical proclivities on instantly addictive tracks like "Orange Soda" and "Lovely Day," as well as a more reflective side on "Holy Holy" and "Time Is Money," Innanetape landed at number two on Exclaim!'s top mixtapes of 2013 list, just behind another MC from the Windy City, Chance the Rapper, who happens to be one of Vic's good friends. We caught up with Vic Mensa recently in Toronto, where he was opening up for Disclosure on their recent North American tour to chat about his creative process, Chicago and being truly grateful for people connecting with his music.
When you came to Toronto last time [opening for J Cole and Wale at Massey Hall] Innanetape was about to drop, so people may not have been as aware of you. Opening for Disclosure, some hip-hop heads may not be aware you're even in town.
I'm not mad at where we are at this point in time. The first person I bumped into asked me to take a picture with them, they knew who I was. So there's definitely a global awareness at this time and it's definitely growing. You know what I'm saying. I think it's a great opportunity to be on this tour with Disclosure.
What have you noticed has been the reception to your music since the mixtape dropped since the last time you were here?
The reception's been amazing, man. People all over the world appreciate it and have given its proper dues and acclaim and more than anything I think that it's inspired a lot of people to overcome things in their life, to make music and to live positively. As long as I can influence people in a positive way, I'm doing something right.
On Innanetape there's a skit about a lot of this is about having fun. But for a lot of people making music isn't necessarily effortless. How is the process for you?
It's not effortless. Nothing rewarding is effortless, but it is fun in that it's what I love to do. I think if you don't love to do what you're doing, I don't know why you're doing it.
Right, but at the same time you are saying this is fun you are also doing songs about people that are helping them with their lives. There are songs here where you are talking about things like violence in Chicago. There's a fun side but there are songs like "Holy Holy," there are songs like "Time Is Money." Was it intentional to run the emotional gamut?
I never start making songs with the intention of what it's gonna be about. So if a song manifests itself as being a sentimental song, as being an ignorant song, you know it's all one and the same in that it's just a reflection of where I am. At that point in time and what's on my mind. So obviously making music is something I enjoy it's something that is fun, not all of life is enjoyable and fun you know. There's a lot of different sides to portray. So some songs come out being scatterbrained and sporadic, and others are more influenced by direct and specific events.
You talk a lot about death on those songs. How has what's been going on in Chicago impacted you on a personal level?
This last year  had the lowest murder rate in recent recorded history in Chicago, so that's a positive thing. There's still a lot of propaganda and media and general train of thought in Chicago that is downward, meaning negative, but I think it's something that obviously the killing and the struggle in Chicago is not a beautiful thing but it's real. It exists, and until the general public's consciousness is given a complete 180, it's going to exist. So you know I just try and do my thing and in the way I express myself and just try and show a different side of things.
Out of what's going on, there is your crew Save Money. What can you tell me about what we can expect from the crew and what's your motivation?
It's definitely about saving money. I grew up "save money." I've been "save money" since day one. The words originated from my mouth. I think that it just represents a lifestyle and that lifestyle has shifted and grown as we've grown. And where at a point in time we were stealing to save money, now we've grown older and save money represents different things. I'm coming into a lot more money than I've ever had before and I'm doing a lot of things that your average — I don't mean to say your average rapper, because everybody's a person, y'know, but I'm doing a lot of things that a lot of people in my position don't do. Save Money is really just about working smart.
One of those people you've been affiliated with is Chance the Rapper and people have made comparisons between you two. What makes you you and not necessarily like anybody else?
Nobody been through what I've been through. I've lived my life and my life only and nobody else can represent that. You know I've been through a lot of shit. A lot of times I almost died, that's why I've got "Still Alive" tatted on my stomach. Nobody else fell off a fuckin' 30 foot bridge and got shocked by 15,000 volts of electricity and got on a plane the next day. That didn't happen to nobody else, know what I'm sayin'? So I mean the comparisons exist, people make 'em, how they want to make 'em, but at the end of the day, at the end of the day, think about this: Whether or not you want to compare me to Chance, who the fuck else can you compare to us, know what I'm sayin'? Cos that's my brother, none of these other n----s can compare, if you want to make a comparison go ahead because you cant compare other n----s to us because they can't fuck with us anyway. They can't fuck with me, they can't fuck with him. So they might as well compare the two of us because we two of the best motherfuckers doing it.
For me, it's totally obvious there's a difference.
Right, Yeah, we make a lot of different shit and I think that this year that will be very evident too. We got a lot of very different music from each other coming out.
Do you guys have any more collaborations coming? "Tweakin'" was on the tape but is there anything else forthcoming?
"Suitcase" is something that we made produced by Cam, that's on my Soundcloud Fuck-Vic-Mensa.
Talking of producers and you're in Toronto, Boi-1da did do "Time Is Money." How did you connect with him?
I connected with Boi-1da through my homie Tunji [Balogun] He connected a lot of dots for me and linked me with a lot of ill producers so he connected me with Boi-1da and also my boy Jamil [Davis] assisted with that situation. Big juice!
I know you had people specific people working on this project like Peter Cottontale…
Yeah, [producer] Cam [of the J.U.S.T.I.C.E. League] is in there, they're both in there with me a lot working on the music from the past and the future.
And I noticed there's another person involved in this project, Om'mas...
Yeah, Om'mas Keith.
I know him through a lot of stuff but mainly Sa-Ra Creative Partners. What was the influence or creative guidance you might have gotten from him?
Om'mas is just a guru, y'know. So Om'mas helped me take a lot of things from. If we started at 100, he took them up to… if 100 was point zero, he helped me go from zero to 60 you know what I'm sayin'. He just helped me take a lot of things to outer space. And if you ever heard Sa-Ra music, that will make sense to you. Om'mas just has an amazing musical ear and person to turn to 'cos he's just so talented and kinda ridiculously talented and just knowledgeable, he's just a database of information far past just music. So having Om'mas in my corner is something that I really appreciate.
I know he draws on a lot of different music and I hear that a lot on this project. Tracks like "Lovely Day" for example, like UK breakbeat. You got Jesse Boykins III on this, known from his leftfield soul stuff—
That's my man. Jesse Boykins [III, and me] we toured together with Asher Roth and always kept in contact. Jesse Boykins is just a ridiculous talent and singer and just a good dude.
And I know you had a band that you were in before [Kids These Days] that dabbled in a lot of different genres. You obviously listen to a wide range of things. What ingredients does the music have to have for you to mess with it?
Rock'n'roll is raw. Kurt Cobain said something along the lines of… I think he said hip-hop is the most honest genre since punk and I think that rock'n'roll and hip-hop, they intertwine, in essence, in coming from a place of pure raw emotion. You have classical music that is meant to be as elegant and grandiose as possible. Rock'n'roll and hip-hop — that's just truth. You don't have to know how to sing to be a rock'n'roll musician or a hip-hop artist y'know. So that connects those genres to me y'know. Jazz connects to hip-hop in a lot of ways through improvisation and just different flow patterns, everything comes together. Genre doesn't really exist to me, cos a lot of the time I don't know what to call the type of music I'm making some people call it one thing because of who I am but at the end of the day it's hard to generalize the music that I make, just because of how broad the span of influences is.
When you said jazz it kinda reminded me of your flow a little bit, you kinda jump on and off the beat…
Yeah, I definitely got that from [former Kids These Days member] Nico [Segal] [aka] Donny Trumpet [from Save Money] just being around that so much. He's one of the best improvisational music minds that I know. I learned a lot from him in that area.
Yeah, I noticed that you do that a lot but if it gets too abstract for people in the verse you sing to kind of bring it back.
It's fun. Melody, y'know. Melody is the anchor of the music. Melody and lyrics, it's got a huge place in my music. Melody is an amazing expression; melody is an expression an emotion without words. The simplest can invoke thought, and it's a valuable tool of mine in making music.
Were you classically trained at all?
Well, actually I was in the school choir for like a year. I don't remember whatever we did, I probably smoked too much in early high school and middle school but I did have a training in music. I took piano lessons, I took guitar lessons, I was in the band, I played saxophone for a time and sang in the choir and at the end of the day it's in my mind someday. There was some sheet music in all the training that I did. But thinking about it I'm sure it brought me to the point that I'm at in one way or another.
I'm asking because you worked with a lot of people in Kids These Days who was a band. I know on the intro there are some strings… [Former Kids These Days member] Macie [Stewart] did some strings on there…on the end of "Lovely Day" I had pretty much the whole band. I had Nico, Greg [Landfair] and Lane [Beckstrom]. Yeah, there's a lot of Kids These Days influence on the music.
In terms of music, I was wondering what inspired you. On a skit there's an [A Tribe Called Quest] "Award Tour" ringtone.
Yeah, that was like seventh grade, until I got an iPhone. I probably could make it my ringtone again. I been meaning to but it's not as easy. Yeah, "Award Tour" was like my ringtone from sixth or seventh grade on. Man that's one of my favourite songs ever.
So Tribe were an influence on you?
A huge influence, man. You know, they had. I always look at it like, Phife Dawg was one of the first like perfect style rappers that I was aware of, with that pinpoint flow and the punch lines and then Q-Tip was just un-mimicable . The Abstract, y'know, Q-Tip would just say shit that would just seemingly just came off the tip of his tongue y'know. Just like some fuck around freestyle the shit would sound like leftfield thought. Leftfield thought!
I noticed a link between you and Disclosure is that Eliza Doolittle is on both your projects. Was that a link or is that coincidental. She's on "YNSP" and she's on their album.
Well, she was on their album first. But um, I think she probably found about my music from the same circles they did. So it's not really a coincidence. I just got a lot of support in the UK.
What kind of upcoming collaborations can we expect from you, any upcoming projects? Do you have another video coming off Innanetape?
We just shot a really ill video for a song called "Down on My Luck" I previewed it on BBC Radio 1 the other day. On the UK garage…a house-influenced track.
But that's not on the mixtape.
In terms of Innanetape are you done in terms of the project and moving on to the new stuff?
No, no. There's still a lot of untouched and untapped material from Innanetape that we're pushing forward. You know just having fun with it.