McKinley Dixon Wants You To Feel Love When All Is Said and Done

McKinley Dixon Wants You To Feel Love When All Is Said and Done

BYJade Gomez​Apr 18, 2023

McKinley Dixon is a musical nomad propelled by his curiosity to explore sounds, people and the communities that breed and protect them. Born out of a necessity to write love letters to the places that guided him as well as carve out the spaces that he longed for, the Richmond, Virginia-rooted musician found himself in Chicago prior to the release of his forthcoming record Beloved! Paradise! Jazz!?, and the journey toward building a home beyond four walls seeped into the recording process.

The 10-track album is teeming with life as Dixon proves to be agile over sprawling jazz instrumentals and blistering trap beats. Alongside new and familiar collaborators ranging from prolific rapper Teller Bank$ to Philadelphia-based newcomer Ghais Guevara, Beloved! is a family affair as Dixon traces his lineages of trauma, friendship, family and healing simultaneously. All points ultimately lead back to him as he carries the keys to his story, much wiser coming off the acclaim of 2021's For My Mama And Anyone Who Look Like Her and the subsequent introspection as he grapples with his vulnerability while also maintaining a layer of much-needed emotional protection.

Dixon's chest is bursting with the heart of a poet, fingers calloused from the impulsive need to write down his tales regardless of whether they see the light of day. He draws from a long lineage of traditions that all meet at the central desire to not just tell stories, but preserve them. Beloved! Paradise! Jazz!? is Dixon's world beyond unspeakable trauma as he finds what makes him whole.

Below, read on for an exclusive conversation with McKinley Dixon ahead of the release of Beloved! Paradise! Jazz!?.

Regionality in music is coming back but also you can pick up on new sounds through migration. What you would describe it to be most rooted in?

Yeah, I think regionally, I would love for it to be more Southern. I think that it reflects where I grew up near the Mason-Dixon Line, right in the Virginia and Maryland area. It's in between sort of the South and the pseudo north. I think my sound has that. The sound draws from longing to be from one place, or having one identity that is tied to place.

It's hard because a lot of people try to pinpoint my sound regionally. Some people will say New York if they want to, if they're on the east coast. They'll say Richmond if they're in the South, they'll say Chicago if they don't know about Richmond, you know? it's all over the place, but I've been in Chicago for the last year now.

Tell me about that longing to be from one place?

I think that as we get older, we see, especially within music, the collective cultures that come from areas. Rap itself has sections and groups that become the forefront when you think of rap within whatever level. I started to get passed up as a rapper because I wasn't at the forefront of rap music at one point. I think that it's fine because I have the privilege of being able to be in so many other genres at once. But sometimes I do wish that I was known for rap. It is what it is.

As somebody who's been listening to your music for a while, you exist within that intersection of so many different genres. You sound especially revitalized and energetic this time around compared to the sounds you were exploring on For My Mama.

I think the feeling of energy that comes from this album is because I recorded it in a place where I was comfortable and happy to move. For My Mama was recorded over distance, in the sense of time and physical distance. As I was creating it over those three years that I did, it became this thing where it's like, "Oh, if I'm really not feeling this right now, you guys are very much going to hear me really not feeling this right now." If I'm having a great time, you're gonna have a great time because there's no one in the studio that's like, "Do that thing again." Near the end of that album, the last two songs I just recorded on a desktop mic. With Beloved! Paradise! Jazz?!, because it was recorded in a base, there was no need for me to be like, "I am tired now," or "I am too low energy for this." It's like, "Oh, we can just start over tomorrow." It's just taking the day to do it again. I think that sort of comes with the consistency and cohesion that For My Mama did not have.

Were you facing pressure or time constraints?

For For My Mama, I had no time restraints because I did that over the course of 2018 to 2021 with no label, no management, no anything. I made that record. And then with this one, I think the timeline was seven or eight months front to back to record everything. It just happens like that, especially when it comes to rap music. Rap music is so fast that I think that it was good for me to be like, alright, well, now I have to leave Richmond and I gotta go to Chicago because if I stay in Richmond, I'm not gonna have the inspiration to make a record in eight months. I need to change my scenery.

So you moved over to Chicago for the purpose of getting more inspiration and having a change of scenery and pace?

Definitely. I think that with Richmond, I hit a peak. It's really great to live there and it's provided me with this comfort but didn't allow me to really want to push myself. I think everybody around me was in that same mindset. It was hard to travel, it was hard to pay rent. In a city like that, it was sleepier and quieter. I needed to go to a place where there were a lot of Black people because I needed to see what that magic was like if I was gonna make an album in eight months.

Richmond, at one point, was a very racially diverse area, but then they put the highway in the middle of it. It's divided the North and South racially. A lot of brown people exist on the South side, and a lot of black people exist on the North side. White people exist everywhere. It became this thing where regardless of the community you live in, you're going to either be around white folks or you're going to be around a disparity that nobody should be really living within. I think Chicago allowed me to have those extremes be more lenient. That helps instead of just seeing the bad that I have to see all the time in my neighborhood.

You seem to be very influenced by place and have immersed yourself in these extremes. How has that influenced you?

With Richmond, because of how it moved and the pacing of it, I made For My Mama and I took as much time as I need because eventually, it's gonna come out. That's why it was my last love letter to the city because my rent is not that expensive, I have a job that I can do part-time and I can figure out music for as long as I need. That is mirrored by how the record sounds and how the record was put out and released.

Whereas with Beloved!, it's more so everybody moves at a quicker pace because of the city. Everybody has something to do and everybody has money to make. The urgency of my raps is equivalent to the urgency of the community that I'm in.

How has it been rooting yourself in the community of a new place compared to just passing through on tour?

It's been great. I think that I am finding out that I'm more introverted than I thought I was, just because everybody I knew was only people that I knew back home. I was there for a decade and some change. With my friends there, you lose one or two as time goes on, and they sort of didn't really waver much. Whereas here, there are so many people, so many things going on and so much to catch your eye that I'm starting to realize, maybe I just like chillin' in the house. I like drawing and I animate on the side. It's a very patient thing. It juxtaposes the music because I'm like the ringleader with my albums, whereas with animation, you're not gonna finish this today, you're not gonna finish this tomorrow, you're not gonna finish this for six months!

We keep going back to this theme of time and urgency, and you touched on how fast rap music operates. Why do you think that is?

Rap music, for one, is the most powerful genre of music currently and has been. Capitalism has a hold on rap music in a way that other genres — not that they don't have it — but it's interesting how rap is now palatable with so many communities that do not really have a need to make rap. I think that it's the climate of music and everything. It's so hard to keep the momentum of things going without constantly creating. Rap music has this DIY feeling that doesn't need to be like, "We need to do this right now." And that's my mindset. I love rap music now and forever.

Right now, it's so easily deconstructed and put into other people's music. That's not a problem, but it is causing other people to be like, "Keep pushing, go on TikTok, do a little dance to this rap song, keep pushing." I don't know about none of that shit. I don't really care for none of that shit. So I think that's why it's been nice for me to see time and urgency and how that really works. Because if I thought I was gonna be the shit in 2018 whenever I was working on For My Mama, I would have been sorely disappointed when I realized 2023 is when I am going to be doing it. think you can be very aware of time when it comes to rap music specifically, compared to other genres.

What is your relationship like with social media?

I'm good at it. My major was the study of movement through media, so I sort of have a good grip on social media. TikTok, Vine and stuff like that are hard for me because I just don't really care to watch a video that's that short, or that long. You put one song that's like five seconds long and that song can get a million streams, but it's just some person dancing. It's hard. How would they dance to my music? It would be really sad. Needless to say if they got me on TikTok, it is done by my management.

Going back to your record, I hear you really playing with your voice and becoming an instrument. It's reminiscent of the physicality of jazz.

I think I hear instruments and I'm just like, what would make my voice not stand out but rather go alongside it? I can't really quantize how I do it. I think it's because a lot of my music relies on vulnerability and vulnerability relies on communication and communication relies on speaking. If I want to communicate, how would I communicate if I was talking to somebody while I was making this? It's all conversation. All these conversations are with me, myself, my community, Tyler and different people.

Were you working with a live band for this recording process?

I recorded it in Richmond! I started my move there in 2012 and then I made this record called Who Taught You to Hate Yourself?. I had this idea, these are the songs, let's figure it out. We all suck right now but in the end, we're probably going to be better by the time I get to album four. Then, For My Mama came, and we were all out of school at that point doing our own things. Everybody made these songs that felt good to them from everywhere. Anybody who could be on it, I put them on the album. Whereas with Beloved! Paradise! Jazz!?, now it's full circle because it's the first record I've ever done in a studio where I've had the ability to pay everybody! Everybody came to Spacebomb Studio in Richmond and it was like this family affair where it was just a week, 12-hour days, everybody who I knew from back in the past musically just came and made this record.

I think part of why this new record sounds so lively is because you really brought in your community and you are reinvigorated with the ability to offer them even more of yourself and of the resources you've obtained for a good record.

It's a little crazy. Richmond supports me a lot, which is really great. Anywhere that you spend an amount of time in, especially at that pivotal moment in your life, will sort of form a connection. I moved to Chicago, I think four or five months prior. So coming back, this is where we became once we traveled through time and distance. I think that everybody in that room knew that was going to be the trajectory, and I think that's what really affirmed and validated it.

Tell me about the collaborators on this record! It feels like a family affair.

I appreciate that! That's really what it is. What I did for my last record was that I'd make a bunch of demos and then I would get a bunch of people to put everything they could on this demo. And then I would eventually go through it and cut them up and put them wherever they need to be to sound like they're all in one room. That was my tedious way of doing it.

For this one I had demos of "Sun I Rise", "Tar Feather" and "Tyler Forever" where it's just the harp or just the strings, and I realized that with my time restraints, I couldn't do what I usually do. I don't have the ability to wait for people. So I started working with my friend from Richmond, Sam Koff. I needed another ear and he put that ear together. It became this thing where these demos were then brought to life more so than if I was just sitting and listening to it. I think the issue with For My Mama is that my ear was way too homogenous when I was listening back. I knew the demos front to back and that's why I don't really listen to it too much nowadays.

Usually with my record, I don't get different rappers. I would love to work with Missy Elliott, but to me, there's no better rappers than my homies Alfred., Teller and Ghais. We work so well together so the energy is always going to be there regardless. I performed at a house show in Athens, Georgia in 2018 and that's how I met Seline Haze. I performed in Des Moines, Iowa in 2019 and that's how I met Teller Bank$. Alfred. I knew through school, and we came up together in the Richmond music scene. Ghais is a new rapper that I met through doing research and I heard his music. I was blown away! These people have been with me at different points in my life but they remain constant. And I think that is why the record sounds so familial. Even Jaylin Brown is on a lot of my records because she's also from Richmond. Even Hanif is a new friend! He put me on his favorite records of 2021 list and I was like No. 10 or something. We circled back and he brought it back together. It's all a family thing. A lot of these people believe in what's going on.

Speaking of collaborations, let's talk about hardcore and working with Soul Glo. They're one of my favorite bands and you were on one of my favorite records of last year, Diaspora Problems. I see a lot of parallels between jazz and hardcore, and it's amazing seeing more representation in punk.

You're exactly right. It's hard to trace a band doing it like Soul Glo before Soul Glo. I mean, you can but them motherfuckers hate when you say Bad Brains. There's Moor Mother, another Philly artist who mixes poetry with rap, jazz and punk.

I think I really love being able to travel between these genres because I'm able to study so many more people and how we do these things. I love rap, but I think rap refuses to take notes from indie and rock genres because they won't do Bandcamp and it's harder to press vinyl. Rap is so close to the ground, it's hard to do a lot of things that indie music can do because they have the mindset that they were told that white indie was allowed to do this, you know what I mean? Rap is inherently indie, but they were never given that ideology from the get-go. So I think it's really cool being able to go to a Zulu show and literally see how these n****s do it. I saw Soul Glo couple months ago and in the middle of their set, they just played "Laughin' To The bank" by Chief Keef! It's like the craziest shit ever. They just play "haha" over and over again and then it goes into a song. I would have never seen that at a white indie show.

You provided me with a track-by-track breakdown of the album and you said one of my favorite songs, "Mezzanine Tippin'," embodies the concept of jazz the most.

I think that it embodies jazz because it's so chaotic, you know? All of us use our voice so sparsely in a way that we are very intentional with every line. Teller Bank@ starts it out with this repeated chorus then I come in and do a verse that is very close to the chest but then Alfred. is the one that really takes it home with that final verse. It's two and a half minutes and that song is more jazz to me than a lot of the record because of just the intention of it.

One of the most touching songs is "Tyler, Forever," which tells the story of one of your late childhood friends.

So "Tyler, Forever" is split off into two parts of the song: "Tyler," which is the beginning, is the energetic horns part and then "Forever," which is the ending, is the blues section. What I did was separate it by the comma in the sense that this part is Tyler and who he was to me and not to anyone else. N****s is complicated, but that is who he was to me and these memories I had growing up. For "Forever," it's how we're going to deal with this forever. I'm kind of done talking about it in this sort of way, because at a certain point I want to stop really idolizing and lifting up the person and start talking about the events and the people that caused it more. I became aware of that. I think I'm kind of done talking about Tyler forever in that way.

There's a line on that song where you say, "It's murder music for people who ain't been murdered." As a non-Black person, I have tried to remain cognizant of how I listen to hip-hop. How does the whole voyeuristic lens that some may consume your work impact it?

A lot of my music sounds like I'm talking about and to the general audience, but a lot of my music is me reflecting on me and the conversations that I've had. So people sometimes will be like, "Oh, is this your opinion on this and the weight of these things and the trauma that black people in gangs face?" No, actually. I don't even know what the fuck you're talking about! I'm just talking about my homies and my family life that made everything lead up to this point. I don't know other people's timelines, I just know the timelines that I have been involved in. I think that's where it sort of comes in, because at a certain point, you're not talking about this person, you're appropriating their carcass. That's not saying that the memories I have are not valid.

It's more so saying that I made two records before For My Mama. One was Who Taught You to Hate Yourself? and the other was The Importance of Self Belief. Both of those records focus on uplifting Black life, Black women, my whole mindset of experiencing black queerness and figuring out these sorts of people that exist. Then For My Mama and "make a poet Black" came . That was the album that revolved a lot around my trauma with death as I was facing in 2018, right as like the album's starting. It became this thing where I make that record, and everybody is like, "Oh, my God, this is crazy. Where did he come from?" Well actually, you can see my trajectory. But now that I'm talking about this, there are people that are like, "I want to hear more about that. Tell me how your homie died. Where was he shot at? What was the corner? Give me his date of birth!" This interview is very different but folks, especially white folks, will come in and just be like, tell me about Tyler! First of all, don't be saying his name. I'm not even really supposed to be saying his name like that. This was someone who I knew in my childhood up until my late teens. I don't know past that. I can't really say much past that. At a certain point, I can't be writing about it. I'm already two, three records in on it.

You talk a bit about how jarring it was for all the spotlight to be on you with the release of your last record. I can imagine the conflicting feelings that bubbled up when it comes to experiencing critical acclaim.

Oh, definitely. There would be a time where random people would post "make a poet Black" on their Instagram story and would be like, "Dude, are you okay?" And then be like, "This is the best song I've ever heard!" It's kind of crazy that they're gonna ask me if I'm good. I'm fine! Time passes. That's sort of what Beloved! Paradise! Jazz!? is also. You're beloved and you got goals. Paradise is the after-effects where this is what it feels like, but how do you move forward? Jazz is like... it never really ends. There's a chaotic ending to all of it. I think that's why the album starts with Hanif doing a walkthrough of a city and ending with the birthplace of jazz. "Sun, I Rise" talks about this kid who had gold because of his last record, because of the trauma. I think this is meant to me being like, "Do I need more trauma to go to make another critically acclaimed record?" We're gonna find out.

I'm guessing you get the "conscious rapper" label a lot. How you are lumped into that?

That shit is dumb, don't even get me started. Conscious rapper is a term created by white folks to categorize what music they deem acceptable to the general audience. A conscious rapper means you're talking about what you've seen in your life, you're awake and you've seen what you see. I don't see what Drake sees all the time, but Drake does! While you wouldn't want to count that as "conscious rap," technically, that is. This is the life he lives. What do Drake and I have anything in common, besides the fact that we're both multimillionaires? [laughs]

I think that people view me as this person that, because I talk about my community, they think I'm talking about every Black person that's ever existed, ever. The repercussions of "conscious rap" is that people will come up to me and they'll be like, "So what did you think about Harriet Tubman in the underground railroad?" I actually have no idea what the fuck you're talking about. I think that it sort of keeps me pigeonholed in this area. I want to help folks that don't really have the language. I think that my music is more so finding the language that's accessible for everybody when they're feeling these things, that you can go back to it and then feel your own thing. When somebody's asking what is my opinion on this horrific fact that it's happening to some community, I don't really know. I don't really like reading about that in the first place. So I guess I'm not conscious.

I'm pretty sure you had a lot of people in the Kendrick album came out asking what think about it?

Oh my god. Honestly it wasn't even the latest Kendrick. That's how I know that this Kendrick album was great but not as much as his other record because people still aren't letting me go from To Pimp A Butterfly. People are really like, "McKinley, For My Mama is the best jazz-rap album since To Pimp A Butterfly." Now we both sound stupid, you know? I just recently within the last six months got into reading Rate Your Music reviews.

Why would you do that to yourself?

The worst! Literally the worst. Someone said For My Mama sounds like store-bought mac and cheese. I literally don't even know what the fuck that means. I was mad. The conscious rapper label be keeping me locked up. People be like, "What do you think about Frederick Douglass in 1881?" I don't know!

Going back to the record, there's this recurring theme of adolescence and boyhood and growing up. Where did that come from?

I really wanted this record to sound like a movie. The cover is like this space-age, anime, black-noir look and the record has this cinematic, theatrical aspect to it. I really wanted it to be like a coming-of-age movie, or a book where the pages might be moving a little too fast, but the pictures are still really nice. I aimed to make it sound like there's this kid who begins. This is where we start and you can very clearly see where we're going from here. Even with putting the boy on the cover, it became this thing where I really wanted the album to have an arc and a climax and an ending that was big. I like animation. I like cartoons and shit. I wanted to encapsulate how I feel when I think of a cartoon in my head when I listen to music. I grew up on Naruto and Linkin Park AMVs so that very much explains it right there. My music is me watching Death Note with Red Hot Chili Peppers playing over it.

I love that you brought up the Red Hot Chili Peppers because I am a Red Hot Chili Peppers soldier and a lot of people fucking hate them.

People love walking up to me and comparing me to the Red Hot Chili Peppers! Sometimes it'll be Kendrick, Chance, Anderson .Paak, Rage Against The Machine and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Those are the ones that people would be really gunning for. Like these are the ones they prepared in their head when they approach me right after the show. They'll be like, "Have you ever heard of Anderson .Paak?" Here we go!

Since cartoons and animation are such a big part of your life, what are some inform your work?

I give a lot of credit for the last record's sequencing to Cowboy Bebop.Star Trek was really popular in the '90s and cartoons were usually made by toy companies. Bandai wanted Shinichirō Watanabe to make a space show that would last forever. They were like, "We want you to make your own Star Trek. We want to have 1000 episodes. We want it to never end." This was his first show he ever did. He didn't want to do that obviously. So he wrote the first episode and the last episode before he even wrote the middle. He made sure it was only going to be 25 episodes. I really love how he approached that. Bandai dropped it, but then it was picked up. I really liked how he was like, this is the beginning and this ending and besides that, I'm gonna make it really musical. I also really love Naruto because you can never stop believing in yourself. Recently, I watched Mob Psycho. I'm watching Black Clover right now and it is shit. I'm having a hard time getting through it. It's-- I don't even know, It's like magic... they got books. It's got like 100 episodes, so I'm just kind of watching it while I draw.

One of my favorite lines of the entire album is a really small one at the end of "Tyler, Forever," where you say "Poets lie too." Talk to me about that.

That whole song is from this perspective of me talking about this person who was not me. I say, "Y'all become killers all of a sudden when you find dusty loops/ N***a, The problem with this preaching is it might just make my wrist hot/ 9 n****s," So I think it's me being like, where does all of this rage and energy really come from? Is it coming from you? Does it come from this act that was done? Does that come from you wanting to be this person? With Tyler, when I talk about him, I get really self-reflective because these memories are now just mine. They're not anybody else's. It's really those moments that I have forever, comparatively.

I also rap, "It's murder music for n****s who ain't been murdered/ I'm sure if he was here now, he'd say that shit's unheard of/ I'd laugh, Say 'yeah, you right, it's probably true,'/ Then sitting on the floor, I'd realize poets lie too." It became this thing where with music and rap, it's not real life. None of this compares to the fact that I'm now having this conversation with someone who's not here anymore. In the grand scheme of things, I wouldn't give up my rap career to bring my n***a back, but I definitely would give up a couple of songs. I think that is the main thing that comes from that line. Anything can be said, anything can be happening, anything can happen. It's music. It shouldn't take priority over these connections that you're having in real life, sitting on the floor laughing.

It's sobering to think about how memories die with people and the importance of storytelling, which is why it's so important within our cultures. What do you think is temporary and permanent for you in this life?

For me, connection really is permanent. it really becomes this sort of thing where, even with my records and even with the people on it, they are people that I love. They are people that I'll love forever. whether it's music or not, these connections can never end if you truly don't want them to, regardless of if your homie is here or not. I'm still talking about my cat who died a minute ago, and he died in 2018, but every time I talk about him, he's remembered. I think that's sort of where it comes from. It really doesn't ever end if you don't want it to. It takes time. It takes energy. It's very hard. It's very complicated. But those connections can't be severed if you try.

What do you feel is your central thesis or takeaway you want people to have with this record?

Hanif actually said it best. He said, "Do you still feel love after this record ends?" And I think that's the question that I really want to raise.

Beloved! Paradise! Jazz!?will be released June 2, 2023. You can preorder the album here.

Photo courtesy of Jordan Roderick