Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Mic Stew: The Melting Pot of Musical Minds

Michael James Stewart, the MC more commonly known as Mic Stew, never seems more centered than when he finds himself in the middle of a cipher on Temple University's campus.

No verse is ever the same for most MCs that attend the weekly cipher but Stewart remains one of the undisputed favorites at the event called Freestyle Fridays.

"Watching Mic Stew rap is like watching dominoes fall,” fellow cipher participant Gary “Verbatum” Jones said. “You know it's gonna be cool to watch, but every time you're amazed at how they're arranged. He was the one who encouraged me to rap and I'm forever grateful for that."
Stewart's stream of consciousness is constantly tuned to his immediate environment and his audience. He projects his voice confidently while uniting the attention of a cipher. His hands fly with smooth exaggeration as he responds to immediate happenings while maintaining a narrative that reflects careful mediation and meditation.

“Sometimes when Mic's rapping he'll close his eyes and start to wave his hand around like he's writing a verse,” Matt “EMC Karma” Berman said. “He's pulling words out from past thoughts and refocusing them into his surroundings.”
Photo Credit: Rashid Zakat
“It sounds a little dramatic but I don't think I ever wanted to be a rapper. I think I was a rapper.” Stewart said. “I used to talk to myself a lot but in my head I'd be like—normally you'd run through how your day might go or how a conversation with someone you're about to talk to might go but when I was like fourteen or fifteen, I started freestyling instead of that. For about three years I did that, just freestyling in my head at all times. I started freestyling over hip hop songs that I liked. So it kinda chose me, I don't think that I chose it.”
While hip hop may have found Stewart, he chose to take the initiative to develop his abilities through self diligence. Stewart says being an MC is a matter of hard work and patience. He tries to write a verse every day. He began to practice his craft over the beats of other more well known rappers.
“The first beats I started rapping over were from Lil' Wayne's Tha Carter I. I would listen to what he was doing and I'd rap like him but make up my own words.”
Stewart eventually felt that Lil' Wayne's music did not speak to his experiences the same way other forms of hip hop did.
“A year later I got tired of that style of music I started listening to a lot of Black Star, Common, Mos Def, Talib Kweli are tight.” Stewart said. “It appealed to me more consciously. It got me thinking more. It was thought provoking. I feel like any human can get down with this. You don't have to live a certain way to get what they're saying.”
Growing up in Royersford, Pennsylvania, Stewart had a different experience growing up than his rapping idols. Stewart started out rapping at local coffee shops like Steel City in Phoenixville, PA.

“I was like the only one rapping, everyone else was pretty much playing folk music.” Stewart said. “Not to toot my own horn but they loved me because I was different. They didn't expect me to do what I did, let alone as well as I did.”

Stewart contends that life is a matter of balance. He said he stumbled across the concept as he constructed his first mixtape, The Equilibrium.

“When I was in high school I was writing The Equilibrium, I didn't know it was called the Equilibrium and I didn't know I was writing an album but I was,” he said. “All my writtens from high school carrying over into my freshman year of college went into my first project. I wrote most of that when I was 17.”

Stewart understands the act of balance best from dealing with differing viewpoints amidst his parents divorce.

“They divorced when I was very young. So they were single, I saw them each alone, never doing anything together.”

Stewart learned not to favor one parent to the other, understanding both parents points of view.
“My dad is a Christian. He's a Christian of great conviction. He tries to do what's right. He's a stand up guy,” Stewart said. “I'm not a gospel rapper, I am not a Christian. I know Christianity very well, I've read a large portion of the Bible. I understand very well a lot of the moral principles of the Bible but I'm not a Christian. I don't go to church. I don't know that I've been saved. I've formed my own spiritual understanding.”

Stewart says as an artist and as a person he has “general goodwill towards people” but he is not afraid to speak his mind on an issue. While Stewart respects his father's religious beliefs, he finds validity in his mother's perspective. He describes his mother as “hard-working.”

Stewart credits his mother with his willingness speak his mind without caring what someone else thinks of him. “I want to set an example for people but I'm not afraid to tell it like it is and call people out.”

“I guess my mom, she's pretty much just plain speech, she'll tell you like it is, sometimes she's got a dirty mouth.” Stewart said.“That kind of melted with my dad always trying to be a stand up dude in front of me. Overall they're very good people and that's where a lot of my conscious content will come from.”

Through balance Stewart has learned to appreciate the viewpoints of others. encouraging others to learn to express themselves like he has.

“There's different world religions all over the place and often times we kill each other in the name of God more than the name of the devil. Any good person who practices religion will tell you that this isn't God's work, that's the devil.”

After finding his voice in The Equilibrium, Mic Stew sought out the voices of others. He listens “Sometimes you'll listen to me and it's like it's a different person.” The result was The Equilibrium II: Ugly.

“The whole thing was that I felt I was coming into myself as an MC. I felt like there was nothing I couldn't do but it wasn't channeled energy, it was sporadic energy. So one song to the next, I sound like a different person. On a lot of them, in the delivery I'm just screaming, some of the rhyme schemes are deeply intricate, five syllable rhyme schemes, fast as shit,” Stewart said. “I was just spaz-ing out I felt like the ugly duckling. That's why it's called ugly. I felt like I was a basketball player who just found out that he could dunk so he goes to the court and just crosses people, jamming on everyone. It's just a little reckless, a place for me to dump all that unadulterated Mic Stew.”

Here's a link to a video of Rashid Zakat's that's a classic Mic Stew spaz-out.

The "unadulterated Mic Stew" is not the stereotypical 8-Mile battle rapper ready to cut down opponents by exploiting their weaknesses. He embraces the goodness in others while asking them to question themselves. He speaks in language his audience can understand to explain his perspective while staying true to himself.

“When I explain things, I explain them in terms that I think all people can understand rather than leaning on the Gospel or the Quran or something like that. No matter what religion you practice there is a moral to be gained and you can translate it into your own moral fabric. It helps me stay centered when telling my story.”

He understands that his story is not the only one that matters. Just as much as he tries to teach others lessons through his verses, he listens to other's words intently while they speak, searching as if he's a chef learning the ingredients to his next recipe.

“I'd rather just appreciate them all for the wisdom that they hold and appreciate every person for the soul that they are inherently given.” Stewart said. “I don't really concern myself with semantics or which god I pray to. The one god, the universe, the soul is what governs us all. The way that manifests itself in the music is I think of a universal appeal.”
Universal appeal is a necessary thing in a world where everyone has their music on the internet. Stewart recognizes the advantages and disadvantages of the reality of the self-promoting musician.

“I think it's good and bad at the same time. What you're getting with the accessibility of production, is you're getting a constant flow of artists so it's almost cheapening the material,” Stewart said. “I could be horrible at what I do and create an album on my own and go and hand it out. So when you give people a CD now, they laugh rather than being intrigued because everybody's got a CD. Everybody's a rapper. There are thousands of us and there are probably only hundreds that are worth listening to. So that kind of thing has almost taken the potency out of doing it for yourself.”

Stewart understands he is one voice in a group of many equals. His approach to master his craft rather than expanding his ego.

“I don't advertise the fact that I rap, so by the time they know they've heard me do it and most people show love,” Stewart said. “It's wonderful that I can just sit in a room with a microphone. I think good music or good art will always find its audience, it'll always find its fire. So I keep making it, keep pushing it.”

Stewart's ultimate goal with music is as an expression of his soul, rather than the pursuit of fame, fortune, and fabricated persona. His music seeks to share common experiences with his friends, family, and audience. He does not deny that he wishes for acceptance for his peers.

“When I die or when I'm gone, be it an untimely death or at a ripe old age, I want people to say that I 'never didn't bring it.' If you go to a Mic Stew show, you saw a Mic Stew show every time at every place, whether I was sick, whether I was pissed off, I brought it.”

Though Mic Stew is still bringing in material for his next mixtape, his efforts towards the Mic Stew show may take a backseat to recording with his band, Guerilla Funk, founded with guitarist Jules “Faze Two” Roldan and bassist Adam Willeta. Stewart does not mind committing himself the communal cause.

“We were just writing it so fast, we were all so driven. It was like 'this band's gonna actually do something,'” Stewart recalls. “We're all working, we're all hungry and we get along well. [Guerilla Funk] is coming together better than anything I've ever been a part of.”
Stewart wants to bring his audience together. He asks them to forget their pride and their sense of self, hoping that they dare to share the truth.

“I want my experiences to come out purely because I feel if I share purely and truly my experiences then you'll be able to relate to them. Don't necessarily bias it with your own personal experience.”

Stewart thinks they will push Guerilla Funk into breaking barriers, which he continues to do by participating with his audience rather than at them. He is the product of the modern music era, where the line between fan and friend have become blurred.

“I have stuff you can dance to, I have stuff you can just nod your head to, I have stuff that's kind of boring but just take off that shell and try to get into what I'm doing. What I want to bring to people when I do that is all of the facets of my life. Don't just come to my show to get hype or to listen to an intelligent lecture on gentrification-- come to my show to break down your walls,” Stewart said. “Take off your skin, your shell and have a genuine good time listening to music that I want to share.”