Mike Zombie isn’t “fake humble” though he has plenty to boast about at the age of 24. The Grammy-nominated OVO producer captivated mainstream airwaves with Drake’s “Started From The Bottom” in 2013. One year later, he scored another hit with DJ Khaled’s “They Don’t Love You No More” featuring Meek Mill, Rick Ross and Jay Z–yet, he isn’t infatuated with his success.
“Being humble is being aware that you’re good, but you don’t have to walk around saying it all day,” he tells VIBE as “Underdog (The Trilogy)” off his latest album Humble Genius draws to a fade. The New Jersey native’s third project emerges as a proclamation of his greatness where his mastermind makes its presence felt track by track, piecing together a grand notice that he’s just as talented in the booth as he is on the soundboard. “Your work should show for itself,” he continues.
Sporting a red and white “New Jerz Natives” hat to match his outfit of the day, the artist is fully conscious of his home base in Willingboro. The small suburbs, which dons the nickname “Little Motown,” cultivated his love for variety in sound so it comes as no surprise when the 609 ambassador reveals he didn’t turn to trends for the direction of his album, opting to pull samples from unconventional sources, like anime, instead. “I feel like artists are going to work with what they got at the end of the day if people keep making the same beats over and over again,” he says while musing on the lack of innovation in music today.
He pays respect to culture pushers, such as Beyonce, who deviate from the status quo after acknowledging that artists aren’t clear of blame in keeping the cycle of repetitiveness going either. “When ‘Started From The Bottom’ came out, it got so annoying to get in the studio with somebody who’d be like, ‘I want something just like [this].’ Why? ‘Started From The Bottom’ is already ‘Started From The Bottom.’” Humble Genius, released just in time for the summer on July 1, is a testament to Mike Zombie’s commitment to challenging his artistry as a rising rapper and self-sufficient producer through creating fresh yet cohesive music. While he reveals that his success as an independent artist has outpaced his expectations, Zombie is completely set on making bigger waves in the industry with a year-end move to “California” on his mind à la the fourth track featured on his album.
He’s also unopposed to taking his talent to the major leagues of hip hop as long as fair play is etched in the game plan and creative freedom is uncompromised on the field, a combination he believes makes G.O.O.D. Music an ideal record label for him. “[Kanye West] treats Big Sean as if he was Desiigner or Desiigner as if he was Big Sean. He’s promoting everybody the same way,” he observes. “You don’t want anyone to fall short.”
VIBE caught up with the rapper and OVO hit maker about earning Drake’s stamp of approval, growing as a lyricist on Humble Genius and pushing music “the right way”.
You’re one of Jersey’s very own. How has growing up in Willingboro influenced your ear for music?
City High’s from there. Adam Blackstone. It’s a lot of live music and producers out there so it’s not really like up north [Jersey] where you got Joe Budden and Queen Latifah and artists like that. It’s more music makers down there so I was drawn to it at an early age. My next-door neighbor did some work for Bad Boy and stuff like that so I always had my ear to music and [wanted] to make it.
“Started From The Bottom” was just one of many records that you pitched to Drake before he signed you to OVO as a producer. What went through your mind after finding out he wanted to work with you?
That my life was about to change, and I was excited. He’s one of my favorite rappers, and it didn’t take more than three days [for him] to even hear the song after getting into contact with him so it was a crazy feeling. Super crazy.
What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned in the music business since you got added to the OVO roster?
Being persistent and being consistent are the top two things you could do. They say you’re only as big as your last hit. And being patient.
The media dubbed you a producer to watch in 2013, the same year you released your first mixtape The End Of The Beginning. Has the reception to your music been what you’ve hoped it would be so far?
Yeah, I mean it’s changing. It’s definitely going to a place that I didn’t think it was going to go because I dropped my last project [Humble Genius] two weeks ago, and it actually charted on iTunes, and I didn’t expect it to do that so it’s going further than I thought. Gladly.
How do you manage the overlap of producer and artist? Do you ever run into challenging moments when you’re creating music for other people and crafting a full body of work for yourself?
It’s not really hard because I’m a bred producer. That’s what I do so whether I’m making stuff for myself or making something for somebody else, that’s what I’m doing first. I’ll be rapping to beats as I’m making them even if they’re not for me just to get ideas that could be something for somebody else so it’s just creating always. It’s not really for anybody in particular. Ever.
In an interview with Hot 97, you mentioned that you push out beats super quickly. When it comes to your craft as a lyricist, is the process just as fast?
No, unfortunately not. Lately it has been. Lately I’ve been knocking out songs crazy, like verses for other people. I’m just getting faster and better at how to do it because I record myself so now that I’m knowing how to do it better on my own, I’m just learning more and more, and it’s becoming a faster process.
How do you believe you’ve evolved in between each of your projects leading up to Humble Genius?
I feel like The End Of The Beginning, I was really catering to the Drake fans that I just acquired and on [Rebel Without A Cause], I just was refining my sound and figuring out where I was going with it and on [Humble Genius], I really made a project where none of the songs sound the same, but it’s all cohesive, and it sounds like one, and you can listen to each song as its own entity.
If you could only perform one single off the album in any given situation which song would that be?
It’s triumphant, and it’s a universal song, and I feel like anybody can relate to it. The song is just about winning ridiculously, and it’s high energy.
On “Underdog (The Trilogy),” you said you’re tired of making beats for rappers you’re better than. What do you believe you’re bringing to hip-hop music that’s missing right now?
I feel like there’s no sound I can’t either recreate or make better. Perfect example, on the song “California,” I have stuff like that that no one has ever heard, but I’m singing on the album. I’m rapping. I’m cross fading pop with rap. And even on Rebel Without A Cause, I was sampling A-ha, they’re an 80s group from the rock era, and people don’t even know. The way I flip the sample, I can infuse any music into whatever I want. There’s no limit to what I can do.
The music industry is always evolving and the success of some independent artists today challenges the glory days of record labels. Do you have your eyes set on going major anytime soon?
If I had the choice to, there’s two places where I said I would go, that I feel like I would fit, and that’s of course OVO as an artist and G.O.O.D. Music because they give a lot of creative freedom over there, and I feel like the people that’s over there think alike as far as pushing the culture and pushing music the right way instead of pushing it the wrong way.
Now that the album is here, what can we look forward to next? Any visuals coming soon? Do you plan to tour in the future?
I’m definitely doing some visuals, but I like to let the songs marinate. Basically, the listeners pick what video is coming. If I had the choice, I would do a video to every song, but it’s always smart to do it to the song that’s got the most energy or momentum. And then tours, I definitely want to do that, but I want to do it to where I can really put my artistic talent on how it’s going to look as a show, so something crazy. And yeah, I’m working on more music. I’m doing a tape with the artist Benzi Ayo who’s on “On Go” on the album. We’re almost done with that so that’s a collaborative thing that we’re doing. I’ve been working with Charlie Heat, and I’ve already recorded the first single for the next project so I’m right into the next one.