When the opportunity arose to interview Mika ”Prophet” Guillory, the MC for the breakthrough rock/rap collective 7Lions, I suddenly felt like Clint Eastwood shooing young hooligans off his lawn in Gran Torino. Am I too old to interview someone on the front lines of the hip/hop community? My love affair with rap began with Blondie and the Sugarhill Gang and ended soon after de la soul’s masterpiece 3 Feet High & Rising. What could we possibly have to talk about?
And then I heard 7Lions massive debut single Born 2 Run…[youtube id=”eehHQBKCJbA” width=”600″ height=”350″]
Suddenly, I couldn’t wait to talk to him. For a half hour, we talked about his rise from the Bay Area streets to Sunset Blvd. Along the way, we tackle the hot button issues that turned me off from hip/hop for the past 20 years, everything from Gangsta Rap to the N-word flap.
Artist bios always make it look so easy. ”I was born, moved to LA, got signed, the rest is history.” Since your story is still rapidly unfolding, let’s flip back to the first chapter.
I grew up in the Hunters Point neighborhood in southeastern San Francisco. My dad was a rock promoter and multi-instrumentalist from the Monterey Pop scene. I listened to all types of music as a kid and eventually fell in with the Bay Area rap community that included Mac Dre and E-40. I sold my first mixtape, produced by Deep H2oz (deep waters), out of the trunk of a Cadillac while designing my own clothing line. I really wanted to break through the glass ceiling but there’s only so much you can do in the Bay Area. Los Angeles, on the other hand, is Shangri-la — I wanted a taste of it. So I moved there and started meeting people who could teach me how the industry really works. I got a big break with an invitation to join the Von Dutch Artist in Residence program. It was there that I met Fulmer and it all took off.
Forrest Fulmer, the guitarist and singer of 7Lions…
He had his own group called Omission. I would jump up and freestyle with them. Forrest is 6-foot 7 and has these gritty Chris Cornell style vocals; those shows sketched out the hybrid that would later become 7Lions.
Did the Linkin Park comparisons dog you or propel you forward?
Obviously Linkin Park and Rage Against the Machine are influences, but we’re doing something different.
My impression, Linkin Park aims for the mosh pit while 7Lions aims for the dance floor.
Producer/Keyboardist Morgan Taylor Reid has a great pop sensibility. The first track we wrote, “Born 2 Run,” is a huge pop record and exactly the sound we were going for. The rest of the band melded together quick, Tony Tommasi on Drums, Will Carpenter on lead guitar — we found our bassist, Dan Hange, on Craigslist.
Now how did producer RedOne (Lady Gaga, Britney Spears) fall into the mix (quite literally)?
I met RedOne a while back; he’s a great mentor. He flipped when he heard the first incarnation of the band, Terra Incognita, as we gigged around town. The man’s not afraid of new sounds. He’s Moroccan, grew up in Sweden and played in rock bands. He came to the studio, grabbed a guitar and started knocking out chord progressions. He really understood what we were trying to do and became a big sponsor of the band. The day we met Red, 7Lions was officially born.
So you get signed to his 2101 Records, which is connected to a major (Universal), and head into the studio. As the former kid selling hardcore rap out of his Caddy, did you have any hesitations that the group was going in this big, arena pop direction?
7Lions is a tribute to our creative relationship with RedOne — the band and him vibing on each other — understanding the balance of dance and rap that we wanted and not fucking it up. Sometimes you have something that’s really organic and then someone tries to add sugar to it, then some flour — and before too long, you ruin the flavor. All Red asked us was, ”how do you think I can help you make it better?”
The stellar single is no one-off fluke; the EP truly captures lightning in a bottle. With so many musicians, how do the songs come together?
It’s crazy — for this EP Morgan said let’s come up with something fresh and started grinding some chord progressions; everyone else felt it, joined in and boom — the songs developed. Lyrically, not sure what came first — the raps or the chorus. We were trying to capture the struggle of the band: leaving family, dedicating everything to our craft. The record is about overcoming obstacles — there is no lose, there is no fail — we drew on pain and sacrifice and created an uplifting sound.
Born 2 Run is this generation’s ”Eye of the Tiger” — or better yet ”Born to Run” of the Springsteen variety…
Athletes were the first to embrace it, I heard about a cancer survivor who listened while running 100 miles. Kids play it on the field, the 49’ers and the Ravens play it during their pre-game; NASCAR and ESPN too, its been everywhere.
It even pushed the LA Kings over the edge in their quest for the Stanley Cup.
98.7-FM introduced it to them. We changed up some verses, it came out and they rolled to the Stanley; that solidified our roots in Los Angeles. It felt good to be part of that. I grew up knowing the LA Kings’ hat before I knew anything about the team behind the logo — and then came Gretzy and the squad; I became a huge fan. So to see them win the Cup with our song as their theme was incredible.
So great, they love you in LA; to break through on a national or international scale, you’re gonna have to hit the road to play gigs, visit radio, etc.
Despite 2101’s connections and distribution, it’s still an independent label, so we’re operating in our own realm. We’re doing the agency dance right now; Red’s helping us to plan a touring strategy. We’d love to open for Linkin Park or 311 of course, but we could also go out with a wide range of acts such as M83, the Lumineers or Twin Shadow. God bless the Black Keys for breaking through after years of playing the clubs, they worked hard, climbing that ladder tooth and nail. We’ll do the same, on our own path.
7Lions really has a crossover sound; fitting as naturally on KROQ as it would KEXP, KIIS-FM or the top hip/hop stations.
The sound is a gift and a curse; people have a certain comfort level putting things in jars — that’s why we still have genres. I’m a big proponent of our generation smashing these barriers down — your iPod, my iPod, my little brother’s iPod may have any mix of Tupac, Sebastian Bach, Leona Lewis, Lana Del Rey, Elvis — there’s so many ways where we combine everything instead of sticking into a particular lane.
7Lions songs like Emergency, One Man Symphony and One More Minute share a common theme of trying get the girl back; did those tracks start out as heartbreak from someone in the band?
From a songwriting perspective, love, heartache, pain and survival are among the most powerful topics you can address. They were things we were going thru at the time, but the songwriting process turned the pain into a tribal rallying cry. ”One More Time” is about telling the woman you love the most that you made the biggest mistake of your life; ”Emergency” is about realizing how dangerously close to the edge you stand. ”One More Time” is our gigantic power ballad and ”One Man Symphony” is about the importance of valuing the women in your life — be it your wife, your daughter, your best friend…
The pop sound you’ve embraced will surely attract younger listeners, does that put any pressure on you to be a role model?
As an underground MC, I want to show the kids what’s real, to speak from the heart and not sacrifice who I am. If I want to paint a house on fire, I’ll paint a house on fire. Sure there’s a responsibility to be mindful of your audience. I serve on the leadership counsel of A Place Called Home in South Central Los Angeles — a youth haven that’s very dear to my heart. It’s there that I connect with the youth and then share their stories with the world.
On your Darkroom mixtape the track ”No Wings” talks about marijuana. Are you for legalization?
I first blew a joint at 13. It’s not something I’d advocate for everyone; but it’s part of life. My father is a cancer survivor; he had multiple issues including renal kidney cancer; pot helped him cope. I think it’s much better than taking 800 mg of ibuprofen that’ll cause liver damage.
Speaking of cancers, Romney is trying in vain to sway the black vote and got booed by the NAACP. ”Born 2 Run,” on the other hand, would make the ultimate theme song for Obama.
Romney scares the hell out of me, so does Paul Ryan — I’ll do anything I can do, if I can get B2R behind the President, that would be awesome — like when Common sang at the White House.
Another never-ending hot button issue is the use of the N-word in rap. When I was in LA, I attended a comedy summit hosted by D.L. Hughley where it was debated as free speech on one side and the hate speech on the other. What’s the difference between keeping it real and having a positive influence on youth?
There are two perspectives I consider when it comes to this word — who I am and who I want to be. I’m from a hood where the N-word is part of our native tongue — it’s how my friends talked — it’s how my family talked. None of this makes it acceptable but it’s part of my vocab.
What about referring to women as bitches and ho’s? Most rap videos these days reduce women to gyrating poolside sex objects.
I would never say it’s OK to call a girl that — it’s disrespectful. B-words, N-words, 7Lions is all about taking a much more positive path.
Speaking of controversy — what’s your take on AutoTune?
I have no issue with pitch correction software, it’s a tool and an innovation — no different than when Les Paul introduced his guitar. It’s all about how you use it. Some DJs program their sets on a Mac and some still spin vinyl. I’m not a singer, so it gives me the ability to go outside my range — it’s fun to experiment with new sounds, to use voice as a tool. AutoTune gives people opportunities to create a more polished sound — if you don’t like it, don’t use it. It was around a long time before T-Pain tweaked a few settings and brought it to the forefront. Jay Z responded with a dope record. There will be plenty more tools in the next decade that will also scare the shit out of some people. Once the hovercraft comes along, people will miss wheels.
What’s next for you and 7Lions?
I’m working with some other 2101 artists like Mohombi, Havana Brown and Porcelain Black. 7Lions is touring and has a full length album in the works — we will leave no stone unturned.
Any advice for young artists with trunks full of mixtapes?
Red said it best, in this industry, you gotta stay on top of everything yourself: A&R, design, street team, legal, accounting — the giant labels fell and left a new musical landscape. If you’re looking to get signed, writing your own songs is just the beginning. Direct and post your own videos, stencil your logo on dumpsters, print your own flyers. I’m willing to work harder and longer than the next guy to make it happen.
The 5-track 7Lions Born 2 Run EP is on sale for only $3.99 for a limited time, exclusively at iTunes. To whet your appetite, here is a bonus remix, yours as a free download for a very limited time: