I return from class to find Mike Jones sitting in my dorm room at Sarah Lawrence College. He’s on my bed, with his girlfriend’s wrist in one hand and half a cup of hot chocolate in the other. The other half of the hot chocolate is on my floor.
“You gon’ need a towel,” Mike says to me.
At some point earlier that morning he went to a deli and bought three yellow Gatorades, deodorant, and the hot chocolate, then made his way back into my building without a key.
As I scrub the floor, he adjusts his du-rag in the mirror and asks if I can find him weed. He's had a long night.
Rewind to 11 PM the previous evening. I'm DJing for a hundred college peers. Mike Jones is supposed to perform for them in an hour and he's not in the building. Or the state. His flight, due to arrive at 9, is delayed on the tarmac in Houston. Shouts of "WHO" become whispers of "where" amongst the audience. I hold out hope that he'll make it until it's clear that he won't, and send the confused crowd home.
It’s nearly 4:30 AM when Mike climbs from the backseat of a cab onto the pavement in front of my dorm. His face is barely visible behind a black hood, du-rag, and oversize shades. The rumors are true—he's lost a lot of weight. The wiry, compact man in front of me seems to have sprung fully formed from the chest of the Mike Jones I remember—"It's just from getting on the treadmill, man," he’ll tell me later. He's brought his girlfriend, Vivica. She's a few years younger than him, aggressively tan, with even bigger shades and a True Religion t-shirt. Too late to book a hotel, I put them to sleep in my room. Despite the fact that I basically just wasted 1/12th of some kid’s tuition on paying Mike Jones to sit in an airport, I can't help feeling a sense of accomplishment. This is the story of how I took $5,000 of someone else’s money and used it to buy a Mike Jones concert.
Illustration by Jessica Butler
You can tell a lot about a civilization from the trajectory of its legends. This hits me as I check my email and see a note my school's administration letting me know of their plans to rescind Mike's $5,000 check because he didn’t end up playing. Considering that he’d bought his flight out-of-pocket I couldn’t let that happen. You might be wondering why an artist who once dropped a cool million on a chain (subsequently stolen by his friends) now plays for used car money. The truth is that in the free media age there is no retirement, only a depreciation of market value. Many of the stars of Mike’s generation now work the nostalgia circuit, pumping out free mixtapes and hoping for their Juicy J moment. My demographic came of age right as the Dirty South peaked commercially in the mid-2000’s. We got our first erections clumsily grinding to “Laffy Taffy,” “Sittin Sideways,” “Ridin’ Dirty” etc. Now we’re in college, and the guys who made these songs offer a very real point of access to our youth.
It’s not like guys like Mike are complaining about a second shot on the nostalgia circuit, either. "Man, the last two, three years have been love between me and colleges. We still do hood shows, like club shows. But it's minor compared to the colleges. It's grown. We used to play a lot of hood shows, but now its way more colleges."
This show was about more than just the past for me. It was the culmination of four years I’ve spent enmeshed in the school’s music scene, maneuvering through Kafka-esque budget committees and Student Activity Boards with the sole intent of booking rap shows on campus. I’ve succeeded, sometimes—most notably, I booked a Main Attrakionz show so wild that it inspired Mondre M.A.N.’s immortal (to me, at least) line, “Sarah Lawrence College up in Yonkers, they go Yonkers” from Main Attrakionz’ “Superstitious ft. Gucci Mane.” It’s been an uphill battle, though. Campus bands exclusively play tepid garage rock and twee-folk, which suits most of the student body fine. Once a destination for art-damaged, grade-challenged individuals, Sarah Lawrence culture now rests in the hands of the unwashed, overachieving and under-thinking Buzzfeed hordes. Think a campus full of kids who think Doc Martens, Dr. Who gifs, Redditors, a class called “Steampunk Physics,” Ginsberg tattoos, a Harlem Shake video in the dining hall, Jennifer Lawrence quotes, Haim, Jezebel, Kurt Vile, and doge are all totally rad and original. Rap doesn’t register beyond “LOL, Nelly!” or, “Dope dude, that hip-hop beat has a jazz sample!” I promised myself at the beginning of the year that I wouldn’t go gently into this memetic night. I’d rage against the sameness of the light. I would book a famous rapper at Sarah Lawrence College.
In 2011, when I booked Main Attrakionz, I had a substantial booking fund at my disposal. I managed to lose that position last semester in a streaking incident, leaving me with no recourse than to run for student senate. I won (unopposed) and set to work emailing everyone imaginable. Mystikal, Cam’ron, Trina, Chingy, all were tantalizingly out of range. Raekwon was down, until his agent asked me to mandate that everyone going into the venue buy his new single on iTunes. With $5,000 of the school’s budget budget burning a hole in my pocket I grew frantic. Eventually, it came—a response from an artist with name recognition, the right vibe, and a tenuous enough recent career for my budget. When I think about, Mike Jones might be the only artist who fits all three categories, and he only does so because he got everyone to remember his name.
Say what you will about Mike Jones but you can’t fault the stickiness of his hooks. In the trailer for The American Dream, a 2007 straight-to-DVD film about Mike Jones' life, his grandmother gives him advice: "Keep saying your name over and over. They might get sick of hearing it, but they'll never forget it." It's true. Yell “Who?” at any millennial and see what happens. They will respond with, “Mike Jones!” Not to mention the phone number—I can name more digits of a number that’s been dead for five years than I can active Supreme Court justices.
Before he was a rapper, Mike Jones was a writer. He tells me about afternoons in middle school spent with his diary—“I was always into writing. From stories, to just what I'm thinking. I used to try to draw. But I just never got into it. But writing. I used to, always. And when you’re young, you can write.” Then came basketball, briefly, followed by a choice. “When I couldn't play basketball no more, I knew I had to do something. I dropped out in '99. I start hustling. And then, all right. My grandmother, with the realness—‘Okay, nigga. What you going to do?’ So, let me see what I'm going to do with this music.”
Besides raising him while his single mom held down several jobs, his grandmother helped him through early career obstacles. “I walked to the DJ like a normal person's supposed to do. ‘Hey. What's up DJ? Check this out.’ He comes like, ‘Who is you?’ I'm like, ‘Mike Jones, man.’ ‘Who?’ I'm like, ‘Mike Jones, man.’ So that night, didn't succeed. You see what I'm saying. Didn't go the normal route. Then went back home. My grandma was always there. We would talk. ‘Don't worry about that, Mike Jones, you a Jones, nigga.’ Soon they'll be like, ‘Who is Mike Jones, nigga?’”
Mike flipped rejection into a triumphant adlib.
“My grandma told me to go to the strippers with my music. Next thing you know, they coming to the DJ, ‘Play this.’ He had to play it. She was my biggest inspiration before she died. She died 2003, April. That's why I was trying to drop every album around April.Who is Mike Jones? April 19th, 2005. She died the 14th.”
Always one for self-reference, Mike's Twitter handle reads: "Where Is Mike Jones?” There's truth to the joke. Last year Slim Thug stated in an interview with BET that he hadn't seen Mike Jones in years. "The last time I spoke to him, I can’t even remember. I’d love to kick it with him and for him to come out and rep with us. I wish he never would’ve disappeared. I think whatever he’s going through that made him feel like he had to disappear, I think he needs to shake that shit and come back to the city." Other Houston legends have been less kind—in 2008, Trae The Truth punched Mike Jones at the Ozone awards, claiming he’d abandoned his city. In 2010, Paul Wall addressed the attack, stating that "Mike Jones had it coming….he lied to a lot of people, he turned his back on a lot of people, he burned a lot of bridges….In his mind, he's the victim and he never did anything wrong to anybody."
Mike leans back and exhales deeply when I ask about his career obstacles over the last decade. "Man. It was crazy. Shit. I mean, when “Still Tippin’” blew up, it brought a different type of hate, like hate politically. Hate in the game. Example, "I'm n Luv Wit A Stripper." Song blew up. A year later, lawsuit from the producer who made the track. 5 million ringtones... Money froze. Nothing moves until we get this handled. The producer sued Pain. Sued me. Sued everybody that was associated with what's going on. So no music could come out. No nothing. I was still doing shows. Doing my thing. Traveling. Going here. Going there. Still fighting cases. Still doing regular shit. But just learning I can't be as big as I was at that time because of limbo. You're on freeze. You can't do nothing. You're going to still go do your stuff in the family. In the circle. But there's a lot of politics."
Mike Jones’ debut album Who Is Mike Jones? peaked at #3 on the overall pop charts and #1 on the hip-hop charts. His next release, the American Dream EP, peaked at #183 on the pop charts and #10 on the hip-hop charts. His second full album The Voice peaked at #12 on the pop charts and #2 on the R&B charts. His third album Where Is Mike Jones? has yet to be released.
Crisis looms as I read over the school’s check-cancellation threat. Sarah Lawrence only has two venues zoned for shows and both were booked that night. Enter TL, Mike's manager, who'd arrived early the day before from Atlanta. TL occupies six feet and sixty-odd years of the most seasoned industry veteran imaginable. He’s an institution of one, with a face time might as well give up on trying to change. “We’ll make it happen,” he assured me, mashing his palms together Birdmannishly. “There’s always a way, with colleges.” TL has managed rappers for twenty years. He’s been everywhere, knows everyone, and he drops fascinating details about his life like a pigeon wrestling with a baguette. As we trudge across campus to confront the administration he reminisces over previous visits to the area. "Yonkers, huh? Last time I was here was with DMX and the Ruff Ryders. I couldn’t get a real sense of the neighborhood because everybody was scared of us." He used to manage Swizz Beats, for whom he narrowly escaped injury while sourcing a violent pitbull in Miami. We stop by the bank; he tells me how the banker, seeing his balance, suspected him of illicit finances. “It’s not mine,” he recalls telling her, smirking. “I’m just holding royalties that Trillville earned from a Euro soccer league playing their song.” Behind every good tour is a good manager; behind every screwed up tour is a great one.
With TL rubbing his hands confidently at my side, I finesse the administration into granting Mike a 30-minute set that night. He'd be able to keep his check. The catch—the venue would only fit 50 people. "He won't mind," says TL, whipping out his phone to show me videos of Mike performing in grimy frat houses, walls covered in garbage bags in the inevitable event of vomit. "Anywhere he goes he can turn it up." As we're walking back from the office he fields a call from his charge, inquiring after weed. "Best we pick some up," he tells me. "Mike gon' want to smoke."
Ten minutes later Mike Jones and I sit across a table from each other in my friend’s living room. Vivica leans back in her chair, draping her feet over his legs. Her shades remain on. Mike asks for a cup of ice, pours a yellow Gatorade over it, and sparks a blunt. Guarded before, his charisma seems to buoy with every exhalation. I ask him to record a video announcing the show. He throws on shades and speaks smoothly into my photobooth—”What up, it’s ya boy, Mike Jones. Who? Mike Jones. Ice Age entertainment. The show’s at 11:30, be there. We in the building, Sarah College, let’s go.” Close enough.
With hours to kill I have to get a few burning questions off my chest—namely, what’s up with the phone number?
“I was giving out the number because people were booking fake shows. Somebody can book you and say, ‘We got this person coming in,’ you get the money, and that artist never shows. Because he never knew nothing about it. Let me come up with a number where the fans can hit me up—'Hey Mike. I heard you got a show in Detroit man.’ ‘No. Man, I'm in Texas. I ain't heard about that. You better call the radio station.’ And we was communicating. And then it just grew to everybody just, ‘Oh I want to call his number,’ which was cool. It grew to be 281-330-8004."
A few hours later my friend and I pull up outside of Mike’s hotel to pick him up for the show. His head briefly appears through the window before ducking back inside. Mike, TL and Vivica slide into the car a few minutes later. "When I first saw you outside my window, I thought you was some hoes," he tells us.
In the car, I asks Mike where he’d play if he could play a show anywhere in the world as long as it's more than 500 years ago. He pauses, considering the question like a ritual koan. Eventually he answered with a question of his own— “Crazy. If you had the chance, where would you go?” I told him that I wouldn’t mind doing a show in the Jurassic period. Mike peered at me intently. “Okay, you be dealing with dangers around you. But let me ask you this question. Because I don't knock nobody. You do it. That's love. But if dinosaurs was living today, how would you feel? And you walk outside and you see about three, four of them over there. How would you feel today seeing them live? Be real.” He’s deadly serious. Was this a test? “Well, I guess I wouldn’t be trying to do any rap shows. I’d have other things on my mind.” Mike looks at me for a few more seconds before bursting out laughing. “Nothing but love, man.”
We enter the venue just as a line begins forming in the rain. Word had spread fast. True to their word security only let in 50 people, leaving dozens outside. The room’s a essentially tunnel underneath the cafeteria—within minutes condensation from the sheer humanity in the room clings to the concrete walls. Mike stepps on stage to screams. He’s wearing the same black hoodie, du-rag and shades as the night before. For a few precarious moments TL fumbls with the laptop—I jump behind the stage and show him how to start the music with the spacebar, and it’s on. Two months of senate meetings, budget meetings, calls with booking agents—liquidated in a flood of weaponized knees and elbows. Mike started off with his five big hits—“Back Then,” “My 64,” “Mr. Jones” “Flossin’” and, of course, “Still Tippin’.” His appearance may have changed but Mike’s voice is the exact same. He paces back and forth, neither too slow or too fast. His right hand grasps the mic while the left keeps time, muscle-memory in effect. A female friend tried backing it up on Mike—he neither resisted nor encouraged her, just kept pacing and rapping.
I often feel strange when I consider that in 2014 I could pay to see a Beatle perform live. Watching Mike Jones rap evokes a similarly uncanny sense of misplaced time. My mind identifies these songs with 2006, pumped through the rented sound systems at Bar Mitzvah parties week after week. Now here I was, watching them performed from four feet away. Lyrics I forgot I’d ever known in the first place came rushing through my subcortex. Not to go all undergrad on you, but linear time is essentially a joke that your memory and your perception tell each other—unsettle either one and the whole thing starts losing focus. My point is that for the duration of Mike Jones set I didn’t care that one of the speaker stacks came unplugged, cutting out sound from the left side, or that my knees slammed against the stage at the mercy of the crowd—I was somewhere else. There it was, finally, the call to prayer—“281-330...” There’s no escape. With one voice, we scream “..8004.”
Mike sticks around after the show for half an hour, taking photos with everyone who asks. “I appreciate you” he says, to each, and you can tell he means it. One burgeoning student magician insisted on showing Mike a magic trick in which he seemed to pull a piece of string from his eye. “I appreciate you,” remarked Mike, followed by an almost inaudible muttering of, “That’s crazy.”
On Sunday, Mike texts me again. He's decided to stay in the city all weekend because a water main in his house in Houston froze. He wants to know if I can arrange for him to get some studio time in the city. A few hours later I'm sitting in a small room in Greenpoint, watching him listen to beats. Vivica sits impassively behind her shades. I ask her if she’s in this position often. “All the time,” she says.
TL looms over the mixing board, rubbing his hands together once again. Eventually he manifests a weed dealer, who brings his brother. The brother's an up-and-coming rapper and asks Mike for advice. Mike smiles, leaning forward. "The only thing I can tell you is take it slow. When I first came up I was fast, all about the money. Then the labels fucked me over. I'm still here, man. Take it slow."
Ezra Marcus has "Still Tippin'" tattooed on his upper left thigh. He's on Twitter - @ezra_marc
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