Photos by Juan Garcia-Quintero
Sir Michael Rocks is an enterprising aristocrat in the rap game. While he may not be releasing chart-topping singles or viral music videos, the 27-year-old is not concerned with competing. He is too busy mastering the art of the hustle, strategically finding new ways to monetize his lifestyle—which mostly consists of watching anime, playing “gamer games,” and designing clothing. Of course, music is always at the forefront for this seasoned Chi-Town native.
Just a few months ago, the world was introduced to the digital saga that is Populair. When he gave himself the “Banco Populair” moniker several years ago, it did not immediately foreshadow what would soon become an entirely new dynamic in his style. With this project, Sir Michael Rocks provides a futuristic take on retro digitalia, pairing his cosmic soundscapes with visuals reminiscent of PlayStation video game graphics. This is him in his element, at his best, creating some of the most eccentric material in his entire catalog. To provide further insight on this, Sir Mike himself spoke to us about how he has been refining his style and carving his own lane in the digital world. Populair is the seed, and he is simply nourishing his roots to blossom something beautiful out of it.
Mass Appeal: You recently put Populair into the universe, along with some hints towards another version of the release later down the line. What exactly is the vision?
Sir Michael Rocks: I initially was going to put 16 tracks on the album because I had 16 keepers on deck. By the time I started finishing everything, I decided I wanted to cut it in half. Basically, I wanted to make it a more focused, themed, and not-so-all-over-the-place project. I wanted to make Populair one uniform sound that takes you on a little trip and gives you a complete feel. Short and sweet, to the point, and precise.
I took half of the songs that sounded one way, and put it on the album that’s out now. The other ones that didn’t come out are all on the same vibe as each other, but they don’t sound anything like the first Populair. It’s like night and day. The one that’s out now has more of a darker feel. It’s not necessarily sad, but just more cavernous and futuristic sounding—on some Tokyo robot video game shit. The second one is more on some street shit, with the upbeat bangers, catchy hooks, and more comedy-driven content. It’s a brighter sound.
So then, is this a series?
I was gonna do Populair 1 and 2, but now I’m kinda just on the fence about how I wanna put it out, man. I put out the first one. I got a love-hate type of reception: some people love it and get it, and some don’t really understand why I’m not rapping a certain way; why I’m not doing current rap trends. Mind you, I recorded both at the same time, so there is going to be an underlying vibe that carries through. I’m currently feeling it out to see how I should release this next one—or if I should release it at all. I could start working on something else. It’s an interesting situation.
This album sounds intricate, but in an unforced, natural kind of way. Why do you think it comes off as such?
This is the first project that I put my heart into rather than my mind. I didn’t rethink anything or strategically create every song. I was always the type to write my raps, but for this album, I wanted to try recording more free-form and spontaneously; stuff that only comes from the heart that can’t be written down. I wanted a free-flowing feeling with a spontaneous delivery, and I think it definitely came off that way.
How exactly did you craft these songs?
I would basically create every song on the spot as I recorded them. I’d get in the booth, turn on the beat, and just start writing in my head as the beat loops. After I complete a phrase, I’m able to see where the verse is going a little bit clearer. I would just keep going until I couldn’t go anymore, then cut it and start the next set of bars. It was a crazy recording experience. It was really fun, and I made a lot of beats too. This was the first time I really trusted my production in a while, actually. I made beats for The Cool Kids every now and then, but I never liked anything enough to want to put them out, especially because I had Chuck’s beats. I produced “Raiden,” and about three others on the next Populair. On this one, I produced “In My Mode” and “Quality Time Lapse.”
“In My Mode” is a crazy record. What was up with that flute-sounding breakdown in the beat? It sounds like you busted out the old elementary school recorder. I can dig it.
[Laughs] That is sick; the fucking recorder is tight! I haven’t seen one of those since the fourth grade. But nah, to keep it real, that was just me whistling and I put some effects on it.
Would you call this album experimental?
I wouldn’t say so, man. This is what I really want to do. I don’t want to rap normal; I wanna do my own shit and have my own style. I don’t wanna have to compete with these niggas. I’m a fucking genius at this shit. I’ve been rapping since I was nine, and I know what I’m doing now. So, at least I can say what I’m doing is my own; it doesn’t sound like anything else.
When you have your own style, all you have to do from there is refine it. All of your favorite brands started from a drawing on a piece of paper. Now that I’ve carved my own lane, it makes me feel good about what I’m doing and saying. It’s not an experiment. I feel like everything else that I’ve made before was an experiment, but with this, I can finally see where it’s going and I’m just continuing to refine it.
You didn’t channel any animals for this album?
Man, this is more digital, electronic, and less-organic. This is me trying to figure out what Dreamcast or PlayStation would sound like if it made rap music. I was just trying to put myself in that frame of mind.
All of the visuals, from the Instagram graphics to the music videos, carry a very similar aesthetic. How would you describe that aesthetic?
Nature and technology, man. As far as art direction, I wanted to make graphics and start putting 3-D shit back to the forefront—on some cool shit. It’s that 3-D shit that feels like it’s from a PlayStation game. I wanted to make it sound like a beach, but a 3-D beach. I didn’t want to just take a bunch of different pictures and videos and throw them together. I wanted the direction to be more orchestrated and consistent pertaining to that theme: a mixture of nature and technology, which are the two most important things in the world. When you bring those together, you get crazy shit, man.
You recruited visual director Jimmy Regular, as well as some talented graphic designers, to execute this vision. How did you manage to assemble everyone and keep them on the same page?
It all kinda just fell together in a funny way, man. Aegyokiller, who produced a couple of tracks on the album, started to help me with the 3-D shit. A lot of this 3-D shit comes from games like Second Life, where you can be a photographer inside the game and take pictures of all these cool-ass backdrops. We took that, and just made some tight artwork with it. Then, Jimmy Regular and my boy Jake came in as the visual team and shot the videos. They came from a similar train of thought, so explaining my concept to them was really easy. They understood it and fit right into the program. Everything kinda fell together smoothly. This is the first time I’ve had a consistent creative team for a whole project. We’ve knocked out videos, photos, short clips, covers, and different graphics back-to-back. The creative direction just came from me and these guys putting our heads together and nailing it.
It seems as if the chemistry could not have been better. What was it like working with this team, traveling around, and coming up with crazy ideas?
Man, that shit was just funny, dude. We went to a few places around the world to shoot visuals. I wanted to get out of the United States for a little while, and get some different sceneries and atmospheres that haven’t already been used in videos. I feel like a lot of videos are using similar locations and similar themes, so I took advantage of the fact that I could travel outside of the country, bring my camera crew with me, and set up shoots in different parts of the world to get a different aesthetic. It was just like traveling around the world with your friends, man. We’d be clowning and getting distracted, but we always got the job done. It’s been the best experience I’ve had putting together an album.
Your Youtube Channel captures this in the series of short clips you released to promote Populair. Can you explain what exactly went on during Episode 1.1?
Oh man, this was prior to me getting there. This was in the Dominican Republic, and the crew was there the day before I arrived, just chilling at the hotel. They meet some girl, invited her to the room, then she started stealing liquor out of the mini-bar and tried to put it in her purse. So my boy Jake wasn’t having it. She’s like, [Sir Mike in a hilariously convincing Dominican accent] “No, no, no…this is for my brother.” On some wild shit. So they get into it, then the chick said she was gonna call the police because they had weed, but the homies told her they’ll flush it; they don’t give a fuck. They eventually kicked her out and got the liquor, but that Dominican chick was snappin’. I get back the next day, they tell me the whole story, and I’m like, “Y’all are fucking retarded, man. What’s wrong with you dudes?” Luckily they filmed it, because it made for a good first episode. It was definitely lit.
You also went to Japan for this album. What made you want to go over there?
I just like their culture, man. I like their taste, what they stand for, and what they’ve done. Plus, I have a lot of friends out there. It was good to get back over there recently, especially with the new project. I threw a party for the release and did a couple of gigs while I was in Tokyo. I needed to reconnect with that base because I get a lot of love out there. We shot the “Quality Time Lapse” video out there, and that came out tight. I was just connecting with all of my Tokyo boys because we have these moves we wanna make to bridge that gap between Asia and America in hip hop. I feel like they really want it, but the distance makes it difficult. For a guy like me, it’s a perfect match. It was only right for me to make a trip out there for this album. We can really get shit poppin’ and do cool fashion, music, games, and all types of shit. I actually met a guy who works for a company called Game Freak that did all of the Pokémon games. He’s a young dude, but his family has been in it for a minute. He told me that the game companies over there are also record labels at the same time. It’s crazy. I wanna get more involved with video games and bridge that gap too. When I say video games, I don’t mean NBA 2k, Call Of Duty, and GTA. I’m referring to gamer games like Final Fantasy, Tekken, Street Fighter, and anime games. I’m trying to get more involved in the gamer world, because there are so many people that play these games I enjoy as well.
So you really are about this anime and gaming culture?
Yeah, man. Just this past weekend I was with some anti-anime people that would rather watch Empire. I was like, “Nah, I don’t like that shit. All you’re looking for in that show is the drama. I’d rather watch anime to get that drama.” Anime has the best drama: niggas be getting power, dying, and all types of shit. I really dig the show called Akame ga Kill! on Adult Swim about this chick and these assassins. It’s really tight. I checked the ratings, and it was higher than Empire, Power, and all of these trendy shows. It’s getting millions of views in America, and it’s from Japan. There are tons of people who love this stuff, and they are also looking for music too. They want rap, beats, fashion, and shit like that. There’s a lane for it and nobody is digging into it like that because they aren’t knowledgeable or interested. I’d rather wedge myself within that because it is a part of who I am.
Someone else who comes to mind when thinking about anime and rap is Robb Bank$. You two have tracks together like “Kill Switch,” Robb’s “Practice,” and Nuri’s “Content Censored.” It’s no secret that you moved down to Florida and got busy with him and some of the other affiliated South Florida talents like Pouya and the Buffet Boys. Was that the primary reason for moving, and how would you describe your chemistry with these guys?
First of all, Robb is my boy, man. I’ve met his family a bunch of times; he’s met my family. We’re just two people who are very similar. He’s a good friend to me. It was cool to live down there and record with people who I really like. I was living in Los Angeles before that, and I was kinda in a weird space where I was figuring out what direction I wanted to take with myself. That’s a place where there’s a lot of fake friends. In South Florida, I had real friends who I could play games with, watch animes with, get hoes with, do drugs with, and just do a bunch of fun shit with. It’s hard to find friends like that, so when I did, I made sure to keep them close. So when I made the move to Miami, I started fucking with Pouya and Fat Nick. They lived right up the street from me, so they helped me get settled in because I moved over there by myself. They took real good care of me. Those are like little brothers, and it’s crazy to see them blowing up now.
Then you moved back to the Chi. Why make the move out of sunny South Florida?
Yeah, I’m in Chicago right now. I’ve been here for several months. My old man does real estate, flipping houses. Roughly a year ago, I bought a house with him to renovate, put on the market, and sell. I do that, and this man decides to be a “Tool Time” dad and tell me, “Yeah, I think you should come back here, hire your own team, and learn how to do this yourself.” So basically, I was fathered into going back to Chicago while I was in the middle of living my life in Miami. I was like, “Why don’t you just do it? This is what you do! I want to stay in Miami!” He was like, “No, I really think you should get this experience—plus your lease is up.” I was like, “O-fucking-kay, dad. Whatever, dude.” I ended up coming back to fix up the house and all that. It’s cool to be back, though; I like my hometown. Shoutout to my old man on that one. It’s all good, because I do know how to flip houses now. I would rather be in Miami right now, trust me.
Speaking of Chicago, you brought in some footwork influence to Populair, correct?
Yeah, definitely. It was something I grew up with. DJ Slugo, DJ Rashad, DJ Chip, and DJ Nate are all guys who were big when I was coming up in Chicago, man. It was really big on the scene, and I always liked the sound a lot. I feel like it’s been underutilized, especially by Chicago rappers. So I just wanna lock into it, make it more bangin’, and make it more of a staple in my sound. It’s a nice post-trap transition because it’s hard as hell, it’s ratchet, but there are actually good beats.
Can you give some background on your clothing line, Exotic Gourmet?
Exotic Gourmet is an idea I had a little while ago, man. I basically wanted to open up a store where I can just make whatever I come up with and sell it. I have different clothing ideas all of the time, so this was the perfect platform. We have two graphic designers, my boy who does manufacturing, and me. It’s a 4-man team. “Gourmet” means that it is professionally crafted by seasoned connoisseurs; “Exotic” means that it’s rare and unusual. That is the brand, to me. I just cook up whatever I want to cook up, and I don’t really have any qualms towards using things that I know, like anime. We’ve just been getting bigger and better. It’s only been about a year, and shit has been good. Well-known people have picked it up, and that’s always a good look. Go check that out on the Internets; we always have shit popping off.
You are certainly doing something different and it’s refreshing to see that. To close out with something the fans are probably curious about, what is your personal top five video game franchises of all time?
Thanks, dude. Tekken is a very technically cool video game, so I have to put that in there first. Final Fantasy has to be in there as well. Kingdom Hearts is classic. Super Smash Bros. took countless hours out of my life, whether it’s N64 or Wii. Last but not least, I have to throw in Grand Theft Auto. They bridge the gap between gamers and non-gamers. Yeah, man, I’m carving this lane over here. I hope pop culture catches up to where it will be accepted to like this kind of stuff.