Lethal doses

Mac Lethal attacks 'emo rap', bad show promoters and the ignorant MCs who threaten an American art form

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Forget about his skills on the microphone: Spend five minutes talking with Mac Lethal, and you'll understand why the Kansas City-bred rapper is quickly becoming one of the hottest up-and-coming commodities in underground hip-hop.

The feisty rapper converses with the same intensity he brings to the stage: an all-eyes-on-me confidence that's equal parts angel and imp. When he's not verbally castrating George W. Bush, he's waxing eloquently on lost love or the failures of the nation's school system. In short, Lethal does best what his profession requires most: having something to say.

Last month, Spin magazine came up with a name for rappers like Lethal: "Emo Rap." The article lumped Lethal in with a "new breed" of rappers -- including Slug (of Atmosphere), Aesop Rock and Sage Francis -- who are ushering out the thuggish bravado of '90s rap and replacing it with insecurity-laden confessionals that focused on the darkest and most private human emotions.

All of which means diddly squat to Lethal.

"I don't get emo," he said. "I thought music was SUPPOSED to be emotional, you know? I think what they expect from all white rappers is to kind of fit that Eminem persona: the angry white teenage kid. And since someone's taking a different approach to it, and they're obviously white, like Slug is or Aesop is, and they're not taking the violent, angry 'I-hate-my-mother' approach to it, then it's gotta be 'emotional' because it lacks any sort of negative energy.

Past Event

Sage Francis / Mac Lethal / Grand Buffet

  • Monday, March 8, 2004, 8 p.m.
  • Granada, 1020 Mass., Lawrence
  • All ages / $10 - $11

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"God forbid you be different without being labeled something."

Pass the ammo
As he crosses the country with the boldly dubbed "Fuck Clear Channel Tour" -- which also features Sage Francis, Non Prophets and Grand Buffet -- Lethal is uncovering plenty of new ammunition for his protest-packed rhymes. On this sunny Arizona afternoon, he's peeved at a bonehead show promoter who spoiled the Phoenix show by inciting women to bare their breasts in exchange for free tickets.

"The concept of this tour is kind of to defy everything that the media tries to get people to feed into, like sexual insecurity," he said. "This guy was obviously just some dipshit that had never gotten laid in his life unless he was in Vegas and paid for it."

To avenge the offensive promoter's actions (and also to rest his voice), Francis has canceled the Tucson show, allowing Lethal time off to catch a screening of "The Passion of the Christ." The day off provides a welcome break from the 40-date nose-to-the-grindstone routine, which Lethal describes as "show, hotel, wake up, drive and then do it all over again."

Sore throats and bacterial infections aside, you won't hear Lethal complaining -- he's living his hip-hop dream and savoring every minute of it. But that's not to say he wouldn't like to change a few things about being the road.

"We're trying to demand more respect for artists," he said. "It's becoming a pain in the ass for a lot of promoters, but in a sense that's kind of the concept of this tour ... There's so much dirt that goes on behind the scenes and behind the curtains of this industry and it's bullshit and we want to defy that."

The pairing of Francis -- a former slam poet who hooked up with the Anticon label for his debut album "Personal Journals" -- and Lethal is an outgrowth of a friendship that began at Scribble Jam 2001 in Cincinnati, when the two competed against dozens of other rappers from across the country in the venerated MC battle. Neither won that year (Francis had won in 2000), but Francis returned the next year as a judge to see Lethal capture the title.

Francis was so impressed with Lethal's skills that he bought him a Greyhound ticket to share the stage at a show in Boston last April. After months of relentless pestering, Lethal convinced Francis to take him on the road.

"It's just incredible to watch how he handles his own business," Lethal said. "He's completely independent ... He's the tour manager; he's the main performer on stage an hour-and-a-half every night; he handles all of his funds and merchandise, and I basically sit here and make sure nobody does anything to piss him off."

Lethal weapons
Winning Scribble Jam 2002 afforded Lethal a cornucopia of free promotion and helped ensure healthy, if erratic, crowds when he tours.

"It's almost like I cheated everybody else," he said. "I basically got to bypass a couple years of (touring and promoting records) just by winning a battle ... I'm still gonna have to do this DIY campaign with my own music to promote myself, but the name is already in people's ears."

Winning the Scribble Jam title has had its downsides as well, he said.

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Special to the Journal-World

Mac Lethal performs in front of thousands of hip-hop fans at 2002's SPLASH! Festival in Germany. He was invited to appear there after organizers heard his political-themed song, "Pass the Ammo."

"People come to the shows wanting to see me freestyle or battle," he said. "I'm not freestyling at any of the shows and I'm not battling because I want to prove that there's so much more to me than that."

Instead, Lethal is focusing on material from his two full-length albums -- "The Love Potion Collection" (2003) and "Men Are From Mars, Porn Stars Are From Earth" (2001) -- and a self-released EP called "The Nine Situations" that he recorded with Archetype's Nezbeat.

Lethal's performances are calculated experiments in performance art, juggling grade-school crassness with soul-searching lyricism. One minute he'll have the whole crowd singing "My Mom Izza Thug" ("She'll choke my friends if they call too late/And pistol-whip my girlfriend with a .38"), and the next minute he'll perform the 9/11-inspired "Midnight In Manhattan" ("Waiting for the snow to fall a cloudy angel wept/And while the world was frenzied, by my fate I overslept").

"It's so apparent that I contradict myself all the time, and I'm very proud of it," he said. "That's either going to build (my career), and people are going to appreciate it, or people are going to despise me for it. That's where I put the blindfold on and start shooting."

Where the wild things are
Though he's often mistaken for a Lawrence artist on account of his frequent local performances, Mac still considers himself a Kansas Citian.



"I've had my heart broken by girls that live in Lawrence; I have best friends that live in Lawrence, but I am from Kansas City," he said. "But you know, I got a lot of love for Lawrence. And pretty soon, if Christians don't stop over-breeding, Lawrence and Kansas City are going to meet ... so they can call me a Lawrence rapper, because one day everybody that's a Lawrence rapper is going to be a Kansas City rapper anyway."

While the KC scene afforded Lethal his first opportunities to perform, he developed his passion for hip-hop while bouncing around schools from Olathe to Boonville, Miss.

"I basically used school as a vehicle to sit there and write," he said. "If I was going to stay home, I wasn't going to write, I was going to sleep. But since I had to go to school, I at least got to see girls and write."

Lethal's distaste for the educational system led him to drop out at age 17, a decision he still considers the best thing he's ever done in his life.

"It wasn't like I was a troublemaker ... I just questioned the system," he said. "We'd be learning about Charlemagne and I'd be going, well why do we have to learn about Charlemagne, why can't we learn about Martin Luther King? I'd sit there and try to question the teacher's motives, and they never had any good answers for me so I would get in arguments with them."

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Mac (right) shortly after winning Scribble Jam 2002.

When he walked out of school that fateful day, Lethal didn't have any ambition to write and record music. Instead, his mind was consumed with honing his freestyle technique; a skill he'd been obsessively honing since grade school.

Lethal still recalls the first time he heard someone freestyle.

"I immediately went home and I would sit there and try to rap and I couldn't ... nothing would come out. I couldn't rhyme words -- I was scared of the beat," he said. "So I sat there in my basement for hours studying other rappers and finding all types of tapes of freestyling, rapping, improv comedy even, and just paying attention to how people did it, and I would steal everybody's style."

Soon, Lethal was destroying the competition in Lawrence and KC, including many of the same people who taught him the craft.

"I've done something to my brain where I can see rhymes like four or five lines before I say it, so when I say a rhyme, I thought of it 20 seconds ago," he said. "You could kill my mother before I'll let you embarrass me on the microphone."

More to life
Though Lethal runs with a crowd of independent-minded rappers like Francis and Slug, he expresses nothing but respect toward mainstream artists like Jay-Z and Nas.

And yes, he likes Eminem, too.

"Besides all the image and besides all the things that help him sell records ... he is nothing but a rap music nerd. He just listens to rap and raps, and that's all he wants to do, and I relate to that -- this is the only thing I want to do," he said. "If you're still making Eminem comparisons to white rappers then you've obviously been sleeping for the past few years, because they're everywhere."

Regardless of whether Lethal breaks through to the mainstream, he seems content to spread his message to as many people as will listen.

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Phil Cauthon / lawrence.com

"I don't think it's ever changed ... I still do it like I did when I was a kid," he said. "On this tour, for example, me and Sage will sit there in the van and he'll rhyme two lines and then I'll just rhyme two lines -- we're still like little kids about it."

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