Analogue Music | McKinley Dixon

McKinley Dixon

By Matt Conner

Hired help on a berry farm isn't exactly typical fodder for a press release, but McKinley Dixon needed some time and space.

In the course of releasing a long-planned triptych of albums, Dixon decided to spend part of the global pandemic by working on a farm. A friend introduced him to a local berry farm in which he could spend his days thinking of "everything he's ever done", a way to slowly and surely come to terms with who has been and who he wants to be. It was ideal timing in the course of his release schedule, a season of personal growth amid the obvious analogies provided by fertile soil around him.

It's been six-plus years since Dixon first dreamed of a trio of works that would both explore various aspects of blackness and hip-hop textures. After Who Taught You To Hate Yourself? (2016) and The Importance of Self-Belief (2018), it wasn't a surprise for anyone in the know to see him emerge with another vulnerable yet innovative work—this time with For My Mama And Anyone Who Look Like Her.

We recently sat down with Dixon to ask more about his year on a farm, what it taught him about his craft and career, and how this whole trio of albums compares to what he originally pictured back in 2015.

Analogue: How much have you been affected by the pandemic in terms of the release? Did you have to adjust?

McKinley Dixon: Not really. I took the year off from music around 2019, just because I was listening to it so much and wanted to learn and think a little more separately and individually from my music. But I kinda could feel that certain songs weren’t done. I wanted to add “protective styles” and something more acoustic on there. I had this dream of writing an acoustic songs, so I always knew there was a little bit more with that. It just happened to be during a pandemic. I was not going to change my direction for anything, y’know?

"I used to be worried about my place in rap music, but as I got older and started to realize that I’m making this for myself and started being with myself more, I became more comfortable and confident in the music I make."

Analogue: There’s a lot for the listener to grapple with here. How much are you thinking about these demands? Or does that imply your hope for the listener?

McKinley: This album was meant for me to process my life and times. Though I do a lot of this through interpersonal reflection. If it does line up with another specifically black person’s ideology and views, if it helps them find language for something or makes them feel more comfortable with themselves, then that is a plus. But ideally it’s just for me to process and move forward and close a chapter of my life sonically and intellectually.

Analogue: Was there any reticence to hold up that sort of processing with the world?

McKinley: It used to be fear. I used to be worried about my place in rap music, but as I got older and started to realize that I’m making this for myself and started being with myself more, I became more comfortable and confident in the music I make. Now I realize it’s for me. I would love for it to help other people, but it’s for me.

Analogue: Can you tell me a bit more about that tangibly when you say you were being with yourself more?

McKinley: Yeah, with Who Taught You To Hate Yourself? And The Importance of Self-Belief, I kind of had this unknowing where I wanted to go and what direction I wanted, though I did have a story. With the making of this third album, there was definitely a lot of ‘Okay, now I have experiences, so how do I put these into a song or make them palatable?’ Also, why don’t I use this album to process?

I think a lot of artists make albums that have a lot of trauma within them that they pull trauma from, but they don’t use the actual album to process. That makes for a sort of stale discography. So with this one, I took a year off from music and in that year, I worked on a farm for a long time. It was eight hours a day either with my own thoughts or listening to music in a field doing farm work.

It became this thing where I thought so much about everything I’d ever done and I would forget it at night and then I’d wake up and do it again with a little bit of what I had from the day before. It definitely became a lot of moments of me being comfortable with what I was talking about and identifying where I’m coming from. It helped a lot. I’m sort of ready to talk about it more easily I think.

Analogue: What was the impulse with the farm?

McKinley: With the pandemic, it was like, ‘Let me learn some more survival tactics.’ I used to listen to my music for hours and hours and hours and I thought, ‘That not cool. Let me stop that and learn some other ways I can learn about community and mediums and stuff.’ I thought I’d work on a farm to learn how that works, to learn how to plant blackberries everywhere. I can’t tell you much about too many things, but I can tell you about blackberries if you want to know. [Laughs]

Analogue: How do you even find a farm like that? Just Google ‘farm jobs’?

McKinley: I was pretty open and talking about it and a friend said, ‘I’ve worked on a farm and they’re always looking for people. You can find the ad on Craigslist.’ I was like, ‘Craigslist? Wow!’ So I went on Craigslist and there it was. They were like, ‘This is the farm. It’s totally legit. I’ve been here for a year. This is an awesome place to work.’

So I thought I’d hop into it. People think you can kind of jump into farms, but if it’s a farm with animals, they’re way more like, ‘You can’t start messing with my horses.’ With this one, it was a berry farm, so they said it was great for me to start picking berries and from there I could learn more if I wanted.

Analogue: Wow, for a full year… what do you learn about yourself in that time?

McKinley: It definitely used to fucking suck. [Laughs] There was a lot of moments of ‘Oh my god, what am I even…?’ When I tell you I would remember everything I’d ever done in my life and then forget it the next day and then come back on the farm and remember it all again, that really is what it was. It definitely fucking sucked, but now it’s cool because I’ve sat with a lot of those thoughts over and over again by force. It sucks but that discomfort allows you to normalize what you’re thinking about and how you approach things. It’s a lot.

'For My Mama And Anyone Who Look Like Her'
'For My Mama And Anyone Who Look Like Her'

Analogue: How does this artistic posture compare now with who you were at first as an artist or songwriter?

McKinley: When I first started to make music, I wasn’t too confident but I did know that I loved the theatrics of certain artists. I really loved the complexities that certain artists put into their songwriting and the vulnerability that comes with writing poetry and jazz. I knew I wanted to have an end-all, be-all album sort of in a Dante-esque trilogy that would be a way for not only the audience but for me to measure my growth. I think a lot of it became a lot of me learning about myself.

Who Taught You To Hate Yourself? revolved around black masculine experiences and it’s a lot more calm beats and it’s very level to the ground when it comes to hip-hop. The Importance of… was more me experiencing with my ideologies and thinking about black femininity fits into all this and how that’s the background of so many things.

For My Mama is where I’m at now, where actually black queerness, black trans-ness, black femininity all encompass this blackness and this narrative. That’s why I’m at this level where sonically I’m so confident in what I’m making musically with all these arrangements. I’ve learned and I’ve traveled and have become well-versed in things now compared to where I was at when I started working on this trilogy. It’s been six years, going on seven. I was on tour for two years straight all over. I visited Mexico and Canada and did a lot of stuff there. It all went into this album.

Analogue: How much of what you pictured before you started these three albums has come to pass?

McKinley: It actually aligned pretty perfectly. I’m pretty meticulous when it comes to these ideas and making these albums and this music. I don’t really spare too much on dreaming. I think I can dream as big as I wanted, but I also know my limitations in a way. But if I really want it and my intentions are there, I can make whatever I want work.

VISIT: McKinley Dixon

Photo: David Muessig