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McKinley! Dixon! Interview!?

A man in a black bandanna and pink corduroy jacket stands outside of a radio station.
Lucius Pham
/
IPR
McKinley Dixon's upcoming album Beloved! Paradise! Jazz!? debuts June 2, on City Slang Records.

Success to McKinley Dixon feels like companionship. He entreats you not only to listen, but to join.

Beginning with a recitation of Toni Morrison’s Jazz by poet and music writer Hanif Abdurraqib, Chicago-based rapper-songwriter McKinley Dixon’s newest album Beloved! Paradise! Jazz!? takes listeners on a journey through longing and familial bonds, with little regard for the laws governing time and space. With two EPs and three full-length albums under his belt, Dixon's fourth, due June 2 on City Slang Records, goes deeper: boasting features from Ms. Jaylin Brown, Angélica Garcia and Des Moines' Teller Bank$.

“I think an artist is really good when," says Dixon, "... You can take what they're saying, and not only put... you either put yourself in it, or you have them and you're watching. And I think what I'm trying to do is have somebody sitting right next to me as we do this journey. And that's the in-between, that's what I'm trying to work on."

Dixon sat down with IPR's Lucius Pham in Iowa City during Mission Creek Festival weekend to discuss his new record, touring with Tank and the Bangas, asking Dr. Cornel West for a verse and remembering his final email exchange with Sean Price.

McKinley! Dixon! Interview!?

Toni Morrison: “The greatest rapper of all time”

Most covers for Toni Morrison’s Beloved are plain, often beset with red, with minimal type. Like many of the Pulitzer Prize-winner’s novels, the book’s unassuming exterior disguises a timeline-sprawling horror lurking on the inside.

“Toni Morrison has infected and sort of influenced so many things in modern day culture that we don't even really understand it,” Dixon notes.

His upcoming album Beloved! Paradise! Jazz!? is an ode to and rearrangement of three novels by Morrison meant to mirror Dante’s The Divine Comedy. In Beloved, published in 1987, a mother commits infanticide in order to, in her mind, protect her daughter from suffering an inevitable future of pain and trauma haunted by slavery. Dixon cites this as an example of Morrison's unique ability to eek love out of dread, “That is a crazy way to express love, but it is a real life way to express love, especially in the context of the books.”

“If you read Beloved, Sula, The Bluest Eye, they're all kind of horror, you know what I mean?” says Dixon. “But they are so [good] at discussing and describing how these harrowing times can also have love within them. And this love can have harrowing moments within it so beautifully that we don't even know. Like Jordan Peele’s stuff is horror, Black horror, but I mean, that comes from where? [Morrison] was one of the first to really sort of implement those things in her writing. So that's why she's the greatest rapper of all time.”

The chronology of Dixon’s album is thoughtfully jumbled. “The original [order] is Beloved, Jazz, Paradise,” says Dixon. “What if... you go through Beloved! is like this beautiful thing, you feel really happy together. And then Paradise! sort of comes and it is like…it is euphoric, but it’s still sort of ominous. And then there’s Jazz!? which is the chaos that ends. It’s not really a bad thing, but it is…uncertain. It doesn’t have sort of a reigned-in ideology of it because it’s just the word ‘Jazz.’"

The album's bluesy title track, featuring Ms. Jaylin Brown, represents the record's chaotic conclusion.

“It was sort of cool to switch them up," says Dixon. "What if it was, like, you have these moments that you feel really in your community? Which is Beloved!. They’re not the best moments, but they are moments that you feel loved. And then Paradise! is these great moments of highs. And then Jazz!? is not a moment of low, but a moment of confusion and chaos that sort of comes with all of that.”

DO judge an album by its cover!

Good authors and publishers know that, despite desperate pleas from teachers worldwide, books are often judged by their covers. Toni Morrison could captivate simply with a font and a color. Covers for Jazz are almost always dominated by pronounced purples and yellows, reminiscent of the 1920s Harlem Renaissance, where much of the novel is set.

A lanky afro-futuristic boy with a bandaged cheek and round, noseless face standing in a tight, red room looking over his shoulder at the viewer: eye glowing red with the promise of vengeance, maybe a warning. The figure’s back hand reaches forward, its four gloved fingers poised for a Sith force choke or some kind of energy blast; a pink halo floats around his head.
Ladon Alex / McKinley Dixon
/
Contributed photo
Tasked with executing a vision for Beloved! Paradise! Jazz!?, illustrator Ladon Alex conjured up an image straight out of a comic book, combining his and Dixon’s shared love of anime and science fiction.

Like Morrison, Dixon, who studied 2D animation at Virginia Commonwealth University, understands how the visual elements of a cover can help in constructing a story. Especially in music, where sound drives the narrative, an album’s cover is where the terrain of the battle is drawn, where the setting and themes are established and rules are set.

Tasked with executing a vision for Beloved! Paradise! Jazz!?, illustrator Ladon Alex conjured up an image straight out of a comic book, combining his and Dixon’s shared love of anime and science fiction. It features a lanky afro-futuristic boy with a bandaged cheek and round, noseless face standing in a tight, red room looking over his shoulder at the viewer. The figure’s back hand reaches forward, its four gloved fingers poised for a Sith force choke or some kind of energy blast; a pink halo floats around his head.

This portrait sets the mood for the album. The music swells, and an introductory recitation of Morrison's Jazz delivered by acclaimed culture critic and poet Hanif Aburraqib parts the morning clouds, accompanied by wistful soundscapes produced by Onirologia. The twinkle of “Sun I Rise (feat. Angélica Garcia)” peeks in gently after.

McKinley Dixon - Sun, I Rise (Official Video) ft. Angélica Garcia

“It became…not just this telling of this, like, reading, but also became this story of Hanif walking through the town or wherever: the world, planet, whatever you view this as, of the album, before the album starts.” Says Dixon, “And then from there the first song is ‘Sun I Rise’ and that's like the sun is like beginning in that… city, you know, so it's really cool. Shout out to him because…it just fit perfectly.”

Beloved! Paradise! Jazz!?

Hanif Abdurraqib is known more for writing about music than appearing on it.

“I was like ‘Dude, what if we did like a Big Rube kinda thing where you like narrate this intro… and I put some music behind it,” says Dixon of the proposal. “He was like ‘All right, what do you want me to say?’ and I was like ‘You pick whatever you want –– whatever you want.’ He just comes back and says, ‘Obviously, I’m gonna read the beginning of Jazz' and it just worked so well.”

Hanif Abdurraqib, Music Critic, Essayist, and Poet | 2021 MacArthur Fellow (Extended)

Author of the book Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes on A Tribe Called Quest and host of Sonos’ Object Of Sound podcast, he is a music historian and native of Columbus, OH, where his uber-thoughtful Small Joys podcast is carried by NPR and WOSU Public Media. In 2021, Dixon’s transcendent album For My Mama and Anyone Who Look Like Her cracked the top ten of Abdurraqib’s must-trust, yearly album wrap for Medium; he'll appear on two songs on the For My Mama… follow-up, “Hanif Reads Toni” and “Dedicated to Tar Feather (feat. Anjimile).”

“I’m his first one, that’s what he said, besides his self-made mixtapes that he was making,” says Dixon. “He might be on the next one. Honestly, I might just keep it going, it’s a cool thing.”

Dixon says that once an artist is featured on one of his records, they become a “character” in that world. Other returning collaborators on Beloved! Paradise! Jazz!? include Ms. Jaylin Brown, Seline Haze and Des Moines rapper Teller Bank$, who appears on the album’s third track “Mezzanine Tippin’” alongside Alfred., also from Virginia.

B.B.N.E. (feat. Teller Bank$)

"Teller Bank$ is very specifically placed on 'B.B.N.E.' on the first record [For My Mama...], and then very specifically, on this next record," says Dixon of the Iowa emcee, whose latest self-produced album The Love Tiger chose dance-y over darkness, even working in a little Ghost Town DJ's. "I think it sort of comes down to just like, Teller just works so hard, so hard. A lot of that... inspires me, you know, musically and not musically. He works very hard for his kids, he works very hard for his community. He's always working. And I think that mindset ... that's why I'm gonna have him on everything. Because, why not?"

Bank$ will join Dixon onstage at 80/35 Music Festival in Des Moines on July 8.

Who Taught You to Hate Yourself? (2016) and The Importance of Self Belief (2018)

Throughout his first album, 2016’s Who Taught You to Hate Yourself?, Dixon explored Black life and Black trauma in real-time, confronting centuries-old topics while absorbing new perspectives during a new phase of his life. Its cover is a simple neck-up portrait of a child who appears to be scowling. If not, the red background isn’t helping. Here, Dixon experimented with his evolving perspective as a Black man, and felt the best way to do so was on his “rap tip.”

“The best people that can talk about these things are rappers,” says Dixon. “I also am very aware that rap music is a genre that sort of thrives off of trauma. Albeit, it's not the people's fault who make rap music, it's sort of the consumers of you know. I think [people]... we are more interested in the implication of what is happening to this person if it's negative, because then we can identify with it easier. You know, sadness is very easy to market. The issue is a lot of people will have this sadness and they sort of never find a way to heal without of it, outside of it, and it's not on them. The trauma makes money. Therapy is inaccessible to a lot of folks. It's kind of a complicated place. But I think for me, you sort of have to really work on changing because if you don't, then you're going to be stuck in that loop forever, you know, and it's like, nobody wants to be in that forever regard.”

Dixon's album's side by side: from left, 'Who Taught You to Hate Yourself?' (2016) and 'The Importance of Self Belief' (2018).
McKinley Dixon
Dixon's album's side by side: from left, Who Taught You to Hate Yourself? (2016) and The Importance of Self Belief (2018).

His 2018 sequel, The Importance Of Self Belief, intentionally centered the experiences of Black women and trans people, groups Dixon credits with leading and representing the "forefront” and "backbone" of his community. The album's cover is almost indistinguishable from its 2016 predecessor, except the background color is a calming blue and the child, perhaps a new one, is smirking.

The Importance Of Self Belief’s best track, “Circle the Block,” is an anthem for the marginalized and anyone with a busted taillight, repeating “Every cop light is for me until it pass / I’m tryn' make sure this Black life last.” On the song, Dixon yells with his whole chest what many rappers won’t even mumble. The song was lauded by The Ongoing History of Protest Songs for addressing “the oppression and safety concerns experienced within the trans gender community.”

McKinley Dixon - Circle The Block | Audiotree Live

“Put it up and we ain’t tryna start a fight, unless you really bout it n—a / It’s been a long night for us Black boys whose hobbies are [bodying] what we feel / And stop killing my trans fam for real, for real! / I’m loud and I’m bout it, we fighting for homies who ain’t allowed to be loud and about it!”

"The Outro Song," from the album Who Taught You to Hate Yourself?

So how did Dixon, a college kid in Richmond, VA with a mixtape and an idea land a feature from then-Harvard Divinity School professor Dr. Cornel West? He just stuck around.

"He came to my school, like years and years and years ago," says Dixon. "And it was like really inspiring, because he does this whole lecture about a bunch of things like jazz and music and beauty and Black life, and how [all] these things sort of intersect. But the thing that inspired me was, the lecturer then goes, 'All right, it's over.' So then a lot of like the white folks leave, but then he just walks off stage and walks onto the ground and then everybody runs around him. And it's sort of this thing where he listens to everybody's story. He listens to everybody, he signs pictures, he takes photos, he gets paintings, everybody tells him they love him, he changed [their] life. And it's really beautiful."

And so, Dixon sat. About an hour and a half after West's lecture, Dixon finally found his opportunity to "run up on him."

"I pulled out my phone," says Dixon. "I walked up to him and I was like, 'I heard you on Brother Ali's record, I heard you do your own sort of musical thing. Do you mind if I record you for my tape?' And he... he looks up and the crowd goes silent. And then he goes... 'Whenever you are ready.' And then I'm like, 'What??' And then he's like 'Your name?' I'm like, 'McKinley Dixon.' I was like, 'What do you want to be when you grow up?' Because that's the song, the whole thing about the song. And then he just goes, 'Brother Dixon, I want to be like John Coltrane." And I was just like, 'Oh, here we go!' And it was just... that was all just off the top of his head. He just said that."

West urges, "Be strong in your quest for truth / Put a smile on John Coltrane's face."

Born in Tulsa, 1953, Dr. Cornel West, now a professor of philosophy and Christian practice at Union Theological Seminary, has been a luminary in the field of African-American studies for decades, and loves him some John Coltrane. Dr. West says that great artists and achievers have an innate caring to their nature that makes it impossible to relent. He calls these geniuses "prisoners of hope."

"The blues man and the blues woman are never indifferent, they're full of passion," says West, in one of his many observations about Coltrane. "They're full of caring about something. It could be last night, tomorrow night, could be society, whatever. You've got to sustain some kind of passion. And therefore, the great blues men and women from Toni Morrison to white ones like Tennessee Williams and Bruce Springsteen on the vanilla side of town, along with Bob Dylan. Or on the chocolate side of town, you know, it could be Leroy Carr or Curtis Mayfield or Aretha Franklin... They are prisoners of hope, they are neither optimist nor pessimist. They are prisoners of hope, because they care. As long as you care, and there's one little precious child out there with sparkling eyes, you've got to do something, and if you don't the rocks are gonna cry out. That's why Coltrane kept blowing his horn, my brother. Because if he didn't blow his horn, the rocks were gonna cry out. That genius cared."

McKinley Dixon: "In alot of bands"

When I sat down with the "make a poet Black" songwriter, hours before his Saturday evening set at Mission Creek Music Festival, he'd just gotten off another "crazy" U.S. tour with 2017 NPR Tiny Desk Winner Tank and the Bangas.

"At this point, it's really like a family with all of them," says Dixon of tour mates Tank, Teeny, Jonathan, Joshua, Norman, Albert, Mark, Rob and all the other Bangas. "You know, I know all of them really well. And we sort of like have these behaviors that we all sort of mimic because we're with each other for like 30 days at a time. It's sort of this... this big family, especially because there's 12 people in that band."

Prior to linking up with the Bangas, Dixon toured almost exclusively with punk bands in white spaces. His Soundcloud subhead reads: "In alot of bands." The gospel energy of Tank and the Bangas brought Dixon closer to home, even on the road.

"I used to tour with like, other genres, you know, like rock bands and things like that," says Dixon. "I love pop music. I love punk music. I love all music. But with this group, it was like 'oh, I see a lot of the inflections of my home life within the music that they're playing.' A lot of it does revolve around religion, albeit for me it's a very complicated subject, but it is something that is still very, you know, prominent in my life, at one point."

Love, loss and "Tyler, Forever"

Both Dixon and Hanif regard Toni Morrison as the “greatest purveyor of love,” echoing the human experience by brilliantly melding great highs with unfathomable emotional lows. Dixon often uses his music to grieve, celebrate and remember life. His song "Tyler, Forever," memorializes the life of a dear friend who died in 2018 from gun violence. The song was released as a single off Beloved! Paradise! Jazz!?, alongside a dynamic, Ja-Wan Gardner-directed music video that follows the artist train-hopping and ducking through tight alleyways in order to bring flowers home to Mama.

McKinley Dixon - Tyler, Forever (Official Video)

“Love is not just what we have been taught,” says Dixon. “Love is not just what we need to unlearn. Love is all encompassing, you know, and it's [a] very complicated feeling that sort of not only stops you from doing things, but also makes you go into things full force. For me, I'm trying to be a purveyor of longing. I long for all my homies back, I long for this record to be heard, I long for ways to describe a situation that I'm in you know? And I think others long for that as well. And I think what I'm working on now is not trying to be, like, there's good and bad, but there is complications and there is complexities in there as humanity within that longing and love, you know?"

“These moments and memories are now… they only belong to me and him. And now they only belong to me," says Dixon of his friend Tyler. “And that's fine. I think that's where that comes from with all my music. At a certain point, you're not talking about the boy, you’re talking about the carcass. You're talking about the bullets. You’re talking about the person who killed him. I sort of had to reel myself in after that, because it's for me. It's for everybody else too, but it's for me."

A final message from Sean Price

One could go on and on about the stunning cast of characters Dixon assembled for his 2016 tape Who Taught You to Hate Yourself, like guitarist Alec Morgan, philosopher Dr. Cornel West or soundbeast Gold Midas. Or Guilty Simpson, who appears on the plucky, dark alley track “God’s Land,” where he shares some sage advice, “Think you gotta be careful, fam/ don’t move off emotion/ move off they motion,” before delivering a “10 Crack Commandments”-style how-to on keeping it close to the vest: “I do my dirt all by my lonely, lowkey/ So if you’re not alone then make sure you can trust em/ Will he keep quiet if they handcuff him?/ Cuz you’d hate to kill your friend for saying something.”

Bearing all this in mind, a posthumous feature from the late, great Brooklyn rapper Sean Price may very well be the album’s crown jewel. The song, “Bare Knuckle,” is a scratch-tastic track with a wicked Alec Morgan guitar break and a Saturday morning cartoon-style horn section.

McKinley Dixon - Bare Knuckle feat. Sean Price (Prod. by P.R)

Together, Price, Simpson and producer Black Milk formed the hip-hop trio Random Axe, whose singular, self-titled 2011 debut album included tracks like “4 in the Box,” “Chewbacca (feat. Roc Marciano)” and “Jahphy Joe (feat. Melanie Rutherford & Danny Brown).” Before Random Axe, Price ascended to the heights of hip-hop as one-half of Heltah Skeltah –– the “Ruck” to Jahmal Bush’s "Rock" –– as well a standout member of the hip-hop supergroup Boot Camp Clik (“Headz Are Redee Pt. II,” “Here We Come”).

At the time of the album's production, Dixon was 19 or 20 years old - a mere kid playing in the pen with GOAT's twice his age, many of whom rose to prominence in the '00s. Guilty––your favorite producer’s favorite rapper––has worked extensively with both Madlib and the legendary J Dilla, and was Dixon’s direct line to Price.

“I'd always been a fan of Guilty,” says Dixon. “And then his stuff with Dilla is incredible. I sort of became infatuated with the way he tells a story. And then I was like, the only person that can rap crazier…is Sean Price. So Guilty... I was like, ‘Hey, can you connect me to Sean Price?’ And he goes, ‘Here's his email and his number, but I… I warned you.” And then I was like, Okay, whatever.”

Dixon recounts making the feature request to Sean “Da Barbarian” over email (because “He don't have a cell phone”). This part, at least, went well.

“He gets straight to the point,” says Dixon. “[He’s] like, ‘I'll have this for you.’ So yeah, we get the song done. And he does it. And it was incredible, you know, he sort of does what he does, he doesn't really write anything down. He sort of, like, did the verse and then re-listened to it and wrote it all down and was like, ‘Is this okay?’ And I was like, 'Obviously, it's okay!”

A track that never saw the light of day was a now-buried remix of "Bare Knuckle," which Dixon fired off to Price for approval in a hilarious, final email exchange.

“If he doesn't like something boy, will he tell you, man," says Dixon. "I sent him a remix of that song. And I literally have the email. He was like, 'this sh-t is trash, bro.' And another email, sent another email like literally 30 seconds later and is like, 'I wouldn't let no one hear this.' And I was like, 'Oh, man! Okay! You right on that one, man. You right on that one.' And that's really the last email I ever got from Sean Price."

80/35 Music Festival

McKinley Dixon’s album, Beloved! Paradise! Jazz!? drops June 2 on City Slang Records. Dixon and Teller Bank$ will close out the IPR Stage at 80/35 Music Festival in Des Moines on Saturday, July 8, around 6:30 p.m.

Lucius Pham is an award-winning videographer, photographer and writer for Iowa Public Radio. Pham holds a bachelor’s of journalism & mass communication from Drake University. Since 2022, Pham has covered news and music stories for IPR News and Studio One, including interviews with music legends, covering breaking news and presidential visits, and capturing the cultural life of Iowa.