Hip-hop could be explained this way.
Some of the poorest people in one of the richest countries in the world wanted to make art.
There was just one problem.
These individuals had no resources, no road map and (in their own country) no respect. Money was nonexistent for art supplies such as acrylic paints or sizable canvasses. Buying or renting an instrument? Forget about it. Not to mention the challenges of traveling to and from lessons if one had the means to acquire them.
So these adolescent innovators used the only two things they had: their minds and their voice.
Shuffling through vinyl records of parents, uncles, friends, etc. — these young people reached into the past and generated the music of the future. And, subsequently, the art (and culture) they created became the most adored, imitated and popular art form on the planet.
And it took less than 40 years.
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But almost as important as the history of hip-hop’s genius is its unfiltered consciousness.
Put it like this: In 2018, pop music is like reality TV — hip-hop is a scathing documentary.
When someone says hip-hop is beautiful and bold and brilliant — that’s real talk. And when someone says hip-hop is capitalistic, misogynistic and/or glorifies violence. Well, that’s real talk too.
Because hip-hop is (and has always been) an unapologetic mirror of our society and the artistic truth in this emergency ward called America.
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Hip-hop has made it all over the world — woven into every facet of our lives.
Visit any borough in New York City, and hip-hop is fiercely debated atop gentrified stoops as if the city is still in its Beat Street heyday.
Stroll down the cobbled street of Via del Corso in Rome and you’re more likely to hear a storefront blast a verse from Kanye than a moving bel canto by Pavarotti.
Daily commuters in Nairobi board matatus fully covered in decals of not Kenyan musicians — but that of Rick Ross, Nas and Jay-Z.
In less than five decades, every duck-off on the globe has formed a hip-hop scene.
Oregon is no exception.
And in Portland, the scene is filled with an eclectic mix of artists sharing their story of discovery from a Pacific Northwest perspective and beyond.
Enter Micheal Caples, who goes by the literary rap pseudonym ‘Mic Capes.’
Born and raised in Portland’s St. Johns neighborhood, Capes has been painting truthful pictures about his life in and beyond North Portland since he started writing poetry as a kid. A story of words that organically morphed into a career of realistic rhymes.
Since 2012, Capes has released three projects chronicling his journey: “Rise and Grind,” his first full-length project; 2016’s “Concrete Dreams”; and 2017’s “Sheesh,” with producer Drae Slapz.
Last year, Capes took another step in professional growth, becoming a full-time artist in an environment that sometimes (still) judges hip-hop unfairly against other artistic endeavors.
“I don’t care what anyone has to say about music not being practical. It’s practical for me because that is what I’m passionate about. I feel like whatever you’re passionate about — you’re going to push it until it is something practical,” Capes said of the leap.
OPB caught up with Capes and had a wide-reaching conversation about growing up in Portland, Tupac’s influence on his life, the role TriMet played in his writing and why it’s so obvious that the president of the United States is a racist.
David Stuckey: I first saw you perform at Mic Check and you treated that small venue like it was Madison Square Garden. Everyone killed it that night, musically, performance wise. I was impressed with the hip-hop scene here. Portland is not known for hip-hop, so is your own city holding you back?
Mic Capes: Holding me back? Naw, I wouldn’t say Portland is holding me back at all. I would say it’s just natural as an artist to expand and go beyond your city. I feel like art is made to travel and eventually it’s going to be a natural path to do more shows outside of the city. I think the city supports me — a lot of artists say they don’t get support in this city but I been grinding for a while in the city. And I think what helps is the fact that I do more than music within the city. I work with the community and I work with the youth and things like that, so people respect me on that level. So they know I’m a person that’s authentic, they know I’m not making nothing up when I’m rapping. They know what I’m saying is real and I’m not painting a picture that’s not real.
Stuckey: Tell me exactly how you’ve worked within the community.
Capes: So, we in St. Johns now. I was born and raised in St. Johns, so it’s important for me to give back. The last couple of years I was working at Roosevelt High School for this program called Step Up. I was a mentor and an academic advisor.
So I had about 15 freshmen “at-risk” students that I looked after — so I do home visits, success plans, you sit in the classes, you take ‘em on mentor trips. Maybe a kid wants to be a barber, so you take them to the barbershop to meet people that actually do that profession. You just help them define their dreams so they can go after them. I feel mentorship is important ‘cause there were points where I got crucial mentorship at crucial times that helped me avoid a lot of what the homies got into.
Stuckey: I’ve always believed that of all musical genres, hip-hop is almost ordained from the universe. You can buy a guitar and take lessons for years. You can go get an MFA in any discipline. Voice coaches, etc. No one teaches you to rap. It’s a sin to even get help writing your raps. I don’t think a lot of people think of this aspect of the culture. So, how did you teach yourself to rap?
Capes: Man, so I started rapping in fifth grade. Well, I started out doing poetry just as a way … like therapy. It was a way to deal with the shit I was dealing with and that’s why I started. In sixth grade I started rapping. I was in this foster home and there was an older kid that rapped and I thought, “You know what? I can do that.” Around that time I started listening to Tupac too, so I started writing music out of self-preservation, you know what I mean?
Dealing with shit and being able to fully express myself without nobody’s opinion on it. From then, I just continued to do it. I’ll be riding on the bus to school — people know me for that — when I got in high school the bus ride was like an hour from here to school [Benson High School] and I would just put on headphones and write music the whole time. That’s how I got into rap, it wasn’t something: “Man that’s what I want to do!”
But it was something that I would always do — that and football. Side by side. Football and art.
I was raised half of my life by my aunt and she would play all types of music from hip-hop to reggae to soul. Music was just always there, tapping me on the shoulder along the way. And I finally took hold to it.
Stuckey: It’s funny telling the story of seeing an older guy rap. That first night I saw you perform I introduced myself to the artist that was on before you: Fountaine, who is dope as hell, [also on the Soul’d Out lineup] and he was telling me how when he was a kid he saw you and said, “I can do that too.” So it’s kinda full circle.
Capes: Yeah we went to the same high school. He’s a few years younger than me.
Stuckey: Yeah he told me: “Yeah, I saw Mic when I was like in eighth or ninth grade and it’s crazy we’re now doing a show together.”
Capes: Yeah? I never knew that! That’s the homie. Damn. I never knew that. I gotta holla at him.
Stuckey: I was introduced to your music through your album “Concrete Dreams.” It was cohesive, had a message, the production was spot on. It reminded me of “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill,” in a specific way. When “Miseducation” came out, I felt you could hand that album to a young person and it would help them navigate life. That’s how I felt about “Concrete Dreams.” Specifically if you were a young, black man growing up in Portland. Consciously or subconsciously, what makes you want to leave these breadcrumbs for the youth?
Capes: It’s just in me to once I get knowledge or wisdom, to give it out — to help people. I think it’s in me to help people, not just where I come from, but people that want to be inspired, motivated and educated or get some game. That’s what I like doing. Like Tupac. That’s why I gravitated toward Tupac so early, because I felt like I got guidance from him at a time where I didn’t really have none.
So naturally my music goes that way. I like artists like that — Tupac, Scarface, DMX, Ice Cube. Cats like that — J. Cole, Kendrick Lamar, Big K.R.I.T. They all do that in their music but it isn’t intentional. And Lauryn Hill, she’s one of my favorite artists of all-time. It’s dope you compared it to that. When I made that album, I wanted to make something like a time capsule. At any time if you’re a teen you could pick it up and learn something from it. I’m glad you picked that up, that was my intention with that album.
Stuckey: You became a full-time musician last year. Starchile was talking to me about supporting black-owned businesses by attending shows and you’ve basically started your own small business. What piece of advice would you give to someone starting a business?
Capes: Study. Study the craft or the work you are trying to get into — do informational interviews with people that do what you want to do. And don’t ever quit. Don’t let someone’s opinion be your truth, real shit.
Stuckey: Let’s get into some lyrics. On your song “One 4 O’Shea,” you rap: “Nowadays my black soul ain’t worth shit.” And later in the same song: “I know you got hate for me. Gunning me down in the street.” Of course we’re talking about the police shootings of unarmed black men in this country. As black men, we know these shootings aren’t isolated events. We know they’re on purpose …
Capes: Yeah. Of course.
Stuckey: We also know when we say something like that, people don’t believe us or are skeptical of what we know as a truth we actually live through.
Capes: Yeah. Yeah.
Stuckey: Do you feel like your life is in danger every day?
Capes: I don’t walk around with that on my conscience. My thing is, throughout my life — when things happen, I just keep going. That’s how I look at that.
But I know that, yeah, technically your life is in danger. I think everyone’s life is in danger, every day. But as far as the police, yeah, an encounter can happen and we are going to get perceived different than someone with fairer skin or someone that has more money.
Yeah, I think it’s in danger that way. But I don’t walk around paranoid about it. When I wrote that song it was in the thick of shit happening all over the country and it’s still going on all over the country — but the cameras just ain’t on it as much. But that’s how I was feeling at the time. I had the beat forever and that beat just matched the energy. It wasn’t intentional — to write something on police brutality, it [the beat] just felt that way.
Writer’s note: Two days after this interview was conducted, Sacramento police shot and killed an unarmed black man named Stephon Clark in his grandmother’s backyard. Three days after this interview was conducted, Jermaine Massey was shot and killed by police in Greenville, South Carolina. Six days after this interview was conducted, an unarmed black man, Danny Ray Thomas, was shot and killed by police in Houston. Seven days after this interview was conducted, Linus Phillip was shot and killed by police in Florida. Eleven days after this interview was conducted, Louisiana declined to press charges against the pair of white police officers involved in the 2016 shooting death of Alton Sterling. Fourteen days after this interview was conducted, 60-year-old Edward Van McCrae was shot and killed by police in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Eighteen days after this interview was conducted, video was released of Johnnie Rush being choked by police officers in Asheville, North Carolina, for jaywalking. Nineteen days after this interview was conducted, the NYPD shot and killed an unarmed black man, Saheed Vassel, in Brooklyn. Vassel’s family says he had a mental illness. At the date of publication, no officers have been charged in the killings.
Stuckey: I’m going to ask you about a few more lyrics. On the song “Chains,“ you rap, “Lord save us, promise you we trying to change our ways, broken hearts full of anger, and every single day we got to face this pain.” And later: “Oppression eat at yo’ faith and leave your soul swallowed.” On “Magic 8-Ball,” you say: “I’m into building up me and my people because we need the healing, dog, I really give a fuck.” Sounds like you’re dealing with some mental health issues. Do you have PTSD, from living here [America]?
Capes: [Long beat] Uh … PTSD. [Looks away, then back] I think I do. I think all of us do, that come from the inner city. Whether that’s with police or whether that’s with each other. I think a lot of times it’s with each other. When you’re forced to grow up in a survival mind state, you tend to think the worse about each other because you don’t know each other.
If you don’t have a conversation you’re always on point and your head is always on a swivel. So I think in that regard — especially being out here on the West. You know, gang banging and to have homies killed from that.
PTSD? Shit. Yeah.
I don’t go to parties, or events with big crowds, unless it’s music. I don’t go to clubs, that ain’t my shit, you know what I mean? I think in that regard and just what I come from personally, at home. Dealing with a lot of shit.
Stuckey: Yeah, no clubs for me. I mean to this day, and I’m older than you, when I’m driving if I see a police car I just pull over (and let them go by) and check my phone.
Capes: Oh yeah, yeah. For sure.
Stuckey: But I’m not pissed off about it.
Capes: Yeah, it’s just in our nature to do what we need to do to survive. Like, you might not even try to do that — it’s just automatic. Like, I’m just going to pull over, we ain’t going to play with the cops today. Let them pass by — like if I see a certain kind of car slow up, I’m like, “Yeah, I’m going the other way, not going to be that guy on the news today.”
Stuckey: So I’m going to ask you about the current administration because in your music you talk a lot about systematic problems that impact the community. The policies they are trying to implement are going to affect — first and foremost — people that look like us. Brown folk. For me, I haven’t seen enough media organizations or individuals on TV straight up say the president is a racist.
Stuckey: That’s how things fester and stick around … when you try to ignore, shrug off or re-brand racism. You have to keep saying it because it’s the truth — then maybe people will truly understand what racism is … and he’s a textbook racist.
Capes: Hell yeah he’s racist. It don’t matter if he say he ain’t or not. We live in Portland: A lot of people say they ain’t but then they actions say a whole ‘nother thing. It’s cognitive dissonance — to say you are not racist and then to do racist shit. I think people do that to protect their psyche — that’s what cognitive dissonance is to me. He’s racist as hell. His policies are racist, who he hires is racist, who he kicks it with is racist. They do it to us: Who you hang with is who you are. So apply that to everything.
I think more than anything, he’s a capitalist. If you ain’t got money, he don’t care about you. I mean his dad was cool with the Ku Klux Klan. Man, look. All of us have stuff instilled in us — whether if that’s on purpose or not — when you raised by someone that thinks certain ways, it’s in you.
Stuckey: Tell me about your experience here. How was it growing up in Portland?
Capes: Well, I grew up out here [North Portland]. It was way different growing up out here. I didn’t go to schools that were primarily white so growing up out here was in the pocket. It was mostly black, Latino, Asian and low-income white people. I grew up intact with my black heritage and stuff like that and my dad is from Mississippi — so I never felt even aware about ‘being black in Portland’ until you get out of high school and into the real world.
But you just face a lot of microaggressions in Portland for the most part. It’s direct racists too but mostly microaggression. Like someone seeing you and crossing the street, walking by someone’s car and they lock the doors, or you’re in the grocery line and they treat the white person ahead of you way different than they treat you.
But growing up in St. Johns, there were some instances of direct racism with like my brothers getting beer cans chucked at them and being called “nigger” and having to fight skinheads and shit.
When I was younger, I was about 8, I was walking with my mom and my little brother and a dude stopped and he said: “The streets already been paved, you niggers.” And pulled off — that’s when I first got introduced to … I was just like damn … I was 8 — I was hot. And my mom was cursing his ass out. It’s just random shit and it’s usually an older white person talking to a younger black person crazy or a Latino or an Asian. But I want to expand on the city being progressive.
Stuckey: I think Portland is progressive sexually …
Capes: Sexually, environmentally … but when you live in a city that’s damn near 75 percent white you’re not forced to deal with your own racism a lot of times because you can grow up in areas where there’s nothing but white people — so you don’t know what you are.
Until one of us comes into the environment and you can see your biases come out. And you got that color blind, shit. People say they color blind — to me that’s erasing someone’s existence already. Because we are different.
And it’s OK, be realistic, I get what you’re saying but no … we are different. I don’t think it’s progressive racially, naw, naw, I feel like it’s tolerant. More tolerant than other places. But I think it’s only tolerant because it’s not that many of us.
Stuckey: I think when you’re never around a certain type of person, and this goes for everyone, you’re more ignorant than anything — but on top of that you choose not to learn. That’s ignorance too.
Capes: It’s people that will try to walk up to you and instead of greeting you in the regular way, they greet you in the “hip-hop” way cause they feel that’s what we do … they’re uncomfortable so they reach that way.
And a lot of the racism in Portland is more policy instead of “I’m going to say this thing to your face.”
Racism is bigger than words.
It’s more policy, it’s systematic. Like housing discrimination, I mean we [black people] couldn’t live here [Portland] until when? Being black — that’s so crazy to me.
I think people just have to have more compassion in the world, period. When you see someone as an equal across from you, you ain’t going to treat them no different. We do it too — we feel like we get a certain status and feel like we gotta move away or look down on the next person or judge them instead of reaching back. We’re competitive with each other when we see someone coming up. The best thing to do is to be like: How did you do that? And then the person will share that with you.
Stuckey: Talking about compassion … I was talking to someone the other day about race and they brought up all these racial slurs. And I hadn’t heard any of them before. Then I was telling someone else about the conversation and they said: You were raised around all black people and we don’t use that type of language.
Capes: We don’t!
Stuckey: And it kind of hit me, like, damn, I guess not. I had never thought of it like that. I mean black men are looked at as these dangerous figures. But if you look at history — it’s just not true — how would you describe the empathy of black people?
Capes: For one, I think we’re one of the most accepting people on the planet. For all the shit that’s happened to us and we still cool with people. For it never to be any warfare. I think black people go off of respect. No matter what color you are, for the most part.
As far as the things among us, it’s tribal shit, gang banging is tribal. It ain’t just about colors, it’s never about that. You shot my family, so I feel like I have to deal with you. And when we do something we not trying to kill off a whole amount of people. We ain’t walking in no school shooting no random people. It’s more so — I got a problem with you, so I’m going to deal with it.
We show a lot of empathy. We should show more empathy to ourselves. I feel like we show a lot of empathy for others — not to say we don’t show empathy with ourselves, but I feel like we could show more.
Stuckey: Let’s get back to the music. Talk about two big records you have. “Black Pearls” is an ode to black women and “Jumper Cables” is a North Portland anthem. How did those two records come about?
Capes: I made “Black Pearls” because I grew up around black women, I love black women and I feel like they are the most important people on the planet. And I feel like they don’t get enough credit for what they go through and continue to go through and still remain strong about shit.
So I wanted to create a song that went against the narrative that we sometimes have in hip-hop, which is objectifying them, and in the world in general where people are forcing European beauty standards on black women. I wanted to make a song about black women without saying I want something from them.
I just wanted to uplift and empower them for just being themselves. Whether that’s a little girl, whether it’s an adult, someone with a disability, whether you’re Muslim, Christian, anything. I just wanted to empower them — have something that they can play for generations and it’s not about me. And it’s not about how you benefit me ‘cause I think sometimes we make songs like that — it’s like how they benefit us — and that ain’t what I wanted to do. If I could make a “Keep Ya Head Up“ for this generation, that’s the way I went with “Black Pearls.”
Stuckey: And the anthem, “Jumper Cables.” When I saw you perform that, everyone knew every word. It was crazy.
Capes: Yeah, people love that song. It’s me and Vinnie DeWayne. We were both born in St. Johns. It’s produced by Bravo Domo. I had the beat for a while but I don’t remember what inspired the hook — but I was like, this sound like an anthem type track. I had that hook in my phone, but I didn’t have a beat to it. When I heard the beat, I said, “I’m going to try this to it.”
I tried it and that shit sounded dope. And Vinnie was like, “We might need to add something … some more to the hook.” And I was like, “Naw, bro, this gonna work.” So I sent the beat to him and he wrote to it quick. I wrote to it quick. And we got it recorded and then we put that shit out and people went wild about it.
Because it’s from the heart. You not from Portland so you don’t know — coming from North Portland, it’s like we’re the underdogs. Not right now, it’s more gentrified now, but back in the day, didn’t nobody want to live out here. We barely wanted to live out here.
But we did.
A lot of people would say, “Oh you from the dirty north,” cause it was low-income. They’d say things like: “Oh it stink out there. Oh ya’ll don’t go outside in the north. It’s slow out there.”
So we’re like: Alright.
Me and him (Vinnie) are artists from here that get noticed so — “Northside nigga I done came up.” That what it’s about. We wanted people from out here to feel that when they listen to it. If they not on the come up, then they motivated to get there — and if you’re there, then you feel what the fuck we’re talking about on both ends.
Stuckey: You’re playing Soul’d Out this year: For someone that hasn’t heard your music or saw you perform, why should they come out to the show?
Capes: If you’re into music that speaks truth and speaks life into people, but at the same time it’s not preachy, still got a bounce, still palpable to listen to — then my music is what you want to hear. If you want some music you can feel and it’s not just some shit you hearing in your eardrums, then this is the type of music you want to listen to. If you want to hear a piece of yourself in my music, this is what you should listen to. Everything I rap about comes from the heart and it comes from a real place.
Nothing is made up, and even if I write a like song like “I Might” it’s still writing from the position that I’m in. I’m fantasizing about when I get there — this is what I might do — and that’s just being human. In my music I try to reflect all parts of me, not just show you certain parts and hide this and that, to be cool.
Naw. You gonna get an authentic person and you’re gonna meet the same in person in real life that you hear on a track. And if you were thinking that Portland ain’t got hip-hop or some shit like that, I think my music is a good place to start.
Mic Capes is performing during the Soul’d Out Music Festival on Saturday, April 21 at the Wonder Ballroom.
This interview has been edited and condensed for space.