In case you were wondering, Mac Lethal is not trying to be the next Axl Rose.
Normally, that’s the kind of statement that shouldn’t have to be made in the first place. For one thing, the sharp-witted Overland Park MC is a walking, talking antithesis to the Guns N’ Roses lead singer’s carefully crafted egomania.
But with each passing day, it’s getting harder not to wonder: Is 11:11, Mac’s long-promised and long-delayed album, turning into Kansas City hip-hop’s very own Chinese Democracy?
Let’s look at the facts. Depending on whom you ask, Democracy has been in production since about 1997. Meanwhile, Mac — or David McCleary Sheldon when he’s not behind a mic — says songs intended for an early version of 11:11 were written as far back as 2002.
Tracks from Chinese Democracy have been leaked on the Internet for months. For 11:11, that wasn’t necessary — Mac poured the tracks that were originally intended for the album onto the self-released Love Potion Collection 2. (The first Love Potion Collection was made years before 11:11. It came about, Mac says, “because I figured out how to use a computer to record music.”)
But Chinese Democracy and 11:11 share one glaring similarity — neither has a release date yet. (If you’re looking for a ballpark estimate, plan on the first half of 2007.)
The difference, Mac says, is that 11:11 is really, truly done. Or at least he thinks it’s done.
“I’ve finished it, like, 12 times, actually,” Mac explains, just days after sending the (latest) final master to his record label. “I’ve turned in the record a lot of times, and they’ve always pushed me to make the record a little better, and I thank them for that. It’s finally to the point where I want it to be. It’s met my vision, and it’s not just close — it’s actually what I always intended the record to do.”
In this case, the “they” refers to the men behind indie hip-hop juggernaut Rhymesayers Entertainment — including label president Brent “Siddiq” Sayers and Sean “Slug” Daley, Anthony “Ant” Davis and Derek “Spawn” Turner, label co-founders and members of Atmosphere, arguably the most well-known and influential act to emerge from the Minneapolis hip-hop landscape that is home to Rhymesayers.
For any freestyler struggling to make it big in a genre that thrives on word-of-mouth hype, it’s a pretty big deal when some of the scene’s most influential people know your name. It’s an even bigger deal when they’re planning to put out your album — especially when that album’s been nearly half a decade in the making.
“It feels good knowing that a lot of it has been the politics of the business that has continued to delay my record,” Mac says. “I had to go through the process of signing to Rhymesayers, and they have a lot of other artists to focus their attention on. But I’m on deck now.”
The label clearly wasn’t the only reason for the album’s holdup. When the Pitch first sat down with Mac last year (“Lethal Attraction,” November 17, 2005), his life was in turmoil. He was still reeling from the unexpected death of his mother in 2004 and a brutally painful breakup with his former fiancée a few months later.
It took a nationwide tour with fellow Rhymesayers artist P.O.S. in February 2006 to finally start Mac down the right path, but it wasn’t easy.
“I was just kind of attached to home,” he says. “When I left on tour, I was awake for seven days straight with this insomnia that I’ve never had before — like, literally, I was awake for seven days. I guess I didn’t realize how attached to home I was.”
Mac had reached a crucial turning point: Move forward with his music or stay stuck with his demons.
“Bloomington, Indiana, after the show — I think that was the night I finally fell asleep,” he says. “I was so tired, I just lay down onstage when I was done, and then P.O.S. came and performed while I was onstage just lying there. They all knew how tired I was, so they didn’t even care.”
It was symbolic and maybe even a little bizarre, but it didn’t matter. Mac was back.
“On that tour, I really got into the idea of making songs that were a little more uplifting,” he says. “Being away from home and detaching from home, it kind of made me a different person. I went through this whole transformation. So I came back and recorded some brighter songs, something more upbeat.”
Unfortunately, Mac’s new lease on life wasn’t reflected in some of the earlier songs he’d already recorded for the dark 11:11.
“At first, I was going to keep it because at one point in my life, that’s who I was,” he says. “But then I thought it would be kind of destructive if I made a record like that. Anyone who got their hands on that, if they were going through the same thing, I was worried about keeping them there — giving them that music to listen to and not push them to get out of it.”
It was yet another reason for him to go back to the drawing board.
“It’s really weird because now, instead of singing about my problems, I’m singing about how much of a fuckup I was,” he says. “There are times now when I’m in such a good mood that when I write stuff, I sound like Barry Manilow in rap form.”
Mac hasn’t been caught beatboxing “Mandy” just yet, but he has found one last way to blow off any pent-up aggression. To help support himself on a recent tour of Canada with Atmosphere, Lethal put together a third volume of his self-produced Love Potion Collection series, which, along with LPC 2, was released under his own start-up label, Black Clover Records.
Whereas Love Potion 2 contains B-sides and cut-and-run versions of songs from 11:11, LPC 3 is an entirely different beast. Recorded in one night — from 3 a.m. to 7:30 a.m., with help from the last pack of cigarettes he ever smoked — Mac churned out 46 minutes of ragged, vitriolic rhymes mixed over rock and metal samples from bands such as System of a Down, Slayer and Rob Zombie.
It’s rough. It’s gritty. It sounds nothing like 11:11. But it’s exactly what Mac wants to do when he’s in charge, when concerns about what other people think are left at the door.
“It’s more like do-it-yourself, late-’70s early-’80s punk rock,” he says, “just going in the studio and yelling. And if it’s out of key or if it sounds like shit, who cares? You’ve got all these major-label fuckheads that are trying to cater to the major-label markets. All these rappers that are out there — Kansas City rappers, even — they’re all hoping to God that they sell a bunch of records, as opposed to making shit just for the simple fact of making music.”
Maybe that’s the real reason that 11:11 has taken so long. Sure, there have been label delays and personal hardships to overcome. But the truth is, Mac just can’t stand to do anything half-cocked.
“I’d be worried if this is my masterpiece, because I’ve found that a lot of artists that make masterful records, they struggle to make anything even on par,” he says. “I look at this record, and I could redo everything today, and I’d be fine with it. Instead, though, I’m just going to know that this is all the best shit I’ve made over the last 12 years, or however long I’ve been working on this record.”
All we need is just a little patience.