In Conversation: McKinley Dixon

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McKinley Dixon has been through changes. Now firmly based in Chicago after relocating from Richmond, Virginia, he’s tapping into fresh conduits, and different communities. Absorbing this energy into his art, the rapper’s superb new album ‘Beloved! Paradise! Jazz?!’ is wonderfully broad, moving from punchy beats to free-flowing jazz aspects.

He’s at the centre of this intense maelstrom, the soulful touch of his vocals matched to hard-won wisdom, and the ability to question both himself and the people around him.

McKinley Dixon plays the Clash stage at the Great Escape today (May 11th). We caught up with him over Zoom, discussing his methods, his passion for visual arts, and his magnificent new record.

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You’ve made Chicago your base, a city that has produced some of our favourite visual art, music, and writing. What makes Chicago such a potent base for creativity?

Chicago – the actual city – consists of so much magic. I moved here from Richmond, Virginia, which has a totally different vibe. Being here, in this community, in the summer… there’s a magic to it. People talk badly of Chicago winters, saying they’re really long and cold, but it’s beautiful in its own way. To make it through winter, you have to have built your own little community. And Chicago, it has a sense of that. People have this urge to write, and to create.

Does the heritage Chicago offers inspire you artistically?

I’m inspired more by moments. Moments in time. So instead of a particular book, the moment in their life that brought them to that. 

The title of your new album ‘Beloved! Paradise! Jazz?!’ is a Toni Morrison reference, it seems.

It is, yes. It’s her trilogy of books, I just flipped the order a little. It’s also my take on the human experience, the final part being chaos. Toni Morrison inspires me to write about how humans are human. Stories built through interactions. How physically, mentally, we interact with one another.

This record feels as though you’ve taken your previous work and just extrapolated outwards – it’s the same spirit, but bigger and bolder.

Definitely. For me, making these records bigger allows me more space to process my life outside of art. It’s a sort of progression, Also, with making music, you want to go back each day and be better at it. It’s a skill. 

Was this constructed in the studio? Or were you methodical in your pre-studio writing?

Oh I was writing for a long time. I wrote for like, five months. Then we hit the studio. We worked 13, 14 hour days, for like seven days. We invited a bunch of people from the community down, and locked it all in. We mapped it all out meticulously.

That sounds intense!

It was. But it was also joyous. I know all the people who played on it. My records tend to draw on the same community, and so we all felt really comfortable. 

‘Tyler, Forever’ has made a deep impact, hasn’t it?

With that song, I really wanted to juxtapose how I work. I deliberately sought to make something different, outside of how I usually work. It’s almost a work in progress of my process. But it’s cool how people affirmed that! It’s like, how can I make something different, but still sounds like me?

The title refers to a late friend, did the song offer any closure at all?

To people who are new to my music, they might think ‘Tyler, Forever’ is the first time I’ve discussed losing him… but I actually spoke about it on the last record, when that loss was a lot more raw. This is like me closing a chapter on processing that grief, reflecting on all the stories I’ve told.

Does art contain that sense of catharsis for you?

I think so. I also animate, and that’s a skill that requires long hours, and a lot of solo work. It requires a lot from you. But to juxtapose that with music… it’s a lot more intense. I may only spend a couple hours writing on a song, but it means a lot. And then I save those fragments – I may only write a couple bars – but I’ll save them, and built it up over time. It’s totally different, really.

Moving between those skills must be really refreshing.

With animation, I never worry about what I have to say… because it’s all mapped out.

The album feels very unified, and inter-connecting. Is that sense of structure important to you?

It’s more tightly structured than my previous records, but only in the sense that I learn as I go. It’s funny, as I do these interviews I’m processing my own work! I specifically do the first and last song of the record, and then make the rest. That’s so I know where to start, and where to end. 

It must be a huge task to even unpack a record as in-depth as this one.

When making it, I was all about internalising my intention. That was a big thing. So while I’d love to say I know everything about these avenues I went down, most of the time I didn’t think about it. The album itself is really a documentation of two years in my life.

How do you approach performing such an intricate record in the live setting?

I sat with these thoughts for so long, that honestly, I can’t wait to get out there. People seem to be embracing it in real time, and that helps a lot.

You’ve also been recording the Kitchen Table Sessions, using the work of Carrie Mae Weems as a reference point.

Honestly, I love her work. Love it. Her photography contains so many glimpses of everyday life in Black families… it’s amazing. And it hits home, because I learned so much from Black women growing up. So much.

Would you ever embark on a visual arts project yourself?

Well, I’m lucky enough to rap real well! (laughs) I can make beats, and I can rap. So that’s dope. 

What did this album teach you that your previous work didn’t? What lesson did you discern from its creation?

It taught me that it’s better to be prepared. If you can’t do it the first time, just come back with more people, different people… and be prepared. The best record is the one that’s travelled through time and distance.

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‘Beloved! Paradise! Jazz?!’ is out on June 2nd.

Words: Robin Murray
Photo Credit: Jimmie Fontaine