With hunger and passion

Rapper Meek Mill, a North Philly native, now works with Maybach Music, MC/producer Rick Ross' label through Warner Bros.
Rapper Meek Mill, a North Philly native, now works with Maybach Music, MC/producer Rick Ross' label through Warner Bros. (DAVID SWANSON / Staff)

 

Posted: August 24, 2012

Philadelphia audiences know rapper Meek Mill.

Local hip-hop heads dig the North Philly native, 25, for his 14 self-made and -distributed mix tapes, to say nothing of his two most recent tapes for Maybach Music, MC/producer Rick Ross' label through Warner Bros.

Area rap fans have seen Mill open for or appear with Drake, Diddy, Chris Brown, Lil Wayne, and Nicki Minaj. They've heard Mill do his street-oriented soliloquies on local radio stations.

With mix-tape success behind and a golden future ahead, Mill is growing for the better. "I'm rapping harder because I've seen more of the world," Mill says. "I've seen more situations."

There's an ever-expanding Twitter following (more than 1.6 million and counting) and homemade videos on YouTube. There are guest raps on new hits by Trey Songz, Mariah Carey, and Ross' No. 1 album, God Forgives, I Don't. Mill's 2012 mixtape Dreamchasers 2 got so many downloads (three million) and streams (700,000) in its first 48 hours that the server crashed. He even managed to embroil himself in several controversies this summer, like the Drake/Chris Brown nightclub altercation, and an argument with a Philadelphia minister over the so-called blasphemous lyrics to Mill's smash "Amen."

  Throughout August, he's on his initial headlining tour, culminating in two Philly shows Saturday night at the Theatre of Living Arts, the first of which is sold out. A slot on Jay Z's mammoth "Made in America" concert Labor Day weekend on the Parkway will follow.

With all that, Meek Mill won't be a solely Philly sensation much longer.

The only thing missing from Mill's to-do list is his debut-artist album, Dreams & Nightmares. Long scheduled for release Aug. 28, the highly anticipated full-length CD was recently moved to Oct. 30 - by Mill himself.

"Meek told Rick [Ross] that he wanted to make a classic album that told the story of his life - the good he's done, the mistakes he's made - that's completely worthy of its title," says Dallas Martin, Maybach Music's artists and repertoire chief. "For that, for that next level, he needed a little more time."

Dreams & Nightmares is essential for Mill, the reason it has to be made right. "A lot of people can say they rock with you, but to get them to put a dollar behind it is a test of their support," Mill says. "I appreciate the mix-tape and single success, but the album is going to be the piece that is going to set the tone for the rest of my career."

These days, between shows during August's tour, the soft-spoken Mill can be found in recording studios. "I'm just on it, coming up with new songs, polishing the ones already down," Mill says of Dreams & Nightmares. "It's nearly there. Working hard, you know. Has to be right."

Mill knows about hard work. Born Robert Rameek Williams, he bounced between his mom's house at 23d and Birch Streets in North Philadelphia and his dad's spot at 18th and Catharine Streets in South Philly, dreaming of a life in sports before finding musical heroes in his uncle DJ Grandmaster Nell, of Philly's Punk Funk Nation, along with Philly rappers Beanie Sigel and the Roots' Tariq "Black Thought" Trotter.

"Growing up in that area taught me strength. No matter what happened, you took the good with the bad. There were obstacles," he said. "But everything makes you who you are, stronger hopefully."

Mill started rapping at age 10, and by 12 he was known in his neighborhood as a battling freestyle champion. Despite growing up a loner, at 14 he gave a crew called BloodHoundz a try, only to find it lacking in one specific area: They didn't work as hard as he did. "Everybody ain't about the same ambitions," Mill says. "Look, not hooking up with any one crew led me to a better place. I wanted to change. No one wanted to change with me, so I went by myself."

Mill went his own way, recording a series of mix tapes, starting in 2007, that grew increasingly popular with each volume. Mill says of their appeal: "People recognize that those tapes come from the heart."

His music was jittery and fast. The songs talked about a hard life on the streets, but always with an eye on striving, to making something better of yourself. One song in particular, "In My Bag," got the attention of Power 99, which played it repeatedly. "That was my first thrill of being in the business," Mill says. "It motivated me to work harder and do what I was doing. I knew I was on the right track."

His pals threw tapes of his live performances on YouTube. He burned and gave away CDs of his songs. He jumped onto MySpace when it was a musician's most viable promotional option and was an early, avid adopter of Twitter. Mill has been lauded for his innovative manipulation of the social-media landscape. "I don't know if I was first, but I do know that my generation took advantage of that world," he says. "That whole thing was the easiest, fastest, and cheapest way to get things done back in the day."

The industry took notice of Mill. Rapper/label owner T.I. hit up the Philly MC and nearly signed him, until Mill made one blunder: In 2008, he was arrested on gun charges and served eight months in jail. Since that time, Mill has kept out of trouble. Prison was a bitter dish served ice cold. "It taught me a lesson," he says. "It straightened my head out and put me in a position where I could focus and go at things in a better way." More mix tapes, Tweets, and live shows followed.

Rick Ross was but an emerging force when, in 2010, he visited Mill in Philly. Ross, whom Mill calls "a big brother," even made it to an Independence Day celebration at Mill's mom's house. "Rick was watching Meek for a while," says Maybach's Martin. "They built a real relationship, so that when we made our 2011 Warners deal, Ross wanted Mill to be part of our fold." Martin credits the hunger in Mill's voice and the passion in his raps as keys to the young North Philly performer's captivation of his audience. Meek Mill's swagger and natural charisma are unique in the rap game now. "Meek paints a vivid picture of how he grew up," Martin says. "He's believable."

The newly signed Mill slowed his music, gave it bigger hooks, in accordance with the Maybach way. He contributed two hits to 2011's MMG Presents: Self Made, Vol. 1 - "Tupac Back" and the anthemic "Ima Boss." By spring this year, he had signed with Jay Z's RocNation management. Z also asked Maybach marauders Ross, Mill, and rapper Wale to be part of his "Made in America" showcase.

The year also brought the sort of gossip and controversy that comes with stardom. In June, Mill's name was bandied about in connection with the Drake/Chris Brown brawl at a Manhattan nightclub. Last month, North Philadelphia's the Rev. Jomo K. Johnson called for a boycott of the rapper and attacked Mill's ascending hit "Amen," claiming that its lyrics ("I just wanna thank God / For all the pretty women He let into my life / All the Benjamins He let me count") were blasphemous. In his defense during a Hot 107.9FM debate with the minister, Mill said Johnson was just seeking attention and had ignored all Mill's charity work.

"It ain't about that, all that's nothing," Mill at first says of the encounter. "I'm just trying to keep my head up and positive." When pressed, he simply shies away from all trouble and makes work his primary goal. "I'm a private dude. To have this attention, especially when it's not about music, takes getting used to. Making the music is easy. Promoting it is the job."

With a tour and Dreams & Nightmares at hand, Mill knows what he wants. Though he's secretive about what will appear on his album, he does reveal that "Amen" and "Maybach Curtains" will make the mix. So will "Traumatize," a possible single from the album, according to Martin. "Traumatize" is about Mill's now-deceased father, "coming up in Philly and what they went through," says the A&R captain. "The whole album is like that. Meek wants to show that you can change your life and the lives of those around you."

 

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