The first CD I ever bought in my life was Lil’ Bow Wow’s Beware Of Dog in the year 2000, when compact discs and chunky portable players were at the peak of their popularity. Outside of the occasional big studio release, vinyl records were already little more than novelty pickups for collectors by that time, having already been eclipsed by 8-tracks and cassette tapes beforehand. The MP3 and streaming booms respectively ensured that even CDs would start collecting dust in neglected players and book shelves the world over. But even as vinyl records continued to take over the world of independent music all over again this year, there’s still a contingent pumping money and passion into bringing a full-bodied physical package to fans who have an appetite.
“We discredit things because we treat them cheaply,” says Michael Tolle, founder and director of Arizona-based independent label Mello Music Group. “People complain their music is disposable, and then they release it on disposable formats; then they say ‘I won’t invest the money in vinyl and CDs. That’s too expensive.’ If the music is disposable to you, why do you expect the consumer to treat it any differently?” A hip-hop fan with an insatiable hunger for vinyl, Tolle founded what would become Mello Music Group as a creative writing major/amateur DJ at the University of Arizona in the mid-2000s. By 2009, MMG had fully bloomed into a label that fostered talents like Oddisee, Kenn Star, Georgia Anne Muldrow, and Apollo Brown. Bigger labels might have attempted to pigeonhole them, but during our conversation Tolle’s appreciation for who his artists truly are is palpable: “I never present my guys as rappers, DJs, producers, or anything like that. They’re musicians.”
In 2015, the label released no fewer than 19 projects from hip-hop artists across the spectrum; from legends (Pete Rock, Ras Kass, Jack Splash, Finale, Rapper Big Pooh) to A1 in-house talent (Oddisee, Apollo, Georgia) to newer faces (Open Mike Eagle, Red Pill, Quelle Chris, L’Orange). And while Mello’s overall quality kept heads bobbing throughout the year, spectacular physical packages also played a huge part. Tie-dye vinyl, limited cassette runs, and CD packages speak to the label’s quality assurance, as Apollo Brown noted in an interview earlier this year:
“People thrive off digital sales but I’m old school, I like tangible product. I like to have things in my hand and read ’em. CDs are going away but I still pump out CDs because there are a lot of us still driving 1998 cars or 2001 cars that have CD players in them. If you have a Playstation or Xbox you can play em on there. Depending on the project I even pump out tapes. They sell out but I think they just like to have it. It’s a novelty product. You can go into Best Buy and see vinyl on the shelf. It’s coming back. There’s a demand for it…Vinyl is big out here so I’ll always include vinyl as part of my package. I like having those formats. You limit yourself if you only have one format.”
That’s the essential artist-to-label relationship at Mello Music Group in a nutshell right there: quality souls swapping gems to the tune of hip-hop. At a time when Big Music is more concerned with *how* much product it moves than ever, the polished quality of Mello Music Group’s 2015 discography is nothing short of inspiring. After all, as Tolle himself says, “Music is not a product, it’s an experience.”
We spoke with Tolle about the processes behind some of Mello’s best albums of 2015. Check it out below.
Oddisee – The Good Fight
Mike Tolle: “I have a joke about Oddisee, and it’s that he’s always ahead of me. When I started this music thing, he was already good (laughs), so it’s always been this competitive thing where I know that if I don’t move fast enough and understand his stuff fast enough, he’s just not gonna stick with the label; he’s that good. If you look at others like Flying Lotus and Jean Grae, Little Brother and Phonte, they were on point and their stuff worked. Rock Creek Park was released at a time when no one in hip-hop was doing live instrumentation outside of The Roots, and it wasn’t cool. Nobody was putting out instrumental records either…nobody thought of selling an instrumental record. We modeled ourselves after The Beat Generation and went at it.
Oddisee came back and he wanted to explore that avenue. He was growing as a person and touring so much…Seeing the world, he had a very cosmopolitan perspective that was different from just D.C. or his block, so he created Rock Creek Park, brought in live musicians for it, and created a new experience. That was the first big change we’d seen from Oddisee, and from there he went to People Only Hear What They See, and we thought that it would be the breakthrough record for him, and while it was in certain ways, we learned a valuable thing: that there really is no such thing as a breakthrough record. If he were to become a stadium player like U2 or something, people would say it was overnight (laughs). It’s not gonna happen like that. He’s gonna get bigger, but it’s gonna be step-by-step. It happens fast to people who aren’t paying attention, but for us, you can’t skip steps.
Then with The Good Fight, he just put it all together. It’s like when [Martin] Scorcese keeps making the same movie over and over and keeps getting better at it and understanding the story better; this is like Oddisee’s first album. Everything’s put together so right. It’s so much more musical, and there’s a lot of little things about it. He doesn’t curse anywhere on the record, and I don’t think it was him taking a stance against it. He just wanted to reach more people and it becomes more challenging to figure out how to say it without leaning on expletives. We never talked about that when the record first came out. It wasn’t a selling point, it was just there. People came to us saying they could play it with their kids in the car and other young people getting into it too, and it didn’t have boundaries; it was just music. It’s just great to see him grow and it inspires me to step up my game in order to keep him around.”
Oddisee: “Mike Tolle contacted me for production. He was working on a compilation. A few tracks in we began to discuss working on bigger projects together. Shortly after, I started releasing music with MMG.
It’s alway great working with like minded individuals that believe in you & share your vision. My most recent release with Mello was no exception. Our campaigns never feel like work, more so collaborations.”
Cavanaugh (Open Mike Eagle & Serengeti) – Time and Materials
MT: “The reason Mike [Eagle] is on the label is because we love what he does. He’s nothing like Apollo, he’s nothing like Oddisee, yet he’s still making music that other people relate to. Cavanaugh was a really great thing because Mike decided that he just wanted to make some beats. At first he might’ve been a little hesitant, but then he started sharing them with me and collabing with Serengeti over them. Much like The Good Fight, Mike’s Dark Comedy was his perfection, telling that same story perfectly. Cavanaugh was him saying that’s not enough, so he delves into sociopolitical commentary and production and this whole character and storyline.
The concept behind it is completely ridiculous and great. It takes place at a complex in Florida and Mike and Serengeti are two guys who work maintenance. And that’s the thing with challenging material from two intellectuals – no one is going to get that on the first listen through. You have to have interest and insight, and I love that he’s willing to do that. He doesn’t talk down to anyone, instead he just leaves it for you when you’re ready for it…He leads me new places. He doesn’t always lead you back to Pete Rock or Premier or the traditional stuff. He takes you back to other genres that are curious and interesting.”
Semi Hendrix – Breakfast at Banksy’s
MT: “It was all Ras and Jack. I was fortunate enough to get to know Ras when he did the Apollo project [Blasphemy] last year, so then he brought me this new Jack Splash project that they put together. He came to me with 25 songs and asked if we were interested, and I started listening to it realized that Jack really did make all the stuff you hear on the radio that’s winning the awards for this record. He’s using everything and everyone from Cee-Lo [Green] and Mayer Hawthorne and all the big names that grants that glossy sound that spells Grammy-winning. But he also brought this musicality and hip-hop funkiness to it.
He’s not just some Grammy-winning producer; he’s someone who’s fleshing out the stuff that I love. The biggest challenge with this record is just how diverse it is…It’s such a wide range that it’s hard to tell people exactly what it is. Across 19 tracks, just when you find your little groove in a funky track, it’ll take you to a 90s-style heartbreak record. Psychedelic isn’t the right word, but there’s something extra going on with this record that I like. It’s tough to absorb for people, and you just have to let it be what it is.”
Jack Splash: “My relationship with MMG initially began as me being a fan of the label and the music they release. I’m a huge supporter of pure hip hop and I was digging a bunch of the music MMG put out (Oddisse, Apollo Brown, etc.). Then, when I finished my Semi Hendrix album with Ras Kass, Ras suggested we do it with MMG & I was totally down 4 that because it seemed like a perfect home 4 the music we made.
I come from an era where indie hip hop labels were the lifeblood of keeping true hip hop alive. Major labels don’t really give a shit about the actual artform (to them it’s STRICTLY about money), so it’s nice to see that despite all of the ‘trends’ in hip hop, there are still labels who are focussed on just putting out that raw, pure, unfiltered hip hop. That’s important not just for the artists, but super important for the fans as well…So they have direct access to that real shit. I had a lot of fun working with Mello & I can tell they are just as passionate about the music as I am.”
Pete Rock – Petestrumentals 2
MT: “Obviously, the original Petestrumentals was a very important record to a lot of people. Because it was a part of that Beat Generation series that influenced me, it was one of those all-time records for me, wearing out all my CD and vinyl copies of it. Quelle [Chris] was at Comic Con with Jean Grae and Pete Rock doing a panel. We did another thing there where I saw a video clip of Kool Keith saying “Pete just told me that he finished Petestrumentals 2,” and I was like…what? (laughs) I went out there, did what I needed to do, contacted who I needed to contact, and eventually talked to him [Pete Rock]. I had just decided that this is where Petestrumentals 2 was gonna be.
He and his people were down with the idea, and from there it just worked out. It’s a really challenging record for me because when you name something 2, you have to live up to the first one, and it’s hard to do that. People need time to let time pass by and just enjoy 20 tracks of Pete Rock production, which is what I love it for. It was a great experience and something that I’m so proud to have been a part of because that’s one of the places that really started things for me. To be able to get that little bit of contact with him and to work with him on it and get to put it out? That experience alone was worth it. And it’s fun to keep revisiting it. I need to dig into it harder and let it be its own piece.”
Apollo Brown – Grandeur
MT: “Apollo and Oddisee are the anchors, and it has nothing to do with anything other than them as people. Oddisee helped me build this label, and Apollo came not too much longer after. Apollo was different, though; he’s the workhorse. He’s the head down straightforward “I like what I like, and I don’t care whether you like it or not. I wanna make what’s interesting to me” kinda guy, and not necessarily in the experimental way that Oddisee is. Apollo knows his lane is pure hip-hop, and working with him is similar.
The thing you may not realize about him is that he’s such a perfectionist. If he’s involved in anything, he goes five, six, seven levels deeper than anyone else I work with. Even if we’re doing the back cover art, he’ll want to see the graphic designer’s layout and ask for 5-10 more minor tweaks and edits. I get annoyed with him every step of the way, but I know he’s pushing me to make something very small a little better. He’s got that eye for that. He’s just trying to do what he does correctly.”
Apollo Brown: “With Mello Music group this is album number 12 and then I had the Ghostface album and two others prior to Mello Music Group. It’s going on 6 years with them. That’s my home. I love it. I don’t have any complaints. They treat me well, I have creative control, I do whatever I want to do. They don’t hear any parts of the album until I’m done with it. So it’s almost a surprise everytime I turn an album in. But they have trust in me. I have a good track record and I don’t tend to disappoint. Not trying to toot my own horn but if I can stay consistent I can have longevity in this game.”
L’Orange & Kool Keith – Time? Astonishing!
MT: “Keith is another one of those early influences on me, especially Dr. Octagonecologyst. I stuck with him through all the records and he was always somebody I wanted to work with. I just didn’t want to do the sex album, which is a part of Keith’s persona, but it just wasn’t the angle I wanted. L’Orange was always stretching himself and an interesting producer, and I thought to myself that Kool Keith could be the perfect fit for this. They started working together and it was.
L’Orange had managed to not imitate the stuff that had come before…Keith’s been around, he’s not some 20 year old rapper, and L’Orange didn’t try to put him on some 20-year-old rapper production. They created a whole world together. It was great to see Keith get this second wind, even if it only for a little while…Everybody who works with Keith tries to be a little more creative, and he benefits from that because the resulting work has this aura of creativity. It’s amazing to see everyone really dig in and try something extra.”
L’Orange: “I’ve been a big fan of MMG for a long time. When I got the opportunity to work with them for The City Under The City, I was all in. We explored the fit for a while and it ended up going well. They’re a perfect home for a weird artist like myself to do what I do.
They were incredibly supportive. It was actually their idea to turn our song into a full length project. The fit was so unorthodox because I tend to take myself very seriously and be a little brooding while Keith is much more free flowing, stream of consciousness. Kool Keith is a hiphop legend, so it was incredibly humbling to work with him on the project. He was able to take the concept I pitched him during our first conversation and run with it completely. I’m glad it worked, because it was a very unique balance.”
Rapper Big Pooh & Nottz – Home Sweet Home
Rapper Big Pooh: “I’ve known Nottz almost 10 years now. Our relationship was always one of mutual admiration, me as an MC and him as a beatmaker. Since we liked each other’s work, we started making stuff together and it grew into something that formed into the relationship that we have now. We thought this project was just an idea at first and it wasn’t until years later that we actually acted upon that initial conversation.
The crazy thing about Mello Music is I was featured on the first single they ever released seven years ago. My dealing with them go back to the beginning, but it wasn’t until a couple years later that we actually spoke about doing any type of project. Once we finally got the situation done, it was them being fans of my work and believing in the vision I had for myself and allowing me to be as creative as I want with the visuals, music, and marketing.
They’re about dope music, and I’m about dope music, so it works. Working with Mello Music was an exciting experiment and it was a lot of fun. I always appreciated someone who believes in the vision I have for myself and help to nurture that, so I definitely thank Mike for that.”