Machine Gun Kelly on Why He 'Doesn't Want to Be a Celebrity,' Haters and Returning to the Spotlight
It’s been three years since Cleveland rapper Machine Gun Kelly (real name Colson Baker) released his debut album, Lace Up, which hit the top five of the Billboard 200. In the ensuing years between Lace Up and his upcoming General Admission (due out later this summer), the musician/actor stepped away from music and “took numerous journeys in my life to try and find out who I was.”
Stepping out of the limelight wasn’t a publicity stunt or a marketing ploy for Kelly -- it just worked out that way. “My image actually became more popular the three years I was gone from the mainstream music scene than when I was actually putting my album out,” he tells Billboard. “My music became more popular, I became more recognizable over the past two years than I’ve ever been.”
At a recent sold-out House Of Blues performance in Los Angeles that included three separate mosh pits at points, there was a rabid energy to his crowd that looks more like a Fugazi or Minor Threat show than any rapper. The zenith of the 90-minute set came near the end when MGK climbed the scaffolding and performed on the outer ledge of the second story balcony, walking around the whole outer ledge.
Backstage in his dressing room after the show, where Kelly was surrounded by several friends and girlfriend Amber Rose, we asked him if the balcony stunt was planned. “Nah,” he said as if it should be obvious. One of the signature tracks off the new album is “Bad Muthafucka,” featuring Kid Rock. When the two first met, according to Kelly, Rock exclaimed, “Holy shit, man, I’m looking at me 20 years ago.” Kelly added with a smile: “When he said that, that was the coolest night ever.”
A couple days after the House Of Blues gig, Billboard sat down with Kelly to talk about his place in the rap game, how he deals with fame and haters and returning to the spotlight.
When did you first feel the anticipation and excitement from fans for this new music?
Dude, when I did “Till I Die” in the studio I was like, “This is the element we were missing the whole time in the curating of this new album.” The album is a detailed journey through the past three years so what better way to start than with taking them through my city and answering all the questions people may have had about where I’m from and how I came up? When I put this video out and saw the reaction, it was just exactly what I wanted, which is people would see I’m taking it back to my roots and after three years of climbing the success totem pole I still feel authentic and come with the same formula I came with before, which was a track for the streets and then follow up with an inspirational track, which was “A Little More.”
What do you want people to take from this music as it starts to get out there?
I think that the big theme we can see and hear in this album, even in the album packaging as far as the album booklet, is that I’m trying to find myself. With the song content I feel like I’ve spoken on some of the subjects before, but I didn’t realize how impactful some of those subjects were. I was in Australia and I would see people with the same problems I had growing up or see somebody with track marks on their arm and they’re like, “I’ve been 300 days sober because of this particular song, because this song said everything I needed to hear.” So on this album you’ll hear those subject matters, but you’ll just hear detailed accounts, like when I talk about my father and my daughter on “Gone.” There’s a track on there called “Merry Go Round” that’s a very detailed description of a heroin couple and these things I wanted to dive into and really capture a vivid story. Each song is like its own movie.
What were some of the things you wanted to change when you came back into public eye?
The things I wanted to change were unrealistic -- like there was a point I took a break, but my image didn’t. I knew so many people were coming up to me because they knew who I was, not because they were fans of my music. That bothered me because I don’t want to be a celebrity, I want to be an artist. I feel like a celebrity is someone who sits and takes pictures with people 'cause they love themselves and how they look and how people look at them. But I just want to be regular and respected for my artistry because music doesn’t necessarily have a face.
Are there people you’ve learned a lot from on how to deal with the fame and the image?
I think I’ve watched and been around so many people that are of a high celebrity grade that I’ve attempted to soak in every kind of way to deal with fame. But even if I’m good one time I’ll fuck up the next. I just can’t find a way to feel like that lifestyle is real. I’m cool with just being depressed about it. I’ve already accepted that you’re just an open canvas to be judged anytime and be talked about at anytime. It sucks, but whatever. I’m less talking about Internet trolls and more community, just slang, whatever, depending on what source said what. It’s just like, “Let’s get back to the music, who the fuck cares did what, who wants what, who has what?” It’s so fucking annoying. That’s off topic.
If it all factored into the making of General Admission, then it’s not off topic.
Definitely, it’s all part of that journey, being hot one minute, cold the next minute, to write a million songs one day and the next day you can’t write a line to save your life. Your kid’s growing up, you’re on tour, she sang her alphabet but you’re not there to see it and losing touch with reality 'cause you’re living on a bus for years. It’s a lot of humble pie to eat. Even in the three years I’ve been gone, music went super electronic and I remember I had taken a little stab at that years back when it wasn’t as popular and people were looking at me like I was fucking crazy. So I just went back to doing me and then it just blew the fuck up. Then hip-hop music became kind of pop corny and all of this shit happened in three years. So now I’m coming back with this real-ass album and all this live music and it’s like I open my eyes and I’m in an age of politically correct rock stars and stupid repetitive sing-alongs. So where the fuck do I fit at? This is like a mic check for me to make sure there are real people out there.
What was your response when you found out Kid Rock was down to do the record?
They surprised me with the whole moment. We had went on a week listening spree of Devil Without A Cause at our house and we had also been in an inspired stage, so we had instruments out around the house, keyboards was on and so we had randomly started coming up with this little guitar bit that was “Bad Muthafucka.” I started having this thought, “It just sounds like we’re trying to be Kid Rock too much and we’re not. I don’t think this is gonna work.” So we just kind of put that to the side, but management had heard it and other friends had heard it and everyone was like, “This song is huge, you gotta do it.” Getting Kid Rock on the song wasn’t even a thought to me because that just seemed way too complicated and out of reach, so the song sat there for like a year and a half. Then right as we were closing the album out they brought me in the studio and they’re like, “We got a surprise.” They pressed play, “Bad Muthafucka” started playing and I was like, "Goddammit, turn this off, I’m not doing this fucking song.” Then out of nowhere Kid Rock starts singing and I was like, “Holy shit.” I stood up on the couch, we were fucking screaming, we busted open a whole 12-pack, poured shots, got high as fuck and I wrote all of my verses on the spot right there and that was the last song submitted for the album.
You mentioned how each song feels like a movie. Would you turn this into a film?
I want to do a lot of short films and music videos for this album if I get my way. When I listen to music on this album I see vivid stories come to life. .