Rock

How Machine Gun Kelly Found His Inner Rock Star

Machine Gun Kelly
Nathan James

Machine Gun Kelly

Interscope chairman/CEO John Janick remembers the first time he saw Machine Gun Kelly perform, at a sold-out show in downtown Los Angeles in the early 2010s. A recent label signing, MGK was primarily known as a rapper — but Janick was struck by his full-band setup and rock star vibe. “I came back from the show going, ‘He’s somebody who obviously was inspired by hip-hop, but also by punk and alternative music,’” he recalls. “‘His music should be played on KROQ.’"

It took awhile, but Machine Gun Kelly, 30, is finally in heavy rotation on the storied L.A. alternative station — and just about every one in the format in America. With September’s Tickets to My Downfall, he made a surprisingly seamless pivot from alt-tinged hip-hop to full-on pop-punk, in the process scoring his inaugural Billboard 200 No. 1 — the first rock album to hit the top spot in 2020.

Machine Gun Kelly and Interscope laid the groundwork for the artist’s alternative takeover with 2019’s “I Think I’m Okay,” a pairing with fellow rock-leaning Interscope artist Yungblud and pop-punk drummer Travis Barker that became the third single from MGK’s 2019 album, Hotel Diablo. It hit No. 3 on the Hot Rock & Alternative Songs listing and demonstrated the rock star potential in which MGK and Janick had long believed. “Me and [Janick] have been in that building for years, trying to figure out [how to make] something click that both me and him understood, but we couldn’t get the world to understand,” says MGK (real name: Colson Baker). “ ‘I Think I’m Okay’ was our first ‘Oh, shit. I think we might be onto something’ moment.”

Not everyone at the label was immediately convinced: At a January meeting, MGK’s enthusiastic presentation of his music — he got up on the boardroom table to properly rock out — met with a somewhat nonplussed reaction. “John had a smile on his face,” recalls MGK, “and about eight of the other people were like, ‘What in the f--k is Machine Gun Kelly thinking?’”

Subsequent live covers that MGK released were more compelling — modern alternative classics like Paramore’s “Misery Business” and Rage Against the Machine’s “Killing in the Name” paved the way for the alternative radio success of Tickets to My Downfall lead single “Bloody Valentine” upon its May release. “We had hit a wall with ‘I Think I’m Okay,’ with a number of programmers who were not entirely convinced that MGK was fully committed to the format,” says Brenda Romano, president of promotion at Interscope Geffen A&M. “Once we heard [“Valentine”], we were sure that MGK could go to the next level at the format. We [took the song to alternative] in mid-May, and the response was immediate.”

“Bloody Valentine” peaked at No. 2 on Billboard’s Alternative Airplay chart. Its music video, co-starring MGK’s movie-star girlfriend, Megan Fox, earned him a best alternative win at MTV’s Video Music Awards in August, where he also played the preshow — a big look for a rock act in 2020, one for which Janick and Interscope pushed hard. He performed “Bloody Valentine” along with his next single, “My Ex’s Best Friend,” a collaboration with blackbear integrating trap elements into his pop-punk formula — and it became the biggest crossover hit of the album’s advance tracks, ultimately cracking the Hot 100’s top 40.

With Tickets to My Downfall solidly positioned for a No. 1 debut by the time of its release, Janick set an initial first-week sales goal of 75,000 equivalent album units. MGK one-upped that, betting on over 100,000. The album exceeded both of their expectations: A final release-week push that included a deluxe edition and additional direct-to-consumer content made the album end up moving 126,000 units, according to Nielsen Music/MRC Data. “But it was still the most natural No. 1,” says Janick. “Getting there, it was basically just turning on the marketing and the promotion, and then Kells just working hard.”

For MGK, victory — and vindication — were all the more sweet. “Even on my second album in 2015, I was going to f--king radio stations and being like, ‘I’m going to come in with my guitar; I’m going to play an acoustic song,’ ” he says. “John and Interscope really let me just use whatever I wanted to kick in the door this time. It was almost like, ‘My boot isn’t working. I have to use a giant f--king SWAT battering ram.’ And it worked.”

This article originally appeared in the Dec. 19, 2020, issue of Billboard.