Editorials — November 18, 2013 13:35 — 1 Comment

The Monarch Drinks With Sir Mix-A-Lot


I sat down with Anthony Ray – better known as the rapper/producer Sir Mix-a-Lot – in a booth in the back of Daniel’s Broiler on the 21st floor of a Hyatt in Bellevue, WA. He’d chosen the place for our interview, a fan of fine steaks. Mix is talkative, with a steady demeanor. He’s lived the gamut from want to have, violence to security. And I can only believe that, given this history, he’s developed a sort of calm when speaking his mind.

I’d driven to Bellevue after a seven-hour shift at the Pub at Third Place. I went through the 520 toll and Parked on the street by a McDonald’s. I looked around to find where exactly Daniel’s was located. I’d asked several people along the sidewalk for directions, all of whom gave me vague answers. I am rarely in Bellevue (Mix does most of his meetings there, coming from Auburn where he’s been living since ’89). Nevertheless, I finally found the hotel and when I walked up to the entrance of the building, I saw a man looking over what appeared to be a big, electric broom. That couldn’t be Sir-Mix-A-Lot, I thought. Wait, it is Mix! Maroon shirt, blue jeans, short dark hair. He’d taken his cell phone out and shot a photo of the label and serial number. “I have a lot of cement at home,” he tells me, “I’ve been looking for one of these. And I ain’t about to rent one!”

I stood there, watching. I am not good at talking tools and I had no knowledge of the electronic lingo he used. This is the man who’s seen just about everything in the Seattle music scene over the past thirty years – from early hip-hop to grunge to bands like the Presidents of the United States and now to Macklemore. When he finished inspecting the device, we walked into the lobby of the hotel, to the elevator. We shot up to floor 21. I tried to imagine what it was like for him – in the back of his mind he has to be wondering if someone will recognize him. Not because he’s greedy for fame or acknowledgment but because it simply must happen so often.

The host at Daniel’s took us to our booth after showing us a giant Maine lobster behind glass surrounded by steaks of various double-digit ounceages. We sat down across from one another in the dimly lit restaurant. Night had set in and we had a clear view over lit-up Bellevue. People were at the bar a few dozen feet behind our booth, drinking, being affluent.

Mix doesn’t drink so he ordered an unsweetened iced tea, no lemon. I do drink so I ordered a Red Hook ESB. As we talked, a few revelations came to the fore. First, Mix said he hated his number-one hit “Baby Got Back” as he was making it and that Rick Rubin told him to speed up its tempo and release it as a single. Second, Mix thinks that if Eminem were black, he would likely be thought of as the Greatest Rapper of All Time. These are sound bites that tantalize. But what I’m more interested in is how Mix carries himself at dinner. Does he look at his cell phone often (not really), what is his voice like (gravely and free-flowing), what sort of food does he order?

Our waiter, Gordon, arrived carrying a small flashlight to illuminate the various items on the expensive Daniel’s menu. He placed our drinks in front of us. He told us the spinach salad had been on the menu for 27 years, told us about the kitchen preparation with an 1,800-degree broiler and the chefs’ proclivity for very generous chars. Gordon then stood still and dutifully, waiting.

Mix ordered the lobster bisque to start and the 14-ounce rib eye as an entrée. I ordered, as is my proclivity, the French onion soup along with the lobster tail and (gluttonously) a side of mac and cheese. Given the well-to-do feeling at Daniel’s, Mix and I almost immediately start talking about money. “Working at a place like this, the tips must be crazy,” I say.

“You’d be surprised,” he says. “Some people think that just because they have wealth that they’re superior. The only way to truly have wealth is to lose it.”

Mix is involved in several projects at any given time. Recently, he finished an album with Seattle musician Ayron Jones (more on this later). He’s also working on renovating a house and selling another. He just removed an indoor swimming pool, replacing it with a music studio. Also gone is the indoor basketball court, replaced by a guest suite.

He admits that he enjoys owning a lot of land. “For my hobbies,” he says. “I love cars. I build amplifiers – I’ve been building amplifiers since I was a little kid. I love electronics. And when I say ‘build’ I mean big shit!” Mix’s parents split when he was seven years old, but his father stayed in his life, he says, and showed him how to work. “I have no problem getting my hands dirty,” he tells me, sipping his iced tea.

He is far more versed in the political atmosphere than I. Yet, one of his biggest pet peeves is excessive political correctness. “What happened to a guy just being a crazy bastard? What a concept! I have a theory: it all comes from talk shows. We’re analytical about everything. Paralysis by over-analysis.” A gun owner, Mix doesn’t confuse the issue about his gun ownership. “I think both sides are full of shit, I’ve always felt that way. The NRA is not defending my rights as a hunter – they just want to sell more guns. And then you look at the people who want to ban guns – they only want to ban guns until someone breaks in.”

The waiter comes by with a refill of iced tea and a plate of bread and salted butter.

“I’ve lost 25 pounds recently,” Mix notes. “I did it the slow way. I don’t diet – for instance, I knew I was coming here tonight so I ate oatmeal for breakfast and at lunch I had a protein bar and a little later two or three chicken wings. I try not to go over 2,000 calories.”

“I don’t believe in dieting.”

“I just try to limit my carbs. Seems like when I limit my carbs everything goes right.”

“I can’t be around potato chips…” I say.

“See, my thing is anything baked. Cinnamon rolls, doughnuts. But it’s funny because I don’t like candy. I don’t eat a lot of chocolate, don’t drink a lot of pop. And my girl, she can bake. She’s skinny but she makes me eat what she makes. ‘Honey, try this!’”

“How long’ve you two been together?”

“About 13 years. She’s good people. Too good for me! We knew each other as kids, grew up together.”

Achieving a number-one song is a trip. The obvious temptations come along and Mix said he was no exception. “I bought a Viper,” he tells me. “I bought all these different cars. But I didn’t realize how I had changed until I saw somebody who hadn’t seen me in a while. He said, ‘Dude, you’re nothing like you used to be.’ I thought he was giving me props! But he was like, “Nah, man, I’m seeing how you talk to people, order people around. That’s not you.’”

“I’ve been thinking more and more about that,” I say. “The idea that when you’re 60 or 70 or 80 and you’re looking back, what is actually important? What will you want to remember?”

“I can say that when my dad passed away, everybody who stood up at that funeral, they didn’t bring up that he had that cool car, and all that, but they brought up stuff like, ‘I remember that one time…’ All little stuff. And you realize, that’s what you remember.”

Here in Seattle, Mix, now 50, has been hard at work. He put in hundreds of hours on the new album from Ayron Jones, a masterful guitar player with a gritty, bluesy voice. “Ayron is wise beyond his years. He really reminds me of me at that age. He doesn’t know how to fail. He said, ‘I think I’m going to win a Grammy in a year.’ Who am I to tell him no? He might!”

“Alabama Shakes put out their record and within a year were nominated,” I offer.

“Yep. I love that band.”

“So, how do you find out about local music?” I ask.

“My buddy Scott told me about Ayron, actually. I went to see them at a club one night, I walked up to the place and they sounded like 50-year old white guys. And I mean that in a good way. Skills, polish. I heard the voice – and I walk in and am like, Holy shit, they’re kids! Black kids!”

Chatter is everywhere in Daniel’s, a baby cries at the adjacent table. A man at another table sends a steak back because it isn’t cooked to his liking, something Mix scoffs at. I sip my ESP then butter a bit of bread.

“Ayron loves the Nirvanas, the Alice in Chains, he loves his musical history,” he says.

“That’s where it’s at. People like him, like Macklemore, repping Seattle.”

“Yeah, Mack is the same way,” says Mix, who collaborated with the rapper recently for The Heist’s “White Wall’s video. “To me, he is the epitome of how to succeed in today’s business. Social media is power.”

History shows that hip-hop once offered an example of how to produce good work without the sanctioned means of production. And Macklemore did this again, proving independence as an artist is possible, complete ownership of your product is possible even while making millions.

“You can’t succeed in this country without a bit of a struggle,” offers Mix. “You have to be able to look at a point and say, ‘That’s where I started from.’ Mack’s story, I love it. What he did with Warner Brothers. See, I used to be on Warner Brothers, I know how they did business. And to see what he did, to go down there and say, ‘No, we’re not here to sign with you, we’re here to pay you to work for us. I love it!” A second ice tea is finished. Ice is melting slowly in the glass. Gordon brings our soups. Placing each bowl delicately in front of us.

As we start to eat, I ask Mix the one question I needed to ask, “You’re in a unique place here in the town. You’re sort of the wise sage people are looking to now. A lot of folks seem to be coming to you for advice or perspective. How does that feel?”

“Man, I’m still learning from these kids,” he says. “I learn and I try to apply it to the things I do. And it seems to work.”

“Did Macklemore come to you for advice?”

“No, he was smart not to. Because I would have fucked him all up. He knew more than I already knew. I learned from him.”

I break bits of baked cheese off the sides of my soup cup and eat them. I dip bread into the dark brown broth. Mix eats his soup with care. “Do you see yourself staying in Seattle?” I ask.

“Oh yeah, man. I ain’t never going to leave. As soon as you get out, you realize how great it is to come home. I will say, though, Seattle has problems with parking! They’re making it hard for people to park. It’s the dumbest shit in the world.”

Mix is something of a political junkie. He smiles when the idea of why comes up. “My mom used to make me, as a kid, watch the news,” he says. “And I hated it, but then what happened was I started to understand it. My mom told me, ‘You don’t ever want to be in an elevator when somebody says, “What do you think of the Vice President doing this or that” and you can only pretend to know.’”

At the time of our dinner, the American Government is amidst a Partial Government Shutdown. Mix begins to explain his outrage with Republicans feigning ignorance about who is responsible for the impediment of Obamacare, a health care initiative President Obama instituted on the backs of the American people who voted him into office for a second straight term. “I agree with Bill Maher on this,” he says. “Racism is so involved in some people’s perspectives that they can’t even see themselves. You don’t even vote to protect your own interests now because you hate that guy more. I remember in 1995 there was a Pay Your Own Way health plan, it was the exact same plan, Newt Gingrich introduced it. But now they all hate it. I remember my dad saying, ‘Want to see racism? Put a black man in charge of something, they will come out of the woodwork.’ Although, I will say this: they are a minority.”

Balance is the key, he decides. “It’s ironic, but the gerrymandered districts are going to be the demise – you’ve gerrymandered all these districts so that you ensure you always have a job, but you can’t win an election in a general unless you swing to the center. But if you swing to the center the gerrymandered districts turn on you. I really think Obama is getting sick of this shit.”

Gordon comes by and takes our now-finished soup plates. The main courses will be here soon. I am about to have lobster for the fourth time in my life – most recently, during another dinner with John Roderick at Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse. I give up my vegetarian status for special occasions. So!

Gordon swings by our booth with piping hot entrees. He cuts Mix’s steak open to show it’s medium cook and light char (the way he likes it). “This is a long shot,” Mix says, “but do you have any bar-b-que sauce?” Gordon, as he lifts the lobster meat from its shell on my plate, says he will be right back with some. Mix and I dive into our feast.

“I’m strange though,” he says. “I can go to a place like this, or I can go to Rosco’s Chicken and Waffles. That’s how I am.”

I ask him if he’s got a tour coming up to go along with his Nov. 2 show with Ayron at Neumos. He nods and adds, “I love secondary markets.” He rattles off town names like Missoula, Billings, Jackson – places he drives to as he doesn’t fly. This idea intrigues me, to go to the places where few others go, to play for the thirsty fans. It’s generous and brilliant all at once.

“Do you have a favorite show you’ve played?” I ask.

He answers quickly, “Oh, yeah. We were at this club–” he is interrupted by Gordon bringing the ramekin of BBQ sauce. We assure Gordon the food is delicious. “It was the day I went number-one but I didn’t know it. We were working so hard on tour – trying to watch our budgets – and we hit Panama City and I remember wondering what the hell was going on. Outside the club there was a hotel next to it and every balcony was packed to the point that the fire department was telling people to get down. I mean, literally, thirty or forty floors. We were totally confused, like, ‘What are they looking at?’ and we walk in the club and the club owner was saying things like, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, tonight on stage none other than the man that just went number-one!’ I have it on tape somewhere and you can hear me saying, ‘Man, shut the fuck up.’ I still didn’t believe it. But he kept saying, ‘The number-one song in America!’ and I looked at my assistant, but he didn’t know either. So I called Rick Rubin and he said, ‘Yeah, you just went number-one today.’ It ended up being the most insane show – it wasn’t a stadium, I don’t like stadiums. Don’t get me wrong, if you’re Macklemore’s size you gotta do stadiums, but back then you couldn’t really do stadiums because of gangster rap, the insurance was through the roof – but there were so many people packed into this club, it was like people were stuck together, standing on top of the bar, in the parking lot, and I’m telling them how to react. I will never forget that as long as I live. I’ve had bigger shows but not that kind of control.”

He chews a bite of his steak. I am working through my mac and cheese, picturing the madness in that Florida city, people draped off railings, the body heat and thumping music. “Unlike a lot of these cats, I jump off the stage and go right into the crowd,” Mix continues. “It’s not about playing for people, it’s about playing with them.” He chews another bite of steak. “You know,” he says thoughtfully, “if I had any regret in my career, it’s the fact that many people have no idea that the studio is my first love. And I don’t mean a little bit. I soldered every wire of my studio myself.”

“So producer first, rapper second?” I ask.

“I look at rapping as producing. When people hear my new stuff, the first thing they are going to say is, ‘There’s no way he wrote his own lyrics’. When I did the song ‘Baby Got Back’ it was supposed to be something serious, but I was being tongue-and-cheek about it. People think I wrote it as a novelty song, but I really didn’t. If you listen to the lyrics, it’s actually saying some real shit but I’m having fun with it. It was basically me mocking what at that time was the establishment’s idea of what beauty was. That’s what that song’s about. People reduce it to being about butts – which is good, because if they actually knew what it was about it wouldn’t have gotten anywhere near the play. People ask me, ‘Do you regret that you’re primarily known for one song?’ and I say, ‘Nope!’ Most artists are, even if they have other hits.”

Along with the new records he’s working on, Mix recently started a tech company building interface devices for music. “MIT grads – they scare the shit out of me, man. They’re brains, hearing these guys talk – sometimes they say something when I’m on the phone with them, and I have to pause because I have to grab all this shit as it goes over my head. And they’re giving me my bid this week, it’s going to be ugly.” He shakes his head and I laugh.

By now I have finished my lobster tail. The thing was huge and I’ve finished it like it was nothing, dipping each bite into liquid butter kept warm and liquefied by a little candle. The mac and cheese is rich and almost done, and my belly is full. I sip my beer as Mix continues with his steak and side of lobster-mashed potatoes. “These kids, man,” he says. “They can walk and chew gum at the same time.”

I know what he’s talking about. In this new age of constant promotion, social media, all mixed in with the hopeful production of great art. “I have a friend whose kids walk up to the TV screen and try to make it big like an iPhone,” I say.

“Exactly, they’re not in awe of all this. Young folks now, and this is really weird, they see tape as brand new ‘That’s a cool feature, what does tape mean?’ But it’s all evolution, man, you either get in where you fit in, or you stay back. I love it and I try to apply my wisdom to that energy and make something happen.”

So who would Sir Mix-A-Lot like to work with now?

“There are folks – I’d like to just sit and watch them record. That’s when you really get it. On stage, that’s an act. In the studio, man, that’s the real shit. There’s some people I would pay to watch – like Timbaland, Pharrell. People think drum machines are bad – but that drum machine, to make that energy happen. Wow. And there’s some older people who I’d like to have been at their studio sessions. There’s a song James Brown did called ‘Doin’ It to Death’ I don’t know why they called it that, because no where in the song do they ever say that line, but in the song he’s coaching the band live! He says it a few times, ‘Down D, Down D’ and then you can hear the whole band – boom! – drop to D and I’m like, ‘Oh my god!’ To be there for that, to see their eye contact. To me, James Brown is a god.”

I fork the final bit of my mac and cheese. Savoring the smoky flavor. I look up when Mix says something surprising. “I hated ‘Baby Got Back’” he says. “I thought, ‘This song will never make it.’ I thought it was going to piss everybody off.”

“Why’d you make it then?”

“I wanted to piss everybody off!” he smiles. “But I didn’t think it was going to be a hit. Originally, it was going to be a slow song. Before ‘Baby Got Back’ I really didn’t do up-tempo stuff. Rick Rubin had this song he really liked that I did called, ‘I Got Game’ and he said, ‘Make it sound like that song.’ So, I did. I made it faster, it had more energy. Then I really hated it. But Rick said, calmly, ‘Okay, it’s done.’ But I still didn’t want to put it out as a single. So, I pushed ‘One Time’s Got No Case’ instead and Rick said, ‘It’s not going to hit.’ But I did the video and everything and it bombed just like he said. ‘Now you ready to do it my way?’ he asked. And finally I said alright. Boy, was he right.”

“You still hang with him?”

“Nah, he’s hard to reach. When I see him, we’re cool. I have the utmost respect for Rick. People get mad at him because he doesn’t call you back – I’m not his girlfriend! But I’ve learned more about the business through him than anyone in my career. He doesn’t have to say anything, you just watch what he does.”

We’ve been at dinner now about two hours and Mix’s energy is as strong, or stronger, than when we started. He has stories for days (like being backstage with Korn as they listened to Too $hort to get pumped for a show). Recommendations of new music (like the L.A. rapper Hopsin). And thoughts on Rick Rubin’s new song with Eminem. “Eminem can flow hard while telling you a detailed story – he’s a fucking beast.”

Gordon finds us again and begins to take our plates – we’re finally done with our meal. He mentions something about cheesecake but I am too full to think about it. The night is coming to an end, yet we’re still talking music. At some juncture Mix notes, “It just blows my mind how many songs Elvis stole. And nobody talks about it. But, you know, in that era you could stole songs from black artists. Big Mama Thornton was buried in a pine box! Elvis made a lot of money off this woman’s songs and she was buried in a fucking pine box? How do you live with yourself? Maybe he couldn’t. That’s why he took all those drugs and shit.”

“And died on a toilet,” I say.

The check arrives about then and I lay down a card feeling lucky to have been here to share the evening. We conclude our conversation talking about cars, one of Mix’s true passions. “It’s the look, the engine, the speed, the feel,” he says. “It’s funny, some guys are posers. They’ll buy the car, trying to get girls. Not me, man. I live way out there and go on the back roads by myself. I love it. I don’t necessarily try to go two-hundred miles per hour, I just try to enjoy the experience.”

“What do you have on the stereo while you’re doing that?” I ask, naïve.

“Oh, I never touch the stereo – nobody turns the stereo on in exotics. It’s the engine.”

He pulls up a few YouTube videos, including the one for his song, “Cars.” We watch it, his eyes glued to it. He shows me another video of himself acting like a cowboy and shooting guns into a pond behind his house. He uses the phrase “get it out of my system” more than a few times.

When we finally get to the elevator to head street level, a few of the people who’d been drinking at the bar shuffle in with us. One of them is wearing a self-described “man purse” on his shoulder from the designer Vera Wang. He holds it up to his crotch and says to us in the elevator, “It’s my big Wang!” The comment further puts into perspective the wonderful conversation I was privy to tonight.

Outside, Mix and I wait together for the valet to bring his car. We talk briefly about Marco Collins, a DJ who broke bands from Nirvana to Pearl Jam. “Man,” Mix says, “Marco is a legend. He says ‘Left’ and the whole town goes left.” I’m surprised the two don’t know each other better, but then I think: there’s more time for that. His car, a black BMW, arrives then and, as it does, two guys nearby notice Mix from the periphery.

“Oh,” says one, “Sir Mix-A-Lot! My Posse’s On Broadway! Can I get a picture, man?” Mix kindly agrees to the cell-phone shot. I nod goodbye then and begin to walk back to my car, thinking I’d be selfish to want to occupy anymore of his generous time.


Jake Uitti is a founding editor of The Monarch Review.

One Comment

  1. steve says:

    Jake, good interview! Lobster AND mac and cheese??? Have you had your cholesterol checked young man?

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The answer isn't poetry, but rather language

- Richard Kenney