Making two of the year’s most talked-about, genre-defying mix tapes is never easy – especially not if you’re doing it in your dorm room in the middle of the night, with homework piling up, friends banging on your door and the campus police barging in to shut down the noise you’re making.
“I sacrificed my social life last semester,” shrugs Mike Posner, the producer/singer wunderkind who just finished his last class at Duke University, with a major in business and sociology, a semester early and with a GPA of 3.5. Posner will walk with the rest of his class for graduation in May 2010. But then the 22-year-old — who first emerged on his dorm-born mixtape “A Matter of Time,” released in March on iTunesU, and who’s set to drop his first album this summer on J Records — lets out a fraternal, mischievous smile. It’s the smile of a college kid who knows he’s on the verge of something huge. “I feel like I’ve earned certain things now.”
For instance: props from Kanye and Jay Z, songs with Kid Cudi and Wale, shared bills with artists like Gym Class Heroes and Ben Folds, and a devoted, diverse following that already seems to know all the words to songs spread only through word of mouth.
Posner doesn’t think twice about the popularity of his surprising, mashed-up sound, which owes as much to electro-pop as to southern hip hop, soul and R&B.
“I’m just making pop music that’s not corny, pop music that you don’t have to call a guilty pleasure, music you don’t have to be embarrassed about,” he explains. “I go everywhere pop artists go but without losing my credibility.” Essential to Posner’s credibility are laser-sharp songwriting and production chops that unfurl lyrics as slick and dense as the grooves and chords they populate. And he sings too, in a distinctive, raspy tenor somewhere between Daniel Merriweather and Macy Gray.
Posner’s talent has given him a beaming, headstrong confidence. “Just kill this project by yourself, produce it, write it without any help, and people are gonna be sucked in,” he exclaims.
Sometimes that assurance sounds like a front. For all of its pop flavor, Posner’s music hints at an existentialism well beyond his years. That tension drives his breakout song, “Cooler Than Me,” a hot pop ode to a former crush that floats somewhere between kiss-off independence and doe-eyed obsession. “I hope that you like this,” he sings over a slick acoustic guitar and thick beats, “but you probably won’t.”
Posner’s not afraid to acknowledge his influences and cite his sources, even as he’s improving upon them. “Sampling” other songs doesn’t just reveal his unabashed pop affections: it underscores his ambition to breathe new life into the form. “Halo,” his shimmering, beat-heavy rendition of Beyonce’s break-up song is such a refreshing take on the original that its producer, Evan Bogart, called Posner in for a studio session. On “Evil Woman” Posner strips the Electric Light Orchestra’s polyester original down to its chorus and chord progressions, then sing-raps over a rollicking beat. And “Still Not Over You” — a soulful, head-bumping renovation of The Fray’s “Over My Head” — trades half the original’s emo drama for a cheeky dirty South hip hop swagger: “Remember babe I wrote you all those love poems in seventh grade … I don’t want to see them up for sale on eBay, don’t put them on eBay.”
Posner’s joking, but only by half. The fans are already obsessed. When organizers at a Duke concert cut the sound last year after it ran over time, hundreds of students simply shouted out the rest of the song for him. Posner chalks up his fan base to a word-of-mouth that began with his wide friend network. “The marketing plan of my mixtape was just to put it on iTunesU and ask my friends to tell their friends. People really liked the music. It wasn’t just one song.”
By spring of 2009, Posner found himself on campuses across the country, playing shows for hundreds of fans who opened their hearts and common rooms to him. On the road, he often passes up hotel rooms for fans’ couches. “If I do a show at a college, I’m expected to go party, whether or not I have a flight the next day. And that’s cool — I feel comfortable everywhere.”
Musically too, Posner’s best asset is a sharp ear that locates pop resonances across the musical spectrum. It’s the result of an adolescence without filters, in a vortex of musical influences. Growing up in a Jewish family in Southfield, Michigan, outside Detroit, Motown “was spoon-fed to me my whole life,” Posner says. “My dad was a Deadhead but he had a really interesting taste in music — B.B. King, Marvin Gaye and Luther Vandross — sometimes even the Counting Crows.” (He nearly boasts: “We listened to them on car trips, before they got big!”)
An auspicious summer at band camp at the age of 15 hooked Posner on the drums, but it was his daily bus ride to school that offered the most thorough education in the ABC’s of hit-making. “I had one of those huge CD books, and I’d listen to everything,” says Posner. He rattles off names like Led Zepplin, Nas, Pearl Jam, Talib Kweli, Paul Simon, Elton John, Billy Joel, Outkast, Eric Clapton and Nirvana — a list that helps explains not only his musical scope, but also his producer’s acuity. In other words, as he says, “I know when something’s dope.”
A summer internship at a Detroit hip hop station after his freshman year of college didn’t hurt either. Once, his parents detested the beats that emanated from the cheap keyboard and computer in his room. Now, many keyboards and samplers later, he says, his folks bump “Cooler Than Me” in the car. “My mom finally liked something I did,” he says with pride.
In his group of friends he found as many layers. “In high school I didn’t have a crew: I was part of every crew. I would hang out with the black kids, and the next hour I’d be hanging with the Jewish kids, or hanging out with the football players,” he says. “I was always transgressing those boundaries.”
Never one to be pent in by categories, last year Posner decided to add another credit to his repertoire: singing. “A lot of producers would send their beats out to singers, but I didn’t know any singers. I would sing a lot of times with the notion that my vocal would be replaced eventually by someone else. But as time went on, as I wrote more hooks, eventually I had these songs that wouldn’t work for anybody else. Someone else could sing all the notes for my songs, but I can’t picture any artists in the industry singing those lyrics.”
That’s because buried between his steamy beats is a deep pathos born as much out of frigid Michigan winters as out of his solitary working process, Posner says. “The craziest thoughts and conversations I’ve had take place in my own head. Music is a way to open up that window and let other people in.”
While “Cooler Than Me” and “Drug Dealer Girl” — a pleading ode to a squeeze especially close to his heart and his marijuana — only hint at Posner’s inner demons, the mixtape’s title track, “A Matter of Time,” offers a cautionary tale that digs far beneath the skin of the driven solo artist.
“I was bombarded with these people hitting me up, wanting to work with me, and I realized all these people were thinking they were just gonna be so big,” says Posner. “I thought it’s just a matter of time before they realize it’s not going to happen to most of them. Or it’s a matter of time before they do make it, and then nobody remembers you. Whether you’re the biggest star in the world or not, time will conquer you.”
Still, Posner’s got an early start, and he’s determined to keep his star shining for his next twenty-two years. With as able a command of the microphone as of the keyboard and the studio controls, he’s starting to sound less like the student and more like the maestro. And when he’s on stage, piecing together beats and chords while leading the audience in thumping singalongs, he already looks like the maestro too.
Posner’s not stopping there. “I’m doing something nobody else can do or has done yet, and I’m blessed to be signed to a label and be finishing school,” he says, his hushed voice tinged with a sense of wonder and a preternatural honesty. “A lot of people in my position would think I’ve worked within this box, and I have to recreate what I’ve already done. But I’m already so much better than I was when I made my mixtape.” He promises: “The album is going to be nuts.”
Source: MTV.com (2010)