By Anand Balasubrahmanyan
It’s only a community center show. It's basically a gymnasium, complete with wobbly bleachers and a hardwood floor. It's 2005, and a young GMK takes the stage at the Garfield Community Center. But GMK decides to perform not to where he is, but to where he wants to be. He imagines that he's the headliner in a packed club. And he kills it: The show, the audience and, most importantly, reality.
Afterwards, while he's packing up his equipment, a friend comes up to him in genuine awe and tells him, “'While you were up there, I turned around to see if there were more people because your show felt like it was for an arena, I was surprised there was just one row of people!'”
Meeting GMK it's easy to see why he'd get that response; he has a fertile and charismatic imagination that allows him to set unique goals that aren’t tethered to the here and now. Here's my favorite example: In our early e-mail exchanges for this story he consistently used the word “brilliant” as and adjective, as in: “Let's get the ball rolling and schedule something that can be tentative unless anything comes up of high importance. Otherwise, it will be brilliant.” Same thing on his blog, gmkbrilliantreality.com. He would also use the word as his sign off: “Brilliant -GMK” Even his management team is called Team Brilliance. This is not some desperate, SNL-esque attempt to create a meme through pounding repetition. When I asked him about it, he said he repeats the word as much as possible so people around him internalize it and start to feel brilliant themselves.
And he doesn't just mean the “intelligence” sense of the word, he means every connotation of brilliant. He wants people to feel like beautiful light refracted. Shine on you crazy diamond.
GMK is a vital rapper. He reaches unique conclusions, blindsides you with sneaky punch lines and doesn't let conventions or expectation limit his flow. He's a smart guy with a tendency to think out loud, and his tangents range from keen insight to abstract free association and almost always end up where you least expect them. What more could you ask from an MC?
But there's a downside to unanchored expectations. Now, with several releases on his resume (including a national single produced by Jake One) and good press from Seattle hip-hop blog Blogiswatching to the Seattle Times, GMK is opening for the kings of drug rap, Clipse, and hip hop legend Slick Rick at the Showbox tonight, September 10. It's a prime spot in front of nationally prominent acts, a long way up from the rickety Garfield gymnasium performance four years ago.
But it's not where this dreamer wants to be today. He has grand ambitions to promote his striking, sprawling new release, Songs for Bloggers, and it's reception here in Seattle has underwhelmed his (admittedly enormous) expectations; there's still a gap between the show he imagines when he performs and the show he performs.
Later this month, GMK (Golden Mic King) is leaving for LA to follow the same hopes that every band does when they leave for LA. And that's the tragedy of GMK's ambitious exuberance; restless dreams are just that.
GMK attended North Seattle's Nathan Hale High School. It was there that he met a guy named Dot, his close friend and primary musical collaborator. GMK calls Dot his “Co-producer in life.”
Dot is a tall, cynical vegan with a fixed gear and existential sense of humor. When I asked Dot a simple question—his age—he talked about his resistance to that distinction, how he values existing in the now, and with elliptical mysticism, answered, “But if you're asking how many times I've been on this earth as its rotated around the sun, I'd say about 24 times.”
The two quickly developed a tight bond over hip-hop production, with GMK introducing Dot to the intricacies of Kanye West and Just Blaze instrumentals and Dot sharing Timbaland's work with Missy Elliot. Soon Dot and GMK started making beats together, building off each other's excitement. GMK would finish a beat, immediately call Dot and play him the song over the phone.
The pair split up after high school when Dot left for Atlanta hoping to join that fertile rap scene. GMK stayed in Seattle and with the help of his older brother, John Johnson, made inroads with local rappers. John would bring him to gigs and let him perform. At first it was daunting for GMK. “You know that feeling of nervousness you get before you go on stage?” he says. “I had that the whole time, the whole performance, it didn't go away.”
Until it was time to go on stage, GMK would hide in the back of the clubs and panic. But John saw something special and kept GMK behind a mic. GMK pantomimes their routine: “I told my brother, 'I don't think I like performing,' and he was like,” (GMK mimics his brother and makes an exasperated face), “’well you kind of have to.”
To ease his fears, they would make mission plans together, treating each show not as a real event but as an ideal performance. Before they got on stage they would tell themselves the venue was packed, that everyone was there just for them and feed off of the imaginary energy.
His brother's tactics worked and soon GMK had gained enough swagger to catch the eye of local rap moguls, the Blue Scholars. To pre-empt the release of their 2007 LP, Bayani, the Scholars threw a five-day celebration of Northwest hip-hop at Neumos. GMK was asked to perform as a surprise guest during D. Black's set. GMK got excited and the performance validated his ambitions. “I heard rumors before [the show], people were like, ‘there's gonna be a surprise, there's gonna be a surprise.’ Some real excitement and I was like 'oh...I'm the surprise.'”
GMK recorded and put out his first two major releases in 2007. Moving up in the Seattle scene, he had started recording at the Pharmacy, a revered studio in the Central District (the Pharmacy moved to Pioneer Square in 2009) that serves as a nexus for many of Seattle's biggest rappers. It was there he recorded his first mixtape, Perfect 10. The release featured some big name contributions, including beats by Dyme Def's producer Bean One, and it was hosted by former KEXP Street Sounds DJ, B-Mello. The Mixtape was well received.
The Stranger heaped praise on the young MC writing that, “GMK has the goods on the mic ... This kid is one to watch; he'll be making that leap from ‘surprisingly dope’ to ‘seriously freakin' ill" in the future.”
The Pharmacy also got him involved in high profile projects by nationally recognized artists. While hanging out at the Pharmacy, GMK met rappers Spaceman and J. Pinder. J. Pinder liked his stuff and introduced him to Seattle-based super producer Jake One who had made beats for 50 cent and De La Sol and was preparing materials for his upcoming release, White Van Music.
Jake One was impressed with GMK and invited him to do guest verse on the song “Big Homie Style” with Spaceman and J. Pinder. Rhymesayers distributed the album nationally, and featured verses by indie rap heavyweights MF DOOM, Little Brother and Atmosphere's Slug. Jake One, according to Pitchfork, “pulled off a hell of a feat” bringing such disparate voices together and GMK's verse fit comfortably.
Despite his status upgrade, GMK still found himself frustrated. He wanted to move beyond the “simply put, hip-hop” persona he showed on Perfect 10 and “Big Homie Style,” not out of regret, but the desire not to stagnate. It wasn't rewarding “to just make a sequel” to his past work.
His initial efforts were met with indifference. He tried collaborating with other rappers, but his grand visions for mainstream success often didn't click with their style. As GMK told Seattle University's Student run paper, the Spectator, when he released Perfect 10, "I guess I'm considered underground for now and that's cool. But I'm not doing this to be an underground legend. The plan is to blow up outside Seattle."
These mismatched priorities meant that his collaborations would “miss more than hit” and after a futile attempt or two, his potential partners would fall out of touch. (GMK is coy about naming lapsed collaborators or giving details on the projects that didn't work out.)
Dot was dispirited by a similar experience in Atlanta; his sensibility wouldn't mesh with potential collaborators. The old friends had been comparing notes over email from their separate corners of the country, and then in November ‘08, Dot moved back to Seattle. While sharing stories of futility, Dot played GMK some instrumental tracks he was stuck on from an unfinished album he’d been working on in Atlanta, For Star People Becoming Human. To GMK it was a revelation, “I came in and knew what to do with it.” In Dot, GMK recognized the same ambition. “We had a higher level of being driven,” he says, “we had a lot of excitement.”
The futuristic, epic space jams of Star People also helped GMK identify what he wanted to say as a rapper. The release of Perfect 10 as an online only mixtape relied on web-based networking sites for marketing, and e-commerce made GMK reconsider how the Internet reshaped our interactions—more specifically: How it intensified the hybridization of making friends and making consumers. This line of thinking became more intriguing when—during the Myspace marketing push for GMK’s final release before Songs for Bloggers, the (frankly, brilliant) single “College Girls”—a real life college girl heard the song through the promotion. She liked it and contacted GMK through the social networking site. The two started a relationship of and by the Internet.
Dot's electronic sensibility was the perfect vehicle for GMK to deliver these new, technology inspired revelations. His next release then, was going to be his chance to finally build off the momentum of his 2007 output. It would prove his versatility as a rapper and, “finally make an album that's an experience on top of this digital age.” Baby steps, apparently, a for babies.
One of the first things Songs for Bloggers got was its title. GMK runs a pretty entertaining blog where he hosts videos of himself drinking Capri Sun and says what’s on his mind. Here's an excerpt from an entry about going to the dentist: “One highlight was the fact I had an old black dentist who hummed old spirituals and made strange grunts and talked to my teeth while working at them today.”
When the idea for Songs for Bloggers came to him, he was “online, as usual,” he says. “I have a lot of think out loud moments, and I was behind a desktop and thought what would be cool was something for bloggers. A lot of classic records are songs about something. Alica Keys, Songs in A Minor. I thought there's something about these titles. Stevie Wonder, Songs in the Key of Life. This time, where I was at was in front of my computer screen so I decided to say, ‘Songs for Bloggers.’”
The writing and recording process for Bloggers was a non-stop collaboration. For two months, GMK and Dot holed up in the studio above GMK's Columbia City apartment and crafted beats. Each morning before recording, Dot would cook a vegan breakfast and the two would get to work. GMK was new to vegan food and the meals added to the feeling he was broadening himself. “Everything was so new, so refreshing,” he recalls.
They worked on songs tag-team style: Dot would create a drum break, add some synths and hand it over to GMK who would add more parts and change the direction of the song. This process mutated many of the Star People tracks so that they barely resembled the original. "The death of one record [Star People] became the birth of another [Songs for Bloggers]," GMK muses. He would get so excited about the music they were making, he would write the lyrics to an entire song in a rush. “I had to embody this record.”
Because the concept of Bloggers was grandiose, GMK tried to root the songs in his own experiences as much as possible. “Life Stolen” was inspired by a peculiar break in to his apartment. A thief snuck into his home, but only stole one item, his laptop. GMK realized how much he relied on a single piece of hardware. Hidden in his laptop was a piece of every aspect of his life, from personal emails to his social security number. This surgical strike revealed how intertwined he was with technology. He used the robbery as a thesis statement.
For the first two months of recording, GMK and Dot were pretty much isolated from the outside world. “We were socially reclusive,” GMK says, “no hanging out, just 'lets get this done,' no distractions, no disruptions.” The only person to even get a glimpse was GMK's girlfriend (the MySpace college girl) who had to secretly “napster” the album from his computer when he was away.
That isolation ended during the two month mixing process. In true web 2.0-style, GMK invited some friends over to listen to the album, and he coaxed them to become a part of the record. His friends each took on roles of phantom Internet commentors who would dissect the tracks. These comments were included as skits on the album—an aural message board after the songs.
His friends play the roles of basic Internet archetypes. One friend played a sassy black female finding fault in all the songs—a woman trying to raise the level of the dialogue. Another played a surfer guy trying to interact with something outside his comfort zone. Then there was Spaceman who played a character that chastised GMK for not being gangster enough, insisting that GMK “Get some Dr. Dre claps or something nigger.” When I asked GMK about Spaceman's line, he laughed, “It was the icing on the cake.”
The record complete, GMK felt giddy. For the first time he had “no warrants or reservations,” about his work. He had broadened his rap persona and worked out his thesis statement on the digital age. While recording, he felt a Zen like state, a “weird peace…everything was like surreal and real all at once in this record.” That's some Rumi-level shit right there.
The thing is, GMK’s right. Songs for Bloggers is a triumph. GMK lets his mind wander like an unending Wikipedia binge. On “adult swim” he flips through programs like a TV Guide, “Just wanna go back a bit/ small space in my brain John Malkcovich/ Aqua Teen Hunger Force/ be with the force and now I Skywalk/ my supras make the sidewalk talk.” The references come out of nowhere and you're drawn in by his unorthodox logic.
The beats too feel euphoric with free association. They range from classic drum machine breaks to proggy video game music. “Fairy Tale” takes a Duran Duran style synth lead and builds into sweeping violins worthy of any Final Fantasy soundtrack. GMK reigns above it with his genre-less swagger. He sings in dense, pitch-shifted choruses and raps when appropriate.
And as serious as GMK's ambitions were, his unique sense of humor makes the record shine. On “Japan Whistle” he puns his way through an international e-relationship: “I’m lost in your web/ emails in bed/ breakfast, eggs-no spam/ throw it in my trash can/ my inbox is where you are/ and this is where I am.” And other times he hits with straight from life details. On “Sweatin like Aerobics” he illuminates skeezy AIM flirting, “lol jk brb away wait/ is this a first date?”
The concept also allowed him to put new spins on classic hip-hop tropes. On “Games Play,” GMK filtered the traditional 'social-critique- through-biography' song by cataloging changes in digital media. GMK explains that he grew up playing video games and as he aged, video games became more life-like in their depiction of violence. Contra gave way to Grand Theft Auto. He wanted to capture how “now people can go outside and see the real world through video games,” how more realistic gaming environments shape our perception of our actions and ourselves. He raps: “I'm a first person shooter, better shoot to kill/ cuz' if somebody else don't do it, somebody else will.”
It’s always reaching a little too far, but GMK is such a force of bizzaro charm that you just want to follow him into the unstable tangle of ideas, knowing that the resulting mess will be beautiful.
On June 3rd GMK and Dot released Bloggers online and celebrated by throwing an ice cream social at Cal Anderson Park on Capitol Hill. Dot bought party games that no one played. But aside from that, the event was a success. Local venue/ Eritrean restaurant, Hidmo's, pitched in and GMK used the momentum to get members of Thee Satisfaction, the Physics and Makelmore himself to endorse Bloggers on Youtube.
The press response was positive, but not overwhelming. Larry Mizell Jr. praised Bloggers in his Stranger column and Sound Magazine sent GMK around rural Washington for an online only video series. None of the coverage resulted in a huge profile boost, but GMK was included in the narrative for what the Seattle Times' Andrew Matson labeled as Seattle's 2009 hip hop resurgence.
For most young Seattle groups this album cycle would be deemed a success. GMK however, seems disappointed. After the internal build up for Bloggers, this positive, but not ecstatic reception wasn’t what he was expecting. The accolades for Bloggers have stayed in Seattle and even those haven't gotten him a label.
He laments that everyone doesn't share his enthusiasm for the record, “Not everyone gets it and that’s cool...I just have to keep working”
GMK plans to leave for LA at the end of the month. Talking about it brings back the excitement he had shown when discussing his plans for Bloggers. Half his management team is located in LA anyway, and GMK hopes to create a similar family vibe to the one he's created with his brother here in Seattle. He's imagining the ideal again.
It's a sad paradox: Bloggers wasn't held back by realistic ideas of scope, genre or ambition and the result was euphoric argument against limitation. But this unbound spirit led to unbound expectations, a finicky beast that doesn't dine on light praise. And now, restless and facing a perceived misfire, he's picking it up a trying someplace new. I don't know what say, LA is rough and, sincerely, I wish GMK the best.
GMK plays his farewell Seattle show tonight, Thursday Sept. 10, at the Showbox. Earlier this summer he recorded three songs at PubliCola's office. We're not dumb. We filmed the session. Watch GMK's PubliCola performances here, here, and here.