McKinley Dixon Opens Up about Pandemic Process, Chicago Move, and Album Growth

by | Apr 5, 2023 | HIP HOP & RAP, MUSIC

In this candid conversation, McKinley Dixon opens up about his growth as an artist, the impact of the pandemic on his creative process, and his move from Richmond to Chicago. Known for his introspective lyrics and genre-blending sound, Dixon shares how he’s learned to condense his songs while maintaining their emotional depth. A proud Richmonder, Dixon discusses the city’s evolving music scene, some of his favorite local musicians and what Chicago offers him. With a new album Beloved! Paradise! Jazz!? on the way, Dixon’s artistic journey is an inspiring testament to resilience and growth.

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I saw the new video and loved it. Today I wanted to touch base with you about your process since the pandemic, your move to Chicago, and your growth between the last album and your newest album. 

I haven’t grown at all. I’ve actually grown less. I became more of a hater since I moved to Chicago. That’s the first bit of information.

I’ve been a fan since I first heard your stuff. With the video work and the new album, it feels like you’re moving on up, man.

It definitely takes time. Everybody in Richmond was there before everybody else heard it. But even back in Richmond, it was a communal thing. Everybody was proud of it, which is nice. It’s always good to have those affirmations.

Mckinley Dixon by Jimmy Fontaine, RVA #40
Photo by Jimmy Fontaine @jimmyfontaine1

Absolutely. You know, we haven’t talked since before the pandemic. How did everything that happened affect your music?

For me, the pandemic was a time to recoup, I did animation for a while because music just took too much time. I found ways to find communities and other mediums. I’ve been doing music for so long that I know so many folks that are now at different levels of success within their own realms of creativity. But I think, with animation, the patience of it all tied well with the forced patience of the pandemic. 

How did the unrest and the Robert E. Lee statue down on Monument affect your music? Or did it?

I don’t know, it didn’t really affect me too much. I think that a lot of those things, especially towards black folks who exist within the artists’ community, can definitely be seen as a gesture of– not false hope because there’s progress within taking down those sorts of monuments– but is more so a sort of sleight of hand thing. It’s like, we took down this monument, and this should satisfy you for a little bit.

It honestly took me leaving the city to find out that the monument is something that we can protest, but we can do it from the comfort of our house. Whereas in Chicago, a lot of these things, you can’t ignore, because it happens on the street over. It was cool that Monument was a circle where little homies were playing basketball, and people were singing and stuff, but that should have been everywhere, you know? Those sorts of communal gatherings should have been everywhere, and then they took it away. 

Now it’s an inaccessible space, that’s just growing weeds. Like it was cool for that summer, and then they were like, Nah, we can’t have your little kumbaya out here. No more. So taking the monument down is progress, but it isn’t a celebration to me. 

The number of people that were hanging out around the monument during those times– there was so much life and joy during that. If that continued, that would have been truly progressive instead of something done just to stop you from asking.

They have no real plan for what to do with that space. I wish it was still a place for discussion and a place for open conversation about all these difficult topics. Now, it feels like it’s shut down and waiting. 

Exactly. And it’s weird, because it’s like, waiting for what? Monuments are important, but I don’t really care about a dead guy on a monument. You know what I mean? I’m trying to worry about the little kid that’s playing basketball underneath it. That’s really what it comes down to.

Can you speak on the growth between your last album and your new one?

Thank you. The last album took three years. It was a well-traveled album, in the sense of distance and time because it started in 2018, maybe 2017, and spanned all the way to 2021. It became this thing where I recorded wherever I could. Now I’m lucky enough to have Nina and Lillian and Brooks and all these people working with me. But before I was fucking around and trying to find out what was gonna happen.

So a lot of the album is not very cohesive sonically, because I recorded it wherever I could. But this new album was really dope because me and Sam of No BS! Brass came together with a bunch of concepts. I wanted to make an album that was recorded in the same place, whether it was a studio or a home. And knock it out with the same players instead of me recording in a bunch of different cities. 

What prompted your move from Richmond to Chicago?

I was in Richmond for school, and then I stayed there for another 12 years. I thought I did everything I could– I did the headlines and the venues. The city is way different than it was a decade ago. Rest in peace, Strange Matter. So many places that catered to the middle ground that a lot of people existed within don’t exist anymore in this city. It felt like if I wanted to continue to grow outward at this point in my life, I’m gonna have to find a place that is a little bit more of my speed. 

Chicago had that magic. There have been so many little moments of magic in the past year because now I live in a neighborhood that looks like me. That’s the other thing about Richmond. It’s very segregated. Brown people to the south, black people to the north, with white folks everywhere else. I think that Chicago is really nice because everybody has their own space. And that gave me enough space to see how black people operate in this community. I’m inspired a lot quicker, which is good because I have to make it out a lot quicker. I’m not used to making an album in, I don’t know, fucking seven months, or whatever I did. 

Mckinley Dixon by Jimmy Fontaine, RVA #40
Photo by Jimmy Fontaine @jimmyfontaine1

Chicago has a rich history of hip-hop and jazz. Do you have any favorites?

Chicago do got a lot of people up in this bitch. There are obviously the staples like, the Sooper Record group. There’s NNAMDÏ and TITUS– they’re really big. Then there are a lot of younger artists and smaller artists that are coming up in the rap scene. We got Josh Virtue, who is really cool. A lot of those people started out in punk bands. And now they’re rappers, but they also do jazz. I think the dynamic of moving genres is way more fluid here and way older. 

As much as I love Richmond, I was the only cat doing rap with the instruments for a while. And that was what set me apart, which I’m very thankful for. It’s a privilege to do that. It’s just here, I can go see someone else that does that and it’s inspiring. 

I would imagine as a hip-hop artist in Richmond, you get segmented and there are not as many opportunities.

Definitely. I mean, I love Gallery Five and Banditos. But there’s not really too much. My friends, Ice Cream Social, just threw their party at the Broadberry recently. We were doing that in 2015, like black, queer, brown dance parties– it was ahead of the time. A lot of the Richmond folks are ahead of their time. Richmond definitely has its own groove. The groove is just not as fast as I’m looking for at this point in my life. 

Yeah, absolutely. So, what are you excited about? What’s coming up? You’re on tour, right?

Yeah, we got a tour coming up and an album coming out. I’m going on tour with Tank and the Bangas in March, which is really exciting. South by Southwest is fun too. 

Do you have any more videos coming out?

Yeah, we have a couple more singles. We got one single, coming out in March called “Run Run Run.” And then we got a live video for “Tyler Forever” and a live video for “Run Run Run.” We went through Spacebomb in Richmond and Spang in Richmond too. 

I loved seeing Angelica Garcia on that one track.

Oh yeah, shouts out to Nina. I have actually known them for so long and it took forever to get that song to fully come to fruition. So I’m really lucky.

When are you coming back to Richmond to play?

I honestly have no idea. I don’t come to Richmond a lot because it’s a lot of money. But I come to Richmond whenever I’m about to make a big music move. We recorded all the live videos there, the album was recorded there. So it’s still a home base, which is nice. I don’t know if I could completely cut ties. I wish we were doing the east coast on this tour, but that probably won’t be until the summer.

Your music is so thoughtful and you deal with a lot of difficult subjects. Do you feel any pressure on the commercial side? What is the line between keeping true to yourself and then trying to bridge over into the mainstream?

With the album For My Mama And Anyone Who Look Like Her, I think if it focused more on a commercial aspect, people wouldn’t enjoy it as much. It was kind of a big deal to start the record with that sporadic jazz song “Chain Sooo Heavy”, and then end it with a six-minute-long harp song. I was making long songs because it’s what I needed when I was processing during those times, it took me a long time to make that record.

With this one, the key to that commercial success– which I haven’t even found yet– is making the songs shorter and catchier. That’s what I really focused on. Like in the song, Sun, I Rise where the chorus is, “I took my chain into my shirt, you niggas never finna catch me,” that sort of melody. But the song is still dense. I’m not trying to lose throwing a bunch of instruments on top of shit, but I am trying to clean it up a little bit. Because now it’s not just me.

That’s also the key to the commercial switchover is having other people take a listen. If it was just me, every single song would be six minutes long and have a whole instrumental breakdown in the middle, and everybody would be fucking mad at me. I’ve found friends and the friends are asking, what if this were two and a half minutes long instead of five? And we figure out a way to pack everything into that?

Mckinley Dixon by Jimmy Fontaine, RVA #40
Photo by Jimmy Fontaine @jimmyfontaine1

From the outside looking in, the biggest thing that I’ve taken away between the two albums is, you’re a spoken word poet on your earlier albums, and then you’ve now condensed it and made it more poignant.

Exactly. My last album was spoken word like you were saying. It was a really long, beautiful book. Whereas this one, the book is moving a little bit too fast, but the pictures are still really nice, you know? You feel it throughout the first one, but with this one, you get to the end and you have to ask if you still feel that love that you felt from the beginning. And you do– so you start it over again. I think this one will have a bit more replays. Never Will Know is my most popular song on Spotify now, and that song is just six minutes of whatever I could fit. I was putting whatever I found in that song, which was cool, but this one is definitely more condensed.

Let’s talk about your favorite Richmond musicians real quick.

Yeah, put a shoutout section. We got Alfred. They’re on every record I’ve ever done and also did the cover art for “Tyler, Forever, and “Sun, I Rise.” Ice Cream Support Group puts on crazy dance black, brown, and queer dance parties– really beautiful stuff. My friend Monica just dropped her first hardcore record. It’s some punk ass name– it’s called Ordinate. Shouts out to everyone else in the city.

Thank you, McKinley, and congratulations to you man. We’re all excited for you in the city. You have fans here and love here for sure.

Thank you. I miss the city every day.

Follow McKinley Dixon @freemckinley
McKinley Dixon NEWS / MUSIC / TOUR :

R. Anthony Harris

R. Anthony Harris

I created Richmond, Virginia’s culture publication RVA Magazine and brought the first Richmond Mural Project to town. Designed the first brand for the Richmond’s First Fridays Artwalk and promoted the citywide “RVA” brand before the city adopted it as the official moniker. I threw a bunch of parties. Printed a lot of magazines. Met so many fantastic people in the process. Professional work:

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