There’s usually a distance that’s kept between journalists and musicians, but sometimes that line just needs to be crossed. Rock-rap trio the White Mandingos are positive proof that writers and musicians can co-exist in studio harmony. The seeds for the project were laid down 10 years ago, when Sacha Jenkins, a journalist who co-founded hip-hop magazine Ego Trip and worked as music editor at VIBE connected with Bad Brains‘ Darryl Jenifer. A few years and some start-stop recordings later, they connected with L.A. MC Murs, whose sociopolitical rhymes criticize popular rap themes. The resulting effort is their debut album The Ghetto Is Tryna Kill Me. Throughout the 16 tracks, we follow fictional character Tyrone White, a Harlem housing project guy who confronts issues of race and identity in his career and personal life. Like a lot of dudes these days, he likes rock music and fights to stay grounded. Hive caught up with Murs and Jenkins, who explained the origins of the White Mandingos, the crossover of rock and rap, and the authenticity of their lead character Tyrone.
How did the White Mandingos form?
Sacha Jenkins: Bad Brains was one of my biggest influences in terms of being a black kid who liked a little rock ‘n’ roll. I got involved with the hardcore punk scene in New York City when being a black person into that kind of stuff was a little different. Bad Brains was a group that gave me a sense of pride and a sense of belonging, their existence made me feel like I was on the right path. Eventually I became a journalist. I published my own magazine for many years called Ego Trip, but simultaneously I was the music editor at VIBE. As I rose through the ranks at VIBE, I had the opportunity to interview Daryl when the band was signed to Maverick Records. They just signed a huge deal with Madonna and I did a phone interview with Daryl. He was a real asshole. It crushed my dreams. I was like, “damn, Bad Brains was the most influential shit to me, and my idol just hurt my feelings.”
Some years passed and Black Dots, which are these rare and unreleased demos of Bad Brains songs, came out. I had the opportunity to write about it and I was really inspired by the music. So the publicist hooked me up with Daryl and he was in a much better mood. We hit it off so well that I said to him, “man, I’ve always wanted to write a book about you guys.” He didn’t know me from a can of paint and he said, “come and kick it with me.” He was living in Woodstock, New York at the time, it was dead of winter, I go up there and he played me some really amazing music for another band he was in called Stealth. We just hit it off really well.
By 2003, we recorded a bunch of music with another MC and we were slated to do all these shows, but things just went awry for various reasons. The music was sitting on a CD for years and years. Fairly recently, I was cleaning my house and found the music and called Darryl. I said, “this stuff still sounds really good, you wanna do it?” He said yes. I was speaking with spiritual leader Ted Bawno about the music, who advised me to reach out to Murs. He said he felt that Murs had the spirit of what it would take to build a strong band. I tracked down Murs’ number and said, “you don’t know me, but I’d love to collaborate with you and Darryl.” He said, “bet.”
So Murs, it was really that simple, where Sacha called and you said, “bet, let’s do it?”
Murs: I’m a big fan of hip-hop journalism, like when there really was such a thing. So when I got a message from Ted Bawno like, “Sacha Jenkins wants to give you a call about a band,” I was like, “Sacha Jenkins???” I thought it was dope that it was Sacha. It was instant, like someone from Bad Brains — which admittedly I got into super late in the game. To get a chance to work with Darryl and Sacha was a complete no-brainer for me. I came up with the concept and some of the ideas I wanted to implement like four years ago. Giving it to Sacha, whom I think is a great writer, I was so nervous. I thought maybe these ideas could be lame, but he loved it. He added to it and we built around it. What you’re listening is to about three-and-a-half, four years in the making.
Coming from different backgrounds, how did you arrive at the sounds we hear?
SJ: The physical music on the record is pretty diverse. I think it spans a few different genres. I think hip-hop, especially with Murs’ performance and his lyrics, there’s hip-hop, but I’ve never been a fan of rap-rock. I think that when you look at all of our influences — not only as creative artists, but as black men coming from three different cities — it’s a big part of what the record is. If people really sit down and listen to all the music on this album, it spans a broad range. I think it’s a reflection of the things that Tyrone goes through in his life. There’s music you listen to when you cook, there’s music you listen to when you’re doing the nasty, there’s music you listen to when you fight. All of the movements on the record coincide with the story that Murs is telling.
So is Tyrone you?
SJ: A lot of the stuff I’ve been involved with over the years has been rooted in identity and race. I did a reality show called The White Rapper Show; I did a book called The Big Book of Racism, so a lot of my art has been rooted in black identity. When I was coming up, I was a weird black kid, ya know. I rode a skateboard and all, but I grew up with rappers, I was down with hip-hop, I went to the same junior high as Nas. I used to write graffiti with Havoc from Mobb Deep. Hip-hop was a major part of my experience, but rock was also a part of my experience. Knowing the pedigree and intimate respect that Murs has with hip-hop, and knowing that Darryl has an intimate relationship with rock ‘n’ roll, it’s different now. As a young black kid today, your world is so much more expansive because of the Internet. It’s okay to be interested in different things. “Tyrone White” is someone I grew up with, who had very similar things happen to him in his life, and he didn’t have many options. Had he experienced the world the way it is now? It’s just so broad. The reason why White Mandingos can really work right now is because it’s so on time.
The Ghetto Is Tryna Kill Me is out now on Fat Beats.