[Photo by Christopher Parsons]
"When you set out to do something so impossible, and then actually you do it, it changes your perspective on everything."
When I reached him by phone King Mez was planning what he was going to wear to tonight's unveiling of Straight Outta Compton, but just a year ago he would have been slapped with that ubiquitous "up-and-coming artist" label, an essentially meaningless term tossed at any artist living in that vast, blurry expanse between brand new and firmly established. It's been about four years since a young North Carolina emcee with a voice like smoothly polished gravel made his debut on DJBooth, and since then I always believed King Mez was destined for something more, but this? A pivotal role in Dr. Dre's first solo album in sixteen years? Writing credits on 13 of the project's 16 tracks? Feature verses on three songs? Even now, with Compton in my headphones, it still seems like a dream too impossible to even be dreamed, but it's real. It's King Mez' life.
"It really hasn't sunk in," he said. "I really don't think I'll ever know what it means to be a part of this, or won't know for some years. I'm just in the moment right now, trying to keep moving forward, not picking my head up."
While Mez' tunnel vision is a wise strategy, a sanity-preserving survival skill when trying to wrap his head around the idea that literally millions of people have heard his voice in just the last few days, he's increasingly confronted with the reality of Dr. Dre's reach and impact. Uber drivers with no idea who he is play the album while driving, he hears Compton from the open windows of passing cars. He says the last few days since the album release have been crazy, wild to think about, but at the same time he feels comfortable, prepared.
"I finally feel at home," he said. "I am who I'm supposed to be. This whole time I was uncomfortable, not feeling like I was where I was supposed to be. I knew I was talented, and I've always been humble and appreciative, but to know [your worth] and not be seen is tough. I don't feel lucky, I feel like I'm at home."
Mez' faith in himself was so unshakable that when he first got the opportunity to submit a song to Dr. Dre he immediately packed up his North Carolina apartment and began driving cross country, and sure enough, on just his first day in Los Angeles, he got the call that Dre liked the song and wanted him to come into the studio. From that first day on he simply never left. Hours turned into days, days turned into weeks, weeks turned into months, and slowly but surely the Compton album came into focus, with King Mez sitting at Dre's right hand.
The recent Drake ghostwriting uproar has rekindled hip-hop's often black and white ideas about songwriting, but the truth is that creating any great album, like any great work in any genre or medium, is often a collaborative process. Mez is credited on Compton, Dre has publicly spoken about his contributions, this isn't ghostwriting, this is more like a screenwriter contributing to a script, an apt analogy for an album that also serves as an unofficial soundtrack to Straight Outta Compton.
"I never realized that was one of my talents, writing for other people, until I came out here [Los Angeles]," said Mez. "It's like method acting, how you can get so deep into a character you are that character, that's what it felt like. When I picked up the pen I was in character as Dr. Dre."
Mez' voice served as the reference for all of Dre's verses on Compton, but he was insistent on describing the process as a melting pot of ideas, with Dre and others like Justus adding lines, pushing each other to come up with new concepts, egos set aside with everyone solely focused on creating the most powerful music possible. The hours were so long it's all a bit of a blur for Mez, but in particular he remembers making album standout "Talk About It":
"Everyone was so excited when we first got that beat from Dahi. We started writing and Dre finished his verse. After that I was like, this is so crazy, I love it so much, I want to be on a verse. I told Dre and he was like, 'I think that'd be great.' He was looking for opportunities to give us all moments, and that was my moment..."
Compton's already earned its place in hip-hop history based on the names involved alone, but for Mez, as incredible as the process has been so far, he believes it's only a start, the beginning of his fate's fulfillment. As he said, "The fact that Dre looked at me and said, 'I see you like I see Kendrick.' That he sees me that way, it's an honor. I'm so ready to prove myself now."
While he wouldn't confirm whether or not he's now signed to Aftermath - if I were reading between the lines I'd say he is but the details are still being worked out, but my assumptions are just that, assumptions - Mez did say that Dre is helping him work on his next album, a project that's now taken on the pressure of proving to doubters that Mez deserves his current position in the spotlight. But no matter where Mez' career goes from here, he's able to fufill a promise to his deceased mother to take care of his younger brother, who will soon be moving out to L.A. to help Mez on the upcoming album.
"I made good on my promise," he said. "My life has been so much scarier than the music business, I was never nervous about music. I was just trying to take care of my family. And the fact that I did that, that I'm in a good spot, makes me happy."
It was all a dream...
[Nathan S. is the managing editor of The DJBooth and a hip-hop writer. His beard is awesome. This is his Twitter.]