Mike Golden has no plan b, no fall back option. He's going to make a career from music or...there is no or.
He didn't fall out of the womb knowing he wanted to be a musician though. As a kid growing up in Indiana, Golden first fell in love with hip-hop, memorizing the same Jay Z and Eminem verses that so many kids in his middle school also knew by heart. But then a friend showed him how to play guitar, just a few first tentative chords, and everything changed.
[This is the part where I detour to confirm that yes, Mike Golden is Mike Golden's real, actual name. Well, Michael Thomas Golden III if you want to be exact, and when your real, actual name is Mike Golden you don't need to come up with an "artist" name. And now back to the story...]
Those first few guitar riffs turned into a music collection that expanded from Eminem to '90s rock and pop-punk like Sublime and Offspring, which lead to his own first high school band, Carboard Cut Out, which lead to lying to his parents about college, saying he was attending classes while he instead was bunkered down in his room writing songs. While almost all of the other guys in his high school band moved onto careers and families Mike Golden only became more obsessed, more convinced that making music was the only thing he could ever do with his life. And so that's what he did.
We recently dubbed 2015 the age of the squad, but Golden has been carrying out the tenets of squadliness longer and more completely than most. Early on it was too difficult and too expensive to put together a band, so he designed his music to be played by any of his friends. Literally, any of his friends.
"I wrote songs that were an acoustic guitar and then anything else I could turn into an instrument," he said when we spoke. "So I could hit up anyone, whatever city I was in, and people could come up onstage and jam with me. I need people to play beer bottles tonight, buckets, whatever. It was crazy to see everyone come together like that."
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That collaborative spirit lead to Golden making friends in the burgeoning Chicago music scene and he quickly started making music with the likes of Vic Mensa and Donnie Trumpet long before they were household names. And again, in the true spirit of the squad, a rising tide lifts all boats, and that's how Mike Golden found himself contributing on one of the biggest albums of the year, Surf.
"While they were making the album Nico [Donnie Trumpet] and Nate [Fox] kept saying 'Mike's gotta be on there, he's gotta be on there,'" Mike recounted. "They sent it ['Go'] to me, they were about to go on Letterman so I had to do it in five hours. They played what I did for Chance and he was like yeah, you were right."
Words like "buzz" are often empty, distractions from the often grindingly hard work of actually building a career, but right now there really is a spotlight on Chicago that's brighter than it's been in years, and Mike Golden's determined to both seize the moment while the spotlight is on the city and find his own voice, a task that's easier said then done. "Genre-bending" is another term that gets thrown around too loosely now, but it genuinely is difficult to categorize Mike Golden's music. How do you easily desribe a man equally likely to work with a rapper, a full rock band and some friends banging on beer bottles? But as he pointed out, as long as he's making music for himself and not anyone else, that music will sound true and will connect with someone.
"All I want to do is entertain, be onstage, help people with music the way music has always helped me," he said. "I don't really know how to explain it. I never know my next steps. I just write and record, write and record. That's what I do."
"Blow up" is yet another one of those empty terms, and it's one we're determined to avoid in this Top Prospects series. I could see Golden becoming a rapper's songwriting partner, like Joe Fox on A$AP Rocky's last album. I could see him becoming a crossover radio sensation, something like Ed Sheeran, or I could see him becoming something new, truly building his own lane. But Mike Golden isn't a Top Prospect because he could one day become famous, he's a Top Prospect because we've learned that the people who end up mattering are the people with no plan b, the people for whom any life but music is unthinkeable.
As we wrapped up our call Golden and I discussed his upcoming album, one he says is near completion and a project he has high hopes for. But whether that album turns him into a household name or not, on the most fundamental level it won't matter. No matter what happens, Mike Golden's just going to keep making more music. There's no other option.
[By Nathan Slavik, managing editor of DJBooth and music writer. His beard is awesome, this is his Twitter.]