If Don Mykel had to describe himself as an amusement park ride, he’d be Superman at Six Flags, “just hanging over the abyss, waiting to go up.” While Mykel acknowledges that his career is still in the elevation stage, he's eager for all the twists and turns that are coming his way.
A tried-and-true Harlem wordsmith, Mykel stands out because of his ability to fuse vintage with new-age. He makes music to keep himself on his toes, and exists outside the moniker of “your favorite rapper’s favorite rapper.”
On his upcoming EP, Infinite, Mykel can go from spitting a seven-minute, three-part tidal wave of bars (“Notorious”) to cultivating an unexpectedly plush and regal melody (“Hell On Earth”). “When I know what people are used to hearing from me, that’s when I know it’s time to switch it up,” he explains.
If it’s beginning to sound like Don Mykel is equal parts instinctual and cerebral artist, that’s likely because he began rapping over beats with his father at the ripe old age of three. “I was just mumbling over beats—the real mumble rap!” he jokes. Before moving to Harlem, Mykel lived in the Bronx for eight years, and his apartment was the site of his early music education. His dad even turned their laundry room into a home studio.
“I wrote my first rap when I was five,” he said. “My uncle sat me down and gave me a beat and gave me the first bar. He told me to have four bars done by the time he was back from the store. I don’t remember the whole [verse], but it was like, ‘We ball in real life. Don’t get it twisted. My dogs, they will bite.’”
Beyond his family's influence, Mykel spent hours studying Lupe Fiasco and Lil Wayne, listening closely to and picking up on their technical skills. There was also a moment where he wanted to be both Bow Wow and Lil Romeo. “They had cars, they had jewelry, they had girls. Being young and seeing them, that pushed me heavily,” he explains.
While his dad also played the classics around the house, it wasn’t until he turned 14 and became certain he wanted to be a musician that Mykel began fastidiously studying the genre. He took note of rappers with some of the best pen games: Common, Hov, Nas, Jay Electronica, André 3000, and, of course, Pac. “[Pac] is somebody that I studied my whole life. I used to emulate him, running down the stairs with a bedazzle on my nose and a bandana on my head.”
Despite receiving an education from some of the best writers in rap, Mykel rarely writes down his rhymes—an old habit from his school days. “Coming home from school after writing on pen and paper all day, I didn’t want to write anymore. So I would just recite lyrics and create bars in my head until I remembered them,” he tells me.
Just because Mykel prefers to follow in JAY-Z's footsteps doesn't mean the pen to paper method is obsolete. On Infinite track “Ghost Til November,” a looming and confessional cut that rests on the back of emotive keys and a tolling bell, the song only came together because Mykel wrote down his lyrics.
“It was really the instrumental that first brought out that energy and emotion,” explains Mykel. “At the time, I was going through a lot of things that are covered in the song, and they were just eating away at me. I had to write it all down. It felt like if I didn’t let it out into the song, I wouldn’t be able to go on. Since making the track, I was able to cope with things a lot better.”
On the mic, Mykel has no reservations, sometimes surprising himself with how effortlessly a song can come together. “It’s almost as if I’m a vessel and these stories are being told through me. Like I’ll say a bar and not realize it, then go back later and hear it and think, ‘Shit! I said that.’”
Being so tuned into his creative process, Mykel still faces setbacks when making music. That’s also where the pen comes in: “When it’s not feeling that effortless, though, that’s when I grab the pen. Writing forces my hand.”
Aside from the heart-wrenching decision to cut several tracks that he had fallen in love with during the recording process, the EP came together seamlessly after Mykel finished the braggadocious anthem, “N.W.O.”
“'N.W.O' really set the tone [for the project],” Mykel said enthusiastically. “It put me into this crazy creative vibe, and I started pumping out songs faster than usual. I could make five songs in a day and know right away which ones were and weren’t going to make the project.”
With an influx of material, Mykel remained discerning, having two main goals for the EP: combining his old school sensibilities with the rowdier sound of today, and making a project that flowed without the use of skits or interludes. To compensate for the lack of any bridge tracks, Mykel sat down with all of his records and set aside any that he felt didn't serve a greater purpose. This meticulous nature helped translate into a project without filler.
Across its eight tracks, Infinite dips its toes into myriad sonic themes. That’s not to say it’s scattered, though. When Mykel captures the crackle of a thunderstorm, he explores the very edges of that crisp and booming sound.
“I like to experiment with sounds and stay on my toes and challenge myself to see what I can do creatively,” he said. “I never want to be stagnant. I like to travel to each element and try to master it. I’m on my Avatar shit.”
No song on the EP is more emblematic of his versatility than the epic opener, “Notorious.” Mykel explains that the track spawned from his desire to have a three-track intro, with each of the beats showcasing one of his styles. Produced by LevyGrey, the first beat was meant to be grandiose and ear-grabbing. Mykel wanted the second beat to lean more on trap influences, with a bounce that he could switch flows over. The third beat needed to tap into his emotional side.
Clocking in at just under seven minutes, I assumed the record took a tremendous amount of time to write and produce. I was very wrong.
“The first beat [LevyGrey] made for the song was the last one. He was playing it in his headphones while working on it on his laptop. I heard the beat through the headphones and gave him a look like, ‘That’s the one!’ Once he finished that one, I wrote that last verse in a night. He gave me the second beat, and I wrote that pretty quickly. The hardest one to write was the first verse—it had to be pen and paper.”
Sensing an admirable certainty in his voice, before our conversation came to a close, I asked Don Mykel what he would tell a younger Don. His advice was solid: “I would tell my younger self to be very open-minded, to be careful of who you trust, and to not expect anything, but always hope for the best. I would tell myself to get on social media and be open with the listeners, and really work on that relationship.”
If the Infinite EP is an indication, he’s on the cusp of being able to tell his younger self that he’s made it.
This is one ride that is far from over.