The Genius & Influence of iLoveMakonnen (As Told by Friends & Collaborators)

An oral history of one of rap's most defining figures: iLoveMakonnen.
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Properly accredited for his contributions to hip-hop music or not, iLoveMakonnen is one of the defining figures of the stylistic mutations that hip-hop has experienced in recent years. From weeping ballads to hard-nosed, indestructible trap hymns, his music defines where boundless creativity and relentless authenticity can find salience in the hip-hop world, even if that means straying from the norm and pushing against the bounds of what a hip-hop artist “should” be in the current day.

In a sonic sense, Makonnen’s cadences—“perfectly imperfect,” as I refer to them—have influenced a wave of vocal comfortability and melodic adaptations within hip-hop. The next time your favorite artists confidently croon over some 808s, there’s a solid chance their style derived from a Gucci Mane-obsessed, hairdressing, Shania Twain-loving oddball by the name of iLoveMakonnen.

Here, we look at Makonnen’s influence through the scope of figures who either witnessed the rise of Makonnen or have been close collaborators and/or friends of his. Subjects include Internet Hippy (an underground tastemaker known for his Tumblr and Twitter presence), Slug Christ (an artist from Awful Records), Tim Larew (former blogger and current manager for Cousin Stizz and Michael Christmas), Ceej (a producer from Two9), Curtis Williams (an artist also from Two9), Archibald Slim (an Awful Records artist), and lastly, Danny Wolf (an Atlanta-based producer behind countless Makonnen songs including “Trust Me Danny”).

Welcome to the oral history of iLoveMakonnen.

DJBooth: What is your relationship with Makonnen? How did you first meet him?

Slug Christ: I met Makonnen probably late 2014/early 2015. At the time, I knew him as just this chill dude who would come through to The Barrio (an apartment complex that like half of Awful lived in or crashed at) and make music with us. We were all unheard-of at that time, just pushing as much as we could together to try and make something happen. Mak was the same way and had a similar vibration to the Awful collective, so we meshed really well creatively. When he popped off, he helped us all out in Awful by doing songs with us and still supporting us even though he was super busy skyrocketing to the top. I’ll always be insanely grateful for him helping Awful get off the ground and continuing to fuck with us.

Tim Larew: Early 2014, probably March or April, I think I saw a couple tweets about him in the same day from Rome Fortune and Mike Will, and usually anytime an artist's name pops up from a couple people I follow or trust in that small of a timeframe, I check it out right away. "I Don't Sell Molly No More" was the first song I listened to and I literally was like, "What the fuck is this?" I loved it and had never heard anything like it. That melodic whispering on the hook was incredible—so infectious.

I went digging for more right after that and found "Sex, Love and Ecstasy," which also was just so instantly captivating. It was beautiful and vulnerable and wildly clever. I probably ran that one back 15 times, and I remember right after that sending Stizz the songs and being like, "You gotta check this shit out." Then I linked up with Cam Meekins in Boston later that day and played it for him as we drove through Brookline on this rainy-ass day, and he had the exact same reaction I did. He laughed out loud when I played "Sex, Love and Ecstasy" and was basically like, "This is the most amazing shit I've ever heard." That was my reaction to hearing a lot of Makonnen's songs for the first time, like, is this real? It was so free and genre-less. Real art.

Curtis Williams: I first met Makonnen after finding a random video on this site “ilp.” It had like 50 views or something. His face was hidden in all his videos and pics at the time. I hit him up and invited him over to hang out, and before we even discussed music we just kicked it. It was the day I moved into my new apartment so it was me, him, my brother, and my girlfriend at the time, just sitting on the floor talking and clowning. We grew to become really close and ended up talking every day. I soon introduced his music to Mike Will and Sonny [Digital]. He’s always had an impact just by being so different. Like, kind of so different at times that some people don’t get it and say it sucks. But that’s never the case, Makonnen is just so carefree and is always himself. I feel he’s given a lot of other rappers the courage to do the same.

Danny Wolf: When I first met Makonnen, I was an intern and a cameraman. I hit him up before “Tuesday” came out with Drake, asking if I could shoot any videos for him. I was supposed to shoot the video for this crazy song off of Drink More Water 3, and a week later, Drake drops the remix and we never got the chance to work. Then, like six months down the line around 2016, I’m still making beats and he drops the “Drink More Water 5 Freestyle.” It was my first production placement ever, so I’ll always be grateful for Makonnen. He’s the main reason why I am where I am today. After he dropped the freestyle, I sent him more beats and he dropped “Trust Me Danny.” That was the first single to come out right after “Tuesday,” so after that, everything escalated. It was crazy that right after [Makonnen] dropped his biggest song, he talked about me in the title and added “produced by Danny Wolf.” After that, everyone was asking “who’s Danny?” which led to a lot of artists hitting me up.

When I was interning at Hoodrich [Entertainment], [DJ] Spinz was the one putting Makonnen on with other producers. People thought Makonnen was so different. His music was hard, but it was different. Like, you’re in Atlanta. There are guns on the table and all this crazy shit, then Makonnen comes in and starts singing about girls [laughs]. It’s a totally different wave.

What led you to become a fan of Makonnen’s music?

Slug Christ: My favorite part about Mak's work is definitely the stream-of-conscious, super based deliveries. I never saw him write anything down in a phone or on paper. He'd listen to the beat, sometimes only like halfway through, and be like, "Aight, I’m ready. Start me from the top," and he'd record a whole goddamn song, like hook then verse then hook then bridge then hook, all in one take, hardly ever stopping or punching in. I've always loved how he trusted his unconscious that much, to the point where he could freestyle an entire song in one take. I think every artist, rap or painting or whatever, in some way, wants to be able to trust themselves that much artistically.

Internet Hippy: I first heard about Makonnen when the video for “Nokia” with Father came out. I really started to rock with his music when I heard the more piano ballad type stuff, though, because it was like a whole new sound. I had never heard hip-hop with dramatic, theatrical kinds of elements quite like that.

I think Makonnen opened up a lane for "softer" aesthetics in mainstream hip-hop like Lil Yachty and the almost lullaby-type melodies used in a lot of his production. I think he made it even more acceptable for less-polished singers to really delve into melody in hip-hop, which defines a lot of current Atlanta hip-hop. Lil Uzi is an example of an artist who's benefited from the breaking of both of these boundaries.

Ceej: I enjoy the complete freedom and uniqueness of his music. He's completely unbothered of anyone else's thoughts or opinion on how he should go about making music. You can hear it in every song, from any of the beautiful ballads that he does ("Sneaky Lady" or his Whitney Houston tribute song, "Will Always Love You"), to trap shit like "Maneuvering" or "Still Workin." He truly does whatever he wants and whatever he feels at that moment.

Archibald Slim: Recording with Makonnen gave me a new appreciation for his music. At the time, I didn't record anything if I didn't write it first, and to see him just come in and start recording and be free enough to say what he's thinking without thinking about it made me rethink my process a little. Knowing that he’s exactly who he comes across as in his songs really adds on to it because, for me, if I can't vibe with you as a person, I will never listen to your music. I appreciate him for his ability to put so much of himself in his songs.

How has Makonnen influenced the rap world in recent years, specifically coming out of Atlanta?

Slug Christ: I think a huge percent of new artists look at Makonnen's whole “crooning” style and have really started to implement it in their verse structure, too. Also, I feel like he's taught people to be a little more wary of huge companies like OVO, especially in the music industry, and what they will do to get to the top and stay at the top.

His impact is vast because he's made people think about things from how LGBTQ artists are treated in hip-hop to questioning the "good guy" image these huge artists push and market themselves as, all the way to inciting an almost mainstream-based wave in popular rap. He’s touched a lot of large spread points across the map and tweaked the zeitgeist a bit more in a positive direction.

Tim Larew: I think his biggest influence has come from just being himself and not following any type of blueprint sonically or thematically. Pre-2014 in rap felt a bit more rigid and formulaic to me, and when Makonnen started to really pick up steam in early-mid '14, I noticed a trend in which artists started to move in more of a stream-of-consciousness way, both on social media and in their music. Makonnen's whole "marketing plan" was really just being authentic, and he happened to be a fascinating, talented dude so people really latched on. He made everyone more comfortable with themselves just by so clearly not giving a fuck what anyone thought of him or his music or the way he carried himself.

The Atlanta angle was really interesting, too, because there was so much coming out of there, and it was all fire, but he was like this eruption of color that, at least to me, really shined a bright light on the rest of the artists and music there. Some of that was the harder, more traditional club type music, but there was a whole other side that Makonnen fit in with as well that he helped open people's eyes too, namely Father and Awful Records. Makonnen was the bridge between everything and I think that's why everyone from Miley Cyrus to Travis [Scott] to Wiz [Khalifa] to Drake supported and wanted to work with him so heavily. He was the guy that spiced things up, and he definitely influenced others to at least try to do the same with their own careers afterward and since.

Archibald Slim: Makonnen kind of broke the wall between SoundCloud and the mainstream for a lot of people coming out around the time “Tuesday” released. For the attention that he got because of that song, it definitely shined a spotlight on what a lot of us were doing as underground artists in Atlanta. Most people knew Atlanta for trap music then, and for the type of music he was making, he mixed together elements of what he was already doing with the trap music everybody was fucking with. Makonnen made people more open to seeing what else Atlanta had to offer. So many people start to get attention and try to garner it all for themselves; that crab-in-the-barrel mentality is still very present there. He did his fair share in trying to bring the city together.

Danny Wolf: Makonnen started the whole “sad boy,” depressed SoundCloud wave with the sad piano songs and everything. Plus, he’s the one-take legend. He made “Tuesday” in one take. He made “Drink More Water” in one take. All the hit songs that he has are all one take. He just hits the studio, sparks up a blunt, picks the beat, and goes in. And actually, a lot of people don’t even know this but Makonnen produced a lot of his early hits. The credited producers just rebuilt the beat and added some more sauce. The melodies all came from him; I was behind the scenes so I would see that kind of thing. He put me on game and I learned a lot from him.

On top of that, there’s a lot of influence in the way that Makonnen executes his vocals. Just putting honest emotion into them and not trying to be anything but yourself is influential. Before, in rap, it was like you had to fit into a certain niche. But when Makonnen came along, if you were rapping over something weird just being yourself and that’s how you felt, then it would go crazy. The way that Makonnen executed things never seemed like he was trying very hard. Whatever comes naturally, you just say it. Even people I work with today talk about that influence.

Lastly, do you have any Makonnen stories that you’d like to share with readers?

Tim Larew: I have a lot of Makonnen stories. I still consider him a friend even though we aren't in touch the way we were in 2014-'15. We ran into each other on La Brea six months ago and had a really good catch-up convo about the state of the industry now, where his head is at musically and otherwise, how things had been post-[Lil] Peep's passing, and more. Makonnen is truly one of my favorite people I've ever met and one I will tell my grandkids about one day. Every convo or hang I ever had with him was a refreshing one, even if for no reason other than his voice and perspective always being so unique and compelling.

My favorite experience with Makonnen came after we worked on his video for “Tuesday” with Drake that Goodwin directed. We were in Malibu on the private beach of Makonnen's Airbnb well past midnight, just the four of us (Goodwin, myself, Mak, and his manager at the time) and we literally just looked at the stars and out into the ocean for 30 or 40 minutes, feet in sand, probably two or three in the morning, and talked about how crazy it was for all of us to be there in that moment, and the things we had to do and go through to make it there. It was as simple as that, but it was a conversation and moment I'll never forget. It was a complicated time for him because when you have that much happen to you so quickly, it's not all smiles. Rapid success like that comes with tremendous challenge and I remember that week being stressful for him between shooting the video, club and radio appearances, press stuff, old friends and family coming out of the woodwork, etc., but that moment on the beach in Malibu was pure and it was a nice reflection for all of us.

Ceej: So many great stories but I think my favorite is the night we made "Tequila Me." As pretty much all of our sessions at Tree Sound Studios did, it consisted of me and a bottle of tequila and him with an endless supply of mushrooms. We were listening to the beat and kind of just mumbling random shit and the hook part came on and I started singing at the top of my lungs, "Tequila meeeeeee, tequila meeeeee." He yelled at me, "GO DO THAT!" telling me to go in the booth and lay it down. I'm like, "Nah, you go do it." And of course, it was instantly fire. Perfect example of how we made music: always a freestyle, nothing ever written down or organized. Just us doing whatever the fuck we want.

Danny Wolf: There was this one time we had a session at Tree Sound [Studio] and Makonnen did like 13 songs in one take. I remember he was looking at some unicorn picture on the wall, rhyming the craziest shit and we were all just chilling there like, “Oh, he’s just being him.” I’ve never seen anybody do that before because normally, rappers punch in and do multiple takes for their verses. It takes like 20-30 minutes. But with Makonnen, he would just freestyle off the top then get on the piano and keep freestyling. We didn’t even really talk about much. The only thing he would say was “Load up the beat.” I would start playing beats and he would be freestyling, on and on, then he would shake his head like, “Nah, this isn’t the beat,” but he wouldn’t stop.

Archibald Slim: The “Super Chef” video is one that they shot in my kitchen. He hit me like, “AYE WHAT Y’ALL DOIN' OVER THERE?” and just pulled up with some weed and shit like, “Aye, who got a camera? Let’s shoot this video.” My house wasn't even clean for real and it had literally no furniture. When he got there, there was a pan on the stove still with broccoli that Dexter had made like days before, so it was going bad. He just started rapping and picked up the skillet like the broccoli wasn't old as fuck acting like he was cooking. I was just like, man I know people are gonna know this broccoli is old as shit, but then again, that was his personality. All the videos shot in that apartment complex were just as random and spontaneous.

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