Like a Little "Black Korea" | Music Review | Chicago Reader

Like a Little "Black Korea" 

Middle Eastern shopkeepers boycott an up-and-coming MC over a song about liquor stores in the hood.

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In June, when local MC Mikkey took the stage at the Funky Buddha Lounge to perform his new cut "Liquor Store" for the first time, his career was moving along smoothly: he'd signed a deal with Virgin at the beginning of the year and he had a high-profile slot on Rhymefest's hotly anticipated debut album, which would be out in a month. Mikkey, aka Mikkel Nance, says the song got a positive reaction at the show and on his MySpace page, where he posted it a week later; to date it's been played more than 18,000 times.

But since August more than two dozen local clothing and convenience stores have refused to sell It Ain't Safe No More, a mix CD by DJ Sean Mac that contains "Liquor Store," or any other CD featuring Mikkey's music. That's because the lyrics, which criticize suspicious clerks, inflated prices, and unhealthy grub at corner stores in poor black neighborhoods, include lines like "Shorties run up in the store, Arab on they every move" and "He's getting money here, ships his bread back home / They give him tax breaks, banks give him easy loans."

You might think such a boycott wouldn't matter much to an artist whose major-label debut is due in a matter of months. (Mikkey's Chicago: The Photo Album is currently slated for April.) You'd be wrong. "It's kinda crazy, because one of the biggest vehicles we had were those stores," says Mikkey. "They're in the heart of the hood. They get the biggest traffic. You can't start thinking national if you lose home. It's the base."

Here's how it works: a local DJ creates a mix of new or unreleased music. Clothing and corner-store owners buy copies for two or three dollars a pop, then resell them for around ten. Popular DJs can sell upward of 10,000 copies of a given mix, and record labels use mix sales as a barometer to help determine how much money to throw behind an artist. "If you don't get a buzz in the streets, then you won't get a budget," Mikkey says. "And then you've got no video."

"For a signed artist, it's important to get placement [on mix CDs] because each label has an abundance of new artists and each executive is trying to prove why their new acts are better than others," says Donna Gryn, a Virgin staffer who promotes label artists to DJs and manages street teams. "There is an entire community of people who disregard radio and TV and go straight to mix tapes for what's hot."

The boycott is informal--no organization is leading the charge--so determining how many stores are involved is difficult. The local Collection Clothing chain, which has 12 stores in the city and suburbs, stopped selling the disc. According to Moezeeq, the owner of Dynasty Wear in South Shore, 15 more stores, including his, stopped carrying It Ain't Safe No More. Moezeeq (who declines to give his full name) feels especially offended because he helped sponsor the disc--it even says "DJ Sean Mac and Dynasty Wear Present" on the cover. After hearing "Liquor Store," he gave all the CDs away for free just to be rid of them. "I wanted to get that shit out of here," he says. "I was mad because I'm supporting the mix tapes. I put my money into it and I hear some of that shit about my own people? If I'm investing my money, don't disrespect me."

Mikkey, who grew up in the south-side neighborhood of Hamilton Park, started his career in the late 90s, working with Kanye West on demos that eventually attracted the attention of Cash Money Records in New Orleans. He appeared on a handful of Cash Money releases starting in 2002, including Big Tymers' Hood Rich (which debuted at the top of the Billboard album chart) and the Undisputed sound track, but left the label after a contract dispute. Local producer No I.D. introduced him to Jermaine Dupri, head of Virgin's urban-music division, and Dupri signed him in January. This year, besides guesting on Rhymefest's Blue Collar, he's had tracks on mixes by top-shelf DJs like Green Lantern and Funkmaster Flex.

"Liquor Store" is easily the most noteworthy cut of Mikkey's career, and it got a boost this summer from Power 92, which featured the track in its live on-air DJ mixes, and WGCI, where DJ Mike Love invited Mikkey on his show to talk about the track and dubbed it the "Song of the Summer." Love says the subject matter and down-tempo sound have kept it out of WGCI's regular rotation, but he has regularly directed listeners to Mikkey's MySpace page to hear it. "There are only so many songs you hear that are truly visual," Love says. "Liquor Store" is "a slice of life...not just in Chicago, but in any city in the country. It's never really been touched on in songs, but for a dude to talk about a liquor store and the things you see in them? Man, I can't even tell you how powerful those words were."

Mikkey says Sean Mac has chosen to keep his music off future mix CDs--a decision he respects. But he defends the substance of the track, saying that it's meant to prompt blacks to take stronger financial control of their neighborhoods. "The whole point is not to point the finger at them," he says. "It was to have us look in the mirror. Economic independence is what I'm all about."

But Moezeeq says the song unfairly targets Middle Eastern shop owners. "There are black-owned liquor stores in the hood too," he says. "You gotta be fair with that. You wanna speak about it, you gotta speak about everybody."

The track and the controversy it has generated are likely to get still more attention: this month Mikkey will shoot a video for "Liquor Store" on the west side in advance of the release of Chicago: The Photo Album. He's willing to meet with store owners who have boycotted the song in hopes of shedding more light on the issue and putting the dispute to bed. "I'm not mad at them," Mikkey says. "I just want us to wake up."

"After all is said and done, I think [the controversy] is a positive thing," he adds. "I've gotten 3,000 messages on MySpace in support of the song. If it makes a thousand black people say, 'Damn, let me think about this,' then it did something."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/ A. Jackson.

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