If you were asked to picture in your mind's eye the quintessential rapper, it's likely you would conjure something similar to the image on Mic Crenshaw's driver's license. Crenshaw cuts a John Henry-esque profile—massive, black, tattooed—and further comparison to that tall-tale hero is not entirely inappropriate. Mic Crenshaw is a pretty mythic character, and this month he releases a pretty mythic album, Thinking Out Loud.
To get an idea of the importance of Mic Crenshaw to the Portland rap scene over the last 15 years, picture the first caveman rubbing two sticks together to create a spark. The term "pillar of the community" is not one that should be thrown around lightly, and Crenshaw embodies it with numerous creative and scene-building efforts that span genres and musical styles. Crenshaw was making dope tracks long before other Portland rappers were born, much less forming complete sentences.
Crenshaw relocated to Portland from Minneapolis in 1992. At the time, he was moving away from a job as a high school teacher of, among other things, political consciousness in black music—a job he had begun immediately after his own high school graduation. But the transition out west was something of an exodus. In leaving Minneapolis, Crenshaw was vacating a dangerous scene he had inhabited for many years as an organizer in that city's violent, underground struggle against white supremacist gangs. Even though he was qualified to pass on knowledge in a formalized classroom setting, he had never escaped the realities of that turbulent life. Of his move to Portland, Crenshaw says, "I wanted something new. [At the time] my ties with the streets were still pretty strong, and my social life involved drinking and fighting. I was ready for a change."
Change came in the form of new surroundings and a new job in garden landscaping. In that creatively devoid business, Crenshaw had to find outside means to stimulate himself intellectually. It was then that he got involved in slam poetry, and later, rap. "I needed an outlet. I knew that I could write and perform." Crenshaw adds, "I had a lot of things to say."
That comment right there could go down in history as one of the greatest understatements ever spoken, right up with "George W. Bush was a shitty president" and "doughnuts are tasty." Crenshaw's creative output has been astonishingly prolific: Since 1992 he has been part of a half-dozen bands, and released more albums than can easily be counted. While it may seem like Crenshaw was spreading himself thin over too many "side projects," the truth is that he needed each of the groups just to keep up with his nonstop output. "I was putting out more than any one group could absorb," he says.
Throughout the years—fraught as they were with musical endeavors—Crenshaw never fully released a record with a traditional hiphop sound. "All the music I did was appealing to different audiences," he says. "It was a little eclectic. I got tired of putting on a CD of my stuff with friends and having them not feel it as much as I wanted them to." In an epiphany more than a decade in the making, Crenshaw realized that he had to make Thinking Out Loud—something that would provide listeners with a clear understanding of who he was as a person and artist, but also be palatable to a diverse audience.
The record is an unqualified success. On it, Crenshaw makes a powerful case to be known as the best emcee to call Portland his home. He speaks with an earnest, poetic voice with smooth flow from start to finish. Starting out with a lyrically top-notch throwback party cut, "MC Duz It," the majority of Thinking Out Loud strides in deeper conceptual waters. Crenshaw has been characterized throughout his career as a "political" or "conscious" emcee—a mantle he is not entirely comfortable with—and this album does little to change that impression. However, the content comes from an honest and unpretentious place in Crenshaw's character. "I don't want people to think this is not who I am," he says. "I'm not making this up. When I put pen to paper it's what comes out."
Talking to Crenshaw about his philosophy and political beliefs, it's easy to see why his creative content is so charged. His current efforts for global change and advancement of people include helping to facilitate the growth and expansion of a nonprofit organization he co-founded in 2007, Global Family. Through it, computers are sent to youth organizations in Burundi and to Iraqi refugees in Amman, Jordan. It is a growing concern that has enlisted the help of fellow politically minded hiphop artists like Immortal Technique and Dead Prez.
As an artist, Crenshaw is still fighting an uphill battle for recognition. The pursuit of his musical passion is just one more chapter in a life in which Crenshaw has tried to follow his heart over security and safety, tried to do what he feels is right and fulfill his potential as a person. With his life story it's not hard to imagine that in 100 years people will be telling tall tales about him—indeed, even an honest account of the man makes a pretty great story already.