Michael Penn, under the name CRASHprez, dropped his first full-length album, “more perfect.” The second part in a four-part series of EPs and albums asks, “What does it mean to be a young Black man existing in the United States of America right now with middle-class roots… Why can people with my skin die on a snack run or a night drive or in our sleep?” The story picks up where “fear itself.,” his last EP, left off — with a failed murder attempt leading to a public resurrection. Despite a seemingly hostile environment, Michael is not alone. The album features a catalog of collaborators from the Madison hip-hop community, as well as Psymun as producer on the synth-infused track “Pollo y Porno”.
I met Michael in the office of WSUM Radio Station, where we unexpectedly listened to middle schoolers perform their poetry on the air, speaking about their identities and violence in their communities. Michael applauded the kids as they came out of the studio. He was visibly impressed and chatted with them, and the children were happy to have gained such an excited fan. After the middle schoolers left, we moved to an empty studio and talked about topics ranging from political identities to white rappers. Catching the start of some poets careers was a perfect scene to get us talking about artistic backgrounds.
Reid Kurkerewicz: When do you feel that you started getting into music?
Michael Penn: I guess it’s like those kids –back in middle school. One of my teachers had an after school program where we basically made a rap CD. Some of those kids are people that are still around, which is a weird pattern for me. After that, I asked for a microphone for Christmas and started making beats in my bedroom. I even did a little production for my friends. But production annoys the fuck out of me. I’m too impatient to make a beat. I prefer to have my friends take it to some place that I can’t execute.
R: So you started in the recording process as opposed to live performance?
M: Yeah I started writing poems and recording, but eventually I got into slam poetry and went to Cali with a slam poetry team to compete. There was a big incentive for me there because I wasn’t into sports but I still wanted to compete. A lot of people perceive that negatively. But I think, if the community is healthy, what better way is there to get better than to see someone kill it and want to fuck them up?
R: So what do you see as a healthy competitive environment?
M: I think of my friends and the way I surrounded myself with people who were way better than me and pushed me to grow. It becomes less and less about competing, but that part is still fun. If I know this person’s in the room I know I have to bring it. I’m never crying in the corner you know. Competition is a human thing and I choose to acknowledge it.
R: How did you end up in this Madison community?
M: I was getting into colleges left and right but the financial aid was never quite right. I knew I had to get out of Maryland and then I heard about first wave which is like a hip hop scholarship, at some open mic. I got in super last minute.
R: And how do you feel about Madison.
M:It’s not easy being a black kid in a mostly white city. Madison is one of the worst places to raise a black kid in America. I’ve never protested before but I found myself marching when they tried to tear down Affirmative Action.
R: How has First Wave played into your time in college?
M: Overwhelmingly. College would be significantly less right without The First Wave community. A lot of people in First Wave are family. When it works it works. There’s administrative complaints but those are small. I never have to go through things alone. My cohort went through shit so it feels strange that everyone’s gone and graduated.
R: How do you feel about First Wave bringing hip hop into an institutional setting?
M: I think hip hop has earned that space, but it comes with consequences.It’s in a more normalized position now but it’s damn near one of the most socially progressive kinds of music.
R: Do you feel that an institutionalized hip hop could stagnate?
M: Hip hop is accessible because it’s so multicultural. A lot of people think rap is just about killing people, and the institution brings more respect to the agency of artists. The downside of that is that people kind of hold “smart rap” on a pedestal and strip the aesthetic aspects from it. It tends to separate rappers into levels of “consciousness” and I hate that. All message and no form is not what I’m about. I’m not a raptivist. That feels like an unnecessary separation.
R: There still seems to be a political aspect to your music.
M: Of course. I make a lot of political choices.
R: Do you feel that your large white audience stems from Madison or your rap
M: I’m not sure. I’m not disappointed by a white audience because I want to connect on an artistic level. Again, though, there seems to be a premium on rappers like Madlib and Run the Jewels and they’re really good, but I wonder if again this separation shows that rap is devalued. I can think of like when I’m In Love With the Coco came out and white kids were singing it at me just because I’m black. I’m glad when people are brought joy but they need to be engaged or else they’re just being ignorant and offensive. At some point you can only make the art and try to predict your audience Sometimes it gets bigger than you. It’s not my place to judge levels of enjoyment.
R: How do you feel about white rappers getting into the hip hop culture?
M: I guess I want them to speak for themselves. It’s stupid to say white people can’t rap. It detracts from what’s beautiful about hip hop and it’s accessibility and how it impacts everyone.
R: But at some point some white rappers can become like caricatures of black rappers.
M: Right and I think that’s true sometimes. I think it’s good for white rappers to connect to a community and start challenging themselves to do something new. People need to know what the fuck is going on and what they’re contributing to. You can’t make art for art’s sake. It seems like white people can make art and it’s just valued as art but black people don’t have that privilege. I don’t mind calling people out if they’re not aware.
R: So what does this awareness look like for a white rapper?
M: Lord of the Fly is a good example. He’s in control of his message and his service to the community. He’s not posed as a distraction and he checks himself when the community reacts.
Listen to CRASHprez’s latest album here:https://mishkanyc.bandcamp.com/album/more-perfect