Exit Interview: Larry Mizell, Jr.

And just like that, Larry Mizell, Jr. is heading to Los Angeles. Through his long-running column in The Stranger and weekly show on KEXP, Mizell occupied the role of Observer in Chief of Seattle’s varied and vibrant hip-hop community. He made a brief announcement on his personal Facebook page a week ago, hosted his final Street Sounds show last Sunday, and heads south on Thursday morning. It’s a whirlwind transition for an icon of the community who was on the cover of this magazine a mere two months ago. We spoke by phone on Monday afternoon. 

Yesterday was your last-ever Street Sounds. I caught some of the show while I was driving around and it sounded like a party. How did it feel?
It was a glorious shit show. It was the fundraising drive, which is always a gas, but it was fun because a lot of family was there. Sharlese and Riz—pitching with them is amazing. Tilson dropped by, and Stas [Irons], who’s replacing me on Street Sounds. It was huge.

I was surprised to hear that Stas got the nod to do Street Sounds. She’s qualified, for sure, but Mike Ramos has been your backup on the show for years now. Were you involved in that decision?
I was. That’s just how it shook out. I suggested Stas and it sounded like John [Richards] had the same idea. He was like, “I thought the same thing.” So it worked out.

Are you giving her any kind of training? What’s the transition process like?
It’s just like when I came aboard at the station. You hop up and sit in with somebody the week before. When I got hired, I got a week. I didn’t get to sit in with B-Mello but I sat in with Sharlese on the overnight. Just had to jump in the fire. Stas already has more experience as a DJ than I did. She’ll do incredible and I’m exited to see where she takes it.

Any thoughts about where she should take it?
As long as she’s true to her tastes and her instincts and utilizes the network of artists she fucks with and that knows about her, she’ll take it to a place it hasn’t been before. I couldn’t be more thrilled. Street Sounds’ first female host—that’s awesome. She’s an artist herself. And she’s just cool. Who’s cooler than Stas, you know? It’s like having the Fonz on Street Sounds.

It’s been what, six, seven years for you hosting the show?
I believe I started summer of ’09. The second or third week of July.

Has KEXP’s relationship to hip-hop changed since you got there?
It was always strong via Street Sounds. I went to Street Sounds as a member of Cancer Rising two or three times and there would be a queue of rappers and DJs there to hop on the mic with B-Mello to talk about a show or an album or freestyle. It was already like 206 Rap Community Center to a degree. When I came in I was like, I don’t wanna have as many interviews, I wanna focus on the musical direction and bring in more live sets and also connect Street Sounds to the regular KEXP community in terms of fundraising, because it hadn’t been a part of that. You gotta be part of the bigger body in order to fully gain its support. And I’ve had nothing but support the whole time. Just nothing but love.

As far as KEXP and the hip-hop scene, mileage varies because a lot of people in the scene don’t know the station exists and they only know about Sound Sessions on KUBE as a show they might get played on. Or they don’t listen to the radio at all. I always thought it was really positive, the relationship between the station and hip-hop. It can get deeper certainly, because the main thrust of the station at large is focused on indie rock, but they have huge swaths of specialty programming you can’t find on lots of comparative stations. I think they’ve done a great job and will continue to do so.

Between Street Sounds and My Philosophy, you’ve been the guy observing and interacting with the scene the longest. Add into that your work as a musician and you’ve seen Seattle hip-hop from every possible angle for a very long time. And you know what people say: You are the Mayor of Seattle hip-hop.
[Laughs] That title gets thrown around. One, it’s taken. Two, I’m not interested in official office. But I’m really honored to have been somebody that hopefully helped. And put his foot in it for a minute. Because I love this shit. And the people in it. Fuckin’ a, walking out of the booth, literally crossing the threshold, I started to tear up. I was shits and giggles before that but then it hit me. I wasn’t going back in there.

You’d already been doing My Philosophy for a while when I arrived in Seattle in 2007 and we worked together at The Stranger. Back then the word was all about Blue Scholars. And then you’ve been doing Street Sounds since 2009. It’s a long time to be involved. What’s changed in the city since then? What’s changed in hip-hop?
So much. The hip-hop scene has changed four or five times, just like the city itself. We went from this kind of burgeoning thing, starting with big crowds of just fans, not just other rappers, at the Blue Scholars time to… whatever this is now. Where this wish that artists expressed over years and years—and I never believed this—but this idea that if one artist breaks through and becomes successful the rest will fall together. And that’s pretty much bullshit. And I’m not faulting Macklemore any more than I would’ve Mix-a-Lot back in the day, the last time people thought that. But this post-ultra-success-of-a-local-artist time is really weird. And a little awkward to be honest.

How so?
There’s a degree of be careful what you wish for. ‘Cuz there was a time when it felt like trying to mimic [Macklemore’s] model, and that hasn’t worked. There’s some of our best and brightest putting out their next records, but in the meantime we’re cutting back toward this Micronesia thing where everyone is on their own little island thinking they run everything but not seeing over to the next. And maybe that’s my imagination but I feel like there’s a disconnect where there used to be a level of “We’re on the same page! We might not agree but we’re all it the same places kicking it.” It was a 206 rap lovefest for years, for better or worse, but I was happy because it wasn’t like that for many moons [prior]. The polarity shifted from not really expressing that essential regional pride, like, “This is where I’m from,” that’s so intrinsic to hip-hop. It wasn’t like that before and then it turned into overdoing it and people being like, Seattle everything! “I’m getting the Space Needle tattooed on me even though I can’t see it from where I live!” To now, where I can’t even pin down what the vibe is. But it’s gone deeply underground. And that’s not a bad thing. I don’t know where the trickle down is except for in a few places.

At this point, as opposed to 2008 or so, we have acts on world tours, [who are] signed, doing this and that. But everything feels dormant nonetheless. This is all my observation from the tower I’ve built by being the establishment long enough. Which is why I’m like, I gotta get out, because there needs to be someone in the basement, someone in the sewer, that’s on it. That’s how I used to feel but I don’t anymore. It’s bothered me that I’ve become this establishment, even though I don’t feel like that. There are people who’ve been raised on my opinions on the scene the whole time. Which is great—I trust myself and believe I have good taste, but someone else will have different ideas and they should be able to have that platform. That’s part of the reason I need to get the fuck out of here. And stop taking up space. It’s like the shit Spekulation told me about why he’s retiring. I feel like I take up way too much space physically. It feels awkward. I’ve filled up this vase and taken its shape. And I wannna take a different shape. I wanna get into a different shape so I’m gonna go somewhere and be anonymous, which sounds wonderful, if it’s not too dickheady. And if it does, fuck it, I’m leaving.

Really anonymous though? I imagine you have people in LA.
I got people. And a bunch of Seattle people down there. Not anonymous. But you walk Pike or Pine—even though you don’t wanna be there—and you’re gonna run into 20 people who know you and wanna rap wtih you. That’s great, and I love my folks and the community here, but the thought of being able to move around and not have things attached to my person and name as much appeals to me. It’s fresh. I feel like I’m kinda crusty and barnacle-y and I wanna cut that shit off. Have new skin. Not be reborn—I’m still me—but a fresh start under a new sun with a new challenge. What you gonna do here? That really appeals to me and I think I need it just for me.

That’s an interesting metaphor—filling the vase, taking its shape, and looking for a new shape to take.
I’ve filled this container in some symbolic way. Maybe I don’t like the shape the city is in or heading toward. But what else is there for me? Just like you, I’ve been here long enough to see what the end game is for people who’ve been contributing or helping shape or guide or curate the arts scene in Seattle. What are they getting? It’s not about the reward, but is it commensurate with that work? If you ask around, I think most people would tell you fuck no. I’d like to try my hand and luck—and I’ve always been extremely lucky—in a place where there’s more runway. Where it’s more a place that people go to work. And I mean work around this industry of music and writing and arts and entertainment and such. If I was writing code, sky’s the limit, you know?

I was in LA a couple weekends ago for the Brainfeeder at the Bowl concert, which was incredible, and those guys—Flying Lotus, Thundercat, Kamasi Washington—are doing the best shit in the world right now. Plus the Underground Museum, Kahlil and that scene. And totally accidentally I ran into Hollis and Amy O’Neal, Seattle people spending a lot of time down there. I was like, LA feels different than before. It’s cool.
I’ve heard it from other people too. [Erik] Blood‘s moving down there.  It’s something people are thinking about. For me, just me personally, it feels like home. I’ve been reflecting on Nevermind, 25 years, The Stranger, 25 years, and I got here the exact same time. I remember when The Stranger started and Nevermind dropped around a week after I got here. It’s like, wow, OK, this is a chapter. And I’m feeling the call home, every time I go back. I’m not connected to that shit you saw but I’ve caught that vibe off all those cats, whether it’s Thundercat or Hollis or the Shabazz cats. There are so many Seattle cats down there doing things, either living there or just spending time, and I like that. I’ve been feeling really settled and “This is what I do and who I am.” And I must’ve timed it with my midlife crisis, which is maybe a little early. Maybe I won’t live that long, according to studies.

How old are you?
I’m 38.

OK. I’m 41. I feel like we’re at that age—we get to have perspective. I can look back at the last 20 years of my life and see where I was then. When I was 20 I couldn’t do that. If age provides anything, it’s perspective. And that’s what begins putting these things into focus.

All of this seems so sudden though! Like, you were just on the cover of the magazine, Riz created that Expansions show about the Mizells and that was just a month or so ago—and now you’re out! But you must’ve been thinking about this for a while.
Shit, probably someone thinks, “This guy got the cover and thinks he’s made it. He’s Hollywood.” But when that came out I was couch surfing and it was weird seeing my face everywhere and the feeling of not feeling at home really stocked up intensely. I love that story and that show that Riz did, and thank god for Riz. Putting that story down and just being himself over the years.

I was feeling [the need to leave]. I knew that was my plan, but not as quick. The timeline just got bumped up because I was really feeling it. Jump or die, like DoNormaal said.

Photos by Avi Loud.