The who, what, when, and where of hip-hop artist Mike Jones

If you think about it, Mike Jones is basically McDonald’s.

Mar 1, 2020, 11:00 pm*

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Ramon Ramirez 

Ramon Ramirez

If you think about it, Mike Jones is basically McDonald’s. That’s a baseline conclusion that Mike Jones reached over the phone while traveling between recording hip-hop, sure, but he’s wholly right.

“Everybody knows about McDonald’s whether they’ve been out in the last five years, six years—they got a household name,” Jones says, “If they do come out with the McRib next year, they can still take over the game.

“Everybody know the brand—we didn’t like ‘Scandalous Ho’ but we like ‘Back Then’ … You like my brand, you like my songs. You might not like all the food at McDonald’s but you still in the drive-thru.”

It’s a robust, irrefutable parallel. Except that nobody in their right mind dislikes Jones’s pair of ace singles, “Back Then” and “Still Tippin’.” You could soothe captive orcas in labor with those chopped up orchestral samples, grill-shining epigrams (“Catch me lane switchin’ with the paint drippin’ / turn your neck and your dame missin’”), and mesmerizingly fluid, DJ Screw-homaging choruses. It’s not a stretch to consider “Still Tippin’”—the song that tilted the game in favor of Team Houston in summer ’05—a magnum opus. Complex certainly does, which is why it tapped Jones for a freshly premiered mini-doc about the song’s jumbled creative narrative, impact, and fallout.

 


For Jones and the trout farm of talent hanging around record label Swishahouse 10 years ago, the massive indie success birthed out-of-the-box fame when the single dropped because it featured distinct, seemingly united H-Town voices.

“I knew it was real around the end of 2004 when the labels started coming and sitting down with me and wanted to take me out,” Jones says, “At the time ‘Still Tippin’’ was already out six months before the world caught it. We already had vocal regional love and support for the single. We were on the road getting paid from a song that did good for us.

“When we came out in ’05 it was Mike Jones, Paul Wall, Slim Thug—it was a whole conglomerate. It wasn’t just one thing; it was a movement.”

Unfortunately, Jones’s career has been dictated by trunk-unlocking highs and the subsequent fallout from two singles. In both cases—“Still Tippin’” and T-Pain feature “I’m ‘n Luv (Wit a Stripper)”—short-term success was followed by aggressive, ostracizing politics. Legal troubles got so burdensome, Jones says, that he quit rapping altogether for three years in 2011. But the Complex uptick in trending media this week is the first step toward a full-service revamp that includes the imminent Money Train mixtape as an amuse-bouche to this fall’s winkingly titled Where Is Mike Jones?

But first, Jones had to tweak his diet.

“I just got tired of being that size.” Jones says, today 100 pounds lighter than the doughy jester that first broke national and went double platinum. “Subway was fresh food-wise. I knew that a eating a hamburger was like 1,000 calories. I was able to make a sandwich [at Subway]—you know what I’m saying—that didn’t have a lot of calories.”

•••

As the major label push from nine years ago resulted in heralded and mainstream work, the downside was a Texas-sized rift within Houston’s hip-hop elite. The original version of “Still Tippin’” featured local legend Chamillionaire. Cham’s verse was scratched in favor of a (fantastic, quotable) part from Jones. As the more technically proficient of the two, Chamillionaire went on the offensive, releasing a three-volume mixtape dedicated to attacking Jones.

“[The Chamillionaire beef] was just a lot of misunderstanding,” Jones says, “I see Cham now, you know, and everything is cool. It ain’t even beef.

“As I started, you know, blowing up and growing and doing my own thing and started going solo, Cham had his feelings or, you know, whatever he felt at the time.”

Jones is vague about it, but reading between the lines, it strikes me as basic: Chamillionaire didn’t appreciate Jones breaking away from the family tree to go solo and felt slighted. Being swapped for Jones’s self-referential verse was a last straw.

Cham’s clout in the local scene reverberated, though—Jones’s reputation bubbled as a sort of opportunistic ham. “Still Tippin’” proved a consequential, divisive moment as it likewise ruptured the friendship of Cham and Paul Wall. Wall was happy to ride the song’s success. Cham and Wall previously recorded exemplary records together (see: 2002’s underground slang starter kit, Get Ya Mind Correct) under The Color Changin’ Click moniker. In 2010, Wall spoke candidly to Ozone Magazine about what he perceived to be Jones’s self-interested presence in the Houston scene—one that ballooned infighting between the camp.

“When [Mike Jones] left Swishahouse, he was dropping salt on everybody from Swishahouse and not giving us any credit at all. He was talking down on a lot of us and he would never directly say our names, but he was still hating. There were times when I felt disrespected and I would call him out on it, and he’d be like, ‘Nah, I wasn’t talking about you. I would never do that.’ I’m sure there’s a psychological term for this problem that Mike Jones has. He has a problem. His perception of reality ain’t the real perception of reality … I’d say he dug his own grave. He lied to a lot of people, he turned his back on a lot of people, and he burned a lot of bridges.”

These days, all parties have let the career jostling-related beef go. But because Jones was such a targeted presence, it seems to have taken him a while to develop an appetite for rapping again. During our conversation, the theme of politics and surviving drama was a lingering burden.

“No regrets,” Jones says about his first brushes with national success, “I’m educated from what happened you know. I learned a lot… At the time, it was very pure, and when fame and success started coming in, sometimes people started changing. But right now, everybody’s cool.”

Collegial quarrels happen when there’s a pie on the windowsill to snatch, but it was one afterthought performance that Jones says almost ended his career.

•••

Jones and T-Pain single “I’m ’n Luv (Wit a Stripper)” was the Sgt. Pepper of ringtone rap. If you weren’t into Motorola Razrs in the mid-2000s or missed the age of rap singles as personalized, mobile phone expression, ringtone rap was commoditized by downloads.

“Stripper” moved a shit ton of tones, and with a feisty verse Jones tacked on in post-production, he was grandfathered into its success. Except that a trio of career songwriters, Rodney King, Jeff Byrd, and James Reese, sued T-Pain and his label in 2008 for allegedly ripping off the chorus to an old floating demo called “Makin’ Luv 2 a Player.” The lawsuit wasn’t settled until 2011.

“The T-Pain song blew up and did 5 million ringtones,” Jones says, “[After the lawsuit], Warner Brothers is freezing all the money. Ah shit, I got my career on freeze now because I did a favor for somebody.” Jones says he had to wait until eight months after the suit was settled to legally release music. This, he says, is why he hasn’t released an album since 2009’s The Voice. Asked if the success of “Stripper” was worth the trouble, Jones just writes it off as “bittersweet.” The hit was the most successful of his career to date, though, and he speaks at length about, basically, all the cool things he was able to experience from its reach.

“But I just hate that it slowed up a lot of shit,” Jones says, “Moving forward, if anybody comes at me [about] doing a song, I’m checking for certain things.”

That’s where Jones is these days: forward. The Houston icons are cordial. The legal perils are cleared brush. He’s working with close, longtime associates for the new record. Probably smart—while contemporaries like Slim Thug and Lil Flip were criticized by Texas rap fans for abandoning the sonic qualities of their underground tapes (woozy beats, some dude conversing in the background, slowed down vocals, extended freestyles) upon their major label success, Jones’s Who Is Mike Jones? was an aggressively Houston-centric LP. It’s held up beautifully—there’s Big Moe two-stepping in the vocal booth, belting out soulful hooks; Jones is rapping about his grandmother and overdosing on slang about turning lanes, backstroking in codeine imagery. The guy is understandably proud.

“One thing you have to know man, before I leave, like, I came from zero, you know what I’m saying?” Jones says, “To even make half of what I made, you know, I’m still blessed with that because when I came out, I wanted people to know who I really was. And no strings attached. I’m not finna play a person that I’m not. I’m not finna be fake. I’m not finna put on a thousand chains and then when they say ‘camera off’ then I gotta take it all off. I couldn’t sleep at night.”

He’s almost defensive about it—the charmer seen as skating by on charisma.

“When I got in the game, I was mashing,” Jones says, “My numbers speak for me.”

Screengrab via Complex

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*First Published: Aug 23, 2014, 4:14 pm