Malcolm Kelley could have used his experience growing up in inner city Chicago as fodder to create a street-rap persona. Or he could have pulled from his time at a nearly all-white private high school to create a “College Dropout”-like persona. Or he could have pulled a Rick Ross and fabricated an entire life’s story to craft a new identity. Instead, Kelley decided to take those collective experiences and create music that is at times goofy, celebratory and gritty. Like a true product of the Internet era, his samples and influences are nearly schizophrenic: His third mixtape, “No Runner Up,” has samplings of all genres of rap and hip-hop that top 40 radio has played in the last 18 months. I was first introduced to Kelley in high school, where I wrote a story about him for Marist High School’s newspaper. Here, I check in with Kelley again, to explore how his music has evolved. The Daily Illini: In what ways is “No Runner Up” different from “Skyline Shorty”? Malcolm Kelley: “No Runner Up” is way different because I was just being a rapper. On “Skyline Shorty,” you might of heard me lay down a beat or two. Here I’m just focusing on being a rapper. It’s just me testing my flow, because I don’t have to worry about producing no more. DI: You’ve mentioned that “No Runner Up” was not hosted by a DJ? What is the importance of a DJ hosting a mixtape? MK: Well, honestly, you go on all these mixtape sites such as Dat Piff, you got all these DJs hosting tapes. Basically the importance of it is to have the artist do the work and the DJ presents the work. I feel the DJ should be going in harder on the music than you do, you know what I’m saying? … Not having one is not really affecting it at all. If anything, it’s making it better. I honestly just wanted to give it to the people raw. I said on the tape that DJs are always putting their tag on it and bringing it back, which is really not a problem, but some of them are doing it way too much. Like, are you hosting a Malcolm Kelley tape or you hosting your own? DI: How has your Chicago upbringing influenced your music? MK: With Chicago, we’re always fighters. We’re trying to outdo each other and constantly be the best. But not in a bad way either. When people get disrespectful with it, that’s when it gets out of hand. The whole thing with me, I’m always fighting here. Every day is a battle, and I’m always trying to win. Every day is something new. It’s a lot of free-styling on this tape because it’s so real life. DI: Describe your upbringing. MK: I definitely went through some things some people don’t. Even the things I see today. I mean, everyone has it hard, but I had it harder than others. It made me motivated, it makes me work ten times harder, you know? You can’t dwell on the past. Even the experience going on Kairos and telling my stories. I had some guys come up to me and say, “Damn, you really did go through that stuff.” I take that same perspective into the studio, so I can’t lie to myself. DI: You went to a private high school. Has that influenced your person or music? MK: Marist has honestly really held down my music a lot. Music I knew I would never give a try to, I did because people were listening to it. Something might just catch my interests. I wasn’t being closed-minded. DI: Being from the inner city but going to a private school, would you say you gravitate more towards gritty, more gangster lyrics or more backpack, early Kanye West verses? MK: Every song is an everyday experience, know what I’m saying? You might be talking about the beats I choose. If I haven’t done it before or if it’s something I haven’t talked about before, Imma bless it, you know? Everything you hear in a Malcolm Kelley track is true though. Sometimes I might not even write it down, such as a song like “Cruise Mursik,” which is the kind of stuff we were listening to at that time. But it’s Chicago, man. Some of those gritty beats are like the streets we living in. … You can’t categorize me, and that’s the beautiful thing about it. If I feel like if I need to drop a song or throw a verse on your record, I do it from the bottom of my heart. DI: Lets talk about your sound. Some of your music, like “Cruise Mursik,“ sounds like early, spacey and funky Outkast. Some of it is reminiscent of pop-rap like Soulja Boy. “Jo Montana” sounds like a Lex Luger banger. Do you gravitate to one sound or do you prefer exploring all genres of rap? MK: I really don’t. I listen to a lot of different music. It’s whatever my producers pull up in the studio. If I’m feeling it, then I bless it, you feel me? With “Way Gone,” Track 5, you may say the song has a Soulja Boy, clubbish beat. Honestly, when I first did that record I didn’t like it. But Erik (track producer) said “What, boy, are you a fool? That song is hard.” That song was undone for months. I love that song now, but at first I didn’t feel it. I really just gravitate to whatever is hot. I try to be the most versatile rapper I can be, I don’t want to be put in a category. You don’t know what I’m gonna be doing. I might do alternative one day. One of my boys might sample a Taylor Swift beat, and I might switch that up and rap some crazy s*** over that. DI: What artists today inspire your music? MK: Well, right now, the way Chicago is coming up, it’s getting really crazy. You got artists like Chief Keef. Then you got King Louie, you can’t even turn at a stop sign without seeing his name. Those two are really inspiring me. I’ve been listening to some 2 Chainz, Lil Wayne. Been staying listening to Gucci (Gucci Mane, an Atlanta-based rapper). A lot of stuff. Mac Miller. I even switch up my sound, I’ll listen to some The Weeknd. DI: You recently posted to social media some unflattering words about your label, Skyline Entertainment. What was that about and have things been resolved? MK: Everyone is A1 Steak Sauce. I had to explain to the team that everything is good. Skyline Entertainment, we got to fight for it. Spacegang believes in this s***, so we have to fight for it. There were other Spacegangs out there trying to run with our name. We had to tell em ‘no, the real spacegang is from the Southside of Chicago.’ DI: You used to go by the nickname “Promise of Chicago.” Still call yourself that? MK: I’ll be blunt, I really don’t. When a girl that came to Marist one night and heard me rap, and she met me at the Southside Irish parade, and called me the “Promise of Chicago.” I’ll never forget that feeling. It’ll always be on my heart and my mind though. Promise of Chicago was a promise I made that I was really gonna strive hard and rep the city. It was my promise to Chicago. I was saying that I will defy the odds, make it and rep for everybody in the city. You might hear a Gucci, you know where the hell he’s from. An artist like a Kanye West. I don’t know one artist who thinks of him like that. Yes he does talk about it, but it’s another thing to actually be here in it. DI: Plan on keeping that promise? MK: Hell yeah. Imma keep the promise and Imma keep on going. I’m gonna go to the moon, man. There is no top for me. Number 1 on the Billboard ain’t enough for me. I gotta do it again. I gotta get on it and stay on it. You may never hear an unsigned artist say this. Any artists can get a deal, not everyone can keep the deal. All these unsigned artists are like, “I need a deal, I need a deal.” There’s rappers out here with record labels on your favorite rapper’s label. They are still living with their parents. They waitin’ on the labels to do everything for them. Whereas the artists doing everything themselves and getting noticed by himself, he is built to last. He don’t need a co-sign. Doesn’t need a label, he just making a lot of noise. Check out Kelley’s YouTube page here. Joe is a senior in Media.