"What music offers me personally, is an outlet to express the way that I’m feeling, unjudged and uninterrupted."
Malik Elijah x Evan Dale // Oct 16, 2020
Maryland’s Malik Elijah is an up-and-comer whose range and above all else, passion, drive uniqueness into his music. En route towards the release of new project, Free Lemonade, he began with a fiery, socially-motivated audiovisual called Human. Born from the ash of a Summer especially defined by continued protests in the wake of the tragic killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and so many more, Human set a tone of meaning in Elijah’s work - meaning that, too, drove vibrant musicianship.
With Free Lemonade, he takes it even further - not only continuing to pursue his position as a poetically entrenched wordsmith, but also as a melodist, a vocalist, and a well-rounded composer of a sound that explores hip-hop at its widest breadth. And per the range in his one of a kind sound, we speak with him on protests, black anger, musical response, wide-ranging influence, and of course, what’s next for Malik Elijah.
Our Response to the Mixtape:
RNGLDR: You’ve been releasing music for a few years now – most of it deeply embedded with meaning and thought – and surely making music for even longer than that. Was music always a way for you to spread a message and connect with listeners on a deeper level? And in the opposite direction of the people listening, what is it that music offers you as the artist?
MALIK: Music for me, is one word: LIFE. Music is not just something that I do; this how I live on a day-to-day basis. I have taken my time to study the culture of it, and I have always had an infatuation to be a part of it I just so happen to take the Hip-hop route. When I look at music, I see it as a way to speak for the voiceless and to also bring my thoughts and opinions into many conversations that we as Humans on this earth have all the time. What music offers me, personally, is an outlet to express the way that I’m feeling, unjudged and uninterrupted. It offers me a way out when my mind is cloudy; it is my therapy, my entertainment, and has always been that intangible friend that has never left me.
RNGLDR: Working towards your debut full-length project, Free Lemonade, you first released Human, a lyrically dominant track aimed on viewing fellow humans for exactly what the title suggests. Coupled with a powerful video, the track is firm in its stance against institutionalized racism and its prevalence especially in modern America. Can you speak a little bit to your writing process for the single? Where were you and was there a moment that specifically inspired its inception?
MALIK: Human was actually written and recorded in my bedroom. I had recently just recorded a song called DUMMY, with my newfound friend, KA1, and he had sent me a pack of beats one day. I forgot what the name of the beat was, but I heard it and instantly hit him with a text like, “yo bro this is fucking nuts. I want the beat. I need it.” When I hear something I like, I instantly gravitate towards it - kind of weird - like I get happy and obsessed with hearing it. Now this was the time when George Floyd was murdered, and Breonna Taylor was murdered, and as a black man, I see people that look like me being killed in the middle of the street on film and yet still get no justice. It bothers me a lot. I often cry sometimes when I see situations like those happen. From all that frustration came ‘Human.’ I usually don’t write a whole song out in one session. I like to sit and really think about each section of the song, but this one I wrote the whole thing out because I felt like I wasn't going to obtain the anger and rage that I was having in that very moment. When you get feelings like those, you have to channel and utilize them. My pain for my people is what inspired this song. I’m fed up. I'm distraught and the only way I could let it out was the only way I knew best, and that is writing a song.
RNGLDR: Aesthetically, the track is one of the more hard-hitting, important hip-hop singles to emerge from a Summer defined by global racial reckoning and subsequent protests. Its video encapsulates a feeling of anger, frustration, and pain through a television screen. What kind of statement do you make with the visuals that you couldn’t properly convey with only the track?
MALIK: Shoutout to my friend and creative director, Creator K. He is the person who brought this song to life. I gave him two words: tv and static. That is what I wanted for this video and the rest is history. I wanted certain things highlighted in the video that I believe he did effortlessly in the shoot and edit. Without K, I wouldn't have been able to portray the pain I was feeling. Me, I am in no way an actor, but K pushed me to invoke my emotions. With every shot, he detailed and pinpointed how I should look in the video based on the feelings that I still have now and from the feelings I showed through my recording. The statement we as a team were trying to make, is that not one person is better than the next, but when it comes to me and many other Humans who have black skin it is harder for us. Like how can a person see another person be treated with such hate and not feel for said person? That was the statement we as team were trying to make with combination of song and visual.
RNGLDR: Though first and foremost a lyrically gifted rapper, your skillset is much wider than to fit only into that description. With tracks like Simmer – the second en route to Free Lemonade – where you embark down a bouncier, more melodic path; or tracks like Space Glow where you split the difference between the thoughtfully rapped and a melodic hook, your knack for seamlessly switching between lyrical and the melodic, the rapped and the sung, feels natural. Where do you credit the beginnings of your lyrical rap skillset? Where is your ability as a vocalist rooted? And what differing outlets do the two creative lanes offer you as an artist?
MALIK: First off thank you. It's nice to hear someone say that I am lyrical. I still feel like I have a long way to go before I can be considered an MC. When it comes to being lyrical, I have to give credit to the artists that I am inspired by like Kendrick Lamar, Mick Jenkins, Schoolboy Q, and so many more. When I first discovered rap, I found myself diving more into the “backpack rappers” because I noticed they weren’t just talking about one certain subject. They dove into more conceptual thinking and I told myself at a young age I wanted to be like that. When it comes to vocals I have been able to sing ever since I was a child. I am a church boy and sung in choir - the stereotypical upbringing. Yet, God gifted me with that and I am forever grateful for it because I feel like if I didn’t know how to sing, I would have still learned to. Once I started studying Kendrick Lamar and really understood what he was doing with his voice in records, that's when I knew I needed to find how I can make that into my own way. With those two outlets, both singing and rapping, it brings a lot of creativity and versatility because I’m able to manipulate my voice and try out new things to make a song that’s at least a little bit different.
RNGLDR: Speaking on Space Glow, though not included in Free Lemonade, the single shines a light on your fluid collaborative relationship with Italian producer, Ciro Mont. What is it about the electronically nuanced, jazzy beats he creates that coalesces so well with your sound?
MALIK: Space Glow was a record I didn't know what to do with. I knew the homie Josh from Good Society was dropping a compilation so I basically said take this cause at that point it wasn’t really going to be released, and Im glad it did because it’s a nice record. And to answer the rest of your question: man, I don't know. Ciro and I have been homies ever since we linked up to make our Lazy EP, which is still one of my favorite bodies of work to this day. My voice was just made for a Ciro Mont beat. I can't describe it. It just works. Even our throwaways sound crazy good. It's like we can't miss when we make music together. We push each other and we fight a lot about the records and that's because we want them to be as good as possible in that moment.
RNGLDR: Ciro Mont’s production again pops up in Free Lemonade with Blackened where you and featuring name, Cool J deliver one of its most unique songs. When it came to the collaboration, how did the process unfold? Did Ciro Mont send you the beat and the rest happened naturally between you and Cool J? Or was there a more involved digital collaborative process that wouldn’t have been explored pre-pandemic?
MALIK: Blackened started with a loop and a performance microphone. That is the oldest record on this project. Actually, I'm pretty sure It’s close to being one year old. I was trying to do a new wave (for me personally) with how I discovered a lot of pop artists write their songs. They take a few chords and just write the whole song out and then get a producer to build the beat around it. So I had recorded a rough track to the song in my girlfriend's bedroom at the time, and did a mix of writing on paper and in my head (need to learn how to write a whole song in my head, still practicing). Once I did the rough, I sent it to Ciro. He exceeded what I already heard for the record and brought the flavor that was needed. Now when it came to getting one of my first friends I ever made in music: Cool J (who also is one of my videographers) I forgot what we were doing but I hit him up and was like, ‘bro, I want you on this record.’ When you tell Cool J to rap, that man finna rap! We recorded his verse in my parents basement as well as my parts and the rest is history. I gave him directions on how I wanted him to convey the verse and he executed effortlessly in like three takes. Also gotta shout out my boy, Speedy Flicks for doing the end skit. I was really trying to exaggerate how food orders are taken where I'm from in Maryland. We tend to order food in a hysterical way. Oh, and before I forget, this was one of the only records I didn’t mix from top to bottom. I could not get the vocals right how I wanted, so shout out to Soto for getting that vocal mix right for the kid.
RNGLDR: Was making the project at large a unique process given the state of the world with COVID-19? Or because of the advancements of technology in the past decade, has creative collaboration moved towards the predominantly digital anyway?
MALIK: Well, a lot of the producers I work with are not even in the same state or country, anyway. I have never met Ciro in person. I've never met a lot of the people that I work with in person besides Ronny Fuego. He flew to the crib from Washington to have a three-day recording session (we made Cuban Link in that time span). Other than that, I usually work on the phone with most people I’m collaborating with and that's the beauty of technology. You don't have to wait to get in the studio with anybody. The studio is wherever you are and if you got a phone to call and computer to wetransfer, you’re good! Making the project was unique though because for four months, I did not make one song for it. There was a gap where I was just thinking about how I wanted to make it. Sometimes I noticed I have to step back from making the music to really look at the bigger picture and see the songs I already made. This process of the album was learning from my past mistakes on every other project I had ever done. So, when I took that step back to look at records I made in the past couple months I was losing my mind saying like “yo, this joint sounds crazy i need to finish this” and “ YOOOOO WHY DID I SLEEP ON SOME OF THESE RECORDS.” So yeah, that moment of self reflection happened and then for two months, I sat down and worked to finish on all the songs I thought were right. Shout out to my girlfriend for helping me dialing in on certain track. She’s a pivotal piece when picking records for me.
RNGLDR: As a whole, collaboration seems not only to be an important tool utilized between you, producer, and guest artists, but also between you and yourself, where oftentimes from one verse to another and then to a chorus, your own deliveries vary so much that you’re essentially able to be a featuring artist on your own track. Was shining a light on your wide range an important part of making Free Lemonade the way that you did? And what do you think that wide range says not only about you, but about a wider modern scene where a plethora of hip-hop artists boast such skillsets that they can split their time between the rapped and the sung, and often even the instrumental and the productive?
MALIK: I am the type of artist where I love to collaborate, but I don't like to collaborate so much that you are just getting a compilation album. When you listen to a Malik Elijah Project, you are going to hear Malik Elijah. Im going to sneak a few features at a time for projects, but it won't be a lot because at that point I'll just be performing a verse or two for my future shows. Anyways though, to answer the rest of your question, highlighting my wide range was a huge goal on Free Lemonade and I'm blessed you noticed that. I pride myself on being versatile but letting that versatility mesh in a way that people fuck with it still. So for me my range shows that you never know what I'm going to do next and I like that I don’t want you thinking you have me figured out because I haven't even fully figured myself out and I probably never will. But that's the beauty of life. Artists like T-Pain, Kanye, and Drake are really what started this wave and then it went into Kendrick, and now we have the Smino, the IDK, the Buddy, the Saba. All these artist who are literally making records where it sounds like them featuring them. I fuck with the idea that people are not relying on just getting another artist to hop on a track to help it blow up. They are experimenting with their voice and really pushing the boundary because vocals are an instrument. When it comes to artists priding themselves on being able to do a lot, I find it cool too, because for me, I rap and sing but I also love mixing and even making a few beats here and there. I like to look at it as artists aren't trying to be lazy and just depending on other people. They are trying to do it for themselves and if they need help, they ask for it.
RNGLDR: A strong example of your broad musical range comes with OneOfOne where the track’s rapped verses place a lot of precedence on the emotionally lyrical, painting a landscape of a loving relationship, while the chorus reinforces the ideals communicated in verse. For you, with OneOfOne as an example, does your creative process see to it that you write the lyrics, build the hook, or work from a beat first? Essentially, from track-to-track, how does your creative process unfold? And does it differ?
MALIK: OneofOne is a gift to the love of my life. I actually had her sit in the sessions to hear it, because if she didn't like it, I was going to redo it and make another one. Shoutout my OG, Mulls and his team for killing it and allowing me to record over that beat. When it comes to my creative process it differs all the time. Sometimes I like to sit and think and write punch lines in my head. Sometimes I sit down and write it fully out, sometimes even a mixture of both on the same record. With OneofOne, the way I wrote was that I recorded the verse, chorus, and bridge, and I didn’t finish the second verse until like six to seven months later. My creative process has no bounds and I'm not afraid to take my time on making a song either. A few of these records on the project didn't even have a beat at first.
RNGLDR: For a melodically driven romantic track like OneOfOne, who in hip-hop’s past or present has inspired you to explore the softer, more emotionally attached side of your music? And from other directions of Free Lemonade’s tracklist – the fiery, lyrical exploration of Human and the high-energy, bass-heavy vibe of Simmer or Cuban Link, who are some other names that have influenced your many sounds?
MALIK: I would say the reflection of these records are from a plethora of artists that I listen to, because I listen to everything from rap to classical, but artists that influenced sounds on this project would be Drake for the emotional side; Kendrick & Mick Jenkins for lyrical exploration; IDK, Ski Mask the Slump God, XXXtentacion, & Schoolboy Q for the high energy and bass-heavy vibe; and then for some honorable mentions for a mixture of things would be Kenny Mason, Smino, JADEN, Joyous Wolf, and honestly I can go on, but it would be a huge list, lol. But, these were some of the artists and band(s) I listened to while making this project.
RNGLDR: Looking towards your roots in Maryland, what about your upbringing there influenced your sound in particular?
MALIK: When I was growing up, I was born and raised in a Christian household. So, I didn’t really know what rap music was. I patterned most of first musical inspirations off of Gospel music like Fred Hammond and Deitrick Haddon and then Gogo (which is a subgenre of funk created by the late great Chuck Brown) from bands like XIB, New Impressionz, Rare Essence, etc. Those two pieces were a big influence but also, just the overall style and trends that were happening in Maryland as I grew up influenced me as well, 'cause where I’m from, we have a certain way how we talk, dress, and eat. Honestly, Maryland and the DMV as a whole are just different. It's hard to explain if you’re not from there or been around it. It's just different.
RNGLDR: And on the subject, what is the current hip-hop scene like in Maryland? Are there other artists we should be listening to? And is there something that you think connects the auditory aesthetic of Maryland musicians?
MALIK: Maryland has a plethora of talent, but I'll say it like this: the trap scene is the biggest thing in Maryland right now, but there are those artists that do things outside of trap that don't really get noticed; me being one of them. We’ll casually have a person like a YBN Cordae, an IDK, or a Rico Nasty who make it out because they chose to get up and travel outside of the area. Now don't get me wrong, I love me some trap music, but I feel like they are geared more towards that than what other artists are providing. I feel as though we need more of a balance. Artists I would say that you need to be listening to though: Louie Bagz, Rockstar Johnny, Redveil, Tre Burwell, GloverOffical, Maya Marie, TheAntiSocial, TroyIV, AquilVCR and many more. But, all of these artists I just mentioned got all different styles and approaches to their art.
RNGLDR: If there’s one thing you’d like to say about what you hope a listener gets out of Free Lemonade, what would it be?
MALIK: I hope people don't overlook the message I am trying to send. If you noticed my first four records were me getting out my anger and aggression towards being black in America. I hope people notice on records like Blackened, that I'm speaking on the balance of having faith and chasing your passion and not money. I hope people noticed that when I make a record like OneOfOne, that it is okay to be madly in love and faithful to someone and still be a rapper. I hope people notice on even a record like Simmer, that I am expressing to not take yourself seriously all the time. And last but not least I want people to know that with this project and for all the future ones that I am continuously pushing myself to progress. Fuck a label, I don’t have one.
RNGLDR: And if there’s one thing you’ve gotten from its creative process that stands out above the rest, what is it?
MALIK: I learned four things: to do it for yourself when you know you can; ask for help when you hit that wall; nothing can be rushed if you want it done right; and nothing will ever be perfect but you can get it close.
RNGLDR: What’s next for Malik Elijah?
MALIK: I can’t say right now. We’ll have to talk about that when the time's right. But, I’ll leave you with this: God Willing, more Malik Elijah in 2021 and beyond.