“I Got So Many Songs in My Heart, I Feel Like It’s Unlimited”: The 20-Year Making of Michael Millions’ “Hard To Be King”
When Michael Millions was ten his parents gifted him a boombox and two cassette tapes, unknowingly sparking a 20-year odyssey as a recording artist. Though the Richmond, Virginia-based rapper received these sacred musical artifacts over 25 years ago, he still remembers the experience in vivid detail. “They gave me two cassette tapes — Mary J. Blige’s What’s The 411? and the Bodyguard soundtrack that Whitney Houston and them dropped,” he tells me. “I bumped the What’s The 411 joint and I started hearing these sounds on that tape that I really hadn’t heard until then. My mind was blown by the sound of hip-hop and R & B.”
It wasn’t long before Michael dove deeper into both genres and eventually tried his own hand at making music. “I started falling into this hip-hop culture really really quick,” he says. “Maybe a few months after that I started writing music. By 14 years old I was recording music on a daily basis. By 18 years old I had signed to my first independent label.”
Unfortunately, the deal with DonLand Entertainment wasn’t meant to be. Though Michael showed a remarkable level of productivity during his time there and recorded approximately 400 songs, the label folded and none of his material ever saw an official release. “We were young, it was poor management at the time, and the label collapsed and we just had to part ways,” he says. “It wasn’t nothing bad, it just wasn’t the right situation for any of the artists involved. I’m one of the few that kept pushing and kept going with what I was already doing anyway.”
“I got so many songs in my heart, I feel like it’s unlimited.”
Losing such a massive back catalog of material would be enough to drive most people out of the industry, but Michael has a much more optimistic take on the situation. “When I tell people I lost 400 records, they look at me in devastation,” he says. “But I learned how to be a better recording artist, I learned how to use my voice. I learned to write a lot of music, I learned to write for other people. Even if I try to be mad about what I lost, what I gained has been so much more beneficial. Losing 400 records should be devastating to me, but it wasn’t. I got so many songs in my heart, I feel like it’s unlimited.”
In addition to feeling like he has unlimited creative energy, Michael also finds the entire music making process much easier after his time spent at DonLand. “When I was a kid, to write a song, in my mind it felt like I had to fill up a bucket of water and pour it onto a page,” he says. “Now, after the 10,000 hours, I can take a drop out of this bucket and put it on a page and I have a whole record.”
By 2007 Michael officially severed ties to DonLand and started his journey as an independent musician, eventually forming the Purple Republic Music Group with his brother and frequent collaborator Brandon “NameBrand” Bass. During this time he built his skills as a studio master and soon became a jack of all trades with recording. “I’m a lab rat when it comes to sound,” he says. “I always wanted my music to sound professional and I got my education in mixing through the engineers that I worked with. I learned the tools and theories about the simple things like EQing, compression, and reverb — just studying those concepts and principals.”
“I could lose all of my stuff today and it wouldn’t hurt because I would say, you know what, that motivates me to fill my hard drives up with 1000 more songs.”
Through years of immersing himself in the studio and soaking up lessons from those around him, Michael started to approach the behind the scenes aspects of music making with the same level of passion he had for rapping. These days his studio savvy earns him work with many of the hottest artists in Richmond’s thriving rap music scene. “I got really heavy into the engineering side of things,” he says. “Because of it, I end up working with almost every artist in my city as far as putting out their music, engineering their music, and mixing it.”
Michael has also grown comfortable with mastering albums — giving himself a full range of skills that let him create, record, and perfect music during post production. “It took maybe about five years to get mastering down, but I can fully put the album or songs together now,” he says.
Beyond teaching him the multi-faceted process of making records, this evolution from aspiring rapper, to signed MC, to studio maestro also forced Michael to find his comfort zone in a variety of studio settings. “We went from the home studio, to the big studio, back now to a home studio,” he says.
These days, Michael does much of his work in a home studio that is customized specifically to fit his preferences. “It’s more like a boutique situation,” he says. “I have all of my equipment and my mic, and everything is set and tuned to the way I like to make music.”
“When I was a kid, to write a song, in my mind it felt like I had to fill up a bucket of water and pour it onto a page.”
Having an ideal recording setup helped facilitate a creative firestorm when Michael started working on his new album Hard To Be King. Life circumstances also provided him with ample material, as the album marked the first time in Michael’s long career that music was his sole source of income. As a family man, this was an adjustment that gave him plenty to talk about. “I really just had to document my life,” he says. “For nine years I worked in corporate America after college. I lost my job and my whole album is really about my life since I been a full-time artist. I was writing this album and I was documenting things that were happening, things I was experiencing, and emotions I was feeling.”
With the album now wrapped and released, Michael is confident that he’s on the right track after recording his first full-length album with no secondary income. “The energy of my path does not tell me I’m supposed to work,” he explains. “The energy of my path tells me that I’m supposed to be an artist because of everything that happens to me as an artist.”
Although recording the individual songs came easily to Michael, he had trouble visualizing Hard To Be King as a cohesive project from start to finish. Luckily, a chance visit from one of his friends helped him piece it together in an order that made sense. “I’ll be honest, I recorded 54 records for this project,” he says. “But it wasn’t until one of my homies came over and scrambled my playlist of all the records that I realized I had the album that I was trying to make. It was right there, I had made the album, but I couldn’t hear it yet because it wasn’t arranged in a way that made it visual to me yet.”
“The energy of my path does not tell me I’m supposed to work. The energy of my path tells me that I’m supposed to be an artist.”
This playlist re-arrangement brought the haunting Nickelus F-produced “Sirens” to the beginning of the album, helping to set a standard of introspective and emotionally honest lyrics that is prevalent throughout. Michael gives us documentary dose of reality on “Sirens” as spits lines like, “I’m from where the gas stations is the stores/I’m from where the poor still get ignored/Where a man still gotta work two jobs/‘Cause the mouths to feed totaling four/Slavin’ a nine to five to find you can’t afford/To provide for your children and they stomachs sore.”
Though the song was originally meant to come at the end of Hard To Be King, it soon became clear “Sirens” had to be the lead-off song to set the right tone. “My cousin came over and was like, ‘Yo man, ‘Sirens’ is so cinematic. This brings me to Richmond. This makes me feel like what Richmond feels like. Listen to every great album we ever loved to listen to growing up — they all started in a place that let you know you were going to be sitting there for a while.’”
It’s songs like “Sirens” that make Hard To Be King one of Michael’s proudest achievements yet, with album already garnering positive reviews and earning nods from publications like XXL. With people far and wide catching on to Michael and a slew of other talented Richmond artists thanks to the power of the internet, Michael is hopeful local media outlets will start taking more notice as well. “It’s such a crazy dope place, but the local radio stations don’t play our music,” he says. “In other markets or in other cities around the country, they play their local artists. In Richmond they don’t play any of us.”
Regardless of how people perceive Hard To Be King or how far the album reaches, Michael remains confident he has an endless supply of music to offer listeners. “I could lose all of my stuff today and it wouldn’t hurt,” he says. “I would say, ‘You know what, that motivates me to fill my hard drives up with 1000 more songs.’ That’s just how I feel about music. We do it every day.”
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