Saint Millie is screwed.
OK, maybe that’s pushing it. But it only sort of matters that the 22-year-old Oak Park native (born Milton McKinney) is talented and professional and honest in interviews; that he’s personable in ways that rappers often aren’t. It’s more significant that in the years since rap has moved from party jams over looped disco hits to gritty street narratives to material opulence, the pool of rappers has grown into an ocean. Literally thousands of acts are clamoring for the worldwide superstardom awarded to a select few (like recent Chicago breakout stars Chief Keef and Chance the Rapper).
After all: You haven’t heard of Saint Millie, have you?
During Millie’s recent trip to the South by Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas, RedEye informally surveyed 15 festgoers about the Chicago artist. They each got a chance to listen to his music, which, rather than the dull boasts of some of the rapper’s contemporaries, leans toward inspirational tales of overcoming hardships and achieving financial success. Many of those surveyed enjoyed what they heard; absolutely none of them had heard of the MC before. Fortunately, Millie, who had barely left Illinois in his entire life before heading south in March, recognizes his need to branch out.
“I love Chicago, but I want to get out and see the world,” he says. “This is my craft. This is how I can get to the next level.“
Saint Millie has been writing music since he was 8. He was 12 when his mother went to prison, and he started bouncing around to five houses and schools from Oak Park to Garfield Park, living with grandparents and then his aunt, between the ages of 14 and 18. (Millie notes that his father always was and still is active in his life, despite his parents separating when he was 3, and that he recently reconnected with his mother following her release from prison after serving 8 years on a drug conviction.) He calls himself Saint Millie because when he started rapping at 18, he says, he was “living in hell.” “[After moving to the West Side] I was surrounded by the negativity in that neighborhood, so Saint Millie felt right. I felt like I had to be the good in the situation I was living in.”
He now resides at a friend’s place in Oak Park and works at South Loop boutique Jugrnaut. In most of his spare time, he pursues the skill he hopes can help him build a better life. Millie has released two mixtapes (2013’s “No Religion But Up” and “Road to Glory,” which dropped earlier this year), and to build a fanbase he has, like many lesser-known artists, released all of his music to date for free. From a financial standpoint, that means Saint Millie has made exactly $0 from his recorded material.
Still, there are reasons for him to be optimistic.
“He's one of the younger MCs in the city, with a style that's much more mature than what some would expect to hear from him,” says Ty Howard, co-editor of Chicago-based hip-hop website Fake Shore Drive, a tastemaker focusing on local and Midwestern rap. “He carries himself as if he's been doing this for a while on and off of the microphone, which sets him apart from a lot of his peers who display very little maturity in the various scenarios upcoming MCs may be placed in. He's from the same musical family tree of Kanye, Common, No I.D. and the soulful sound that people used to associate with the city's South Side, except he's from the West Side.”
While praise from press always helps, fame seems a long way off. Saint Millie remains undeterred by the odds.
“I honestly believe in my abilities and know that I stand out,” he says. He’ll need to if he wants to rise to a mammoth challenge: The digital impact on a music industry with fewer stars, lower sales numbers and fewer influential record labels has splintered the audience while potentially overwhelming fans with options. It would seem naïve to think an unknown artist could see Eminem move nearly 800,000 copies of his “Marshall Mathers LP 2” in its first week of release last year and think, “If he can do that, why can’t I?” Yet talk to a few ambitious up-and-comers around town and you’re practically guaranteed to hear at least one say exactly that.
At SXSW, Saint Millie planned to maximize his exposure. “I was trying to put myself in a better position than if I hadn’t gone down there,” he says. He also got to witness the music industry’s massive scale first-hand. SXSW listed more than 2,000 artists as “official” performers, not factoring in artists like Millie, who attend with hopes of making something happen spontaneously. The goal, the rapper says, was to connect with audiences and turn new listeners into lifetime fans.
“People aren't always seeking a mainstream look, and sometimes fans want to grow with an artist,” he says. “They can be happy to say that they were there for that. I want to make those connections.”
He seemed to do just that while performing at a SXSW showcase hosted by Columbia College Chicago’s student-run label AEMMP Records. Perhaps even more transcendent was a moment that showcased Millie’s ability to seize the spotlight: On Austin’s 6th Street—imagine if New Orleans’ Bourbon Street had a baby with Wrigleyville—the rapper grabbed a megaphone and suddenly began performing along with a band already jamming on the street. Dozens of new listeners flocked over almost immediately.
Those highs were met with lows that come from being an inexperienced performer struggling to keep a lot of scheduling-related plates spinning. During the festival, several promised opportunities fell through, and friends/valued supporters who said they’d come to performances didn’t show up. Many now-successful performers have learned these lessons the hard way, as Millie did in Austin.
It’s not going to be easy for Saint Millie to get on his own road to glory. But he’s benefiting from traveling. “The trip to Texas taught me that I need to refine my focus,” he says. “I wanted to quit [during failures at SXSW], but you realize that sometimes the moment where it didn’t go as planned makes you stronger. You go through the ups and downs, but it’s all character-building. I’m here to stay.”
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