When I sit down with rapper Kane Mayfield to hear his debut album, he’s hearing it for the first time as well. His producer, Brandon “BeaLack” Lackey, had just polished off the final mix of the album before we arrive at his Parkville studio, Lineup Room, and start knocking back beers and listening. Lackey downplays any last minute revisions he’s made as “tiny, tiny adjustments,” turning a vocal track up a decibel here or there.
But as the faint sound of ocean tides creeps into the background of the song ‘Beaches,’ Mayfield breaks into a huge grin and interrupts himself mid-sentence to yell to the producer, “Oh, Shit! Fuck you, bitch! I never heard that before!”
The album, “The Return Of Rap,” is out this week on Mania Music Group, the label launched in 2007 by Lackey and co-producer Dwayne “Headphones” Lawson (who remains Mania’s respected Yoda figure even now, contributing to projects remotely from his current home in Atlanta). Mayfield, 33, knows that the title can sound unpromisingly like a portent of nostalgia for hip-hop’s past, but its roots are actually a little further back in the past: controversial civil rights activist H. Rap Brown.
Originally conceived as two EPs that would be released separately, “The Return Of Rap” aspires to reconcile two sides of Mayfield, the hyperliterate political rapper and the funny, personable loudmouth who showers his producer with curse words by way of praise. A Brown speech and a Bobby Seale interview are sampled on song intros, but so is “The Big Lebowski.” The first half of “The Return Of Rap” features a constant crackle of vinyl and the clever social commentary of the child-labor lament ‘Handprints’ and the culture-clash dialogue ‘Shoes.’ But then, you hear the needle taken off of the record, and a smaller disc dropped into a CD tray, for the more aggressive and modern-sounding second half of the album.
Early in the Mania years, Mayfield experimented with light-hearted songs like ‘Party In Your Face’ as he worked out how to incorporate humor into his music. Now, “The Return Of Rap” displays how he uses punchlines, sarcasm, and a wide variety of voices to express serious ideas. One of the running themes is about finding common ground and mutual acceptance not just across different races and classes, but within his own embattled race. “There’s a line on ‘Black Powder’ where I say, ‘The enemy will make you wanna hate your people, don’t let ’em, that’s why you must embrace your people.’ That summed this whole record up,” he says. “‘Nutmeg’ is really aimed at bougie black people, who look down on people who don’t wanna be Pan-Africans and shit.”
Mayfield, a Long Island native, moved to Baltimore in 2005 and made friends in the local hip-hop scene, proudly mentioning one of his good friends, the late Derrick “OOH” Jones of Brown F.I.S.H.: “OOH was the first person that accepted me [in Baltimore].” Mayfield’s career as a natural-born salesman included a stint working in stocks and mortgages, which informed his shrewd take on economic inequality in songs such as ‘Subprime/Jungle’ and ‘Vitamin D.’
When Mania Music Group released its 2010 compilation “Welcome To The Audience,” Mayfield was one of four rappers on the label’s roster, alongside DDm, Rapman Ron G, and Milly July. Gradually, the other MCs parted ways with Mania, leaving Mayfield as its sole focus. But Mayfield was a reluctant MC, and then a reluctant solo artist, who Lawson and Lackey worked to slowly bring out of his shell. “They took two years to even convince me that I was a rapper,” Mayfield says. “I always wanted to be in a group, because I’m fuckin’ lazy. It requires a lot less work, writing a whole song and coming up with a theme, that’s way harder than writing a verse. It’s like playing the whole band. Why don’t I just do my cool guitar solo?”
In recent years, without other Mania rappers to fill out posse cuts or share a stage with, Mayfield stepped into the spotlight. He became a confident performer, occasionally blowing less seasoned locals off the stage, or winning over tough crowds when opening for touring acts like Slick Rick or PRhyme. He honed his comedic voice online, even penning a romantic advice column on Tumblr and answering letters like “My man wants me to pee on him.” And throughout 2014, he let it all hang out in his music, getting more press and blog coverage with his Honest Music series, which included memorable tracks like ‘Lemonheads,’ an uproarious open letter to CNN anchor Don Lemon.
“The Return Of Rap” may be arriving at a good time in Mayfield’s career, but it came out of a period of personal turmoil. “In the first 48 hours of 2014, two of my friends tried to off themselves, and I got broke up with via text message,” he says. He lost his job soon after, and just as he started to get back on his feet with a new one, tragedy struck. “My dad and OOH died the same day,” he says, a touch of indignant disbelief till lingering in his voice. And then, little more than six months later, his mother also passed, just after his birthday.
“I’m like OK, so 2014 was just a challenge. But words like resilience, perseverance, fortitude . . . it’s not like ‘hat’ or ‘car,’ you can’t just have that shit, you have to prove you have it,” Mayfield says. “Now I really don’t give a fuck. The last person whose opinion I truly gave a fuck about is dead.” Although “The Return Of Rap” has been in the works for more than a year, Mayfield recorded two songs, ‘Chaos’ and ‘Idols’ in January, perhaps just to prove to himself that he could. “Secretly, I was scared that my button was broken, because I was crying so much. The button that I push that I just let everything go and write.”
Having grown up and lived in Long Island during New York’s golden era of hip-hop, one might expect Mayfield to have a chip on his shoulder about Baltimore’s far-less-commercially-established rap scene. But the boom years of New York’s glitzy rap industry left a bad taste in his mouth that he was happy to get away from. “New York for me was a place full of lies, musically. A place full of lies and liars, with their fuckin’ liar faces, that sell you dreams and fuck you over,” he says with a scowl. But his demeanor softens when he talks about his adopted hometown. “I love this city, Baltimore is one of the best breeding grounds for MCs. It’s so hard we don’t graduate a lot of people,” he says. “My music career started here. I’m a Baltimore rapper.”