Sir Mix-A-Lot Shifts His Focus to ‘Keep Music Live’

Sir Mix-A-Lot is a champion of local and smaller venues. In fact, more than the multi-thousand person showrooms that he could assuredly sell out in Seattle, Washington, and beyond, Mix says he likes the intimacy of the smaller, few-hundred person rooms. If you can’t rock those, he says, then you can’t really handle the bigger places to begin with. And to help bolster these now-at-risk businesses during this time of COVID-19, social distance and stay-at-home quarantine, Mix has started to work with the Washington organization, Keep Music Live, to raise money and, more importantly, awareness for music venues, which both help up-and-coming artists and give many people in the community jobs. We caught up with Mix to ask him why venues are so important to him, what work he’s doing to help and how venues help bolster songwriting, in general.

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How does playing live influence your songwriting?
It’s funny, nobody’s ever asked me that question and it’s a great question because, you know, you sit alone in the studio like I’ve been doing for the last seven, eight, nine months and you make these songs and you think, “Wow, this is really cool!” But cool to who? [Laughs] You can’t interact, you don’t see anybody! I love playing small venues. I know it doesn’t make a lot of sense to my manager, who’s like, “Dude, you’re diluting your value!” But I’m like, “Don’t worry about it! We’re good!” When you go in those clubs – before you come out, I always watch the crowd and what the DJ is playing. You listen to what they’re playing but you also look at the reaction and when you see the people start dancing differently, running to the dance floor, saying, “This is my track!” And they raise hands and start singing along. You start to kind of create a baby formula, basically. You see, okay, this moves at about 140 BPM, it’s kind of a trap beat, they like the distorted kick drum. And you watch the things that make the crowd move and that really helps you to dial in and figure out what’s coming next in music.

That aspect of creativity is so interesting to me because I think there are so many songwriters who say they need to share their soul and express themselves one-hundred-percent. But there’s also the other side of it where it’s a craft and you should make things that people want, right?
My problem with just strictly internal motivation – for me, at least, it seems that I don’t know if people would be that into my bubble, if that makes any sense. I think that you go to a club or something like that and you watch people react. You’re not saying you just want to make what they want. But you also start to like it with them. You start to understand, “Hey, they’re hearing this! I was only hearing that!” And you start to nod your head with them and you start to like it. So, even when something had that kind of influence on me, it still comes from me. But I’m a little less selfish as far as my creative output.

Why else should we work to save venues and keep music live – what would be lost if they were gone or dramatically diminished?
I’m glad you asked the question that way. Because I’m so sick of hearing people go, “Well this is the place where you can get the next Prince or the next Michael Jackson!” That’s not what this is about! We’re talking about people feeding families. We’re talking about a single mother that’s also a bartender, you know? And that’s what’s keeping everything glued together at home. Her kids can’t go to school and now she can’t go to work. Those kinds of things – it’s an ecosystem. You’ve got the front of house guy, the sound guys, all the security guys, the owner him or herself.

The kinds of things are something you don’t think about, you take for granted, I guess, when you go to these venues. But now you realize it’s not this mythological 400-pount guy in the back room counting money with a cigar in his mouth! That’s so arcane, that’s something from the 70s, some old imaginary thing. These are hardworking people and an average owner of these small venues probably makes about four-percent of their gross. We have one guy in particular in our group that is club grossed $1.1 million and he grossed about $37,000, you know? For a year. It’s people with real jobs – real people. Not some gigantic rapper who goes in and has a good time. No, it’s really about that ecosystem. And I care a lot about it. Because when people don’t work, I don’t work. Simple as that.

How did you get involved with the organization, Keep Music Live, and what progress have you seen come from it already?
I’m good friends with Craig Jewell, who owns the Wild Buffalo [in Bellingham, WA]. He’s a good buddy of mine. He was the first one to open my eyes to it. And then I got closer and closer to it. I wanted to make sure that everybody’s heads and hearts were in the right place and I found that out in the first Zoom meeting with the guys and gals. A lot of people got involved, people that have helped Starbucks with stuff and people who helped with All In Washington. They all got involved and I had to! Let’s face it, I’ve benefited greatly from those clubs. The feel of my music come from those clubs. So, I’ve been able to monetize that many times over. I kind of took it for granted. So, I jumped in with both feet.

Do you have a favorite memory from a show, either as a performer or an audience member?
There was a gig at the Showbox in Seattle with me and The Presidents of the United States of America. We had started a group together and we called it SUbSET. You know, we just wanted to have fun recording. I always say it was too many millionaires in one room, that’s why the record never came out [Laughs]. But, anyway, we were doing a show there and Chris Ballew, the lead singer of the Presidents, incredible talent, by the way – he wanted a drink so in a break in a song, he literally crowd-surfed to the front of the venue, got the drink and they picked him up and passed him back to the stage in the middle of the show. So, that kind of stuff brings back memories.

I played the Crocodile a couple of times. Ones with the Presidents, once with Ayron Jones. I played the Nectar, I play there every year. I play the Wild Buffalo every year. I play Jazz Bones every year. You know, I play a lot of small venues. And we love them. It’s not about the pay. I usually give all the money to my guys. But if you can’t do those, you should stay off of big stages. Really, the small venues are where you really polish your chops. Lip-syncing now has become normal. I’m not going to say the act, but I was watching Saturday Night Live one day and I saw a person not even trying to do the words live! They focused more on the dance than the actual vocals. I was like, “Man, what the hell is this?” But don’t bring out the grumpy old man in me!

You were in Florida about to play a show the night “Baby Got Back” hit number-one, right?
Yeah, we were doing what was supposed to be a promotional tour. Remember, this was before smart phones and internet access and all that stuff. So, this is the spring of 1992. We’re doing these shows. They started out and nobody was there, Utah nobody was there – I got all this stuff on video still. And we get one show in McAllen, Texas and it was a club date. The owner, I remember him saying, “Hey, we got to get you to do a second show.” I said, “What’s going on?” He said, “Well, you sold out!” There were helicopters over the place, all kinds of weird stuff.

But I still didn’t get the enormity of it, right? Then we drive into Panama City, Florida and I don’t know if this club is still in existence because of the big hurricane they had a couple years ago. But this was a club that, in the middle of the dance floor, had a swimming pool. It was literally right on the beach so they covered up the swimming pool at night and let everybody stand on it while we did a show. But before we walk out, the owner says, because I’m videotaping and I’m wondering why these people in the hotel next door – there was like 18-20 floors and every deck had people crowding on it. I said, “What the hell is going on over there?” I still didn’t get it!

The guy walking in front of me, the owner of the club, and again this is on video, he turns around and goes, “Ladies and gentlemen! Tonight!” – you know, he’s joking, doing a joke introduction – “Ladies and gentlemen! Tonight! The man that just went number-one in the United States of America! Sir-Mix-A-Lot!” I’m like, “Number one?!” I look at my assistant and she goes, “I don’t know! I’ve been with you for the last three months!” It blew my mind because I never imagined. After “Posse on Broadway,” I thought that was my peak, you know? A million units sold. But then for “Baby Got Back” to go number-one, I mean, over some heavy-hitters, too. There were some big people on top.

It stayed there for five weeks. It was surreal and scary. The surreal part was how I heard about it, you know? In the small club, which I love. And after that we didn’t do small clubs for a while.

What’s next for you and Keep Music Live?
Well, everything I do now has something to do with Keep Music Live. No matter what I do, when people offer to pay me for my talent, you know, I try to tie it to Keep Music Live. Because I really want to save these clubs. It’s so un-Seattle not to have these clubs and venues. So, I think what’s next is that we’re putting a couple things together. I’m doing a private event on Thursday and we’re going to raise about $10,000 and throw another $10,000 in there. We’re getting up there! We’re getting some good numbers. We don’t have enough to save all the clubs yet but we’re making a dent. And Macklemore is doing something similar with another arm of the same group. So, hopefully, we can save them. I’m passionate about it and I’m not going to stop. Even if COVID lifts and even if they have a vaccine, it’s still going to take a while to bring these venues back. And if we don’t there’s going to be condos on every corner.

What do you love most about music?
The feeling. The feeling, man. Whether I’m making it or listening to it. I listen to a lot of different artists. People laugh when they see what’s on my phone and what I listen to in my car. There’s everything from new school – I love anything that Skrillex remixes for hip-hop is just incredible. I listen to all his remixes of “Humble” and “Purple Lamborghini” by Rick Ross. I listen to all that stuff. But I also go back and listen to Parliament Funkadelic, Smokey Robinson. “I’ll Take You There” by The Staple Singers. So, I listen to a lot of different stuff. I listen to old blues. Big Mama Thorton, the original Hound Dog. So, I listen to a lot of that but I also stay hip. I listen to a lot of new stuff. So, my nose is always open to whatever’s new. I do get a little bored with some pop music. Because it’s kind of predicable chord progressions with really puppy lyrics. But I get it. Young kids that’s what they want to hear. But other than that I listen to everything, man!

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