Image via Instagram/iLoveMakonnen

By Tim Larew

On a surface level, we “get” iLoveMakonnen. Like many before him, he came seemingly out of nowhere with a breakout hit—“I Don’t Sell Molly No More”—and followed that closely with two consecutive EPs. He’s odd. He raps, sings, produces, carries a decorated doll head with him wherever he goes. Alright, so maybe there haven’t been many others like him. But still, the idea of iLoveMakonnen makes sense. He’s an interesting character with a few catchy songs. You might think that he’ll be the hot thing for a few months, then we’ll forget about him like so many others.

Luckily for Makonnen, he’s never really needed us to believe. The 25-year-old Atlanta by way of Los Angeles artist has had other plans for years—long before he connected with a handful of ATL’s best producers like Metro Boomin, Sonny Digital, DJ Spinz, FKi, and others—and just now, they’re starting to come to fruition. His rapid rise over the course of the past few months may seem random, but upon a bit of investigation, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise at all.

The story—at least an important chapter of it—began when Makonnen relocated to Atlanta for the start of high school and his mom purchased him a keyboard. He started experimenting with sounds and subsequently fell in love with music. While he had always had a knack for entertaining, he now had a tangible outlet. But long before any type of career in music ever got started, it nearly came to a tragically abrupt end. No doll head, no Miley Cyrus cosign, no “Club Going Up On a Tuesday” remix from Travis Scott—nothing. To quote James Brogan’s iconic final line in the Spike Lee-directed 25th Hour, “It all came so close to never happening.”

In June 2007, when Makonnen was 18 years old, an unfortunate accident occurred in which one of his younger friends was killed, and the rising star was wrongly implicated in the alleged murder. Facing up to 25 years in prison, he spent over two years on house arrest before the case was eventually dropped. While the turn of events nearly led to the end of Makonnen’s story as we know it, in many ways it’s the reason why he is who he is today. He’s free-spirited, radiates energy, and shares his music with reckless abandon. And he doesn’t really care what you think. Makonnen is an anomaly. But if you came so close to losing it all, you might be too.

Now it’s July 2014, and iLoveMakonnen is booming in every sense of the word. The hit-riddled Drink More Water 4 and I Love Makonnen EPs are spreading like wildfire, “Club Going Up On A Tuesday” is taking on a life of its own, major publications and artists alike are on board. Love him or hate him, it’s becoming difficult to not pay attention.

Start at the beginning, did you grow up in Los Angeles?
Yeah, I grew up in LA. I came to Atlanta after 9/11 for high school, and then after that I got on house arrest and had to stay here for another seven years. [Laughs]

What area of LA did you live in?
They call it Mid-City now, it’s like South Central, Wilshire—it’s like semi-nice, semi-bad. I lived on the street where Marvin Gaye got killed. He had a nice house over there but after he died shit started getting kind of bad. But I went back over there a few weeks ago and it seems pretty nice.

Were you doing music when you were in LA?
I had piano lessons every now and then but when I came to Atlanta, that’s when I really started doing it. My mom bought me a keyboard and shit, and I’d be down there just playing and making beats.

So that’s how you got into it?
I was always into music but I never thought, “I’m gonna be a singer or producer or rapper” or whatever people wanna say I’m doing right now. I was always into entertaining and having a good time. It’s like a hobby, and I had enough time to focus on turning it from a hobby into something more serious.

When did you actually start rapping or singing?
I would say 2011. There are a few tracks I did when I was like 13, 14 but I don’t count those. 2011 is when I started—well, I remember the first song I put out when I was taking it seriously, it was called “The Newness.” Then I started making some more tracks at the end of 2011, and at the beginning of 2012 I got real serious. At the end of 2012 I quit my job and started traveling a bunch.

What was your job?
I was a server assistant at a restaurant at a hotel.

Is that the Sherantino Hotel? I see you referring to that all the time.
[Laughs] No, that’s the Intercontinental Hotel. The Sherantino Hotel is my personal hotel.

What’s the story behind that?
My last name is really Sheran. And there were certain things I was into, like Quentin Tarantino’s movies and Valentino’s fashion design, so I started calling myself Sherantino. And I was like oh… the Sherantino Hotel and Casino, because I always wanted a hotel and casino. So I just started calling all my shit that. I really got a publishing company called Sherantino Hotel and a record label called Sherantino Hotel. I just have it official on paperwork right now, but one day it’s gonna be real. Hopefully the hotel is done in like 2018—the first one at least, because I’m so busy. [Laughs]

So going back to 2011, 2012, was there a specific turning point where you were like, I’m gonna really take music seriously. Was there a trigger for that?
I quit my job and I was like, “Damn, I gotta go out there and make this shit happen.” It’s either one or the other. I’m either gonna work my job full time or do this music shit full time, because trying to balance out both is a fucking headache. So I just went and quit my job and started doing music full time. I started traveling to New York and LA and Vegas and Phoenix and all that shit, on my own, doing promo runs, doing mini shows or house parties, just getting out there and mingling. And it just kinda started going from there. People started getting interested and wanted to sign me to these deals and all this shit, but you know I’m still just trekking on because they’re not talking about what I want to talk about.

I saw footage from shows in LA and Brooklyn from years ago. How’d you even get started doing shows?
My manger Prez, he knew a lot of people in New York and shit, so he would hit venues, whatever. He came down to Georgia and picked me up and just started driving north. And then my friend Eric who’s in Phantom Posse with me—they set up a little show. Then in LA my cousin who’s in Dream Panther—that’s like an underground chillwave band, I don’t know what the fuck they call it—but they did remixes of my shit as well and they make music so they had a little space so I went out there and played. It was pretty much just making use of my friends and networking.

Prez is from New York?
Yeah, Brooklyn.

How’d you guys meet?
I met him online. He fucked with my first little videos and he hit me like, “Whoa, this is dope, do you have any management?” And I was like, “Uh, nah I don’t.” I’ m telling you guys, not to be all tooting my own horn and shit, but I was telling him like, this shit could really work. I know what the fuck I can do, you just gotta put me on the spot or put me in the right places and we’ll fucking do it. So he was like, “Alright cool,” and came down here and picked me up and we went up to New York and then LA, wherever we needed to be.

Did he have any other music ties?
Well, his uncles were best friends with Jimi Hendrix and shit. Wu-Tang recorded their first album at their studio. So they had some big shit in the game. And he was also into videos and DVDs, he had video work and camera work under his belt. He was like a video director.

How’d the relationship with Mike Will come about?
Fuck Mike Will! [Laughs] This shit is weird. He saw my music online I guess, so he says, but it was really Curtis Williams. Him and his brother Bomani, they showed Mike Will my music and Mike got all hot in the fucking pants and called me to the studio.

I came up there and he was like, “Wassup man, I’m fuckin’ with your shit.” This and that, this and that. And I was like “Cool, wassup.” He’s supposed to be the hottest producer in the game, big man. Wassup. Let’s make some fucking music. And we just kinda never really got to making music. It was just kinda like, “Come to the studio and hear about what the fuck I’m doing.” And it’s like, “You’re in the game, you’re where the fuck I’m trying to be at, but I’m not trying to be here looking at someone else do shit. I’m trying to do my shit too.” Then he started getting busy. He was telling me, “I’m putting the gas on your shit, I’m putting the gas on your shit, we finna put this out, finna put that out,” and nothing ever fucking came out. So I was just like, “Fuck this bullshit, I’m outta here.”

It’s really Metro and Sonny Digital and all them that deserve all the fucking credit for this music and this new wave, because to tell you the truth, Mike Will didn’t want none of my shit out, and my shit would still be on the low and quiet and being stolen and swagger-jacked by Future and all the other artists he works with.

I got a publishing deal through him on Warner. That whole deal with him was that I was supposed to be a songwriter and he’ll help me get songs placed and shit, but none of that shit was working out, so I just made my own plans and relationships with these other producers. I met them all at the spot where I first met Metro. It’s really Metro and Sonny Digital and all them that deserve all the fucking credit for this music and this new wave, because to tell you the truth, Mike Will didn’t want none of my shit out, and my shit would still be on the low and quiet and being stolen and swagger-jacked by Future and all the other artists he works with. [Laughs]

But yeah, I met Metro Boomin at the studio. He’s cool. Him and Sonny Digital and DJ Spinz and Dun Deal, FKi—they all deserve the glory. It’s lame down here to tell you the truth, it’s so much politics and bullshit and certain people get all the credit for shit that they don’t deserve the credit for. That’s why I talk my shit. I’ll back out and say what it is cause I’m not tied up with none of these people like that. Fuck that. Don’t try to make it seem like you put us on. You didn’t set me up to meet these producers or to be working with all them. I was out here fucked up in the game. I had to get out here and make this shit happen on my own, and those producers were like, “Yo, we ready, we like working, we see you be working.” So I was just hitting them up coming through everybody’s studio for a good two months.

That started last year?
Nah, that started this year. Like March—after SXSW.

So all the stuff that’s come out in the last two months was recorded in the last three or four months then?
Yeah. It’s been recorded and just put out. I just record that shit and if it’s hot we finna drop it. That’s what them labels is gonna pay me for, is to have shit in the stash. Until then, it’s like no, drop drop drop drop. Fuck the game up. Because they can’t drop. Even Mike Will. He can’t drop how I’m dropping. He’s caught up in a big ass label deal, that fuck shit, all that politics, I’m not trying to get caught up in it. I like dropping my music the way I like dropping it, doing it how I wanna do it, working with who I wanna work with.

Until a label wants to put out seven million for me to be in the studio and not put shit out, I’m doing it my way. I’m the leak king.

Everybody wants to make you all exclusive to them, they wanna tell you how to create. You know what I’m saying? You get a fucked up version because you’re trying to put all these limitations on me. So that’s why I just kinda stick to myself. Until a label wants to put out seven million for me to be in the studio and not put shit out, I’m doing it my way. I’m the leak king.

So what’s your creative process like?
Usually I’m in there making the beats too. Most of the beats I started off with those guys and they add the drums and some extra shit, but I just have to listen to it for a few minutes, and I usually start off by thinking of a chorus, then I try to think of some shit that people are going through, however I hear it sounding. Then I just build the whole song off that. I just try to remember the chorus and expand off that topic when I’m freestyling the verses.

Did you think “I Don’t Sell Molly No More” was gonna be your breakthrough track?
Uhhh, no. I knew it was a hot track. I made it for myself back in like November of 2013, and Mike Will was about to put out his Mike Will Been Trill mixtape in December and I had the track ready for him, I was like, “Yo you should put this on your shit,” and at the time he was like, “Nah I’m not feeling that.” Then I met up with Sonny Digital, I was like, “I got some shit we can rework, y’all can add the drums.” And he was like, “Hell yeah,” so we just did the track. I knew it was a hot song, but you know what, I really didn’t think—I knew that it was gonna garner the attention once I had the producer drops on it.

I wanted to ask a little bit about your personality. Reading your SoundCloud bio and just seeing how you go about shit, it’s very—for lack of a better word—based. Was there something that led you to that mind state or have you always kinda been that way, just letting life flow?
Yeah well what had happened was, I came to high school down here, and met some people that just lived in the neighborhood, and we went to the same school. I guess you’re bound to become friends at that point. We all lived in the same area we all had to take the same bus home. So they were getting bad and shit and stealing cars and just wyling, doing all this fuck shit. Then one of them died. He got killed a few houses down from me. It was some real fishy stuff, but the police didn’t wanna try to look at it like that. I was on NAACP trying to apply justice to my friend and say this isn’t what happened, whatever.

So I was in jail, and they were trying to give me 25 years and all this other shit. They were trying to take away my life.

So I was doing that shit and then our other friend—he was like younger than us, kinda like a little brother—a situation happened with him where he fuckin’ died, and they tried to say that I killed him. Which was totally not true, but it was on some accidental stuff with a gun, little stupid shit, just really childish stuff, careless, whatever. So I was in jail, and they were trying to give me 25 years and all this other shit. They were trying to take away my life. They said I was trying to set up my other friend as well.

It just became a lot of negativity and everyone was against me. I was cool with these boys’ family, and they would tell me, “Oh it’s so great you’re hanging around our kids cause you’re helping them get off the wrong track,” and they totally switched when they got into the situation. I was on house arrest the whole time I was dealing with the case and trying to figure out what was gonna happen.

Then I was just started interviewing people on my blog cause I didn’t have anything to do but stay at home, so I was just on the Internet. MySpace was poppin’, and you could really reach people on there if you just sent them a message. So I would hit people up like I’m doing this blog—it was, then I bought the domain—and I interviewed like 77 people or some shit. It was like fashion designers from all over the world, models, rappers, DJs, just all these people that were inspiring me from whatever the fuck they were doing because I was stuck on house arrest.

I couldn’t do shit but look at my Internet window and explore the world through there, so I was interviewing all those people and it was just really inspiring, and I was just like, “I’m just gonna go for it.” These people are gonna take my life away and what the fuck am I gonna do, go get a job somewhere? That’s not what I wanna do. I just want to achieve my dreams and do what the fuck I wanna do. All those other jobs are so replaceable. Like even at my job at the hotel, it’s like I was doing it and I’m working here and I’m getting fucking sick, and they don’t give a fuck. It’s like, “Oh, well someone else will come in and take your shift.” Why am I even doing this? I’m not doing anything for myself.

So I just started making my music and putting it out, and you know, just keeping the inspiration karma going. I make music and hopefully that’s inspiration for others and helps them do their shit and keep the cycle going. You know? That’s pretty much how this whole shit got started—just putting music out and going for it.

What’s with the doll head?
That started when I was on house arrest. I ended up going to cosmetology school at the Beauty College of America in Forest Park, Georgia. My mom used to work as a hair technician there, so I started learning to color hair and cut hair and all that shit. Everyone got their own doll head, and I started drawing on the face to make sure people knew it was mine. They were worried it was gonna scare people and no one was gonna want to come and get their hair done, and I’d just be like, “I’m trying to do shit for the circus, not regular bitches’ hair!”

That’s when people started catching on. They were like, ‘Oh, this is artsy, this is scary.’ It’s a brand now. The whole message behind it was don’t judge a book by its cover. Like, are you not gonna get open heart surgery because the surgeon looks a certain way?

Then when I wanted to start putting out music videos, I needed someone to film but no one believed in my music so I just started filming my doll head. That’s when people started catching on. They were like, “Oh, this is artsy, this is scary.” It’s a brand now. The whole message behind it was don’t judge a book by its cover. Like, are you not gonna get open heart surgery because the surgeon looks a certain way?