Label Profile: Mello Music

Christina Lee

By Christina Lee

on 10.24.11 in Spotlights

File under: Measured, day-in-the-life musings set to crisp boom-bap beats

Flagship acts: Oddisee, Apollo Brown, Has-Lo, Trek Life, Boog Brown

Based in: Tucson, Arizona

Every day in his Tucson home, after he eats dinner and spends an hour with his family, Michael Tolle returns to his bedroom and listens to music until around 4 a.m., then sleeps for less than five hours. “I’m trying to listen all night, to what we’re making and what we’re missing,” he says.

Tolle founded Mello Music Group in 2007, after he graduated from the University of Arizona and released a series of mixtapes as a college deejay. As indicated by the label’s current roster, Tolle’s taste in rap music hasn’t really changed. As he’s plucked notable, under-the-radar artists from Detroit, Los Angeles and Atlanta, Tolle’s also turned select members of D.C.’s Low Budget Crew into flagship acts – producer-emcee Oddisee being the most well-known. And so, as members of Odd Future, the Throne and Young Money dominated mainstream hip-hop headlines, Mello Music has quietly gained a noticeable following, mostly thanks to Tolle’s uninterrupted, late-night listening.

Why he’s into that DMV (D.C.-Maryland-Virginia) sound:

What attracts me to a lot of that music, and why it feels so different, is that it has a lot of that grimy sound that makes me feel a little tough, but also empowered, because it doesn’t have that false bravado. It always has sort of an edgy, working-man story – sort of like a Bruce Springsteen, Darkness on the Edge of Town feel. It’s your thoughts, without being a drug dealer – although maybe you see that happening, or you know people, you’re not exploiting it. So they have this rough, gritty sound, and yet there’s a little go-go swing to it. And then on top of that, being caught between New York and South Carolina, it’s got this accent that’s unique enough to draw people in. I think it’s the same thing I like with foreigners who are speaking English as a second language. I love the way they put together sentences a little incorrectly, and they mispronounce words just a little bit. It’s like they make you listen to it in a way that you’ve never heard it, but once you listen again, it really resonates with you.

On Mello Music’s lyrical perspective:

We’re giving a real picture of what’s happening within American culture today. I don’t think we’re trying to mimic anything from the past. I don’t think we’re trying to live a fantasy. I think all of our artists really have their finger lyrically on what’s going on right now, and so they’re kind of like poets. I think what we offer is modern poetry, and I think that will stand the test of time. The rest of us may be listening to something that’s commercially appealing right now. It may be part of youth, people can address a moment, but it doesn’t give a photograph of the culture.

On how Mello Music albums are indeed throwbacks:

These guys have this technology where they go into their bedroom or they go to their friend’s house or even a nice studio, but they create [an album] in over a month. They sit with the music, and they go back and create songs, without really a process of putting it out. It’s really kind of more of a throwback in the sense that an album that took years to create can still come out. A lot of these commercial artists have such success that they can go in a studio, cut an album in two or three weeks, get it to their label, and it ends up being trendy. You know those lyrics weren’t written over the course of one year or two years, just maybe in three weeks. [With our artists,] it’s like writing a story or a novel; the revision process is important for any type of lyric. If you ignore it, you may get really fresh stuff, but it doesn’t stand out for very long.

On why he’s into instrumental projects like Oddisee’s Rock Creek Park:

The thing I love about instrumental projects or instrumental music is, no matter what genre it’s coming from, if you get the right album, it’s like a 45-minute journey, and you just kind of wake up afterward like you do after a hard trip, kinda like, “Dang.” Sometimes lyrics get in the way, so it’s important for me now to create the genre where hip-hop’s the lead, but instrumental albums are as anticipated as an artist’s main album. When you listen to Rock Creek Park, it’s not a minor thing compared to his solo rap album; it’s just really exciting.

On why Blue Note serves as an inspiration:

Old people, young people – everyone still listens to Blue Note. Even your mother loves it. The quality of the music is unbelievable; if you need jazz, wow, they have everything. And then when you get into the label, and then you get into their covers and photography, and you find out how they’re creating the photography and who is putting things together. There’s sort of a mystique about it. Each level of the company is a work of art.

On why Apple’s former chief evangelist, Guy Kawasaki, also inspires him:

He always tells people to focus on the product – create the product first and then enchant people with it. A lot of people feel how mesmerized you were in creating it; you can’t do that and fail. So that’s my test for music, too. If I’m not mesmerized, if I’m not having a four-hour conversation with this artist the first time I talk to him, if his CD isn’t on repeat all week and I’m not like, “Oh my gosh, who is this guy?”, then my fans won’t even come close to that.

A few words on some Mello Music Group artists…

Diamond District
Diamond District’s album, to me, was so stripped down and minimalistic and, on top of that, it brought the group concept back. You have XO, the superstar, and then you have yU, the sort of introspective, artistic, very unique one. He’s not worried about superstardom; he’s more worried about neutrality. And then you have Oddisee; he’s kind of the glue. He produces and he raps and he’s sort of in between both worlds. He’s suburban, and he sees both sides of things. And the combination of that – I was so excited for each verse, because I was going to get a new view on the same beat, as interpreted from three different people.

Apollo Brown
He can take a rapper’s verse that might be a little off and by the time he’s done with it – chopping his samples so perfectly, putting in the hook – he’s created a song. He can take almost any emcee or singer and make them sound so good. I don’t think people realize it’s him making the song. It’s gritty, and everything he does is completely hip-hop. There’s a sadness to his music, a roughness to his music, and a hint of desperation, which is what artists latch onto.

He gets so many people saying, “I love [debut album In Case I Don't Make It], but there’s no variety. I want to hear you do this or do this or…” And Has-Lo just goes crazy – like “Man, give me time.” This was one album; it’s supposed to be a movie from front to back. You don’t want an action movie mixed with your drama. He’s so excited to offer people what else he can do, because he can do the Wu-Tang, Roc Marciano style, kinda gritty like that, but he also has this industrial, electronic sound. And he wasn’t forced into any of it. He’s got a lot of different projects coming up, and his range is going to surprise people.

Def Dee
Def Dee brings us that Left Coast sound. He still has his ear open to generations of music that we grew up on – essentially the golden era of hip-hop – but his stuff is infused with this sense of creativity. And being so young, he just does it so well. Everyone on the label is just so excited to work with him, because he just creates and tailors things to fit them and yet has his signature in there from the Seattle area.

This was back in the MySpace days, before that was almost defunct. I’d been a big fan of his stuff with DJ Jazzy Jeff and that one single with Talib Kweli and Kenn Starr ["If"], and I was always a liner note freak. So I was like oh, I’ll see who produced it. I was always, for some reason, more into the producers, because I realized the sound I always liked wasn’t necessarily the artist on top or the emcee – it was what was underneath. Oddisee’s name just keep coming up and coming up, so I hit him up on MySpace.