Editor’s Note: In our upcoming Music Issue, we’re spotlighting artists poised to break out of the local scene. We’ve featured breakout locals here each week leading up to the issue’s launch, with the rest revealed when it hits stands July 14.
The image speaks volumes: a sweaty and triumphant Mike Mass, arm raised high, mic pointed at fans filling tiers of seats in the amphitheater at Gasparilla Music Festival, many with their own arms raised, cheering or calling responses, a few bowing his way. “GMF brought me to tears, the way that the city supported me that day, and how important it was for me to be there to represent hip-hop on that level, on that scale, and to be right before Talib [Kewli]’s set, that was it,” Mike Mass recalls of the March performance. “I felt like I was part of Tampa history that day.”
GMF was only one of several career milestones he’s experienced in 2016, which also saw him delivering explosive warm-up for Yelawolf at Skatepark of Tampa’s Tampa Pro festivities, appearing on NYC’s legendary Sway in The Morning show, and premiering the video for his new joint with soulful, jazzy Warsaw producer Tuelv, “Like That,” on Poland’s ProstoTV (it’s currently at 11,767 views).
All of his achievements to date are the culmination of his persistent dedication to making a career of music. Even at 15, when his family relocated from NYC-area hip-hop hub Mount Vernon to its virtual opposite (Valrico), he was resolute, making connections, finding collaborators and performing around town until he nabbed his first “big show” in 2007: DJ Swift at Orpheum, where he met mentors and comrades-at-arms DJ Sandman and Dynasty. Other MCs helped guide his way, like scene rap mainstay Aych of Crowbar's long-running hip-hop open mic night Da Cypher.
“He’s the godfather with the keys, you gotta prove yourself at the Cypher,” says Mass. “And once you do that, it’s kind of open season for you to get booked for other gigs.”
Too few people were putting on hip-hop shows back then, but instead of condemning the scene for its inferiority, he and his crew began throwing their own events. Over the years, amid performing and building up his rep as a promoter, Mass has helped cultivate a more diverse scene with offerings like Wine and Rhyme, a monthly curated showcase of art, fashion and hip-hop-oriented sounds at the chic Anise Global Gastrobar. “Because everybody’s tired of the club. We were trying to create the club alternative and I feel like we’ve finally successfully done that.”
He has no plans to leave for so-called greener pastures in NYC, either. As he puts it, “If you can’t make a splash here in Tampa, then how are you going to make it in New York?” He adds, “People who say there’s no music scene here are people who don’t work hard enough. I’ve seen Jinx do an official song for the Lightning, I’ve seen JRoc Jones sponsored by Playstation, I’ve seen Vinnie Virgo on MTV for Song of the Week, and he’s in LA right now with people I’d love to work with. These are all people from Tampa…”
Mass’s third record Like Kings with trap-beat scientist Beyo, is finished, and Mass is gearing up for its release. His thoughtful, soulful boom bap-snapped hip-hop is well-constructed and rich in lyrical substance, which can be credited to his spoken word roots (he started at 12) and a few albums that impacted his creativity early: Will Smith’s Big Willie Style taught him structure, , format and compositional versatility, while Nas’s Lost Tapes showed him the finer elements of meter and cadence and spurred him to put words to music. “I had studied English, iambic pentameter, assonance and consonants and alliteration — and those are the elements I incorporate in my rap.”
He also pays close attention to pace and the use of syllables to keep his flow feeling smooth and clutter-free. “It’s kind of like making a collage, but you’re making a collage out of syllables, and when you’re making a collage out of syllables, you tend to mix two or three words that share the same syllables, and it makes for really good double and triple entendre rap. All of my stuff is based on trying to create a double or triple layer meaning behind everything.”
His language mastery was on full display during an impromptu Sway in The Morning appearance this past May. The show on Shade 45 (Eminem’s SiriusXM channel) is hosted by MTV News hip-hop guru Sway Calloway, and getting on his Friday Fire Cypher is a pretty big deal. At the time, Mass wasn’t even a scheduled guest; he was only in NYC because of DJ Casper, who invited Mass to tag along while he did his radio station rounds. During Sway in The Morning, the last song in Casper’s set was “Wine and Pasta.” Mike remembers, “Sway is sitting there, he looks at Casper and goes, ‘Whose song is this?’ Casper points my way. Sway looks at me and asks, ‘OK, you got a beat?’” When Mass aced the rap test, he was asked to stick around for the Cypher.
In the video that caused a feed frenzy when it hit Facebook later, he proclaims, “I’m Mike Mass, I was born in the Bronx but I’m here representing for Tampa and the South” before launching into a meticulous word attack, boxing ruthless rhymes like Ali, feinting with double meanings, and hooking proper syllabic punches through the song’s fade-out. He repped Tampa, all right, but more significantly, he confirmed he’s a true Master of Ceremonies — he can rock a mic, hold an audience rapt, and never sees a need to hold himself back.
Mike Mass performs at the 2nd Saturday (on Friday) edition of Up the Ante Concert Series with Hagan Lee, Brilly Asher, Mowgli, Kris Harden, Cano and Shinobi Stalin, 8 p.m. this Fri., July 8, at Fubar, St. Petersburg. He also presents Wine & Rhyme every first Monday of the Month, at 9 p.m., Anise Global Gastro Bar, downtown Tampa; admission is free.
Check out some Mass media below, and peep his Soundcloud page here.