The rapper known as Machine Gun Kelly was born Richard Colson Baker in Texas and moved around a lot growing up, including four years in Egypt, but he told Play that none of that matters. Cleveland is what frames and fuels MGK's music.
"I think that the whole fact that it's a Steel Belt city -- it's very blue-collar; it's all lower-middle-class, so we all stick together," MGK said over the phone between cities on the Canadian tour that'll eventually lead him to Anchorage to open for hip-hop heavyweight Wiz Khalifa. "That's the message I put forth in my music as far as being the underdog and being able to win. I feel location had a lot to do with how I present myself because we're all underdogs where I'm from."
MGK has enjoyed a slow groundswell of success that's put him on the cusp of the big things he openly craves. Last year he released "Lace Up" on Diddy's Bad Boy label, and earlier this year he dropped the "Black Flag" mixtape. The "machine gun" part of his handle in part comes from his rapid-fire delivery, and his songs are strictly first-person accounts.
"I've always been a confessional person except for when the police arrest me," he offered.
In interviews, MGK bounces back and forth from big-picture, culture-at-large observations to the party persona put forth on singles like "Wild Boy."
"I really want to see the generation better itself because we're being sucked into this social-media world and this Internet world where we're losing sense of how to be real people and how to connect people; I just want to bring that element back," he said, before losing his train of thought and apologizing for being high.
That conflict between Serious Artist and party-boy club-shaker adds a layer of tension to both MGK's music and his goals. He's very aware of his on-the-brink celebrity status and sometimes seems resentful of it ("Anyone who's getting down with me now, I'm remembering"). But he also credits his grassroots fan base with giving his career a more solid foundation ("I'm going to be around for a long time because of how we came up, because we earned every bit of it").
MGK didn't immediately gravitate to hip-hop while growing up. He was into punk bands early on, which wasn't necessarily a primary influence for the name of the new mixtape, but it's a pretty good secondary one as a reference to the seminal hardcore-punk band.
"That title is a reference to the opposite of what a white flag is. Instead of surrendering, this is militant, and we'll never surrender," he explained. "But of course, obviously me growing up as a punker, Black Flag is a very huge influence."
While MGK's delivery on "Black Flag" is one hip-hop fans have grown to recognize, it isn't necessarily something that came naturally to the rapper.
"It took me seven years to mold the voice that I have now -- I didn't sound like this when I first came out," he said. "When I first came out, I sounded like how I spoke. When I rap now, my rap voice is different from my speaking voice, and I think that's a talent in and of itself, when you can take your voice and transform it."
Those years of hard work are starting to pay dividends, and every time MGK comes on the verge of complaining about not breaking through just yet, he stops himself. His goals are bigger than that.
"The voice of a generation shouldn't be someone who has a song, a hot song," he said. "That's cool, but I want to bring artists back -- where you're into specific artists, for the person for what he stands for and not just a song. I think we do a great job of that and make kids that weren't cool feel cool, because that was me. I wasn't cool."
Wiz Khalifa & Machine Gun Kelly
Date: 8 p.m. Thurs., Dec. 12
Location: Sullivan Arena
Tickets: $81.50 plus fees (ticketmaster.com)
By Matt Sullivan
Daily News correspondent