When you speak with Mondaii, he’s not what you imagine who your typical rapper/songwriter would be. His bubbly, quirky nature and Diana Ross-like curls are paired with a quick wit that is as charming as much as it defies the toxic masculinity within hip-hop. The Thomaston, Georgia-native has a distinctive flow and catchy hooks that harken to the sounds of Azealia Banks, Missy Elliot, and Cakes da Killa. While his work ethic is nothing to scoff at, his big break feels like a Cinderella story.
While working at R&B star K. Michelle’s restaurant, Puff & Petals, the talented artist seemingly went from waiting tables to writing hits for Latto, Saucy Santana, and K. Michelle herself. Mondaii was also this year’s recipient of the Black Music Action Coalition’s Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis Music Makers Grant.
Now, he has a new song out called “Back N’ Forth”. The house-infused track is the first project from his upcoming project ALT. INTO sat down with Mondaii to talk about his start writing songs for some of today’s most popular artists, who his dream collaboration would be, and how he descocos eclectic sound.
So many artists are getting their start in the music industry through new ways, whether that’s going viral on social media or gaining an immense Soundcloud following. How did you get your start within the music industry?
I was working at K. Michelle’s restaurant, Puff and Petals, at the time and I never once went up to her and was like, “Hey, I’m a rapper.” First of all, they would’ve cussed my ass out. I never really mentioned [that] I did music or anything. I remember I used to hang out after work with some of my friends, we’d go out to bars and then you meet new coworkers, and everybody’s like, “Okay, so what do you do outside of work?” And then we sit down, drinking, and I’m like, “Oh, I rap.” And if anybody knows me, I have a pretty bubbly personality. It’s not like your typical rapper, you know what I mean?
So I remember just rapping for some of my coworkers, and they were like, “You really rap?” And I was like, “Yeah, I told you I rap. That’s what I do.” I never told K. that I did music, but I was working my second job and I remember getting like a bunch of notifications from K. Michelle. And I was like, “I don’t remember turning on my post notifications for K. Michelle.” And literally I got a DM from her. And it was like, “Wow, I did not know you were this talented. I want to work with you on my album.” So this was like in 2017. At first I thought somebody was playing with me. I didn’t want to get my hopes up because I know I’ve been tricked before.
And when I moved away to Boston to help out my aunt, who was in a nursing home at the time, she still hit me up like, “Yo, we need to work on this album. I’m going to send you something.” This was stuff for the mixtape, before the album even came out. I would literally take maybe like an hour or two and I would send her something back fast. I would take my little money and go to the studio and be like, “Look, this ain’t got to be perfect. I just need to demo this real quick so she can hear it.” And she was so amazed by the work. She was like, “Oh, friend, you snapped on this.”
So literally, I started working on her mixtapes first. When I moved to Boston, she was like, “Hey, I need to work. When can you get to the studio?” I was like, “Sis, look, I’m working at Best Buy. I do not have the money to jump on a flight. If you could pay for my travel to get there, I’m working. I can tell my job, whatever, because I ain’t trying to do this s*** forever.” So, she flew me out to Burbank. I started working on some stuff for her. Then, one of the audio engineers, he was managing a girl group and he was like, “I want to hook you up with my girl group and write some stuff.”
So I started sending some stuff and everything just started happening in a domino effect. K. hooked me up with her tour manager, Brandon Farmer. He was managing Latto at the time. K. was like, “You need to go in [the studio]” because she was up and coming. I think she just had the song “Bitch From Da Souf” starting to elevate. So they set that up. I would go meet with them at the studio and write. Then when “Up & Down” came out with Saucy Santana, I was in the studio, and I was writing on that track. But fast forward, yeah, that’s how I got my start. I was pulling up to the studio. So I feel like it was a really great investment in the end.
“We just need to be visible. A lot of times, ‘gay’ is behind the scenes.”
As a recipient of the Black Music Action Coalition’s Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis Music Makers Grant, you met with iconic super producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. These are the same musicians to produce several of Janet Jackson’s albums, including Control, Rhythm Nation 1814, janet., The Velvet Rope, All For You, and Unbreakable. What were some of the lessons that you learned after speaking with them?
I learned a lot from them, actually, in a short period of time. I remember sitting down with Mr. Terry, and Mr. Terry was like, “As you advance in your career, don’t look up at that Hollywood sign too long because you might crash.” And I was just like, “Wow, I feel like he just dropped a gem on me, but I’m trying to decipher what it meant.” What he was saying to me was, sometimes we chase the glitz, the glam, and the trends and if you’re always trying to chase a wave or a current trend you will burn out. He was like, “You need to remain focused on your gift and what it is that attracted you to that gift in the first place and that’s going to drive you through this industry.
Now, going back to other meetings, what was it like being in the studio with K. Michelle?
The first time I was in the studio with her was when I flew out to Burbank. B****, I felt like I was in the f****** Lizzie McGuire movie. Literally, I got to the studio, she was already there. I went inside, and I hadn’t really talked to K. I haven’t had too many encounters with her, because even working at her restaurant, she was the boss. So for me to actually meet her in person, I was a little nervous because I had only witnessed her from TV, you know what I mean? So I was just like, “Okay, well, let me just stay in my lane. Only provide value when needed.”
But it wasn’t like that. She made me feel so welcome. She had me cracking up, for one, and she had a bottle. She was like, “You want something to drink?” And I was like, “I need a drink to calm my nerves because I’m on pins and needles. I wanted to make sure I could come up with stuff fast, because at the end of the day, as creatives, there’s no button in our head that says, “Creativity, turn on.” It’s either flowing or it’s not. But it ended up being great. She made me laugh. She ended up having to leave the studio to tape, but she loved what I did. When I got back on the plane, she was like, “Thank you so much.” And then from there, I went from doing her mixtape stuff to her album. She always has shown me love.
Your new song “Back N’ Forth” is out now and it feels like it’s giving Kaytranada meets Azealia Banks. However, how would you describe your sound?
I love to hear other people’s description [of my music]. I don’t know if you feel this way too, as a queer male. I feel like I always watered myself down in fear that I’m doing too much because people made me feel like that. And I feel like in person, I have always presented a watered down version of myself. I feel like when I started tapping into my own artistry, I was like, “No, I don’t want to be the watered down version of myself. I want to be who I actually am in my head. I’m fun, I’m quirky, I’m slightly sarcastic, but we love good sarcasm. I’m funny, I’m compassionate at the same time, and I’m a human being.
I want my music to embody that. I feel like genders don’t really exist when it comes to me making music, because I say all pronouns. I don’t hold back. Well, I’m not not going to talk about my sexual experience because it offends somebody. Rap n***** could talk about f****** b****** all the time, but if I talk about f****** a n****, then you’re doing too much. You know what I mean? I feel like I want to have the freedom to do whatever I want because it’s my art, it’s my story.
I really get inspired from artists that I grew up listening to and a lot of them are female rappers. Some of them are male. Love listening to Biggie Smalls, but growing up, I really listened to a lot of Left Eye and I love Left Eye so much. I love Nicki Minaj. Just listening to some of the lyricists that I grew up with, I feel like I learned different techniques and strategies from them along the way and it taught me that execution is everything. You’re delivering everything. And I learned to also utilize my voice as an instrument.
I’m a creative. As long as I’m not saying anything degrading to put down people or hurt feelings, I’m going to say it.
What do you want newcomers to house, and queer music in general, to understand about it.
Well, I think people should do a little research and kind of figure out how House originated. But I feel like it’s good to know that newcomers of house can extend the legacy of house and those who help paved that way. Even before Beyonce‘s Renaissance, I loved house and I know house has different subgenres as well. You have deep house. You have house music that’s all the way in Africa, their style on house. You have Jersey house music, which I really, really like. I just remember hearing house music and how it made me feel, and I was like, “Oh, this is nasty.” But I wasn’t really hearing too many people rapping off of it unless I went and did my research on the ballroom scene.
Then I heard different commentators over house beats, and I was like, “Oh, wow, it sounds like they’re rapping, but they’re really commentating on house music”. I’ve been wanting to experiment with it for a while and when I heard other people do it, like Azealia Banks and other cool artists, I was just like, “I could do this too.” And I just never really wanted to be like a one trick pony. I always want to do something innovative and if the beat is already going hard, all I gotta do is just add a little seasoning on top of it.
Who would your dream collaboration be?
So my dream collaboration would be Pink. In school, I felt like I never had a tribe that I could fit in with and I just remember her music made me always feel like it’s okay to do your own thing. As far as artists in our community, I have collaborated with Wuhryn Dumas before. He’s really dope. I would like to collaborate with the artist Cakes da Killa. And I know he does house music and stuff, so I reached out to him once before, but I think it was probably just bad timing and he was busy. But I feel like we’re both lyricists, you know what I mean? I’m always trying to take music up a notch. I really want to bring every essence of hip-hop into music. I just want to incorporate that and keep the dream and the vision alive.♦