MIKKI AFFLICK: MUSIC HEALS HER SOUL
Mikki Afflick is a multi-talented CEO/Label Owner, House Music Producer, Artist, Musician, Remixer, and DJ based in New York and Miami. She is known affectionately as The House Empress and brings her own style that she calls “Afro Stank” to her high-energy live sets, and countless original productions and remixes. Mikki sat down with me this past June to share her industry experiences, candid thoughts, and artistic passions along with lots of laughter. Enjoy!
Interview by Amanda Frontany
Mikki Afflick!! Where should we begin? Do you want to start with your labels?
Yes! I have two labels. I have Soul Sun Soul Music, which I started in 2009. I was actually looking to start the label in 2006-2007. But I always, always, always wanted to do A & R since I was growing up. I interned a little bit at Arista Records under someone there. I don’t even think Arista knew I was there since I didn’t report officially to anyone at Arista, just to the person I interned under. So I was able to learn a little of the business in that way– going into the record stores, doing the windows, coming up with and setting up the creative displays. One of the first displays I did was Whitney Houston at Tower Records in midtown [Manhattan]. Another display I did was Nine Inch Nails at Tower Records down on 4th and Broadway.
So earlier you and I were talking about control. That’s one thing about me: I’m a control freak. I have a degree in Graphic Design and even with that, I can’t just give the project over to the graphic artist, and just say “do your thing.” I have to literally, physically art-direct it, tweak it, and make it my own. But I found that now that I have a good graphic artist who I’m working with out of L.A., that we have a really good vibe and work well together. It’s ok that I don’t need to do everything because at one point I was doing everything and then other things were lacking– for example the album cover would be one dimensional instead of really dramatic had I given it to a true graphic artist. Even doing my own mastering for my music– I know engineering, but let the person who does that, let them do it. I am learning to give up a little bit. I don’t have to be in control of everything. And the areas where I really need help, let the people who specialize in those things– let them do it. So that’s where I’m at now. Slowly this is coming along for me.
So what prompted you to start your label?
What prompted me? Well I was in production school…and without being conceited, right?
Be conceited, Mikki. [laughter]
So I go to the production school, and the professors and instructors were just lacking. The school was lacking. I was the class president, and I was older than these 18-19 year old students. So I actually went into the school one day and I told them, “I want all my money back. Your program sucks! And you’re not teaching what you need to teach. Where are the basics?” No one knew what they were doing. I had already had a little home studio and I was finding my way. What I was learning from my tutors was that they were not even giving us the basics. So long story short, I got my money back.
You did? Wow! Good for you!
And they changed the curriculum.
See what you did? Trouble maker! [laughter]
Yes! And one day I’m coming from work and I see one of the instructors from the school– this Black-German guy. He says, “Man, you really turned the school upside down because they changed the whole curriculum. By the way, I’m not with them anymore.” So he asks me what I’d been doing, and I told him that I would like to continue learning production, but I was not in another program. So he offers to give me a good deal for some private lessons, but when he comes into my home he says, “I thought you were some struggling student. I can’t give you this deal.” [laughter]
[laughter] Right! He saw your home studio!
Mikki in her home studio, 2007
[laughter] Right! So I studied with him for about a year and a half– working on my ideas, working on my concept, learning the various programs, learning some engineering. And because he’s German, he had this particular sound that I could relate to. And because he’s Nigerian, he had this particular sound that I could relate to. So together, it gave me what has become my sound from his influence of being Nigerian and German– that Tech sound. This was the early start of what is now Afro Tech. Hence, moving forward, I had some projects, one being “Mating Call.” He heard it and said, “It has good bones, but where’s your bassline? Where’s this? Where’s that?” I said, “No! This needs to be raw. I’m the Queen of the Jungle. I want you to feel that.” But you know, I didn’t know shit about what I was really doing. It just sounded good. [laughter] I played all the keys on it–good, bad, indifferent, it didn’t matter. I was just going for the Stank. Right?
“…I started out with my one production, ‘Mating Call’…”
I always wanted to do A and R, and I always wanted to run a label. So I started out with my one production, “Mating Call.” Then my tutor, the Black-German, released something on my label, which was really early Afro Tech. If you go on Beatport, I have one of the earliest releases in Afro. “Mating Call,” I believe, is the ninth release in that Afro genre among other labels in that category. Afro has been around forever, it’s just been called different names. What did we used to call it? Tribal, right?
Yes, Tribal. They just call it a different name, and re-package it. So do you keep in touch with that particular tutor?
Every now and then on Facebook, we’ll check a “like,” and because he’s Nigerian and German, I was able to get my first license from his peer, Jerome Sydenham [of Ibadan Records], who’s also Nigerian and German. So that was kind of cool, it validated me. I also had earlier history in the New York club scene, so when I came back to the scene I knew a lot of the people that I had left.
The dancers, DJs, and everybody…
Yes, I’ve met a lot of new people, but I still knew the old ones. I used to stand in front of people with my pink CD, and give them the look: to play my CD.
That “play my music or else” look? [laughter]
Yes, and some didn’t like it. I was really aggressive, and I had to learn to pull back a little. But I literally used to stand in front of them.
Maybe you have to be that way sometimes.
I don’t know if I needed to be that aggressive. I would stand there with the look: if you don’t play it, I’m beating your ass. [laughter]
So threatening! Mikki, you were a Producer-Thug! [laughter]
Yes! Yes! There’s nothing wrong with that. [laughter]
There is nothing wrong with that. I use that tactic as a teacher. You better do this assignment, or else! [laughter]
[laughter] So there was this one DJ who asked this guy to please tell me to stop standing near his booth with my arms folded looking like I was so unenthused. I said, “Well tell him to play some music that sounds good!”
[laughter] “Tell him to play my song and watch what happens to the dance floor!”
Right! So did he ever play it?
Nope, and he faded away. [laughter]
So that was the beginning of which label?
Soul Sun Soul Music. It’s a little bit of a tongue twister. When I created the label, I should have just called it “Soul Sun Recordings” or “Soul Sun Music.” But when I came up with the logo, it didn’t look balanced because it’s the soul of the sun and the soul of the music.
That’s the graphic artist in you.
“…It’s the soul of the sun and the soul of the music.”
And you want to hear what happened? I was in Croatia last year. There was this taxi driver. I was in his taxi a few days before. He was at this after-hours place called Vortex where I had played, and he stopped me in the street and said, “You’re the woman who played there. It was like the sun had touched my soul. The soul of the sun. You just did something to me, and I want you to know, never let anyone tell you that what you do does not make people feel. I feel you.” I looked at him in amazement and said, “That’s my label, Soul Sun Soul!” It was at that moment that I knew my worth, no matter all the years…
Right, all the years of people telling you how wonderful you are…
Or not telling me…more like not telling me. But literally, when I looked and saw those people dancing in Croatia, it was at that moment that I’m going to tell you I really saw my self-worth, and not only did I see it, but I finally believed in me.
The way that your music is able to touch someone.
You know, some people say, “Oh Mikki’s so extra!” Like how some people say that about Joe [Joaquin “Joe” Claussell]. Joe feels what he plays.
Absolutely. When you watch Joe play, that is just Joe expressing himself. The music overtakes him. I don’t feel like he’s being extra.
Neither do I. That is his expression, and he literally feels everything. That’s what happens to me. So fast forward, I was playing a new song that I have, and I was getting so emotional because I truly feel it, and not every DJ does that.
Different DJ’s have different intentions.
Some just play tunes. Some think they can just play a beat, a hard-hitting beat. Everyone has their own way, and not to say one way is better than the other, but when you really truly connect with people, they tell you, “I feel like you’re playing for me and no one else is there!”
“When you really truly connect with people, they tell you, ‘I feel like you’re playing for me and no one else is there!’”
So the name of the label, Soul Sun Soul Music, conveys your mission as an artist and producer.
Yes, and then there is my other label, Afro Sun Recordings, and my AfflickteD events. Being the graphic artist that I am, I used to do slogans, award-winning slogans. That’s what I have my degree in. “AfflickteD Souls Heal.” Mikki Afflick…AfflickteD. Healing your soul…
It all comes together.
Yes it does.
So in terms of your labels– Soul Sun Soul Music and Afro Sun Recordings, in addition to your AfflickteD events– is it just you alone? Or do you have a team?
No, I am a woman doing this alone. Just me. I do have artists on my label who are really looking for me to be their everything, and the music business isn’t like that anymore. So I at least try to get my artists to a point where they can spread their own wings and collaborate with other people and do their own thing. Kev Cruz was one of the earliest artists on my label, and to watch him grow– that’s what it’s all about. I have something that I just sealed the deal on with a South African artist, and I’ve been courting him for a moment. He released his album, and he is trusting me to present it globally. I also have another young artist– I have watched him grow since he was 17, and he’s still with me. He’s finding his way, but I always say that your studies are the most important thing.
It is a business, running a label, but I also have that mom in me– to see someone’s dreams be fulfilled. I was giving these young artists everything, 100% of the gross. And Doni said to me, “Are you crazy? You have expenses.” I told her, “These kids, they mean so much to me.” There was this one artist, he told me his mom cried because he was able to help her, but that was about seven years ago when you could really see some money coming in. The business has really changed now, unless you’re touring. It’s a little harder to make money now– digitally. You know?
Yes. Those digital releases do well for only a few weeks.
Let me tell you something, if you have a hit, you’re lucky if you can really get some months out of that hit. If you have a hit from June that can carry into the fall, you really have a tune! It comes out and by next week people are over it, or they get the promo, and by the time it’s released, they don’t care about it. For me, I’m old school. I believe in still trying to do whatever form of hype I can to promote it. Louie Vega does that.
I’ve talked to Josh Milan about this– the challenge of releasing a project and two weeks later people have already moved on.
Yes! People will ask, “When are you coming out with something else?” And you just released an entire album!
It’s sad because you think about the blood, sweat and tears that an artist puts into that piece of music, that project.
Then there are the bootlegs, the Russian sites. You release your song at midnight and by the time you go to bed and you wake up, your song is on a hundred different free sites. This really upset me, and it was David Morales who told me not to worry about that, just keep on. It happens to everyone. I just felt like it was me, they were deliberately doing it to me!
They were targeting Mikki! The Russians were out to get you! [laughter]
[laughter] It’s everyone! It happens to everyone! So now I space my releases, and I say, ok well this is going to happen, but how much can I control the damage? You know it’s going to happen, but how much control can you take?
It’s hard. …So you are doing everything when it comes to your labels– the music, the creative side, the business side, the promotions– everything.
It’s a lot!
It is a lot, and like I said, that’s where you need someone else. I’m now looking at a true distribution company that I trust to handle my releases. There are literally so many hours spent going on iTunes and going on all these sites when I am releasing something. It’s just too much. It’s really no way to truly run a label. I’m also looking to release some vinyl. So I’m excited about that.
And there are music lovers out there that will buy vinyl.
They sure will. I’ve also been working on my album. I have a solid five completed tracks. I have about seven other tracks that I am working on. So I will have anywhere from 12–14 tracks.
When you are creating a track, what is your process? Is it completely organic? Is it born from an idea, a beat, a sound?
It starts with my beat. I’ll program something. I’ll come up with a kick, a groove. I have my beloved keyboard player who I’ve been with for several years now. I’ll play some notes or pull a loop so that he can get the feel of what I’m looking for. I tend to do all my bass lines. My dad was in a Doo-Wop band, he was a baritone, and so while he was cleaning he would always be humming, and his bass lines just stay in my head.
So if I’m working on something, and say the singer isn’t a power singer, you don’t build a track around a singer who is not a power singer. You build the track around the groove, and then the singer becomes support. I think that’s the mistake some producers make. They know that the singer might not be a power singer and they try to focus the track on the singer instead of on the groove that people can dance to. Together everything should be beautiful. Whereby now you’re listening to a singer who might need some work and the groove is not there. I try to really create a good groove.
Now on my album, except for two cover songs, I am writing or co-writing 100% of it. I’ve been writing a lot and I have found out that I’m really good at it. I didn’t know I had that in me, but I’m learning that I do. Working on music these past few years, I’ve really grown into myself. I can hear my growth. I just had this conversation with Brown Sugah [Janine Lyons].
There was a post on social media that I read recently. You saw it, and it was not a very uplifting post. It just made me feel like we all started from somewhere. Everyone, every producer, everyone that you hear started somewhere. If you go back to anyone from the 80’s and you listen to their first production back then and then their work now, you can hear their growth. When I started out, I was struggling in my own way, with my own self, not wanting to get out of my own way. But I had people who for whatever reason knew that I had pride, but were not afraid to tell me to try it another way. For example, I had Josh [Milan] come and mentor me in my studio. How cool is that? He said to me, “Why are rushing with your production?” I had made us something to eat, and he said, “Did you cook that food fast?” I said no, I had to season the meat and prepare everything. He said, “So this is what you do with a song. You take your time.” That just made me look at the process in a different way, and then I worked on some things. I was never really confident because I was always afraid of public criticism. It’s a terrible feeling.
Afraid of being rejected.
Right. Every song that I would put out, it would feel that way. I have songs that I have held onto since 2004. But I’m getting better. I don’t care anymore about criticism. I have some really good people who have mentored me. Barbara Tucker, in the past few years, has given me some good advice.
It’s important to have mentors, and you need to release those songs from 2004!
Yes! I’m feeling good now. I had to grow into myself. I went down to my studio in Miami, and a friend of mine took me to this drumming class. Maybe it was her way of telling me that I needed some encouragement, now that I’m thinking about it. [laughter] So we go to the drumming class, and everyone is sitting around in a circle, and I borrowed one of their djembes. Everyone is in the groove, and here I come with my beat. [laughter]
You were trying to kill it.
The instructor, he just silently motioned for me to stop playing. That’s all he did, and everyone continued playing. So he pulled me aside and spoke only to me, “What are you hearing? You’re not on beat.” But this is what Doni was telling me all along. Why would I listen to her after 30 years, right? “Honey, you are off beat!” [laughter]
[laughter] Sometimes we need to listen to a stranger to tell us what we need to hear.
Yes! So the instructor had me sit with a woman in the class– one on one– and I was finally hearing it. I was missing my “and.” I found my “and!!” [laughter] One and a two and a three and a four and a one and a two and a three and a four. [laughter] Josh used to say to me, “Try an eighth note.” He would speak to me in those terms. I didn’t know what he was saying, I just knew it was Stank! [laughter] So I didn’t know what I was missing. I just heard the groove. So going to that drumming class– that’s how Mikki got her groove!
Mikki got her groove back! [laughter]
No! Mikki got her groove, period! [laughter] So it was like a light bulb turned on. I went home and thought about all the releases that I had put out. I thought, “They’re horrible! Do I take them off the sites?” I literally questioned what I had put out, except for maybe “I Am Africa,” released in back 2011. I put my foot in that mix, but now I would have done things just a little differently.
You were experiencing self-doubt.
Yes, but after that point, my whole world changed because it all came together. For me, I had wanted to prove that I was this musician and I had all these instruments…too many! No one needs eleven instruments or twenty instruments on one track. [laughter] So I got into the groove– the pocket of the song– and just what I feel the essence needs. That was it. I had people telling me, “You’re killing it! I hear the difference!”
“Mikki got her groove…it was like a light bulb turned on.”
But we all had to get there on our own time. I had a mentor, God bless him– Boyd Jarvis– he came to my studio. Now Boyd had his own way of doing things. That’s what made him Boyd, and it worked because that was his sound. For me, it was always important to develop my sound. New York City owes that man a real tribute. Boyd Jarvis gave New York City its original underground House sound.
Absolutely. Much respect to Boyd Jarvis and his legacy. So how would you define your sound?
My sound is Afro Stank.
I love it! Afro Stank! That’s your word: “Stank.”
That’s me, and Stank has been around. I didn’t come up with Stank. It just so happens that once I did get my Stank– I realized Doni had been trying to tell me for years that I was missing the Stank. [laughter] I was in Miami and I was working on the song “Black Coffee.” This was two and a half years before it was released. Doni was making some breakfast, and she heard some music and said, “What is that Stank coming out of the speaker? I hear something Stank!” And I said, “That’s me!” [laughter] And Doni said, “When did you get so Stank like that? That’s you?” [laughter]
Right? When did that happen? [laughter]
[laughter] Yeah she asked me when that happened. I told her, “Oh I’ve been Stank lately!” And Doni said, “Well good. Stay there!” [laughter]
That’s me. The Queen of the Stankness. I don’t care what anyone else does. What they do with their music is what they do, but I realized what it is that I do. I have a track that’s on my forthcoming album called “The Stank” with artist Nikki Powerhouse. It’s Afro, Punk, Funk, and Stank.
“That’s me. The Queen of the Stankness.”
Cielo, NYC, August 2018
Wow! Looking forward to hearing that. And when did you come to this realization about your sound?
That I have my own Stankness? [laughter]
I feel like traveling gave me this feeling. Being here in New York we tend sometimes to be afraid of the people that we know and how they’ll view us when we play out.
Your peers are all around you here.
Right, so when you’re away playing somewhere, people have two things to do: dance or not dance, like it or not like it. That’s it. There’s nothing in between. So I found that when I was away, I wasn’t afraid to play something Tech or to go into some Samba or to go into some Jazz Fusion. I was more open compared to here in New York. What I also found happening here in New York was that at one point the sound was totally Afro. People like myself, local producers, were not getting played because everyone was playing Afro. There are some really good local producers here that weren’t getting heard.
I have to be honest, I worked on a song with this vocalist and I was always afraid of playing my own music. I hurt her feelings by not playing this song when she was there at the event. She was really hurt. At that point I told myself: “You don’t believe in yourself and there are other people playing your music, but you’re not playing it. You don’t believe in what you’re doing. So why are you doing this?”
So you would play a DJ set at an event, but not play any Mikki Afflick productions.
Right! I would leave out my own music! And I did that at the Winter Music Conference [in Miami] and there was nothing that I could do to make it up to that singer because it was our baby, it was our project.
She was waiting to hear her voice…
And it doesn’t come. From that lesson, I have never done that again. I play all my music and the labels’ music in my sets, and there ain’t one that’s cleared the dance floor yet. [laughter] I also realized how that would happen to me. I would have a song out, and I would be standing there in the club waiting on the DJ to play it and I would go home almost in tears, and later the DJ would text me, “Mikki, I had your song cued up, and it just didn’t happen tonight.” But you know what? It happens. In a second a DJ can be in a groove and have a song cued up, and then for some reason in that moment you go into something else and don’t get that moment back. So I have learned that if you are playing a set, make sure that your stuff is in that set and it should be featured, but honestly I really don’t think about that kind of stuff anymore. I don’t go out with the intention of hearing my music.
As far as playing your own music at events, that’s another way to promote yourself and the label.
It is! Everyone does it, and I had to learn that. I have something to share, and that is my music. It finally hit me: if people are playing my music, then I have to stop the self-doubt, and play my music. I want to talk more about that– how music heals when people are going through something. And I have also changed up my style, so I am really enjoying the music I am making now.
Great transition to talk about one of your newest releases, “Music Heals My Soul.”
Yes! “Music Heals My Soul.”
How did this song come about?
So Georgia Cee and I had done a song called “Black Coffee,” which came from her album, and it’s a good Afro album. That one stood out to me. She’s Italian, a tiny little thing, with all of this voice. The song did not get heard the way I would have liked it to be heard, and I had it in every set that I played. This goes back to saying that if you feel sometimes that something is lacking, what do you do to enhance it? So I just gave her song an extra little foot beat behind it, and I told Georgia how much I love the song and how I would really love to remix it. And she said, “Bella, sure!”
So I’m thinking about the lyrics: “Black Coffee….” She’s in an interracial marriage. She’s singing about this hunk of Black Coffee in the morning. So I make the song dramatic and just sexy and there’s a exciting breakdown and a cello. So a little while after I release “Dream Catcher” and I’m building momentum, I finally release “Black Coffee.” Boom! It comes out, and it did well. So Georgia and I are talking two years later and I told her, “I just love how you use this metaphor ‘Black Coffee’ for your husband, this romance you have with him.” So she says, “No Mikki, I’m singing about Black Coffee, the producer!” [laughter] “You mean I made the song all dramatic for Black Coffee?” [laughter] But that just goes to show you, that sometimes it’s best not to know. [laughter]
Mikki with collaborator and vocalist Georgia Cee
So last fall we were at Output [in Brooklyn] for the Puerto Rico Hurricane Benefit and I was giving her a ride home. We were talking about things that we have gone through in our lives and I said how music is a healer, music just heals the soul, and she agreed with me, “Oh bella, I know! I know!” Then I said, “Georgia, that’s it!”
So a few months later I reached out to her and she sent me some music with her beat and asked me what I thought. We just have this chemistry. I sat on the beat for a minute, but I was just hearing this bassline. I literally dreamt this bassline. So I had my keyboard player come over and I played it out. He said, “You played it in major, but it’s in minor.” And that was it! I literally hummed out this piano tune, and he laid that down over her beat, and I let it sit. It needed that “Mikki Stank” and within ten minutes the words started coming at me as I typed them. So Georgia and I sent the track back and forth with each other, and a few days later when I heard it, I could feel the passion, I could hear her, and I knew how to enhance her. I’ll be honest with you, it was just everything! So I’m the greatest procrastinator when it comes to my music, but I’ve learned– no, no more.
I thought I was the greatest procrastinator. [laughter]
No. Because I have songs from 2005– how long is that? 13 years? Sitting there, waiting for any day now to be finished. [laughter] So I thought about Louie Vega’s Open Air Sessions at Cielo [in New York City], and I believe in this. I never once have said, “Louie, can you play my song?” I don’t want the rejection. And he’s Louie Vega! Who am I to tell Louie Vega what to play in his set?
Play my damn song, Louie Vega!!! [laughter]
Play my damn song, Louie! [laughter]
Give him that look, like when you were giving out your pink CD’s. [laughter]
Yeah, he has one of my pink CD’s! [laughter] …So I procrastinated all Wednesday, but I thought, there’s no excuse, I need to have this song ready for Open Air Sessions at Cielo. And I did my own little mastering, good enough to be played on Cielo’s system. I did my own mix down, and that’s what I said about getting into your own self, into your own fierceness. So I sent it to him, “Louie, I’ve got something that I worked on and I like it. Take a listen.” He said, “Send it right over, I’m in the studio.” How many people can do that with him, and get an answer right back? So I went out that night for Open Air, and I’m enjoying myself. But I always know my key. I always do something in my key signature.
And you heard your key! Incoming!
Yes! I heard that little incoming, which I have since taken out because I don’t need that. I’m not going to lie, Amanda, it was magical. I don’t care what anyone says. There’s nothing like that validation from seeing a dancer, especially a New York dancer in Louie’s room, and hearing my song played by Louie. That’s it! And my keyboard player said to me, “I always tell you when you got something, and you got something!” People are feeling it. So finally it hit me, it might be the title track of the album: Music Heals My Soul.
“Music Heals My Soul” featuring Georgia Cee, released July 2018 and still rocking the Soulful Chart.
Perfect album title! So did Louie Vega tell you he was going to play it?
No, and I thought maybe? But I never set myself up for the disappointment because he hasn’t played everything that I’ve sent him. Sometimes I’ll ask him what he thought of one of my songs and he’ll tell me, “I played the Beat Mix.” Oh, ok, alright. [laughter] And with “Black Coffee” early on, I asked him, “How come you never play it?” And Louie said, “I play all over the world. What makes you think I’m not playing it?” Ok, oh, ok! [laughter]
He’s playing it in other countries.
At one point, I sent him a mix of “Black Coffee,” which was a mistake. It was unfinished. It was the mix I had started two years ago when Doni had said, “Keep that Stank just like that.” And I felt like it wasn’t finished, but I accidentally sent it to him by mistake. So Doni and I are in Miami, laying on the beach, and I hear this thing come in, and Doni says, “Oooh that’s Stank!” I said, “Wait! That’s me!”
That’s the Mikki Stank!
Doni said, “That ain’t you!” [laughter] And she said, “Wow! Go ahead!” I told her that mix wasn’t ready, and she said, “If that man is playing it, it’s ready! Leave it alone! Put it out tomorrow morning! Stop it! It’s ready! Stop!” And guess what? “Black Coffee” made it to Louie Vega’s top 2017 Chart. So the moral of the story: if you have a Grammy Award-winning producer/DJ playing it, and he likes it– leave it alone. If David Morales is playing something that I did…there it is! I am grateful.
And believe in yourself!
Yes, I need to believe in myself. It’s a good time for women. We are all saying we’ve had enough. We’ve had enough of not only men telling us, but society telling us what we need to look like, what size we need to be.
And not only that– women telling other women what we need to look like. Women can be the worst. Women do this to each other all the time.
We’re not all in a beauty pageant. We come in every shape and size. It was very important for me when I make music, to think about my daughter who I raised, how’s she beautiful, statuesque. And my nieces– one who’s a full-figured woman with the confidence that she has. You have to build that confidence. So here I was all along being afraid of being accepted for who I am– openly. And stage fright, I waited with 23 years of stage fright to go back to DJing. But it doesn’t matter, even if you’re at the Apollo. Luther Vandross got booed. He got the “Sandman” how many times? You come back if you’re really built for it. You come back! And more than anything: I am the Comeback Kid! I want to do it on my own terms. The second time when I had an agent, they changed me. They wanted me to change my afro, do this, put on a little makeup, bring down the neckline. I felt so uncomfortable that my mixing was horrible.
Your whole spirit was uncomfortable.
I didn’t feel like my own self. That’s not who I could be. On top of that, I never got a gig through this agent. So here I am, I’m changing to get “booked”– I take away the cigar, look more “ladylike,” do this, do that, and I’m not getting any bookings. So we gracefully parted ways, and I’m having a hard time because I feel like I have to soften up. My next agent at the time was Abigail Adams and she told me, “You put that cigar back in your mouth. That’s who you are. You put that hat back on. Don’t you dare change! That’s what we love about you, Mikki.” And she told me she thought I would be great for Lincoln Park [Music Festival, in Newark, NJ]. That was a dream of mine and she made that happen for me. She’s always cheering me on.
What year was that?
That was 2011. I had released “I Am Africa,” so I’m building up this momentum from my tour. I’m blowing up badass! Then I have an accident that’s life-changing. Literally, I know I have a purpose. I’m here for a reason. That’s why “Music Heals My Soul” is so important. In one split second I would have been dead. I literally saw the hand of God. You can call it heaven, you can call it hell, but I literally went through the channels that you go through when you have an out-of-body experience– seeing myself, having my grandmother push me back, seeing the red, seeing the light. And when you come from that…
Wow! That’s incredible.
I had a lot of anger after my accident, so many things I can’t explain. I had survivor guilt. I had deep depression, anxiety, but I became more spiritual, not religious, but more in tune with my spirituality. This truly helped me deal with so many things. I also became more comfortable with myself.
I’m sure you went through many stages of recovery– physically, emotionally, mentally. That’s to be expected.
Do you think that being a woman has been a challenge in this industry or is it just the overall competitive nature that comes with being a Producer and DJ?
I never like to use “woman” or “female” in this industry. I get angry when people say, “Female this, female that.” I stopped doing all female-only events just for that reason.
They have those?
They do. All over the place. I guess some think it’s the only way that women can be seen or heard as DJ’s. But I think it’s best to include women alongside men, and let us hold our own. Anytime I say I am not going to an all-female event…guess what happens?
[laughter] But you’ve paid your dues.
Yes. I’ve paid my dues, as well as other women in this business. I can’t speak for all, but there are very few women who DJ, produce, and run their own labels, etc. As for me, I say show me a level of respect, and some of the disrespect is just deliberate. You give “thank you’s” to the 200 DJ’s who played your party and somehow forget to thank me. So I had to learn, people are not going to like it, but too bad. It’s my name, my brand, and how I want my brand, my name, and my image to be seen. So I had to say no. You know what, put me next to the biggest in the industry and I’m able to stand on my own two feet and handle myself. I’ve played with some really top DJ’s and I’ve gotten all their respect. I am not going to let locals disrespect or try to define me.
There are things that have been bothering me. I get overlooked, but then I say, alright things happen. But then I constantly keep getting overlooked. I’m producing, I have some hits. However, I don’t make it on the only Dance Chart that we have, when I made it the year before. Then I start to feel as though it’s personal.
You addressed it?
Yes I did, and it’s ok. I also had to learn to keep pushing, and there may be no particular reason for why I am not on a chart. Sometimes you just get overlooked. Keep it moving and make sure the next time that you work even harder to make sure that you don’t get overlooked.
I don’t want to dwell on that, but some if it is female, and it’s not deliberate, but it’s just society on a whole. And some of it is, I have to be honest, homophobia. I don’t know what the percentage of what is to what, but I know that when I had that “poof-poof” hairdo and I was showing some cleavage, I had producers who were inboxing me all day, every day– not knowing. I didn’t put anything about me out there in the early years of social media. Those who really knew me, knew. So I watched these producers come on to me, come on and come on, and invite me to dinner because I’m looking a certain way. Then finally after a couple months they ask me, “When are we going to go out?” “You know that I’m gay, right?” And they would respond, “Huh? You mean you’re bi, right?” Noooo. Maybe they thought they had half a chance. [laughter] No honey, no chance! Right?
I was deleted and blocked before I could even finish the conversation. So I’m a dirtbag. “Oh Mikki’s this…Mikki’s that…she’s too this….” I’m thinking, should I say who you are? How about I let the world know the dirtbag that you are? So, I decided that I was not claiming that anymore.
You don’t need anyone who can’t handle you.
Yes, and I am a lot to handle. [laugher]
[laughter] But seriously, there are people who will always love and defend you– because they love you for what you’re giving them, which goes back to the idea of Soul Sun Soul.
I’ve had some people tell me, “I will walk the face of the earth for you.” I also have good people around me who tell me when I am coming on short, and when I am really on point. You need good people around you to not just “yes” you to death, but to tell you the truth. Doni is my biggest cheerleader and critic.
Right? So I learned a few things: never sell myself short, believe in myself, and continue to evolve when the time is right. I can’t take in too much negativity. It’s going to stop me from being creative, it’s going to stop me from being productive, and it’s going to give me a bad taste in my mouth that people will hear in my music. I don’t want that. People say they can relate to me because I try to keep it real.
Be real, yes, express what you feel– whether it’s good, bad, or otherwise. And you don’t want people to look at you as “that female producer.” You are that producer that’s putting out that Afro Stank.
There you go! [laughter] So I have the album and I have this t-shirt right here.
I need one of your t-shirts!
This is a design that Doni and I had 25 years ago. It was our home decorating company called Afro-D-Zak. It’s trademarked at the Department of Congress and I personally went to Virginia to do it.
Are these t-shirts for sale?
Yes they are, and as soon as I get myself together and not procrastinate, the web site will be up: http://www.afrosun.net. I’ve been getting support from so many people, which is great. So Doni designed this 25 years ago. We had a whole series of duvet covers and shower curtains, it was just over-the-top fabulous. Essence magazine did a write-up on us. Now she has a line of puppy couture and so I’m going to see her fulfill her dream with that.
Grammy Award-Winning Super-Producers David Morales and Louie Vega wearing Mikki and Doni Afflick’s Design
So you’re going to give back to Doni.
Give back, yes, and support.
Yes. And you have your labels, your releases and you continue to multitask. So where do you see yourself in ten years?
Ten years from now…I’ll be somewhere tropical. I want to say that I would still like to be doing music, but honestly, I’m not too sure about ten years from now because of Mother Time. I think I do want to mentor. You know I mentored some men in the electrical field, and I think I do want to mentor some women in being producers and the challenge of what they go through– how to believe in themselves. Actually just this past week, I was thinking about going back to school. I’m thinking that I want my Ph.D because I always wanted “Dr.” in front of my name.
Yes. Unless I can get a school to give me an honorary doctoral degree. [laughter] I don’t know if my body of work has warranted that yet. I’m dyslexic, so I have to compensate for that and then my injury also has me where I process things a little– I don’t like to use the word “slower”– but it takes me some time. So I’ve been thinking about this and I’m seriously going to work on getting better because I came out of my accident not being able to do a kindergarten puzzle.
Not being able to write a sentence, and my words still get a little jumbly. You see it on Facebook. It’s not that I don’t know how to spell. [laughter]
Your fine motor skills were affected?
Yes. My fine motor skills, my speech, my memory. I remember days when I was not able to even lift my arm to DJ. I would think, God, you’re not going to take this away from me! So everyday I would practice moving my arm and really challenge myself. I would sit for hours just working on music, so I guess I need to start working on studying. [laughter]
[laughter] And this was all from the accident?
Yes. Slowly I patched myself up. So in ten years I know I want to be somewhere tropical. I also love designing interiors. That’s a dream. All these things together. I also told you about owning a coffee shop or lounge, and sometimes you don’t tell people, you just do it.
And you come home one day and say, “Doni, guess what!!” [laughter]
But it’s not fair. Right? It’s not. Everything that I’ve ever wanted to do, Amanda, I’m doing. I started my first edit when I was 12 years old. I started DJing at 9 at my Dad’s night club. I played my first party at 12 when the DJ didn’t show up, to where they didn’t want that DJ to come back.
It was Stank from Day 1.
Born Stank! [laughter] I’m going to show you later how my grandson knows about the Stankness! That’s one of the first words he learned! Stank! [laughter]
How fitting! [laughter]
So I had this conversation with Ian Friday. It was about legacy. Forget what goes on now. No one ever says, “So and so is the greatest.” No. They wait till you’re dead. Today is Prince’s birthday and everyone is crying and carrying on about how wonderful he was, but while he was alive people would say they didn’t like his music. You rarely get the love when you’re alive, but when I’m no longer here and my body of work is here, I hope someone will say, “Wow! Who was this person who did these hundred tracks? These two hundred releases?” And then they’ll see that she was an independent label owner. I have other goals. Some things that I won’t put out, but bigger things. I do film editing and I have two nieces studying film in university.
You do everything.
Yes, I directed a couple of videos and one of my nieces was able to go in and help with some of that. So film is another thing that I really want to get into.
You’re an Artist…with a capital “A”.
In every way– musically, visually, creatively.
And I’m also going to sing.
Do you sing?
I’m singing on this album, honey! I do spoken word, and I’ve had some spoken word releases, but I am actually going to sing.
Don’t ask me to perform it live.
Ok. I won’t. I promise. [laughter] But someone else might.
It’s not happening. But on this album– I’m singing.
Like a Jazzy style? How would you characterize your style as a singer?
So spoken word– I’m a cross between Grace Jones and Macy Gray. When I had my afro, they used to call me Macy Gray. But who do I sound like as a singer?
Do you have a raspy voice?
I do, but I’m not trying to over-sing. It’s not quite Sade, but…
I was shocked. I let a couple people hear me sing and they said, “Wait a minute now! You singing?” I’m finding my way. Maybe I can never say never. Maybe I might sing that song live!
Yes! Live! [laughter]
I would love that. When’s the album coming out?
Amanda, I’m in the process of breaking down my studio and moving it up to another part of the house. So that’s going to have me out of commission for a moment. I’m thinking, if I went to Miami and stayed focused, because I have a lot of distractions here in New York, that I could probably have the album ready for A.D.E. [Amsterdam Dance Event] in October, or at least partially ready and have it done for Christmas. So I’m planning for Christmas. I want to do the release party and the whole shabang. So I’m shooting for that. I’m working with people that I’m connected to and I like it.
And don’t rush it.
I’m not going to rush it because people know when it’s rushed.
That’s true. We can hear it.
Yeah, we can hear it.
So ten years from now you’ll have your tropical coffee shop or lounge, Dr. Afflick. [laughter]
Bed and Breakfast by Dr. Afflick. [laughter]
Any final thoughts you want to share?
The final thought is this: I heard someone say F.A.I.L., which stands for First Attempt In Learning. So there is no failing at something. Just do it. I want to be the best that I can be. So I would tell people to work at their craft. Anyone can say they are a producer, Amanda. Producer only means you’re a manager, but do you really know what you are doing? I say that not to be sarcastic, but you really need to know when you’re working with a singer– what range, what key, even if you don’t know that, have an idea so you know when something harmonically is not right. So learn your craft. We all stumble, but at some point, learn it, study it, read books, go on YouTube. I started when there was no YouTube. I used to buy videos and I would pay people to come to my house and bore me to death and tutor me or I would go to the New School and take a course on how to do this and that. I think one thing that bothers me is that people don’t think I do what I do because they’re not doing it. I know that they’re truly not doing it, and they have ghostwriters doing everything.
And you are doing it.
I am doing it. So learn your craft whether it’s producing or DJing. You know, I hear all day long: who’s using the sync button? Who’s doing this and that? Who cares? Do you ever dance and look up at the booth and wonder if the DJ is using the sync button? No! You just want to know that they’re bringing the Stank. But if you’re going to use the sync button, know how to DJ without it. I don’t use it because I learned from having mentors, but you know what, if I felt like using it, I would use it– no big deal– because I know that I can DJ without it.
“We have to stop listening to the negative. We all have to be our own stewards…I am artist who is still rising.”
We have to stop listening to the negative. We all have to be our own stewards. I can’t be the steward for women. No. I can’t because at the end of the day, I also have my career. And while I’m standing up, saying “Rah Rah” for women’s rights, honey, I’m left behind. They will put every other woman ahead of me. They’ll get the bookings. I’ve seen it happen. So every person has to be their own steward. I’m not going to be a martyr for women’s rights. I can’t be because I am an artist who is still rising. Just that soon, you could say or do the wrong thing. You could be on top right now, and I could see a post– and we’ve seen it happen– where by tonight I’m done and I’m finished. So we have to be accountable for the things that we put out in the universe. Every elevator has a down button. While we’re having this conversation right now, someone somewhere is listening to one of my mixes or one of my productions, studying how the hell they’re going to knock me out the box. [laughter] The day that you don’t think that it’s not happening, is the day you’re going to fall faster than you ever thought.
Someone is trying to come up with that Stank!
It won’t be like a Mikki Stank. [laughter] Maybe it will? [laughter] They’ll take part of my Stank and add some other Stank to it. And I’ve learned that the great ones never have to tell you that they’re great. You never see the great ones say, “I,” or “Me.” Never!
Their body of work speaks for itself.
It speaks for itself. And that’s what my mentors have taught me. You don’t have to be confrontational and go back and forth. Let your body of work speak for you. You know what you do. The people that are following you know what you do.
Let your art speak for itself, and it does.
It does. You know, that record I did with Jah Rain, “Woman Rising,” I had that for seven years. That was my therapy while I was healing myself. And I said to her, “Jah, please just believe in me. This record is everything and I feel that this is bigger than us. If I put it out now, I’m not there yet to be able to carry it.”
“Woman Rising” featuring Jah Rain, released January 2018
I want my body of work to be timeless, not for the moment, not for just the Stankness happening now, but ten years from now, fifteen years from now that it still sounds like a good tune. I try to do songs that can be played on the radio. I’m glad that I’ve been able to get that support, but I’ve worked hard to get there. It feels great to be finally able to get that support.
I was driving in my car last winter and I heard “Woman Rising” on the radio. Louie [Vega] was playing it on WBLS on his Roots NYC show, and I had to pull over. I just sat there and thought that for seven years I had this track and how the words moved me. I have about four versions of “Woman Rising,” and I made one that is “radio friendly,” a crossover. I was so delighted. This is what I now work towards. I’m not looking for validation, but it is nice to get that validation from the people you look up to. So I guess it’s an oxymoron.
And this is from all your years of hard work. Keep going. Don’t stop now.
Thank you. I was going to quit in 2012. I still feel like I have not done my best body of work. Each project is getting better than the one I did before. So I know that the best is yet to come. At one point I thought “I Am Africa” was my best. Then I did others, and I thought, this one is my best. Each of them is different. In working with other musicians and being able to conduct I know what direction to take. So now I’ve gotten to the point where I’ll tell my keyboard player, “No, that’s unacceptable. It’s not what I’m looking for. I need you to do that over.” I had to grow into that. And he said to me, “You’re thinking like a producer now.” I told him I was always a producer, and he said, “No, you didn’t always think like one.” And he was right. My productions are becoming better.
I’m approaching a time in my life where I’m ready to do more mentoring. This is what I want my legacy to be. When I’m no longer here, someone will be able to say, “Mikki Afflick helped me, she guided me. She made a difference in my life.” At some of the lowest points in my life I had great people lift me up. I want to be able to do the same for others.
I’m a free spirit in the wind.
“I’m a free spirit in the wind.”
Yes, a free spirit. And we love that about you, Mikki! Thank you so much for opening up with me today. So shall we break into song together? [laughter] How about our favorite Allman Brothers Band tune…“Whipping Post?”
Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, New York
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