Vic Mensa | 93PUNX

by Armine Gulyan

Photographed by BJ Panda Bear

Photographed by BJ Panda Bear

The Chicago-born rapper, singer, songwriter, and record producer Vic Mensa is headed towards a new direction with his latest release, 93PUNX. Previously his EPs and debut studio album The Autobiography have showcased a soulful and personal take on R&B, hip hop, and rap, inspired by 90s hip hop, as well as the numerous artists featured on the album, such as Pharrell Williams, Pusha T, and Syd. With his latest project sees Mensa joining with rock musicians Travis Barker of Blink-182, H.R. of Bad Brains, and Joel Madden of Good Charlotte to form a punk-rock collective called 93PUNX. 

With the newly-released self-titled album 93PUNX, Vic Mensa blurs the lines between hip hop and punk rock to deliver inquisitive and politically charged anthems that speak to the frustrations of younger generations. Alongside the album, Mensa and collaborator Conrad Muscarella have formed a fashion line with the same name. Just as his music satirizes, politicizes, and provides commentary on the state of the world, so do his reconstructed pants and patchwork jackets with cut out messages sewn onto them.

Join Flaunt as we speak with Mensa about his newly released album, his fashion label of the same name, as well as the activism, and creativity that propels both.

So, you’ve just released your new project. Tell me more about it, how has it been navigating in between these two types of music spaces that you’ve been known for? 

93PUNX album came out, and I’ve always seen music in a genre-less way, and more as expression, and motion, and something real as opposed to something confined by boundaries, and black music, white music, rock music, rap music. It’s always blended to me, and so, in terms of navigating the different spaces, I just connected with people that live in the rock space, you know? I have Travis Barker, executive producer of the album, H.R. from Bad Brains on the album, I have Joel Madden from Good Charlotte. It’s just different eras and angles that I try to bring together and incorporate. 

Do you feel that, visually, you’ve been deconstructing the identities of hip hop, and rock ‘n roll, and all these things that are how it’s standardized? How do you find yourself working amongst that in a way to deconstruct it?

Skateboarding was always my main inspiration. You know, for me that’s ground zero for a lot of shit, and skateboarding actually brought me to hip hop. I feel like the intersections have existed between rock, hip hop, just street culture in general. Through the years I’ve been blending that because, like I said in my mind I’ve always had crossover. Some of my favorite rap songs I was introduced to through skate videos, and some of my favorite musicians were skateboarders. I think that stylistically, there’s also a counterculture. There’s a rebellious ethos to both rock and hip hop.

I agree. I grew up listening to a lot of rock music, but also a lot of hip hop, and a lot of rap music, and at one point there was some place they felt like, when you’re in front, and just going crazy, it’s the same spirit altogether. It’s not defined by the type of sound so much as it is the type of attitude. So I feel like the projects you’re delving into are tapping into that headspace. How are you incorporating clothing into this project?

The name of the album is 93PUNX, and that name actually comes from the clothing that I have of the same name that me and my partner Conrad do together. We started making the clothes before I started making the album, and really we were making showpieces for me to wear in concert, and just felt that there were so many questions about it that we decided that we should make it its own entity, and the clothing really informed the music in a lot of ways. 

Photographed by BJ Panda Bear

Photographed by BJ Panda Bear

How do you find the rebellious spirit incorporated into the clothing? Is it from the design standpoint, the construction standpoint, the environmental?

The entire spirit, the soul of the clothing is that we’re taking these vintage pieces with a history before that and giving them a new life. Often times those are destroyed and tattered to the point of deterioration. I think that in itself is rebellious. Then we would put messages on them that express that same spirit, from fuck the system, we call this the “Anti-Racist Jacket,” you know—crossed-out swastikas.   

Who is it, the Dead Kennedys that did that?

The crossed-out swastikas?

Yeah. 

A lot of people have done that but I think it was probably the Dead Kennedys with Nazi fuck off shit. That all exists within the clothing and all the way to the stories that the clothing has. Some of these jackets have blood soaked in them from fights. That’s the type of energy the clothing holds.

How prolific do you feel this is going to be on your type of career and your political stance and everything?

I think it’s important that we’re in an important time, and the music reflects that. Much of the music, and the visuals, and the stance taken is radical, and it’s not safe. It’s dangerous, and that’s the world we live in right now. I think more music needs to reflect that.

Do you have any stories with how it directly involves you, such as with the ICE, and with the women’s choice movement? 

I really set out to address certain messages, whether it be the treatment of immigrants—specifically immigrant children—or the treatment of trans people, or reproductive freedom, based on the things that are important to me, and based on people who are being oppressed, people who are being marginalized, people who are being strangled by power, because I know how that feels. Being a black man in America, it’s easy for me to relate to the underdog.

I think that’s a very interesting point, because we have this guy in political office, and our view is completely contained within social media, a type of dead space where our minds are liquified into 15 second videos or whatever. And then at the same token there is a kind of progressive notion that these queer children are saved and protected, that they’re going to be the new norm. For a moment I got sad and thought about the death of the idea of punk in this “fuck the system,” queer punk,—every type of identity being locked out and thrown into the mainstream, and because we have this trigger, I feel as though the kids aren’t going to feel the urgency to activate, to create activism. Has activism always been something important to you?

Since high school, yeah, since I was a kid activism has been important to me. It’s an interesting time that we live in at the current moment, because there is so much media fatigue, and attention spans are so short, and shit is going fucking haywire all the way from the fucking climate to mass murder of the Other in America. Yet, we’re still glued to Instagram, and we’re still focused on our timelines, and our stories. That’s where most people get their news from. You can imagine that that’s confusing when you’re getting real world current events right next to Fashion Nova ads, and they’re all fighting for space in your mind. I try to do real shit, I try to circumvent that, to get around that. Obviously that’s the avenue to reach people, but the way I live my life, and the music I make, and the art that I create, I try to root it in reality because there is so much superficial shit going on. 

Photographed by BJ Panda Bear

Photographed by BJ Panda Bear

Right. So, I wanted to talk more about the record. Is there anything you wanted to focus on next after creating these visual and musical directions that are attacking these issues that are in America? What is the thing that you would like to bring attention to? 

Thinking about music videos always, because that is one of my favorite ways to expand upon songs and intention. There’s a song on the album called “Fistfight!” that is an interpolation of a song Fred Armisen made for Saturday Night Live, and so I was spending that last few weeks going hard and trying to clear it. So I reached Fred Armisen, I happened to be sitting down one day for dinner in Chicago, and the whole cast of SNL was sitting across the aisle from me.

Really? That’s amazing.

Yeah, they were just in Chicago, out auditioning people from The Second City. Lauren Michaels was there, Michael Che. I ordered them a desert and ended up connecting with Michael Che, who put me in touch with Fred Armisen. Fred Armisen loves the song “Fistfight!” so I wanted to get him in the video if he said he’s down. When we made that song, I sat down with the intention of making something overly aggro, and a real portrait of hyper-masculinity, or what you would call toxic-masculinity. The whole song is super violent and aggressive, but then the end is side-effects including emptiness, lack of empathy, suicidal ideation, deconstructive personality disorder, homophobia, misogynistic tendencies. I’m thinking about how the music video could play up on my initial concept. A lot of the music on this album is such that you can listen to it without really understanding it. If you just take it on face value, you may not catch the commentary. The music videos give me the opportunity to drive the point. 

I hope our little chit chat right now will be something that Fred will see, or we’ll force it on him or something and he’ll have no choice, otherwise people will think that he pussied out.

Oh Freddy, yeah, I talked to him, he said he’s down to do a video. He loves it. 

With the clothing, are you mass-producing it? Where are you selling it?

We just launched it at ComplexCon in Chicago, and we’re doing something for New York Fashion Week. Right now, we’re selling online. The bread and butter is the one-off pieces, but we also are doing more mass-produced pieces as well. 

How many pieces are in the collection?

Probably fifty, everything from reconstructed, customized leather pieces to denim, trench coats. A lot of jackets primarily. Yeah, there is a cigarette pack denim suit that we have on the way. It’s a patchwork made up of European cigarette packs with grotesque images on them.

Photographed by BJ Panda Bear

Photographed by BJ Panda Bear

Oh wow that’s sick. Oh my God I want that.

Yeah I got you.

That’s amazing. How did you come up with that concept?

Just being in Europe, being in France and Tokyo. When I was last in Paris last year, for I think it was Women’s Fashion Week, I was just collecting cigarette packs. I’ve always been interested by those images because they’re so jarring.

Who have you been talking to in regards to helping you in figuring your way in clothing? Are there any designers? 

Somebody who’s given me some real guidance has been Mike Amiri. He’s pointed me in some great directions. Also my friend Kerby Jean of Pyer Moss.

That’s amazing. Is there anything else in the focus of the clothing that you feel like we should talk about? Well, you’re producing all of this.

Everything is being made by hand primarily by Conrad. Also Ruth from CALA. Through that party. She’s mass-producing things that we make. 

That’s amazing. Wow, it all comes full circle now. Yeah, that was such a fun party. How did you get involved with CALA?

I know Ruth through Kendal who takes care of things in the fashion space for me. We just developed a real friendship, and CALA is such a dope platform. That party was crazy too because I was shooting a music video in the house while the party was going on for somebody else.

I was probably in the background at some point.

Yeah, I’m shooting for somebody else, I’m in the garage, we got a murder scene going on, shooting a porno downstairs for the music video, and there’s this fucking whole party going on in my house. I didn’t even make it to the roof, I heard it was crazy up there. 

Oh, well I was pretty much passed out in the hammock—

The hammock didn’t make it (laughs)

I think that was an ideal party because of how diverse the crowd was. It was like a little techno, a little rock ‘n roll, a little hip hop, a little trans, and art cool kids.