Twenty-eight years ago, while Drake was still in diapers, Michelle "Michie Mee" McCullock became the first ever Canadian MC to sign with an American label. With a hybrid sound that blended contemporary rap with classic Jamaican dancehall, the Kingston-born, Toronto-bred mega-talent soon earned her title as the Queen of Canadian Hip Hop, scoring multiple awards and laying the groundwork for many of today's biggest stars. This weekend McCullock will perform at Harbourfront's annual Kuumba music festival in Toronto. Here, she shares some of the secrets to her success including why women in music don't have to show booty to succeed.
Sex sells, but you don't have to buy it
Early on in my career, I appeared in Queen Latifah's Ladies First video. When you look at the clothing that we are wearing in those videos, you don't see anyone in the sexy, skimpy outfits. That wasn't the look then. We were MCs! We weren't selling anything. It was only later, in the nineties, that the look changed a little bit with [female hip-hop artist ssuch as] Lil' Kim and Foxy Brown, and all of a sudden there was a new expectation that women in hip hop were supposed be selling sex. I had a few directors who suggested to me that it would be a good idea to sex up my look. They pointed to the women on the Calvin Klein posters that were big at the time. I explained to them that female artists, and all artists, really, should dress [according to] their lyrics. My lyrics were never about being sexy, so it would have been a disconnect. I didn't do it. It wasn't even about standing up for women, it was just that I wasn't about to do something that didn't make sense for me.
Find peace in your past
My brain is constantly going. I'm one of those people who can't shut it off, which can be tough, especially when you work from home, so there is no divide. One of the ways that I find my quiet time is spending time in the kitchen. My grandmother was a chef and she was such a huge influence on me in every way. I find that making the food that she made makes me feel closer to her even thought she's no longer here. I do salt fish, johnny cakes – everything from scratch, and I can almost see her standing there in her usual spot. It doesn't really matter if the meal turns out or not, it's about having that time to feel at peace.
You can't express yourself with someone else's voice
My mom would always say, we worked so hard to bring you to Canada and now you can't stop telling everybody you're Jamaican. For me, though, the connection between my roots and my music was always there. It was a huge part of what made me, me, and what made me different. Especially when I was down in the United States and they weren't used to the Caribbean sounds. People would say, "get her mad and she'll speak Jamaican," meaning my accent. I'm not sure that the industry was necessarily ready for what I was doing [Michie Mee was among the first to infuse hip hop with Jamaican dancehall sound], but today when you hear that kind of thing everywhere, it makes me happy. I'm not saying I'm responsible, but I was there in the beginning, and it was important to me that I express myself in my own voice.
Every skill is a valuable skill
One of the things I would tell anyone coming up in hip hop or in any type of music is that you have to find your niche in the game, and it isn't necessarily the thing you thought it would be. It's good to have an idea of what you think your goal is, but don't let that stop you from learning about everything you possibly can along the way. When I was on a set, I would want to know everything – what's he doing? How does this work? I wanted to be a musician, but later I realized I was really just in love with the microphone, and that those skills can be put to work elsewhere. I have hosted a radio show, I have done a lot of acting. Both of those things have allowed me to channel my creative energy. If there's one thing I've learned, it's that not everything works out and not everything stays the same. It's good to be able to branch out, and the more skills you have accumulated, the easier that is.
Creativity behind the wheel
When I am trying to be creative, I like to get in the car and go for a drive. I find that it's a good environment because it's quiet and you can be away from your phone and so many other distractions, but you are also focused on the road, which frees you from your own head. It means that the ideas that do come into your head need to fight a bit to get in there, and for me, those tend to be the good ideas.
This interview has been condensed and edited by Courtney Shea.