From IllRoots, Mike Carson and Mike Waxx Branch Out
ABOVE: MIKE WAXX (LEFT) AND MIKE CARSON. PHOTO COUTESY OF ADAM ROSS
Mike Waxx and Mike Carson are the entrepreneurial types—the dynamic duo have created several videos for the likes of Kanye West’s G.O.O.D. Music troupe, run a successful website called IllRoots, and have recently released a modish (and fast-selling) clothing line aptly titled IllAmerica. With all this only a fraction of the pair’s impressive CVs, it tends to come as a shock to most that neither Carson nor Waxx are even old enough to buy themselves a victory drink. Despite the shocking age difference between the Chicago natives and their contemporaries, Carson (19) and Waxx (20) have produced some of the best videos of 2011—look no further than Big Sean’s opus to derrières everywhere, “Dance (A$$),” an amalgamation of fast edits, Fresh Prince of Bel-Air-inspired set design, and one of the best displays of Nicki Minaj’s star power caught on film.
Interview sat down with the creative force, who have recently made the big move to New York, to talk about their beginnings, inspirations and what they could possibly do next.
ALEX CHAPMAN: How’d you guys meet?
MIKE WAXX: We met in Chicago—we were both going to school at Columbia College and we met there in 2009. We didn’t really know each other—we had a couple mutual friends, and we met at a concert at school. The thought was he was doing videos, I was running IllRoots—why not introduce a video element into the site? That’s sort of where the relationship grew, and ever since then we’ve been doing day-to-day website stuff, expanding the brand and all that.
MIKE CARSON: I was familiar with the site, but not too many kids at school “got it,” in a sense. Being somebody who did get it, it was pretty convenient to work together, and we just went from there—we grew as artists and we grew as friends.
CHAPMAN: What’s your favorite hip-hop song of all time? You have to really love it to start a website about it.
WAXX: My parents were really into different music—they had The Fugees’ albums and stuff like that, so they were a really good influence. Watching MTV and seeing Dr. Dre and Eminem’s video for “Forgot About Dre,” I felt like [making videos] was exactly what I wanted to be doing. That was my introduction.
CHAPMAN: What’s the first video you guys shot together?
CARSON: The first video I shot for IllRoots was a B.O.B. concert video—it was pretty bad. It was with my home video camera, but it got like 1,000 views the next day, so I was like “I’m in!”
CHAPMAN: What was the first music video you guys did?
CARSON: We shot a Chip Tha Ripper video called “Whoa,” and it was a montage-style video of SXSW and performance stuff. It was fun—it took us forever to put it together since we only had a certain amount of footage. We were like 17, learning, experimenting—it was fun.
CHAPMAN: What part has Chicago played in your guys’ success?
CARSON: Chicago, for me, is like a mini-New York. There’s a lot of talent there, but not a lot of outlets in a sense, so people are really eager to get their music out with some type of visual. The culture there is really great—it’s the perfect stepping stone. You can definitely do it in Chicago for real, though. I love Chicago.
CHAPMAN: Have you guys always been interested in making videos?
WAXX: All through middle school, I was really into videos. I wrote a movie script in sixth grade—it was pretty shitty, but it was a full, long script. I was really into it for a while, but I had some really bad video teachers in high school that didn’t encourage creativity, so I decided to go into design more. When I met up with Mike was when I got back into the video stuff. I knew video was the future of the Internet in terms of blog content—there aren’t really a lot of other sites creating their own original video content.
CHAPMAN: What makes you guys work as a team?
CARSON: We both have strong points—I’m very technical and he’s a really good creative and designer, so it kinda translates in whatever video we do. We always have a strong sense of design, whether it’s the set or art direction, and it’s technical whether it’s the lighting or whatever. And we’re both creative, so that gets mixed in. We recognize each other’s strong points though, and I think that’s why it works.
CHAPMAN: Since you first saw “Forgot About Dre” and got inspired to do this, how have your influences changed? What are you looking to now for inspiration?
WAXX: Working with G.O.O.D Music, we’ve picked up so much—I can’t even begin to think about how much our creativity has been raised. We’re getting introduced to more references and really starting to get it more.
CARSON: We’re traveling more as well. I’ve lived in the Chicago area for the majority of my life, so getting out of Chicago and seeing different things, different styles, what different filmmakers do in other countries—I think it influences me a lot. We went to Dubai, and it was a whole other world. The architecture in itself was inspiring. LA brings the creativity out of me more than New York—I guess it’s the weather.
CHAPMAN: Your guys’ relationship with Big Sean seems pretty pivotal to how things have turned out. How’d you guys link up with him?
WAXX: It’s funny—we linked up with Big Sean as college students. I remember one weekend in September of 2010, Sean had a show in Ohio, and we decided we would just go and try to connect with him, because this was before we knew him. So we got on the Megabus, went to the show, ended up meeting Sean and he was into what we were doing. Like two weeks later, his manager at the time reached out and said they wanted to do a music video for a song on Sean’s mixtape with Chiddy Bang. We had to throw this video together really quick, and we ended up shooting it on our friends’ rooftop, which was really spontaneous, but we ended up making it work. Now the video has like 10 million views, and that was just something we did in college.
CARSON: We missed class to edit it.
WAXX: We would be up till 4 am, missed class.
CARSON: It paid off.
WAXX: But Sean trusts us and we trust him, and that’s what makes it work.
CARSON: We owe a lot to him—he would go into the label and fight for our vision, and the label gives us way too much money to be kids with ideas. To have that type of trust—I couldn’t ask for anything better.
CHAPMAN: Tell me about the “Dance (A$$)” video—it seems as though it’s a way of saying you guys have truly arrived on a grand scale.
CARSON: It was our first budgeted video, and we learned a lot. The label could’ve had anybody, but the fact that Sean was invested in our vision was huge. That video was just a result of us being on Tumblr all day and studying the greats.
CHAPMAN: Did it feel surreal?
WAXX: It was crazy—we’ve shot music videos on the fly, in our dorm rooms, so we to walk into a super-legit studio and have it be our video, it’s surreal. It’s definitely amazing, the fact that we’re actually doing this, we’re young and we’re not selling out—there’s nobody telling us how to act or what to do.
CHAPMAN: What was it like directing Nicki Minaj?
WAXX: It was amazing. It was one of the greatest moments of my life! To see her in real life, walking into a room—I remember her in her old mixtape days when she was freestyling on The Come Up DVD, and now she’s up there with Madonna and Britney Spears and Lady Gaga. She really knew what she was doing—she’s a pro. She walked in there ready to put in work and do what she had to do. It worked out really well.
CHAPMAN: Who are some of your guys’ directorial heroes?
CARSON: Mark Romanek is one of my biggest inspirations, and Hype is like God. Being able to be on a Hype set and seeing him in real life, it was surreal.
WAXX: My favorite director is Spike Jonze—the reason I started making videos was because of “Jackass.” Being able to be on the set with him during “Otis” was amazing—he’s the coolest dude ever.
CHAPMAN: Do you guys have any projects coming up?
CARSON: G.O.O.D Music 2012. The album’s coming out, so we’re doing viral stuff, design and video stuff. Big Sean is kinda always the focus, because of our relationship with him. That and IllAmerica.
CHAPMAN: Let’s talk about that.
WAXX: That’s basically one of our new branches of IllRoots—it’s not really a part of IllRoots, it’s kinda a separate thing, and we’re introducing it as the online store for IllRoots. We like fresh clothes, so it’s kinda like why not throw some cool graphics on a t-shirt or a jacket and let people do what they want with it. We have big plans for it—this is just the beginning. We’re trying to start a revolution.
FOR MORE ON MIKE CARSON AND MIKE WAXX, VISIT ILLROOTS.