Nothing is Impossible: IDK Interviewed

Nothing is Impossible: IDK Interviewed

Maryland, DC rapper on re-thinking the hip-hop landscape...

IDK is on a quest to educate: Never confined to the trodden path, he’s established himself through expansive, world-building rap music, and is venturing towards new horizons with a Harvard course and new monthly radio show…

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When he came up with the acronym ‘Ignorantly Delivering Knowledge’, Jason Aaron Mills just wanted to evoke curiosity. He initially released his immersive and experiential brand of rap music under the artist moniker Jay IDK. But by the time he dropped his major label debut, ‘Is He Real?’, via a partnership between his company Clue and Warner Records in 2019, he’d doubled down, opting for the leaner IDK. “I think the first time you see my name, if you see it again, you remember you saw it the first time,” he says on an early morning call from his home in Los Angeles. “It’s what I want to do with all of my art in general.”

It feels like a name that the 28-year-old has grown into. While hip-hop culture has facilitated the transmission of ideas and information since its inception, the Prince George’s County, Maryland, DC native - who was born in Clapham, South London - is embracing its educational powers more than he’d ever imagined. Much more than an alias, IDK has become a mission statement.

Although he’s established as a recording artist, he describes himself more broadly as a teacher and a problem solver. Up until now, these roles have mainly manifested through music - last Summer he released ‘IDK & FRIENDS 2’, a mixtape which doubles as the soundtrack to NBA star Kevin Durant’s Basketball County: In The Water documentary, which IDK also narrated. But over the past year he’s been focussed on expanding his role as an educator while working on a forthcoming second album. “The most exciting thing is definitely what I’m doing at Harvard,” he enthuses through the phone, after admitting to still being in bed. “I feel like it’s a very new chapter in what I got going on in my life.”

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In February 2020 IDK was invited to speak on the Harvard University campus by No Label, a nonprofit set up by Harvard graduates Miles Weddle and Marcelo Hanta-Davis. The pair created the platform during their sophomore year, combining their love of pop culture and academia through moderated conversations on campus; including talks with Travis Scott, Bad Bunny and Saweetie. When they decided to host an event exploring criminal justice reform, IDK felt like the perfect guest speaker, having spent his late teens in and out of jail before turning 20 in state prison, where he learned to rap.  

“I think far too often in the classroom the stuff is theoretical, it’s stats on a page,” says Miles, who studied anthropology and music. “So I think a lot of what we’re trying to do with No Label is actually add some relevancy to it, and use the stories and partner with these pop culture icons, to lend credence to a lot of these different narratives”. 

During that initial speaking engagement, which now lives on IDK’s YouTube channel, he says that while he grew up middle class, the quality of schooling in Prince George’s County was polarised: “If you go to school there and you’re not in a private school, you’re basically going to go to a bad school.” That led him to hang out with a crowd that - like him - didn’t get good grades, and he ended up in county jail after being arrested for robbery with a deadly weapon. It took years to regain his freedom from the system. Though he never committed a second offence, he struggled to pay the $300-a-month fee that was required for private home detention - while juggling school with a job at McDonalds - and found himself back behind bars twice more: “I never got in trouble again,” he explains. “It was literally the same thing that followed me from the age of 17.”

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As well as learning to rap, in state prison IDK took on the role of a teacher for the first time, helping fellow inmates to get their high school diplomas. “I don’t know if I really realised I was a teacher,” he admits of that period. “It made me realise, ‘Ok, I might be decent at this.’ But it was later on that I started to realise, how much I love to teach people.” When he started making progress with his rap career, IDK began to recognise how much fulfilment he got out of helping others. “I just started seeing that it fuelled me,” he recalls. “It made me happy to sit down for hours talking to people about how they could make their music pop.”

Not content with leaving his work with No Label at a 90-minute conversation, IDK presented the idea of extending their collaboration into something more comprehensive. The result, a ten-day course dubbed No Label Academy, is set to take place at Harvard’s newly renovated Smith Campus Center later this year - though dates are currently TBA due to COVID guidelines. The programme will invite students to learn about everything from financial literacy to mental health. “If I explain this idea - it sounds ridiculous,” admits IDK. “A rap artist, that was a felon, teaching a Harvard course… in a pandemic, that needs half a million dollars to do - that’s never been done before. It’s a lot.” He leaves a beat: “But we got it!”

Through internships at companies that range from major labels to established indies, No Label co-founder Marcelo, who studied sociology, witnessed first-hand the gatekeeping culture of the music industry. He recalls that many of his fellow interns had family connections to high profile members of staff. “That drives them to have an advantage of experience, which ultimately allows them to land jobs. It creates that unequal playing field,” he says. These observations have driven the ethos of No Label Academy, which aims to democratise the industry. “The core of our idea, is that getting access to knowledge allows for an equal playing field which allows for people to have equal opportunity in society.”

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Together, IDK and No Label have been developing the academy throughout the pandemic, fleshing out their ideas in weekly meetings, and backing up their content with the help of curriculum advisors including Harvard Law School’s Brian K. Price and Harvard Medical School’s LaShyra “Lash” Nolen. When deciding on the elements that make up the course curriculum, IDK says that the focus is on dealing with the basic needs that will allow a musician to upgrade their hobby to a sustainable career. “This course is not to create the next superstar,” he clarifies. “This course is to create someone who can make the same amount of money as a doctor, in music, something that they love.”  

“What all of us in these ideation sessions want to make sure happens, is that the content of the course itself really speaks to, ‘What do artists need to know now in order to be successful?’ Not only a year into their career, but ten years out,’” explains Miles. Marcelo adds: “A lot of American culture is grounded on Black and Brown creativity, but for some reason that doesn’t really translate to economic empowerment for Black and Brown creators and people. So one of the goals of this course is to create a pipeline for Black and Brown people by giving them that knowledge and all those tools they need to strive and have success in the industry.”

“I’m most looking forward to seeing those students graduate,” says IDK, envisioning No Label Academy finally opening its doors later this year. “I look forward to them being able to spread the knowledge that’s created. I look forward to this class growing over the years and being in all 50 states at some point. And across fashion, music and film - I want that. That’s what I want. That’s what I look forward to.”

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A similar approach to accessible education is being applied to another new platform that IDK has launched already this year: Radio Clue, his monthly show on Apple Music 1. Zane Lowe, Apple Music’s Global Creative Director and on-air host, recalls the conversation that lead to the show’s creation: “Hey man, so on top of this thing that I’m doing right now. I really think that I could turn it into a great radio show,” IDK told him. To which he answered “Awesome.”

“The point I’m trying to make is saying he’s such a complete thinker,” says Zane. “That there was zero doubt in my mind that if he was going to add radio show to fashion, education, music, video and all the other things that he’s building in his entire world, then it was going to be of the same quality, with the same attention to detail. It’s just how he sees things and hears things, he recognises that the real value - long term value - is how much we’re invested in the experience. And you can’t be invested in the experience if you’re only dealing with the superficial.”

Radio Clue's first episode launched in March with the premiere of his single ‘Just Like Martin’, which expresses his ambition to buy an all-black Maybach over the bounce of a CHASETHEMONEY instrumental. To close the show IDK talked about the importance of credit (over the late MF DOOM’s ‘Doomsday’ instrumental), before telling a story about the day he bought his Maybach (with the Neptunes’ instrumental from Common and Mary J. Blige’s ‘Come Close’ as a soundbed) before running ‘Just Like Martin’ again. The intention is to subliminally connect these messages to music, which is a technique that IDK plans to implement across his teaching. “I hope that when I speak and you hear that song again, these popular instrumentals, you remember some of the things that I spoke on,” he says. “Using the five senses to tap into someone’s memory, that’s something that I’m currently working on even with the classes that I’m teaching, that’s the best way for me to learn.”

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On his quest to (ignorantly) deliver knowledge, Jason Mills has continued to make his dreams a reality - even when they seemed far out of reach. “I love feeling like some things can’t be done. I get a kick out of just making shit happen. That’s always been my career. That’s why I’m even a rapper,” he explains. “I’ve done the unthinkable, so it’s like, why not keep doing the unthinkable.”  

As our interview draws to a close, and Jay prepares to leave the comfort of his sheets for another busy day, he leaves us with an illustration of how he looks at the impossible: “If I said I wanted to learn how to fly in the next five minutes. I can do that,” he declares boldly, before breaking down a plan that would make H.G. Wells proud.

“I would spend my entire rest of my life figuring out how to build a time travel machine. And I would go inside of it, and I would go and build whatever I need to fly and I’d go in a time travel machine to five minutes from now and I’d give it to myself. And I’m flying now. That sounds crazy right? But it sounds more realistic than me saying I wanna fly right now. That’s what I mean by problem solving. I could solve the problem by creating new scenarios, and even if the scenarios sound impossible, it sounds more possible than me flying right now. That’s how I look at things, there’s nothing impossible, nothing.”

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Words: Grant Brydon
Photography: Michael Tyrone Delaney
Creative Direction: Rob Meyers
Fashion: Ian McRae

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