Michael Christmas loves Dave Chappelle. Twenty minutes into our freewheeling, hour-and-a-half long phone conversation, the discussion turns to the legendary stand-up comic. Christmas instantly lights up. “He’s an amazing, amazing, genius man. I remember the first little bit of internet we ever had in the crib—back in about 2005, 2006 when it was still hella slow—all of it went to pirating Chappelle specials. My stepdad would burn us Chappelle tapes and we’d all listen to them in the car, and then we’d get home and watch the show. Chappelle’s way with words and his delivery was always so smart too. He taught me that to be funny, sometimes what you say doesn’t even matter, it’s just how you say it.”
He’s not just a fan, though—the Fool’s Gold rapper also notes that there are considerable similarities between his career trajectory in music and Chappelle’s in comedy. Both started out low-budget and irreverent, gained rapid attention as their comedic subject matter and delivery became polished, and then took extended, but non-permanent, hiatuses as the attention around their art was reaching new heights.
For Michael Christmas, that raw early period was 2013, when he first grabbed attention with his cheeky music videos for “Daily” and “Michael Cera,” which saw him smoking in the shower, rapping in a public fountain, passing out in a supermarket and fanning his face with a cool $18 in cash. After independently releasing 2014’s Is This Art?, he partnered with Empire Distribution for 2015’s What A Weird Day. What A Weird Day broke away from the slow-rolling funk jams of his debut in lieu of sleeker, more upbeat production and featured big-name vocals from Logic, Mac Miller, and a pre-Broccoli D.R.A.M., all while maintaining his trademark self-deprecation and off-kilter charm.
But then he paused his momentum. Minus a hilarious 2016 XXL Freshman Pitch and one 2017 music video, he remained quiet until this spring, when he returned with “Girlfriend,” a bubbly post-Soundcloud bop whose upbeat production is as indebted to the Reading Rainbow theme as it is to Playboi Carti.
He’s now back en force with his new album Role Model – a wavy, hilarious window into his life as a young adult. And he’s keen to emphasize that unlike his previous outings, Role Model is a family-driven project; the introduction is voiced by two of his younger sisters, vocals from his step-dad, mother and girlfriend pop up in skits between songs, and his dad was in the studio throughout the recording process. Comfortable in his growing maturity, Michael Christmas is dispensing wisdom, telling stories and cracking jokes as only an older brother can.
A.Side: It’s been three years since you released What A Weird Day – which is a long time in the music industry. What changed in your life in those years, and how did you know that now was the right time to come back with Role Model?
Michael Christmas: Man, so much has changed, especially after I finished touring for What A Weird Day. I was always working on music the past three years ‘cause that’s my favorite thing to do, so I never felt like I went anywhere, but especially after I got home from touring I’ve just really started watch the world change in front of me. I was watching little cousins I hadn’t seen since they were little babies start to grow up and actually know shit about the world, about artists, about the difference between a Lil Pump and a Kendrick Lamar, and what they both do right. My sisters are growing up too – they’re seven and eight now. I quit smoking like two years ago too, and I’m living on my own now instead of with my parents. So it’s a bunch of real stories and little changes that added up, but when you’ve got something real, that’s what people come for: to see how your life is different. And I was at that point, so it just felt right to write and drop the album.
America has obviously undergone a huge – and in most ways dark – social and political shift since the last time you dropped an album. Did you feel that there was more pressure on you to release a project that spoke to that darkness – even though your work is usually so lighthearted?
Yes and no. I mean, if you pay any attention at all, things are all bad all the time now; I felt like I needed to drop Role Model now and have it feel so good and so happy without focusing too much on everything that’s so wrong right now, so it could be like an antidote to that. But I didn’t feel like I had to make any political songs; I felt like I needed to make a project that you could ride around to like a Dom Kennedy album or an old Wiz Khalifa mixtape and just be happy living your life to. Everyone has their songs that they listen to every time when they’re getting ready to go out, get on the bus, and go meet the homies. So I hope Role Model is that for some kid out there.
I felt like I needed to drop Role Model now and have it feel so good and so happy without focusing too much on everything that’s so wrong right now, so it could be like an antidote to that.
You’ve said that one of the biggest influences on Role Model was your father, who you called “your biggest role model in the world” and a “piece of shit superhero.” Tell me about some of your dad’s magic as a parent.
My dad is stupid smart. He never did high school, but he knows everything and he’s hood in every sense of the word. He taught me manners and everything. If I was to compare him to anyone, I’d say he’s like Denzel Washington in American Gangster: poised. But he’s fun as hell too. He and my mom put me in a good school, and he’d chaperone my field trips and be on the bus with my homies, talking shit and putting all my friends in headlocks. I remember at the end of one field trip we took to the science museum, we went to the gift shop and some of my friends didn’t have any money to buy souvenirs, so my dad decided to just buy gifts for all my homies. And that’s just one of the times that I knew my dad was the coolest dad on Earth; your dad’s not out here buying me shit!
This is true. Most parents on field trips are just trying to make sure their kids don’t break anything expensive or get lost.
Yeah exactly. My dad is just open like that.
Is your mom a similar type of personality?
Nah. She and my dad are very different; my mom is more of a typical or “real” adult, same with my step-dad. I love my mom so much though and we’re close. She’s so hard-working; she’s a super high-up HR person at a centre that helps people with drug addiction and recovery, and she knows and works with a lot of the homeless people in our area. And they’ll come up to her and just talk. Literally the other night, we were outside while she was smoking a cigarette and this old homeless guy approached walked straight up to her and I just pressed him like “yo, yo, yo, what are you doing?” cause I thought he was being aggressive. But she had to tell both of us to chill, ‘cause on his side he didn’t know I was her kid and he was just worried that I was harassing her or something; my mom is tiny and much lighter than me, so I get that.
Which parent do you see more of yourself in?
I definitely look more like my dad as far as facial features and skin tone. And as far as personality, I always thought that I was way more like my dad, but I’ve realized over the past few years that there’s a lot of my mom in me too. I never knew about it when I was younger ‘cause I was a piece of shit kid and she had to spend all her time yelling at me and trying to discipline me, but that now we’re both adults, I’m the first person she’ll go to with a lot of things, and she looks to me as a friend and someone that just gets her cause we’re similar in the little ways. And I saw this picture from this party we had the other day, and I’m even starting to think we kinda look alike too. 24 years later, I’m starting to see it; we got the same cheeks.
Were either of your parents actually involved in creating Role Model?
My dad actually came to the studio a lot when I was making the album, which was a new thing since I never used to be comfortable letting people in my sessions. But this last year I got a new studio and more open to the idea of it, and the new spot is way bigger so I’m just trying new things out like letting my homies, my dad, even strangers into the sessions while I’m freestyling. It’s just little shit I’m trying but it changes the energy so much.
It sounds like you were channeling some of his energy and his open-mindedness in your recording process.
Exactly. I’ve got my dad, my mom, my younger sisters, one of my close friends, my girl, my step-father, everyone on this album; I don’t think I ever was that open before. You can hear my younger sisters in the intro, my step-dad is speaking Spanish on he guy on “Special Occasion” who did the cop voice was actually my Uber driver from two days before. I was in the Uber saying that I didn’t know what I was gonna do for the cop voice ‘cause the person was originally going to do it cancelled at the last second, but then the Uber driver told me he could do all these voices, he did this hilarious cop voice. And I hit him up on Instagram later and told him “man, we need you.” And he killed it.
It must be a least a little bit nerve-wracking letting almost total strangers into your creative space, though.
Oh for sure, but opening up like that is part of why Role Model turned out so different from my first two albums. My dad always told me that you can’t just let anyone come over all the time and kick it, cause when you get on this side, you’re one of us and you’re protected forever. You have people that you can call for anything in the world, and that will be right there if you ever need anything – so you have to be selective. But I know my family and the people I choose to let into it will never do me wrong, and will be there with me rap or not, everything or not, no matter how much time passes between projects. Worst case, if we ever need to get out of here, I know we can all just take a spaceship and start over.