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King Mez's Long Road From Raleigh To 'Compton'

King Mez, of Raleigh, North Carolina, through Baltimore, in Los Angeles now.
GL Askew II for NPR
King Mez, of Raleigh, North Carolina, through Baltimore, in Los Angeles now.

King Mez doesn't smoke loud, sip lean or drink alcohol. He doesn't care about Audemar watches or oversized chains with icy pendants. Dude spends his off days piecing together 500-part Gundam Wing robots while learning to write and speak Japanese. You might not be down with him yet. The 25-year-old Raleigh native blasted out of left field with not one, not two, but three significant features on Dr. Dre's highly anticipated Compton album this August, in an era when we never thought we'd get another Dre album.

For days after Compton dropped, I had @s and tweets from a rack of dudes on my timeline, like, "Who that cat King Mez? He go in!" And rightly deserved. King Mez's verses are sharp and delivered with a thick, rich, fried-grits-and-gravy country voice that's distinctive to his southern roots –– it perfectly syrups on to that west coast sound that Dre created. You catch it when he speaks, but when his accent blends with tracks it thickens, even enhances, the beat, and it's been impressing new listeners. But I've known for a while now; I been rocking with dude for a few years.

Our story goes back to a basketball game in 2013. A guy I used to ball with had invited Mez up to my school, Johns Hopkins University, to hoop on one of the open gym nights. I heard he rapped, I heard he performed with J Cole, I heard he had , I even heard that he stood online for hours just to cop a pair of Yeezy 1's, sold them at a $700 profit and then used the cash to buy the equipment to record his first mixtape — but f*** all that­­­. I'm from east Baltimore where we don't care about celebrities or tours or nice guys. The real question for me was can the kid ball? A quick glance at his outfit suggested no. He was the best-dressed guy on the court, taking off new basketball Nikes and replacing them with another pair of new basketball Nikes that perfectly matched his shirt, shorts and gym bag. Coordinated outfit dudes are trash. They always end up shooting nothing but air balls, I thought, as I laced my raggedy Jordan 3s.

The teams were split and King Mez and I ended up on the same squad. I'm not the kind of player that gives new guys a chance to showcase their skills, so I came out slanging shots like Kobe in a contract year. We were tied up at game-point, Mez missed a shot or two, and I felt like I knew his game. A role player, a midsized slasher that occasionally hits a wild runner — not the go-to guy in a clutch situation — so me and everybody else on the court knew I was taking the last shot.

We checked the rock at half court. I caught the ball on the wing and immediately drew a double. Mez flashed at the top of the key, I kicked him ball and called back for it like, "Right here, Mez!" He didn't answer. "Yo!" I called again. He nodded, looked me off and dove into the paint, three defenders collapsing over his buck-fifty frame as he hurled an up-and-under scoop reverse lay-up without even looking at the basket. The ball bounced around the rim, popped straight up and then sunk in. I celebrated like I hit the shot; he kept his cool as if we all knew it should've went in. "Great shot!" we yelled at him. A simple "'Preciate it bruh," with a stiff poker face was his response.

After a few games that day I saw King Mez's killer instinct. He shoots as much as me, Kobe, or any other assassin, maybe more. He's a winner in love with winning. Not the dude eager to shake hands after a loss, the one who won't let you leave the gym until he gets a W in his column.

Basketball had become a part of our weekly routine. We didn't really hang outside, primarily because we're both workaholics, but we made it there two or three times a week. In between waiting to get on the court, we rapped about waiting to get on in life. He was flat broke trying to make it in rap and I was equally broke and trying to publish –– potential is what we shared.

I landed a New York literary agent who went out to shop my memoir a few months after we met, while Mez was riding the wave off of his mixtape My Everlasting Zeal. His single, " Monte Carlo," had debuted on 106 and Park and things looked great on the surface, but in reality we had both hit that s***** point in an artist's career where your talent is being validated from multiple directions, but nobody's writing checks yet. Those same financial hardships are what brought Mez to my city.

"My money was low and my little brother Mike was getting into trouble up in Baltimore. He's a talented producer, but didn't really have any outlets or friends there," Mez tells me on a crackly phone call. Getting into trouble in Baltimore is easy –– opportunity is slimmer than runway models. Bloomberg magazine ranked Baltimore #1 with bullet for literally being the worst place for a poor male to grow up in –– on top of a Hopkins study that found 97% of people in Baltimore who are born in poverty die in poverty.

"Mez was doing so much when he moved here, it made me want to do more," says Mike to me during a studio session in Baltimore. He mirrors Mez in facial expressions, calmness and demeanor. "I felt like I had to match his ambition and I did."

Mez and Mike's mom passed away when they were teenagers. Since then, Mez has taken on the role of being Mike's sole provider — and soul provider.

"I just wanted my brother to be around family," says Mez. "I watched him mature in Baltimore after my first few months of being there. He joined the Army for discipline and I promised him that I would have this music s*** jumpin' by the time he got out."

The Mez brand swelled after the "Monte Carlo" video –– his name started popping and labels began reaching out. "Bruh, a Shady exec hit me up and said my video shut their office down. Everyone in there wanted to know who I was. It's crazy because I was going through spurts where I had a lot goin' on or nothing at all, but I felt like I was on this time because I landed a few meetings with some big time managers."

Mez was represented by his college friend Eve Keita and Heather Widener at the time. They were on board with connecting with a larger manager, one who could get Mez the attention he deserved –– and, collectively, they found that representation. Shortly after they linked with the new management company, King Mez inked a six-figure publishing deal with Warner/Chappell Music.

Publishing deals go to a select group of rappers corporations see value in. That value is based on a criteria ranging from royalty potential and writing ability to substantial buzz. Mez had the trifecta, but don't believe the hype. "At the time I thought that was all of the money in the world! But it wasn't. They only sent half of the money up front and all of my managers got a chunk of that."

It took four months for Mez to get his check –– after he received it; he decided to relocate back to Raleigh to finish his next tape, Long Live the King. "So I got back home and it was on!" he says. "I had my bread, I hooked up with the people I made music with and started grinding."

Shortly after Mez returned home, and about four months into the publishing deal, he started getting crazy pressure from management over the completion of LLTK.

"I'm not sure what the problem was," he says. "I take my time with everything that I do. I'm not the type of artist that just spits out tracks back to back. I want to make timeless music, and being timeless takes time."

He spent eleven months on LLTK. By the time it was done, none of his managers were returning his phone calls, nobody except Eve. "Not much was done by my management to push LLTK when it dropped. No PR, no publicist, maybe a couple emails were sent, but other than that, not much else. And no shade to them, but I get it, it wasn't moving fast enough for them. Managers today are more of investors."

Mez dropped " Can't Let Go," the first single and video from LLTKin April of last year. "My managers wasn't f****** with me by this point, but I knew a guy from MTV Jams who helped the video get airplay and a few doors opened up." The first came from DJ Drama, who wanted Mez to record a Gangsta Grillz and tour with Wiz Khalifa as an opening act. The other came from Dawaun Parker, a producer who worked with Dr. Dre and made the Kendrick Lamar track " Black Boy Fly." Parker reached out to Mez, saying that he thought he was talented and wanted to work. "The Drama opportunity was amazing, but I had to take that shot at workin with Dre, so I took a huge gamble and flew to L.A. on a buddy pass with nowhere to stay."

Mez didn't really give Dawaun a heads up before he came to LA, and Dawaun ended up having a family situation and couldn't work with him. "Now I'm down in L.A. with no agenda and nowhere to stay. I found out that J. Cole was in town doing a show, so I called his best friend, my man Cedric, to ask if I can stay with them," he says. "They let me come through and I ended up staying 4 star my first week out there, which was great, but I wasn't on vacation, I was there to get on. I let Juan Madrid, the guy from Warner/Chappell who actually signed me to my publishing deal, know I was out L.A. and they set up a schedule and got me some work."

Warner/Chappell kept Mez busy that first week. "I loved being in a different place and working. Cole and them left the hotel and I wasn't going to stay there and let that spot suck up all my money. I also wasn't going home with out making a major move, even if I had to stay in the airport." While Mez was dealing with his hotel situation, he got into an argument with his managers and decided to part ways with all of his representation except Eve, who is now his full-time manager. "Mez wasn't getting what he needed from his other managers. I always believed in him and his talent," says Eve. "I knew Mez would make it in L.A. He's the kind of the person that makes things happen. Mez can make it anywhere."

King Mez left the hotel and started staying with his homie Drew, a show promoter from Rhode Island. After three days of working with random producers he got a call from Aftermath saying they wanted him to write for Dr. Dre.

"That opportunity didn't involve Dawaun. Big Pooh from Little Brother was the one that told the Aftermath A&R about me. I just wanted to work with Dre so bad, I prayed about it and it didn't even happen the way I thought it would."

Mez had never written for another rapper. He was thrown in a pit with a group of other starving writers who were older and much more established. He laid some songs down on the first day and worked collaboratively with some other artists the next. The producers loved Mez's tracks and said Dre may come by, so stick around. At one point some interns blasted through on a Dre prep mission, started cutting limes for his drink and lighting all types of exotic candles in anticipation of his arrival. But he never showed up.

Mez grinded like he did in Carolina and Baltimore, day after day, cutting song after song. The initial writers dwindled down to a handful, with Mez being a favorite amongst the producers and A&Rs. They would tell him how advanced he was. Marsha Ambrosius, who also ended up working on the Compton album, was impressed with Mez from the jump. "Mez was hungry and excited to be in the room. He brought a substantial amount to the table. Fresh ears and the ability to learn and perform," she told me. "Dre knows what he wants to hear, and Mez got better and better with every session."

Dre was supposedly coming to the studio every day but never showed. Mez didn't fret, he just kept working toward mastery and redefining what that meant to him with each track. After about a week of this one of the producers walked in and said Dre was coming –– really this time, someone had already reported he was out front. The prep team started prepping. Mez didn't believe it. He asked Drew to check it out. Drew went out front, peaked out of the window and said, "Dre not here! I'm going to the bathroom!"

"Man, Drew came back from the bathroom looking like he saw a ghost! He had really arrived," says Mez. "Dre came right into studio and got to work." The Doctor didn't waste any time. He immediately started playing tracks, knocking his head, slipping into that mode of creation. "Dre was eight songs in without playing any of my stuff and mentioning anyone by name. I'm still praying and then he said, 'Who is Mez? I really like this kid Mez.' My heart dropped."

A few months later Dre invited Mez to work on the Compton album. "At that point it was on," says Mez. "I knew this was an unbelievable platform and I had to solidify myself." Dre's L.A. team asked Mez to come back to L.A., not knowing he had just packed all of his belongings into his car and had it shipped a few weeks before.

"I've been going hard with the music since I was 12, and being in L.A. just took everything to a different level for me. I knew I had to be there with or without the Compton opportunity."

Mez got a chance to kick it with Dre before they actually made it to the studio. They hung out, talked about the film and traded ideas. "Dre's a legend and I was still proving myself, so I beat him to the studio every day once we actually started and stayed hours after he left," he says. "I couldn't believe that I was writing for a guy who made The Chronic! But I earned my place in the room and I wasn't leaving. I didn't even know I had the talent to write for another person."

Mez and Dre worked together almost every day for a year. "While writing for Dre, I felt like I had to temporarily become him. I envisioned myself as him back in those NWA and Chronic days. During the process, my perspective on music and how I viewed the collaborative process changed. The best albums come from everyone working together on hooks, verses and all." Mez is the most credited writer on the Compton album.

King Mez's relentless ambition and hunger twisted and molded his talent into a skill he'd never dreamed of. He slipped from his point of view to Dre's and back to his own. Vets like Ice Cube, TI and The Game were some of those who watched and appreciated King Mez's work –– he has, or will be, creating with them as well.

"People always ask me how does it feel to hold a spot that was once held by Snoop, Kendrick and Eminem, but I don't even think about it. I just want to live in the moment. I appreciate the opportunity as I've been working on this my whole life, but I know that I have such a long way to go to where I want to be."

The Compton album soared all the way up to #2 on the charts. It's received well-deserved praise along with the film –– many were quick to dub it a classic. Mez wrote on almost every song and gave opinions on the ones he didn't. "'Talk About It' is my favorite verse on the album. To think of Dre's legacy, where I was at in my life when I wrote the verse and how I'm the first voice you hear on the album is surreal."

Mez is still unknown to most, but that will change. He's gearing up to drop new music and finish his debut album. A few weeks ago I watched a room full of BET producers drool as he spit a verse against some other new artists. He's in the studio just as much, if not more, than when he was working on the Dre album. The Compton tour guarantees our paths will cross on the basketball court again. The only difference is this time is I won't question whether or not to kick the rock to Mez at clutch time, because just like that first day at Hopkins, that first track on the Compton album and all that's happening behind the scenes today, King Mez is shooting to win.

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D Watkins