Photo credit: Elle Schneider
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Mikey Alfred is a creative person who has spends a lot of time observing other creative people. He’s documented Tyler and Odd Future for years, he runs Illegal Civilization, he designs clothes. He writes and directs and produces films.
As a linchpin for groups of people who take what inspires them and turn that into something new, we thought he’d have a lot to tell us about the practical aspects and the more mental work that people need to do if they’re looking to make things and/or say something.
MIKEY ALFRED: My name is Mikey Alfred. I'm super honored to be here.
ALI SHAHEED MUHAMMAD: Super happy to have you be here.
FRANNIE KELLEY: What's the thing that you've done that you're the most proud of? So far.
MIKEY ALFRED: Really recently, I took my mother and father to Jamaica. And my dad is a construction worker. My mom has been the assistant to Robert Evans for the last 36 years, and they hadn't been on vacation in like ten years.
FRANNIE KELLEY: What.
MIKEY ALFRED: And we got to stay at the GoldenEye and just had this incredible family time together. And that was more gratifying than anything else. Cause I think that's the reason we do all this, to just spend more time with our family, and doper time. Instead of being in the backyard, we're in tropical place.
FRANNIE: Yeah. And so – was that a thing you were working toward when you were, like, 12 and just starting out shooting video, whatever? Did you imagine building to a point like that?
MIKEY ALFRED: So, talking about my mom, she's been the assistant to Robert Evans for 36 years, so growing up I was always around things that were monstrous. He produced The Godfather and Rosemary's Baby and Chinatown. These are movies that literally defined an era and defined a culture. So since I've been a young boy, my idea of what my life could be was always big. I've never saw myself small. I've never saw the goals that I want to chase as being small, and my goal is to own a distribution company, where we do films, music, and clothes.
And the reason I want to do that is because black people, we're always a prop. We're always an actor. We're always a singer. We're always something that's being used to make someone else a lot of money, right? And so few of us are on the other side of that, and when I was maybe 13 or 14 years old, very quickly I realized that. And I told myself, I'm never going to be that person. I'm never going to be that prop. I always need to be a part of the fabric of something and not just a button to put it together.
FRANNIE: What made you realize that?
MIKEY ALFRED: Just being around Robert Evans. He was a producer, so he put things together and then was able to take part in them. And it made to where for the rest of his life, he could have ease, and he didn't have to do anything. And that's always the goal. You don't want to ever have to do something. So I just have been following his example.
FRANNIE: Right. So it's cumulative? There wasn't one moment.
MIKEY ALFRED: Totally, totally.
FRANNIE: So you said that you kind of always thought that you were going to be a big deal, in a way?
MIKEY ALFRED: I wouldn't say a big deal, because I don't care about the way other people perceive what I'm doing. I don't ever care to be like, "I have a nice watch," or like, "I have a chain. I'm important." But what I have always thought about myself is that I have the resources, the intelligence, to achieve anything I truly put my mind to. And I think everyone else does too. So I would say that's the way I feel. Yeah.
FRANNIE: OK. So this is how I wrote the question. So I was thinking about sort of Odd Future broadly speaking, whatever. Are you guys extraordinary? Or are you well-placed? Because the Robert Evans connection and some other L.A. things, some things – there were opportunities, given where people were. Or can anybody do what you're doing?
MIKEY ALFRED: So here's something I would say to people, because people always bring that up, the Robert Evans thing or the Tyler thing or whatever. If I give a 15-year-old to the opportunity to meet Obama – you're going to sit in the room with Obama 20 times – but if you have nothing to offer Obama, it means nothing. You'll sit in the room with him. You guys'll have your conversation, and then you'll leave. Now if I put you in the room with Obama, and you have some type of plan, and you have some type of thing you want to get out of him, then that can help you.
Connection means nothing without intention. You have to have a goal when you meet a person. What am I going to get from you, and what are you going to get from me? And that's how you achieve something. So I believe that anyone can do what I'm doing or what anyone in Odd Future or Illegal Civilization is doing. It's just about having that plan.
MIKEY ALFRED: Here's a perfect example of that. So I had a neighbor. Her name is Paula Madison. Paula's incredible woman. She is older, from Harlem, used to run Diversity In Journalism at NBC. So she's extremely wealthy, extremely connected. And when I was 16, I told her, "I love Ralph Lauren. That's my favorite brand."
She says, "Oh really? You love Ralph Lauren?" She says, "Do you know who Laura Manning is?" I said, "Yeah, of course. She's the vice president." She's like, "I'll call her right now." So she called her on the phone right in front of me. She said, "I have this kid. His name is Mikey Alfred. He loves Ralph Lauren. He wants to come to New York and meet you." She said, "Tell him to come out on Friday." It was Monday. So I was like, "OK." I bought a flight. I flew to New York.
I get to the Ralph Lauren building. You go up in the elevator. It opens. It's all wood panelling. There's this huge Ralph Lauren bronze statue in the middle of the floor.
FRANNIE: A statue of Ralph Lauren.
MIKEY ALFRED: No, no, no. Of the polo horse.
FRANNIE: OK. Just wanted to clarify.
MIKEY ALFRED: And you walk past it. You get to this little check-in desk. You tell them your name. They give you a sticker that I still have to this day, says your name with Ralph Lauren under it. Then you walk into this kind of palace. You're in New York. In the building though, they maybe have six or seven floors. You can see all six or seven floors from the first floor of that building. So I look up, and it's just huge oil paintings, huge bookshelves. There's people dusting mirrors, and you know, walking around serving water to people waiting in the lobby. So I'm sitting down. I'm waiting. I'm thinking, "Wow. I got here so quickly and so easily."
And I walk into the meeting. I sit with Laura Manning, and I start talking to her, and I'm telling her how big of a fan I am and all this stuff. And she said, "So what do you want to do with me? Why'd you want to meet?" And I was like, "I don't know. I just wanted to kind of learn stuff from you." And she was like, "Cool." And I walked out and I felt so stupid. And I was like, "Why didn't I walk in with a plan? Why didn't I have that thing to get out of it?" And I never talked to Laura Manning again, and we never worked on anything. And that was the time that taught me: don't be that person. Don't be that person who focuses on connection. Focus on what you're doing, and the right connection will come.
FRANNIE: Yeah, I think that's really good advice.
ALI: That's great advice. From just a musician's perspective and have had success in making music, people often ask me, "How do I make it?" Or, "How do I make a record? How do I be successful?" And my advice is to – what I say is you can have talent, and that's great, but if the skill is not cultivated to a point where when you're in a place to exceed expectations, then what are you doing? So if you want to be a beat maker, programmer, keyboarder, you want to design album covers, you want – whatever it is, if you have the skill, especially for musicians that have that natural talent, so they say, it's like, be a master at it, so when that opportunity is in front of you, you will knock people over because you're well-prepared to make a difference in that situation. It's just the best way to get ahead, I think.
MIKEY ALFRED: That's so real. That's so real. There's a video on YouTube where Kanye West made his sizzle reel, before he blew up, from like, 12 years ago or something. And there's this clip of Mos Def going, "You know, I really love this guy. Every time I see this guy, he's got a new beat. He's a got new song. He's got a new thing he's showing me." So that's so real, what you're talking about. When you get in the room, tuh, you better be able to show something.
ALI: Show something.
MIKEY ALFRED: Yeah. Facts.
ALI: Knock them over.
FRANNIE: So thinking about preparation too – I mean, I guess I'll start off specific and then spread it out. When you were making the Cherry Bomb documentary, you end up with tons of footage, right? Insane amounts. How do you keep that organized?
MIKEY ALFRED: So, with the Cherry Bomb documentary, every day when I would come home and load the footage, I would drop it into a sequence where I'm like, "This was funny. This was dope. Damn, we meet Pharrell today. This was good. We got this moment from it." So when we locked, when we said, "OK, no more filming," all the dope stuff from the past two or three years is in one sequence, and I can just scrub through it and be like, "Boom boom boom." If you come to my apartment, I'm ridiculously clean and organized. I can't have one pillow out of place. I make my bed every single morning. That attitude goes into everything I do.
FRANNIE: I struggle with that, with having so much footage and being really worried that I forgot something, or I'm missing something and trying to go back and find it. There is no real program – if there were something that could match transcription, that could match text to audio or film, why has that not been invented yet?
MIKEY ALFRED: I know.
FRANNIE: That person would make a lot of money.
MIKEY ALFRED: Facts, facts. A funny story from filming the Cherry Bomb stuff. So one day Tyler calls me super randomly. He's like, "Yo, Kanye wants to get interviewed, but we gotta go over there now basically." I'm like, "Alright. Cool." I go meet up with Tyler. We drive to his house. Right before we pull up, he gets a call, and he's like, "Hey, actually, we're not going to film Kanye today. We'll just hang and talk. And then we're going to come back tomorrow, and then we'll really film the interview." So we're already in the car though, and I'm like, "OK."
So we get there, this guy lets us in the house. We walk through. He's got all these Grammys on the left, overarching ceiling. We walk through this super long backyard across the field to this little studio in the back. And we walk in, it's this guy Gabe. You know, "Hey, I'm Mikey." "Hey, I'm Gabe." "Hey, I'm Mikey," "Hey, I'm," you know, whatever this person's name is. And then when I say what's up to Kanye. "What's up, man. I'm Mikey," he just says, "Nice to meet you." But it's Kanye West, so I don't expect him to say his name.
The next person, "Hey, what's up, man. I'm Mikey. Nice to meet you." He says, "Yeah, what up?" And it's Vic Mensa. And I don't let his hand go, and I'm like, "What's your name?" And he kind of laughs, and he goes, "I'm Vic." And the room just gets dead silent, and Tyler goes, "Ugh. You are not that famous!" And everyone starts dying. And all the tension or nervousness in the room is just depleted. So that was always a funny story. I love that.
FRANNIE: I think about that a lot, the levels of when you are used to meeting famous people and when you just sort of stop seeing the distinctions, or when you're basically fine, you basically consider yourself equal to whoever you meet, with the exception of like a couple people who just throw you somehow. You know what I mean? I'm not really asking like who is that person for you –
MIKEY ALFRED: Yeah, yeah. Of course, of course. The way I look at everything now, this is only in the last two years, is everyone's just really human. And I'll just sit across from someone and be like, "If I pushed you, you would fall." Or if it was slippery, you would slip. If you were hungry, you would eat. And thinking in that way, just cuts all the nervousness out.
A funny story though about meeting someone where it was kind of jarring, it was Frank Ocean's birthday, and he has this party in this insanely big house. You walk in; classical music is playing. Everyone's formally dressed, but it's a Paradise Lost theme. So there's voguing. So you walk down some stairs, and there's people with new wardrobe. If you want to put glitter on, you can put the glitter on.
Some guy starts coming towards me with glitter brush, and he's like, "Do you want glitter?" And I'm like, "I don't want it. It's not going to come off. I'm going to have glitter on me for the rest of my life. I'm good." And he's like, "No, no, no. It'll come off!" I'm like, "Bro, don't put the glitter on me." And he keeps walking toward me, and I'm like, "Please stop." And we're almost wrestling, and he has the glitter thing, and I'm, like, really not wanting it to get on my clothes or anything. And I bump into someone, and I'm like, "Oh, I'm sorry," and I look, and it's Adele. I'm like, "Oh, uh, excuse me." But that wasn't even the person.
Walk into this big ballroom – it's literally a ballroom – but it's where the voguing parts happening, do no more classical music, you know, "Uhn-tss-uhn-tss-uhn-tss-uhn-tss." And I can hear really faintly, "Mikey! Mikey!" And I look over and it's Spike Jonze. And Spike is a really nice guy and cool person. He's let me come to his sets before. I've got to learn a lot from him. And I walk over to him. "Hey, good to see you, man." And he says – as we're talking, he says, "Wait, wait. I want to introduce you to someone."
So he walks away and taps this guy, and I can see. I don't go anywhere. So he taps this guy, but I can't see the person's face. And he's sitting down with his back to me, and I see Spike whispering in his ear, and he's kind of pointing at me. And the guy nods his head and he gets up. Right when he turns around, all these people kind of cross in front, so I can't see who it is. He walks right up to me, so he's maybe seven or eight inches away, and it's Brad Pitt. And he's like, "Brad, this is Mikey. Mikey, this is Brad."
And obviously, love Brad Pitt. He's incredible. Such a dope actor. Burn After Reading, all that stuff. But my girlfriend is the biggest Brad Pitt fan of all time. So he introduces me to him, shake his hand. "Hey, nice to meet you, man." I was like, "Wait one second." And I go and I grab my girlfriend, and I walk her over. I don't say anything. Walk up her up to the circle. "This is Spike. This is KC. KC, this is Brad." She's, like, shocked.
We all start talking. And maybe two minutes in – you know when you're talking with four people, it's always two start to have a real conversation and the other two are left out? Me and Spike start going, and we're laughing and duh duh duh. And every 40 seconds we might laugh, I'll look over, and my girlfriend and Brad, they're not laughing. And then they'll, like, late laugh.
FRANNIE: Late laugh.
MIKEY ALFRED: So maybe like three or four minutes into the conversation, Brad Pitt puts his hand on my shoulder. He says, "Hold on. Hold on. Hold on one second." He's like, "I have to be super honest. I've been fake laughing for the last four minutes. I can't hear anything you're saying." And we start dying laughing. Then the party goes on, and it was fun.
FRANNIE: That's a nice thing for him to say. OK, so when was that? Was that –
MIKEY ALFRED: That was last year.
FRANNIE: OK. So I saw that collection of people on stage at FYF.
MIKEY ALFRED: Yup. And I was there. I was filming.
FRANNIE: OK. So I saw you.
MIKEY ALFRED: Yeah.
FRANNIE: I was right on the catwalk thing. I went for Tribe, and then my friend was like, "We're not going to go see Ali. We're going to stay right here on the little catwalk thing, on the fence." And we were like ten feet away from the whole thing. And it was – what was most interesting to me was Frank's female fanbase. First of all, the sing-along was the most beautiful sing-along I've ever heard in my life. Everybody was on point.
MIKEY ALFRED: On point. Yeah.
FRANNIE: You heard everybody from backstage, remember, talking about that?
ALI: Mhmm. Yeah.
FRANNIE: It was nuts.
MIKEY ALFRED: It was like a choir.
FRANNIE: It was incredible. Also every single person who was physically touching me, which was eight people cause we really jammed in there, was a woman, and that hasn't happened ever in my life at a show.
MIKEY ALFRED: Wow.
FRANNIE: Ever. But what was interesting to me about that also was the group of men that were involved in creating that sensory environment. It wasn't really exactly made by women for women, but it did seem like we were accounted for in a way, as a consideration that we don't get really ever. And I think about that sometimes with Illegal Civ also. It doesn't feel exclusionary in some way. Is that intentional. Is that something you even thought about or noticed?
MIKEY ALFRED: It is. There's this woman Rachel Day who used to worked with me at IC. She doesn't work with us anymore. But she was the first person to be like – we did a show in New York at Webster Hall. And we're backstage, all our friends, and I never have thought about this until she said it. This singer, her name is Karmani [00:21:26 ?], she's super dope. She's from New Jersey, but she's like 16. She came to the show and sent me a text. "Hey, I'm here. Can you get me in." "Oh yeah, yeah. Rachel, she'll come get you." Rachel comes and gets her. She brings her backstage. And we talk for a second, and then Karmani [00:21:41 ?] leaves.
Rachel comes up to me after the show, and she's like, "Mikey, there needs to be more women involved." And I'm like, "Why do you say that?" And she's like, "When I brought Karmani [00:21:52 ?] backstage, she's walking through clouds of weed smoke, dudes laughing and punching each other and pushing each other, and it's scary. And it's just weird for a girl. It's an awkward position to be in. So it needs to be a little softer. It just needs to be a little more including of a woman's energy." And that was two or three years ago. So she's the one that really got me like, "Yeah, you're right. We do need to do that."
FRANNIE: How do you do it? How do you make it more –
MIKEY ALFRED: You just ask women when you're doing stuff to help you or what they think about it. I have a quote I love to say. When you want to learn how to make pasta, you don't ask any Irish grandma. You ask Italian grandma. And I think entertainment and all that stuff is the same way. You want to make a black movie. Hire black producers. Hire a black director. It's simple. So it's like, if you want to create a brand like Illegal Civ, a company, you need to have everyone involved. Because it has to represent everyone. So that's kind of how I look at it.
FRANNIE: How does thinking like that apply to planning for the festival that you guys are going to do?
MIKEY ALFRED: Right. So the Red Bull team is all women. So it's like Iliana, Hannah Whitman, Naomi. I haven't met one dude from Red Bull. So they kind of had that covered for us.
FRANNIE: OK. And also I don't know if you're thinking in terms of headliners or whatever, but Tierra Whack is kind of the headliner. Is that fair?
MIKEY ALFRED: She is. She is. Hundred percent.
FRANNIE: She definitely is. OK. I mean, I just want to talk about her. I want to talk about her all the time.
MIKEY ALFRED: She's incredible.
FRANNIE: She's incredible. In every way. And what do you think about her, and why was it important for her to headline this?
MIKEY ALFRED: I just think she's dope. Her music's really dope. And I don't know if – have you heard her stuff?
ALI: No. Mm-mm.
MIKEY ALFRED: So Tierra Whack is incredible. She's like a newer version of Missy. That's the wack way to describe her. But her stuff –
FRANNIE: She makes really concise, super inventive, and visual songs.
MIKEY ALFRED: And all her videos are incredible.
MIKEY ALFRED: And then the way she dresses. I just think she's so talented. That's why we wanted her to headline. For sure.
FRANNIE: Yeah, cause also what you're doing with the festival – well, what are you doing with the festival? Is it a branding exercise? Is it some type of confirmation to your following or audience or whatever that this is who you are?
MIKEY ALFRED: No, no.
FRANNIE: What is it?
MIKEY ALFRED: So anything I'm involved in, I try to make it not about me. All the time you see people where they're rappers, filmmakers, whatever, where they do something to service themselves. You'll hear them like, "This is something I've wanted to do for so long." And it's like, "But we don't care about you." Everyone's selfish. They care about themselves. So I feel like when you're a person who leads a community or you're a person with a big voice, the only people are strong in that, the only ones who really make impacts and differences, are the ones who make it about others. Who cares what I feel or what I want to do?
So for me, the music festival is just a dope space for kids to have fun and see all the artists they like. Cause something when I was growing up, man, I loved punk rock. I loved rap. I loved alternative, but I can never get it on the same line-up. You go to FYF. It's all alternative. You go to Rolling Loud. It's all hip-hop. You go to blah blah blah. It's all punk, or it's all rock. So with this festival, we wanted to just meld all that together. And then we love cinema. Me and all my friends, we go the movies all the time. So we thought, "Let's show a movie too." So at the end of the night, we're going to play a film, Bronx Tale.
MIKEY ALFRED: It's one of my favorite movies. Yeah.
FRANNIE: Speaking of Italian grandmas.
MIKEY ALFRED: Yeah. Can't wait.
FRANNIE: Why the Valley?
MIKEY ALFRED: So I'm born and raised in North Hollywood. There's a church down the street from here, St. Charles Borromeo. I grew up going there. I went there from kindergarten to eighth grade. Only missed three days of school. Still very proud of that, my attendance record. I sang in the choir there. I altar served there. I'm very serious about North Hollywood. I truly love it. So when we got the opportunity to do something at the Pink Motel, that's about two miles up from NoHo. So that's an honor. That's a blessing.
Look, something else I want to say about St. Charles. So Paul Salamunovich. He was our choir director. Anyone listening, you should look him up. He was Grammy-nominated. He directed the Children's Vatican Choir. He brought kids from St. Charles – this is in the '60s – on the Bob Hope Variety Show, sang on the Bob Hope Variety Show, kids from our choir. He directed the choir for "It's A Small World After All." When you go to Disneyland and you hear, "It's a small world after all," Paul Salamunovich directed that choir.
Anyway, he was from North Hollywood. He went to St. Charles. So he took his job really seriously when he directed us. And I might have been in like the third or fourth grade. I'm sitting in the second row, and I couldn't stop talking, just wouldn't shut up. And in the middle of practice he just stops playing the piano, and he goes, "Michael!" And he takes a chair and he slams it right next to him, and super quietly says, "Come sit down." And I sit down. Our knees are like one inch from each other. And he says, super quietly, just to me, but in front of the whole class, he says, "Keep your friends close, but keep your enemies closer."
FRANNIE: Oh my god.
MIKEY ALFRED: I'm a little kid. I'm in like third grade. He says, "For the next three weeks, you're going to sit right next to me. Every day."
ALI: Oh my god.
FRANNIE: See? That's the Catholic school I remember. That threat is right there all the time.
MIKEY ALFRED: Hundred percent.
ALI: Oh my god.
MIKEY ALFRED: Look. Talking about Catholic school, in high school, I went to a Jesuit school, which is even more serious version of a Catholic school. And we had a teacher named Mr. Pascel. I actually saw him the other day, and I told him this story. I'll never forget. He hated when people would sleep in his class. Hated.
And this kid is asleep. He walks up next to his desk. Mr. Pascel, for context, is like a 400 pound, six foot five. He's super fat, wears big huge glasses. He was. He's not as fat anymore, when I saw him the other day. But this kid is sleeping. He knocks on his desk, and with a little mousy voice, he says, "Get up. Get up." And we all start laughing. And he says, "Shh shh shh. We don't want to wake the princess." And we're all at all boys school. The kid wakes up, and he says, "I'm so sorry to interrupt you. Can you stand up please?"
FRANNIE: Oh no.
MIKEY ALFRED: And the kid stands up, and he picks his desk up, and he has it over his head, and he says, "How many fucking times have I told you don't sleep in my fucking class!" And he says, "Alfred, open the door!" And I'm like, "What?" And he's like, "Open the door!" So I open the front door of the classroom, he chucks the desk out the front door. You hear it – boom! boom! – rocking and shaking in the hallway.
And then he kind of snaps back into his little playful voice, and he says, "OK. For the rest of the week, I want you to walk in class and take the desk outside, turn it upside down the exact way it is now, and you're going to sit on it just like that." For the rest of the week, this kid flipped the desk upside down in the hallway and sat and still had to take notes and still had to be a part of class. But you can bet no one else fell asleep.
MIKEY ALFRED: I could go on for days. I have one more lesson I'll never forget. This is the first day of fourth grade. We walk into class, our teacher, Ms. Fergoso. She says, "Welcome to class, everyone. Blah blah blah." Tomorrow I want you to bring a tube of toothpaste. So we're like, "OK." We show up to the second day of fourth grade. There's paper towels laid out on each desk. And she says, "I want you to empty that tube of toothpaste onto the paper towel. I don't want one thing of toothpaste in that tube." So we're all sitting there draining the toothpaste tube, trying to get all of it out. Takes us 20, 30 minutes.
At the end, she says, "OK. Now I want all of you to put the paste back in the tube." So we're like, "What?" Everyone's taking their pencil trying to jam it back in, trying to blow it in.
FRANNIE: Poor kids, man.
MIKEY ALFRED: We have no idea what to do. She watches us try for five or ten minutes, and she says, "You can't do it, right?" Everyone shakes their head. "No, we can't do it." And she says, "You are the tube. The paste is your words and your actions."
FRANNIE: Oh dang.
MIKEY ALFRED: "When you say or do something, you can never take it back." That was the first day of fourth grade. I'm still talking about that to this day. That's valuable. That's strong.
FRANNIE: Yeah. So is that the kind of stuff that you would put in a movie that you would make, something that you would write?
MIKEY ALFRED: Totally. Totally.
FRANNIE: How much do you take from your actual life, from your past?
MIKEY ALFRED: Everything. Everything. In the new movie, we're working on now, North Hollywood, there's a scene where the dad is talking to his son, and he's mixing cement while he's talking. And anyone who's ever mixed cement listening to this, you have to put lime in it, and lime burns your hands, so you're supposed to wear gloves when you mix cement. And my dad is talking to me, and he says, "You know, son," really casually, "reach into the bucket. A leaf fell in." And I reach in and just burn the hell out of my hands. "Ahhhhhhh!" And he looks at me, and he says, "Don't ever just do something. Always question. When someone says, 'Do this,' why?"
MIKEY ALFRED: And that type of lesson has stuck with me my entire life, and that's in the movie. There's a scene where the dad is telling his son he needs to go to college and he needs to focus, and he does the same thing. He tricks him. The leaf fell in. Can you grab it? So yeah, yeah. I pull from my life all the time.
FRANNIE: Are you trying to teach those lessons to people who watch your work?
MIKEY ALFRED: Of course. Because I feel like the lessons I've been taught have helped me so much. So if other people can learn them or just see them, maybe that can help them.
FRANNIE: When you do fictional versions of your life, I'm thinking about – not that this is a fictional version of your life, but you put sort of real people with real relationships in fictional scenarios acting or whatever, like Mid90s or Ballers or whatever, how does that feel? Are you trying to make what happened in the past different? Or make it mean something different? Or is it just material?
MIKEY ALFRED: Right. This is a great question. I watched this Jane Fonda documentary yesterday.
FRANNIE: Oh yeah, I haven't watched that.
MIKEY ALFRED: It's incredible. And one of her husbands when they got divorced said, "I can't deal with her anymore." And the interviewer is like, "Why?" And he's like, "Everything becomes material. Everything becomes a prop. Every time we argue, I can see her jotting something down in the notebook." And he's like, "I don't like feeling like I'm a well for your work. That's weird. It doesn't feel good." And that is something that filmmakers, directors, actors, anyone, you deal with. Where everyone you talk to, every time you go through something, it does add to your palette. It adds to that well you can pull from when you're writing later. I'm sure musicians deal with the same thing too.
And for me, it's not about changing the past. It's not about showing it exactly how it happened. For me, this is just me personally, it's about how can we teach the best lesson from this thing that happened. Now, we're not making a documentary. When you're making a narrative feature, you're not making something that's rooted in fact, so you can always change stuff or manipulate it to serve your lesson better. But for me personally, it's always just how can I teach someone something from this experience?
And I'm not saying I know all the answers, but just teach in a way. This helped me. Maybe it can help you. Maybe.
FRANNIE: I guess I'm curious about how from a technical perspective or from a writing perspective you take something that happened in real life, and you kind of refine it so that it can be delivered through a narrative feature.
MIKEY ALFRED: Right. This is also a great thing to talk about. There's a certain language that a script has that isn't the same as when you're just talking normally. For something to be powerful in a film, there's a certain way to word it and a certain way that the drama unfolds to make it be powerful. Something that happens in real life can really affect you and give you this feeling, but if you interpret it exactly like that for a film, it's going to be flat. It's going to be nothing.
So I guess to answer that question, it's really about – OK. Me and my friend get in an argument about paying for meals, right? And you want to put that in your movie. As opposed to saying, "Me and my friend got in this argument about paying for meals. Let's put it in the film," you would say, "Yeah, it was about paying for the meal, but it was really about being independent. And I'm more independent than my friend, and that causes a rupture in our relationship." So you start there. Where it's like, this is the core of what's for real happening. This is what's at the real drama, and then you kind of build backwards from that.
FRANNIE: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense.
ALI: That's life!
ALI: I don't know. I take that, and in my head, I think of all the arguments I've ever had with exes.
FRANNIE: They're over there. On that side.
ALI: They are over there. And I'm instantly trying to get to the core of the issue, but I have to sift through all the emotional communication to eventually get to the core of the issue. So I don't know. Maybe this is insensitive for me to say. If you can skip to get to the core, then you can maybe have understanding.
MIKEY ALFRED: Hundred percent.
FRANNIE: It's about communication, right?
MIKEY ALFRED: Hundred percent.
ALI: But then –
FRANNIE: That's what you're talking about too.
ALI: Yeah, in terms of storytelling. Sorry.
MIKEY ALFRED: And it's building out from the core, as opposed to trying to sift through the bull. You know?
MIKEY ALFRED: But to me, to answer what you're talking about, get to the core of the drama and then figure out the nuance, meaning in Goodfellas, I'm not that interested or compelled when Henry Hill is shooting someone, I've seen that a million times. There's nothing nuanced about that. But I'm so interested and compelled when he's washing his trunk, because he had a dead body in it. I've never killed anybody, so I've never been through that, but that's such a human thing. Where it's like, "Oh, fuck. If you did have a dead body in your trunk, yeah you'd have to wash it the next morning."
FRANNIE: You'd have to do that. Yeah.
MIKEY ALFRED: So the nuance, that's super important.
FRANNIE: Yeah. And then also –
MIKEY ALFRED: Wait. Sorry. Not to cut you off. This just made me think of something.
FRANNIE: Go ahead.
MIKEY ALFRED: This past weekend I watched a Wu Tang documentary at Sundance.
FRANNIE: Oh, that Sacha Jenkins made.
MIKEY ALFRED: It was incredible.
MIKEY ALFRED: And one of the dopest parts in it was RZA talking about switching pants with his brothers. He's like, "When we went to the same school, it was four of us and we only had three pairs of pants. And on all the different days, I would wear the black ones, and he wears the red ones, and he wears the white ones." He's like, "But by Friday, you have to rewear another pair." He's like, "So I was happy when we separated schools, because then I could kind of hide my pant-switching a little easier." And I'm like, "See, that's interesting." That's compelling. That's something that unless you've been through it, you wouldn't think to write that. You wouldn't think to say that. So that's nuance.
FRANNIE: Yeah, the specific speaks better than the universal. Does that sound right?
MIKEY ALFRED: Jonah said this, which is really smart. He said, "The more specific, the more universal it becomes."
FRANNIE: A hundred percent.
MIKEY ALFRED: Because then, OK, if you've been through it, you'll relate. "Damn. I've been through that." And then if you haven't been through it, it becomes a guidebook, where you're like, "Yo, that's what it must really be like."
FRANNIE: You have a lot of – everybody in trying to do that, you don't get it right the first time. There's a lot of attempts that sort of end up out there. And I want to switch into music a little bit more, because you – in this interview you gave Mic, you tell this little story that – you noticed something that I notice a lot too.
So basically, you get a shout out on "Chanel," on Frank Ocean's "Chanel," right? And what happens is he calls you, and he's like, "Hey, you're in here a little bit." And you're like, "Oh that's tight." But you don't think about it too much, because you have no idea if that song is actually every going to enter the world. I have had that experience a number of times also, not being shouted out by Frank Ocean to be clear, but hearing incredible things and never hearing them again. They never come out in the world or have no idea if they ever will.
I mean, can you – I'm just flabbergasted that that is the world in which we exist. Genius isn't necessarily what is released to the commercial world. How much – how do you think about that? How do you think about the world of creativity that is essentially private, and not in the marketplace, has the potential to be, but isn't? Does that feel like a special place to be, or a frustrating place to be?
MIKEY ALFRED: Right. So it's definitely frustrating when other people make something so dope, and then you know you're never going to get to hear it in public. That's for sure frustrating.
But for me personally, I heard Jay-Z say this in an interview when I was kid, stuck with me for the rest of my life. He said, "When you're creating something, you have to be creative. You have to put your heart into it. This has to be private and secret and all of that. But when you're done, and that part of it is over, it becomes a rock. It becomes a cardboard box. The preciousness, that can't carry into the selling part.
And most people can't separate those two things. Their art is always their art. It's never a product. And that's why sometimes you'll hear something great, and it will never come out. Because once it comes out into the marketplace, it becomes a product. It becomes a rock. It becomes a cardboard box. But I don't have that problem. I don't have that problem separating myself. I can put my all into something and literally cry and be really emotional about it and really protective of it. But then once it's locked, once it's done, it does, it becomes just a commodity to me.
FRANNIE: So did that moment lose some of its specialness to you once it was out in the world?
MIKEY ALFRED: No, no! I thought it was incredible. Once it came out, I'm like, "This is so dope. I can't believe he shouted me out. It's fire."
FRANNIE: Does it make you think differently at all about the business of music? What is released? What is thought of as commercial and what isn't?
MIKEY ALFRED: That's something I'd be interested to hear what you think about, but for me as a kid growing up with the Internet, those lines were so blurred. I feel like back in the day –
FRANNIE: Right. With stuff leaking and mixtapes and –
MIKEY ALFRED: Yeah. I feel like back in the day, it was like, you make a song. You submit it to your label. The label gets the CD press. The CD's in the store. It touches so many hands before it touches you. Where with now, I can get it straight from the artist. People are turning their album in three hours before it comes out. So it's not being muddied as much. So I don't think that when something becomes commercial or popular that it's bad. I don't think that. I think it's truly still their artistic expression, cause it doesn't have to go through 20 layers to make it to us.
FRANNIE: Do you feel the same?
ALI: What's the question?
FRANNIE: When I think about – like, when people do their top fives or something like that, or people do best-ofs, the year-end, and they're like, "This is the best song that came out this year." I'm like, "Yeah, cool. That's not the best song that was made this year though." So I think about how we can gauge or rate people or think about their body of work, when there're all these reasons why something might just never get out of the gate. If it's a clearance problem, if it's a timing problem. It's just, to me, it's like there's two different worlds. There is a barrier.
ALI: Unfortunately, that's just life.
MIKEY ALFRED: For real.
ALI: To take it out of the music context, there are people who are more fortunate and people who are less fortunate, and so it's not always fair. Life is not always fair.
And when it comes to keeping in the context of music, there are some people who create for, like you were saying earlier, obviously expressing something that they've gone through. But hopefully however that is packaged or received, it will help people or send some sort of a message or even give you a sense of relief of an experience that you've gone through. And doing that has absolutely no connection to any monetary goal. And so even though you may not have the resources of someone else that's, you know, making it not giving a damn, your intent was pure and you completed it.
And so I think from that perspective, you're good. And the doors will open up from that music or from giving that art piece away in a way that will serve you, I think, way better than any contrived gratification. It would be nice for those people who're really creating from that perspective, if they really could eat off of it and get the accolades that some of the other people who are in the haves section of life, they get. But life is not always fair. I mean, it's people who can eat, people can't eat. People got clean water. People don't have any access to water.
MIKEY ALFRED: Period.
ALI: So I don't know. At least for me I try to make music with purpose. It has to have a purpose. And if I thought about getting rich off of this, I don't know, I probably wouldn't make music.
MIKEY ALFRED: Something that made me think of though, that I thought was super dope. Someone said this at Sundance, he said, "When you look at numbers and rankings, America is super far behind in education. We're super far behind in health care. We're super in debt. We're in debt in so many other countries. But the reason we're still perceived as a superpower is because of our entertainments." Our entertainment industry is unmatched. No one else is even close. That's kind of the last thing we have left.
And the guy said, "That's why what we do – that's one of the reasons what we do is important, because it's so powerful in its influence on others." That's why what you're talking about, it's important to make stuff from the right place and make stuff from a place of purity, because it really really affects people. It truly messes with them, and the way they view themselves. So it's important to take it seriously.
ALI: This reminds of a story that chef Roy Choi had told me about his cooking and his food, and I've never heard anyone talk about cooking in this manner. But he said that the way he tries to present his food and some of the other things that he – at the time, Locol is a restaurant that he opened, which was trying to take real fresh foods and take them to the communities of a lower economics and give it for a reasonable price.
But before he did that, he was kind of on his way, and so when he was telling me his philosophy and for him he felt like what he's doing now is going to somehow affect something a thousand years from now. So just even from making food, he wanted to make sure that he gave whatever was going to happen way later down the line – he affected it in a good way.
MIKEY ALFRED: I love that. Everything you do matters.
FRANNIE: Yeah, take yourself seriously.
MIKEY ALFRED: Totally.
FRANNIE: How do you do that with something like IC3?
MIKEY ALFRED: Take it seriously?
FRANNIE: Just how do you make sure it is what you want it to be?
MIKEY ALFRED: Right. So some people, they're scared of messaging. Sometimes you'll sit in a marketing meeting and, you know, "You can't be too obvious with your messaging." But I don't agree with that. One of my favorite advertisers is this guy – I always mispronounce his name, but George Lois. And he invented the idea of Lean Cuisine, right, which was this big corporate thing. But then when you look at some of his other ads, he was so inventive and so creative.
In the '50s, he did an ad for cough syrup, where it was just a black background with white writing that said, "Mommy, I have a cough." And then there was another line that said, "Son, get some" – whatever the brand name was. And that was it. No logo, no nothing. In the '50s, that was insane. He made a thing for Jewish rye bread – this one's super famous – where it was this sequence of a young black kid, this is in the early '60s, a Native American guy, all biting into Jewish rye sandwiches. And it said, "You don't have to be Jewish to enjoy rye." With no logo, no nothing. So this guy was inventive.
But I'm bringing all that up to say, in the IC3 video, when people see it, the first credit says, "Salutations from North Hollywood." Little bit of video plays. The next credit says, "With hard work and loyalty to your friends, you can achieve anything." It says that on the screen. And when we were at the premier, there was 1500 kids sitting in this huge theater Downtown L.A., and there's kids in there that are 8 years old, 10 years old, 12 years old. That brought a tear to my eye, where I'm sitting there like, "Wow. All these little kids just read that message on the screen." And I bet you with 80% of them, that landed, and they're going to take that in their life and really apply it.
And for the new movie we're working on, I'ma do the same thing. It's going to have a screen with words. "This is what I'm trying to say to you." Because like we're talking about, it's real. It's no game. This stuff really gets to people. It's real. Martin Scorsese has truly affected who I am as a human, has confirmed things that I believe about the world through his movies. If you think something, right – I mean, "I think this" – and then you see that in a movie, you go, "Oh, it's real." Because I already thought that; now it's in a movie.
That's part of the reason America is so fucked up with black people. "I think black people are this and that." And then in the early 1900s, you see this movie by this guy – I can't remember his name. Robert –
FRANNIE: D.W. Griffith?
MIKEY ALFRED: There you go. D.W. Griffith. You see that film. "Oh, It confirmed everything I thought about black people." And then for the next 100 years, we have such a rough time here. And to me, because of that film. That was the most popular film in America when it came out. This shit is serious. What is the name of that movie?
FRANNIE: Birth Of A Nation.
MIKEY ALFRED: Birth Of A Nation. You see Birth Of A Nation, and for some dumb guy, that confirmed what he thought about black people. And that really messed us up.
FRANNIE: Yeah. With culture, entertainment, there really is this chicken or the egg-thing going on, and that's also an interesting way to think about forward motion or progress or whatever. When people ask hip-hop to be progressive or whatever, which comes first? And where does the responsibility lie also.
MIKEY ALFRED: That makes me think of, at Sundance, I was getting so annoyed, because I kept going to these panels, and I had to talk on two panels about diversity. And on both panels, I said, "Guys, how many years have you had these diversity panels? Let's stop having the conversation. I feel like 2018 and 2017 were very powerful. Time's Up, Me Too, Black Lives Matter, all these stuff was so important, and I'm so happy it happened. But now the work has been done in the entertainment industry at least. Now let's stop making it a thing. It shouldn't be a thing anymore. A black person can run a studio. A woman is a director. A woman is the big producer. A woman is an executive. Let's not be weird about it anymore." We're still having panels and still – it shouldn't even be a thing.
FRANNIE: Like, walk the walk, basically.
MIKEY ALFRED: Yeah. Let's put it into action now, where it's just common practice. You know?
FRANNIE: Let's stop babying people's feelings about it and talking them through stuff. Let's just stop –
MIKEY ALFRED: And let's stop just talking, cause there's so many fools where it's like, "Yeah, I love this and I love" – I watched this movie yesterday –
FRANNIE: Oh, the performative stuff?
MIKEY ALFRED: Yeah. I watched this movie yesterday called The Spook Who Sat By The Door.
FRANNIE: Oh yeah.
MIKEY ALFRED: And there's a really –
FRANNIE: We did a screening of that movie a few years ago.
MIKEY ALFRED: Love that movie. And there's a scene where the main character, the black dude, is in the CIA office. Some people come to visit the CIA, and the guy says to his partner, he says, "I'm so proud of you, man." And the guy says, "What?" And he says, "Integration is real. I'm proud." And they walk out. People are doing that now in movies where it's like, they put one black person or one woman in the thing and then they just pat themselves on the back.
FRANNIE: They want a reward.
MIKEY ALFRED: Yeah. Or they do a panel and they think that that's enough. Guys, no more panels. No more any of that. Let's really do it now. Let's just make it: it's completely normal. That's why I respect Charles King so much and his company MACRO.
FRANNIE: What does he do? I don't know him.
MIKEY ALFRED: Oh, Charles King is incredible. He finances films and produces films, so he did Fences with Denzel. This last year he did Sorry To Bother You. Movie made 20 million dollars. But when you walk into his office, everyone's black. Everyone's brown. They're all women. It's just happening, and they don't make it a thing. And it's like, that's how it's supposed to be. And not even that it's like, don't mess with white people. It's just everyone.
MIKEY ALFRED: We're all American. Just do your thing. Everyone is here. We're all together. It's not a thing anymore. When you look at this room, our guy filming, this is what America is.
FRANNIE: Is there anything you do contracts-wise or legally or whatever to enforce that or make sure it happens on your sets, in your productions? What did you do with Mid90s?
MIKEY ALFRED: So we don't do – so for Mid90s, I'm a co-producer. So I don't have the power to hire people. But with my personal sets, with all my short films, all my music videos, crazy diverse.
MIKEY ALFRED: And we make an effort of that. And then, all my team, I try to make an effort to – my lawyer's black. My manager's a woman. I go out of my way to do that kind of stuff, because if you don't, it won't happen.
Something that I've learned in experience is a white boy, when he's a little kid, when he's in the grocery store, when he says, "Mommy, what's that?" she says, "This is what it is." And he says, "Mommy, what's that?" She tells him. "Mommy, I want to touch this." He touches it. And when a black boy is in a grocery store and he says, "Mommy, what's that?" she says, "Honey, be quiet." He says, "Mommy, I want to touch this." She says, "Put that back."
Lena Waithe said something really smart. To be a good black person meant to not bother white people, and so many of those ethics get installed in us, right? So when it comes to the competitive marketplace, a white boy, since he's been a child, has been competitive. He's been able to have bravado.
FRANNIE: He's been leaning in.
MIKEY ALFRED: He can walk in a room and just start talking, and people are listening. Where as black people, we have to kind of learn that as adults. So that's why I say you have to kind of keep diversity in mind, because when we're raised, we're not raised to go and take stuff. We're raised to wait and have someone offer it. So as a leader, you have to go and offer it.
But then for me when I become parent, I'm not going to teach my kid to act like that. My kid is going to take what he wants, and when he asks a question, I'ma answer it. I'm not going to tell him to be quiet. Do you guys get what I'm saying? Does that make sense?
FRANNIE: What I'm thinking about is learning on the job vs. being taught vs. reading a book about something or whatever, and how you deal with interpersonal situations, stuff like that, somebody not listening to you, somebody disrespecting you, somebody – having to say what you want and expect it that they will do it or whatever. So the next things that you will do you've never done before, right? So how do you strengthen – how do you –
MIKEY ALFRED: This is a great question, and I think my answer will help people.
FRANNIE: Perfect. That's great news.
MIKEY ALFRED: So I have a cousin, Evan Alfred. We have the same last name. He's for real my cousin. He killed two people, and he's in prison right now for 90 years. Did that when he was like 15. I speak to him regularly, write letters, talk to him on the phone. And I'm not scared of him. I've had friends who I've been with; six hours later they're dead. That type of stuff is scary. Getting killed, killing people, that's serious. That's real.
But directing a movie or directing a music video or something, what is there to be scared of? If you mess up, hey, you fucked up. You messed up. That's it. No one's going to die. No one's going to get killed. No one's going to get cancer. So you know, I try to go into it as humble as possible, and go into it with great collaborators and go into it with people who are going to help make sure it gets done and teach me along the way. But I'm not scared. I'm definitely not scared. There's just nothing to be scared of.
Denzel has a great quote. He says, "Being an actor, people always say it's hard." He says, "Being a trashman is hard. That's hard." And I agree. I line up with those same kind of ethics.
FRANNIE: Yeah. Well, I'm really – I think our listeners are really going to learn a lot from you, and I'm really grateful that you showed up for them.
MIKEY ALFRED: Thank you. But like I said, I don't know anything. This is just the stuff that I think has helped me.
FRANNIE: We're just talking here. Yeah.
MIKEY ALFRED: Right. This is just what I feel about the world. I'm no authority on anything.
ALI: You may not be an authority, but you have such an acute attention to detail it seems like. To hear you speak about going into the Ralph Lauren offices and you're completely describing the entire environment, that is not easy to do. And on top of that, you seem to remember everything. With detail.
FRANNIE: Do you have a visual memory? I don't know how to describe this. Do you have a photographic memory?
MIKEY ALFRED: Yes.
ALI: Yeah, so with that, and with the intent to present your art in the way that people can learn or get something good from it and having, as you so eloquently described, making a screenplay and what makes it interesting vs. what does not, you know a lot, man. So you could sit here comfortably and calmly and just be like, "I don't know." But you do know a lot, and thank you for sharing your gift with the world.
MIKEY ALFRED: No. And thank you. You were a part of something, and you are something that really broke doors down and opened opportunities for someone like me to even be sitting here. So yeah, thank you.
ALI: You're welcome.
MIKEY ALFRED: And to talk about the learning thing, this is something I've been dealing with a lot with just friends of mine. When people tell me stuff – "Hey, I don't believe that – when you did that, I don't believe that that was right" – if I feel like it's coming from the right place, "You know what? You're right, and I'll try my best to stop whatever I did that was bad." And as humans, we have that problem, man. Someone says, "I don't fucking like when you did this," and people, "You know what? Well, fuck you." People have a problem really saying, "I was wrong. That was not cool. You're right." Or, "My perspective on that, that was ignorant. I didn't know enough."
FRANNIE: If you're secure in yourself, it's easier to receive criticism.
MIKEY ALFRED: Totally. And that's what I'm always trying to do, is just make sure I'm not operating in a way that is close-minded. "I can't be wrong." No, I'm wrong all the time, and hopefully other people can learn that same lesson too. "Bro, you're wrong too." We're all wrong.
ALI: You rappers, you listening out there?
FRANNIE: God dammit.
ALI: I'm saying, some of those lyrics, you know. Anyway, thank you so much.
MIKEY ALFRED: Thank you. I appreciate it.
FRANNIE: Thanks, man.
MIKEY ALFRED: Thank you. That was fun.