Michael Stewart needs his coffee and cigarettes. The prolific 24-year-old MC, better known by his stage name Mic Stew, began puffing on Marlboro Reds while a freshman at Temple University, finding that it helped him write lyrics. With an upcoming Big L-inspired EP due for release this fall, and his well-received debut LP, Peaceworld, already in the books, it doesn’t look like Mic Stew will be kicking his habit anytime soon.
Peaceworld, which was released this past April, has earned positive reviews from local print and radio outlets, but as good as that album is, Stewart is still best known for his formidable freestyle ability. He jumped onto the national radar when he won last year’s Red Bull EmSee Freestyle Battle, one of the biggest freestyle events in the country, which forced competitors to include randomized words into their raps. Thanks to his signature quick wit and natural flow, Stewart was awarded $10,000, along with the recognition and performing opportunities that winning the event entailed. And, in case there’s any doubt of the battle’s validity, David Banner, Big K.R.I.T., and none other than DJ Premier were its judges.
“What Red Bull did was cut the fat,” Stewart tells PW. “It’s been very helpful in legitimating me as a professional. It opened up the doors to a lot of sponsorship opportunities and a lot of quality bookings that before I had to fight for. Now, they’re coming to me.”
Among his exploits since winning the Red Bull EmSee contest are stints sharing the stage with the Roots’ Questlove, playing at the Firefly Festival, and he’ll head back to Delaware this month for the FoxTail Fest, where he’ll be performing alongside Machine Gun Kelly and Travi$ Scott. Tonight in Rittenhouse Square, he’ll be sharing the stage with hip-hop luminary Cee Knowledge (formerly Doodlebug of Digable Planets fame) and his Cosmic Funk Orchestra for the final installation of this year’s PW "Concerts in the Park" series.
Citing the Fugees, Tupac and Jay Z as early influences, Stewart began freestyling when he was just 12. The unassuming MC, who grew up in Royersford, Pa., has always had a profound love of music, thanks in large part to parents who, he says, danced to blues in the house and “sang in the car and all that shit.” By the time he moved to Philly to attend Temple, Stewart had a very clear plan in place: conquer the city’s hip-hop network. When his nose wasn’t buried in history and physics textbooks, he was busy performing at any club or venue that would host him. As it turns out, Temple may have been the most important choice for him, and not just academically. Stewart credits Temple’s “Freestyle Fridays,” an unofficial weekly cipher—lingo for a group freestyle session—that meets at the campus landmark Bell Tower, to his ascent up the Philadelphia hip-hop scene.
“People were starting to hear about that all over the city and come out to see,” says Stewart, pausing to take a long drag on his cigarette.
In the wake of his battle victories, Stewart has eschewed the record label path, choosing to self-release his material, including Peaceworld. The move is a bold one: He is forgoing all the guaranteed provisions and marketing strategies that even a small label can offer, with his sights set instead on building his reputation should a larger label come knocking.
“The metric for success and market value right now is your social network,” he says. “If you want to get a meeting with Sony tomorrow, you either need to know somebody who really, really cares about your music, or you need 150,000 views on your YouTube videos and 50,000 Twitter followers. We’re not interested in having that conversation with labels right now because they’re not going to be giving me anywhere near the type of deal I’m looking for, which is creative freedom. Right now, we’re trying to be self-powered until we get large enough to sit on the other side of a bargaining table and make some demands.”
Stewart appears to be relying, either by fortune or divine design, on the strength of his mic skills at a time when the importance of real ability is starting to matter in hip-hop again. As his hot latest single boasts, “I’m not from Brooklyn, but I’ll holler, “Booker, booker, pick a book up”/I’m not a back packer, there’s just words you need to look up/Kitchen’s getting hotter from the verses that I cook up/Now I’m pushing product, SAMlive got the hook-up.”
“Creativity shouldn’t be bound,” he says, flicking away cigarette ash. “I think you should be as creative as possible and as talented as possible. And showcase that to the best of your abilities.”
Wed., Sept. 4. 7pm. Free. Rittenhouse Square, Walnut St. between 18th St. and Rittenhouse Square West.
PW's Music Issue 2014