After making a name for himself on the basketball court, Lawrence McKenzie picked up a new name for his hip-hop persona: Mac Irv.
McKenzie graduated from the University of Minnesota in 2008 with a degree in business and marketing, and he released his first album in 2011. He has played Soundset and South by Southwest, and he recently performed with Prof of Rhymesayers for a three-city tour. This weekend, he’ll open for Haphduzn, MaLLy and Last Word at the 7th Street Entry.
Hip-hop didn’t always strike McKenzie as a career option. He started playing basketball as a kid and won four state high school championships while playing for Patrick Henry High School in Minneapolis. He played for the University of Oklahoma for two years, then transferred to the University of Minnesota in 2005, where he played through the years 2006-2008.
After graduating, McKenzie played professionally in Macedonia, but quit in 2011 because of a complication with his hip. That year, he released his first album online, “Certified Magnet.”
“Every team I’m on, we’ll go rap — in the car, freestyle rap, just for fun. It all coincides,” McKenzie said.
In addition to the crossover between hip-hop and basketball, McKenzie said he already had a natural inclination to write poetry or record his thoughts. His ever-rhyming grandpa also inspired him to play with words, he said.
“My granddaddy used to walk around — I don’t think he said a word that didn’t rhyme. That’s all he did was rhyme. ‘Sitting at this table, might be able, I’ll go watch some cable’ — that’s what he did,” McKenzie said.
When McKenzie first had the idea to start making music, he sent some of his recordings to a high school friend and producer, Tyrell “The Cubist” Thornton.
“In high school, we used to rap on the bus and in the locker room and stuff like that,” Thornton said. “It’s a whole different skill and technique when you record in the booth, so once he learned how to control his flow in the booth, I think that’s when he realized he had something.”
Encouraged, McKenzie dove in to the world of hip-hop and started contacting producers. When he sent a recording to producer Willie Clay, a 2008 University graduate, Clay immediately wanted to work with him.
However, Clay and McKenzie didn’t start working together until a fateful day at a gas pump in Minneapolis. McKenzie hadn’t returned Clay’s calls, and Clay was in town for the weekend from Chicago.
“I was thinking, ‘OK, he’s not really serious.’ So I go to the gas station, was pumping my gas up to get out of the city, and then his car pulls up. I was like, ‘Mac!’” Clay said.
With Clay as a producer, McKenzie has released three free albums online.
For “The Ticket Out,” McKenzie collaborated on the track “Who We Are” with Metasota and Mally, who invited him to open at 7th Street Entry. The song explores the media portrayal of African American males and hip-hop artists, Mally said.
“I definitely liked what I heard, and I was definitely impressed,” Mally said of hearing McKenzie’s track before adding his part. “Just the basis of the song ‘Who We Are’ is like looking in the mirror. Are we just what media portrays? Are we all negative people?”
McKenzie also made a music video for “Who We Are,” as he did for many of his songs. Currently, there are over 20 Mac Irv music videos.
“I think he’s doing all the right steps in solidifying himself as an artist in town. He did Soundset, he put a project out last year, he puts out music videos for his material, he’s active on social media, he’s visible,” Mally said.
JD Deloney, McKenzie’s high school basketball coach and friend, said McKenzie transferred his work ethic from basketball to music.
“We played like crazy. While everyone else was at the movies, we trained for four to six hours every day,” Deloney said. “And he does that with his music. He’s always in his studio.”
When McKenzie first started out, he said he tried to follow in the footsteps of mainstream rap. His first album cover depicts Mac Irv as the “Certified Magnet” with two women leaning into him.
But apparently, that attitude is changing.
“He’s not the one talking about drugs or women … He’s rapping about the more positive things and real issues that people go through every day, so I think that’s kind of what sets him apart from other artists,” Thornton said.
In the next two albums, “Inner Thoughts” and “The Ticket Out,” McKenzie’s music shows an evolution to match his strengthened sense of direction, McKenzie said.
“I’m from North Minneapolis. I really wanted to build my community instead of break it down again. I’m not writing gospel music or anything; I don’t want to get that misconstrued. I’ve made mistakes. I don’t glorify it,” McKenzie said. “I feel like a role model. I feel like what my music does helps people.”
McKenzie said he feels his next album, to be released in the coming months, best exemplifies his progress he’s been making.
“I’m learning how I want to say things; it’s all different things that goes into being a good artist,” McKenzie said. “I’m studying the game — a lot of studying performances. I think I’m really diving into the music … becoming who I want to become as an artist.”
What: Haphduzn, Mally, Last Word with opening acts Mac Irv and Plain Ole Bill
Where: 7th Street Entry
701 N. First Ave., Minneapolis
When: 9 p.m. Friday