The Wild Life and Wounded Heart of Machine Gun Kelly
“Bad Things” rapper Machine Gun Kelly opens up about his close calls with death, his big dreams for the future and more in our in-depth feature. Michael Bailey-Gates
Why is everyone always picking on Machine Gun Kelly? It keeps happening, in ways big and small. Like right now, in New York, where he can’t even strut the quarter-block between his chauffeured SUV and the entrance to the glittery downtown sushi-nightclub Tao without getting hassled. Twice. On his way in, a homeless dude shouts “New Kids on the Block!” at him. When MGK emerges a couple of hours later, stuffed full of tequila and yellowtail, a drunk frat boy gets right in his face, asking if he’s Justin Bieber.
“Dude,” MGK says, “everything is my fault when you’re me. I don’t know why.” And if so much success wasn’t finally coming his way, if he weren’t quite so high most of the time, it might really bother him.
Truth is, even if he were still just Colson Baker, Cleveland-raised former juvenile offender, Chipotle employee and teenage dad, the same stuff would probably be happening. He just looks like trouble, somehow; the air moves in weird ways around him. Even though he’s actually the kind of guy who drives three hours out of his way on a show day to visit an injured fan in the hospital, the kind of guy who calls his look-alike drummer, Rook, his “little brother,” and treats him as such – though it turns out they’re not related and didn’t grow up together. (Rook was a local fan until he won his gig, and honorary sibling status, by sending MGK videos of himself playing.)
After nearly a decade of slugging away as a cult-y, rock-worshipping, guitar-playing, live-band-leading hip-hop artist, MGK has broken through with a real hit, cracking the Top Five earlier this year with the dark but poppy “Bad Things,” a duet with Camila Cabello that evokes the Eminem-Rihanna collaborations of yore. It’s a sharp turnaround for a rapper (he prefers “musician”) whose career seemed to have nosedived just a couple of years ago, one whose rat-a-tat rhyme style is out of step with the genre’s dominant, liquid Atlanta flow (though he adapts nicely on the new Quavo collaboration “Trap Paris). "I was going into venues that we had just sold out the year before,” MGK says, “and there was, like, 100 fucking people. I thought it was over.”
He’s six feet four, thoroughly tattooed and so lanky that he seems to be even taller. His fashion sense is singular: Think Axl Rose styled by Elton John during a blackout. Tonight, he’s got on a distressed, acid-washed pale-blue denim jacket with “Thrill Ryde” etched on the back, a black and red floral shirt, low-hanging black jeans (with safety pins where the fly should be, a wallet chain, plus a black bandanna in a rear pocket) and pink-tinted circular-lensed glasses not unlike the pair Canadian reggae artist Snow wore in the “Informer” video. The shades nearly match the ruby grilles on his teeth.
MGK has had a lot of brushes with ruin, starting with felony charges he says he faced at age 14, for crimes he won’t specify, though one song suggests he shot up a car in a jealous rage. “I will never forget my dad’s face when I was in that courtroom,” he says. “I was chained to, like, eight other homeys, too. Not my homeys – just random dudes.”
More recently, there was the time when he had to spend all the money he had, and then some, to pay a settlement to a bouncer who sued him for allegedly striking him with a bottle during a Florida bar fight. (“I put my hands on a 400-pound bouncer, whose job it is to whup people’s ass like mine, and he sued me for $2 million!”) After that, by his account, he faced penury, or at least an “empty Christmas tree,” until he persuaded one of his heroes, Cameron Crowe, to cast him in Showtime’s Roadies, kicking off a lucrative sideline as an actor. Crowe was charmed by MGK’s audition, not to mention his Almost Famous stomach tattoo – “He was just so passionate, like a big Labrador-retriever puppy banging into the furniture, knocking stuff over, and still hugged by everybody” – but worried that his utter lack of experience would risk a “dangerous learning curve.” But after MGK broke protocol and placed a heartfelt call to Crowe’s casting director on Christmas Eve, he ended up getting the part.
Since then, he’s gotten out of his own way. At 27, he’s grown up some, cooling it on harder drugs (there are sweaty video interviews online where he is “beyond high … coked out”). He’s quit pulling moves like an infamous 2012 tweet where he declared that Eminem’s then-teenage daughter was “hot as fuck,” a passing thought he’s convinced earned him some serious blacklisting.
With his daughter, Casie Colson Baker Emma McIntyre/Gett
He’s a loving dad to his own seven-year-old daughter, who is giving him a new perspective on his teenage misbehavior as the son of a super-Christian businessman-turned-missionary dad and a mother he describes as largely absent from the time he was nine. “I’m fortunate to have a baby girl who’s super into everything that I say and do,” he says, “and really cooperative and just fun to be around. I couldn’t imagine having a rebellious kid like me. I’m not gonna lie, I’d probably leave that motherfucker on the curb.”
And after the demise of the tortured relationship that inspired “Bad Things,” he is happily spending a lot of time with the alt-pop singer-songwriter Halsey. They seem pretty snuggly at Tao and, later, at the retro Emo Night L.A. at Webster Hall, they scream along in unison to hits of the ‘00s. “Did it seem like you were in the room with two people who fought for the Number One record in the country at the same time?” he asks. “Nah, there was no celebrity to that shit. There was just youthful, free spirit in the air and no fucks given. I won’t comment exactly on titles or labels or anything, but what I will say is I feel 16 again.”
But still, trouble keeps finding him. On the set of a sci-fi movie he just shot, an actor playing a cop kept punching him in the chest, for real, in take after take. When he complained, he says, he was told to suck it up. “As Colson Baker, I took that loss on the chin,” MGK says. “But, like, dude: Machine Gun probably would’ve whupped his fucking ass.”
And then there was the on-set driver who claimed that MGK threatened his life. “When you look a certain way,” MGK says, “or you have a certain presence, people take someone else’s word over yours.” An authority figure on the film came to his trailer and asked, “Are you here to make this movie?” “And I was like, 'Dude, my song is Number One, and I’m in a trailer at 5:00 in the morning, on time, at work in the middle of winter in Chicago. Of course I want to make this fucking movie.' ”
He’s happy to have acting gigs at all. And on some level, he can’t quite believe that it’s all going so well. That’s one reason why there’s a song on his new album, Bloom, called “27,” about his ever-so-slightly self-aggrandizing fear that he will join heroes like Kurt Cobain and Jimi Hendrix by dying sometime before his next birthday. It’s one of several tracks in a row at the end of the album where he lets himself sing. “I was like, 'Oh, man, maybe this is all just too good to be true,' ” he says. “Like, how could this really work out? In a life full of fails, how could a win stay a win? I just want to get through this year. I just want to fast-forward to 28.”
Death came for him, right on cue, on the night of his 27th birthday, back in April. Or so it seemed for a few minutes there. He was onstage at a private gig, staring down an audience of “older guys in suits with young hot girls,” when his chest started to feel like it was catching fire, “like my fucking heart is getting a bone jabbed in.” He paused the show after six songs and ran backstage. Paramedics showed up, started running tests to check if he was having a heart attack. “Everyone thought I was on blow,” he says.
In fact, all those punches on the movie set had fractured his chest plate. Doctors told him to take a month off, advice he ignored. Instead, he’s added hydrocodone to his regimen of weed, alcohol and microdosed “booms,” a.k.a. psychedelic mushrooms. “You know when you take certain pills on an empty stomach and you feel like you’re dizzy and gonna throw up? That’s where I’m at right now,” he says in New York, before we grab some meatballs, pre-Tao.
“I might not even walk the same at 40 years old because of how much shit I leave onstage,” he says. Sara Jaye Weiss/Rex
It’s amazing that he made it to 27 at all. “I think we all worry,” says Crowe, “that he’s going to break his neck before he achieves all his dreams. But that’s part of the ride you take as an MGK fan.” Thanks to a perilous combination of bad luck, fearlessness and serious partying, he keeps getting hurt. Last year, he was wasted in Denmark when he tried to imitate a sport he’d just seen on TV (“What’s the thing where they hop over the fences and shit? Hurdling?”). “Do you guys wanna see some real Olympics?” he asked his friends, climbing on a car. He didn’t realize it had rained. “My foot slides down the entire front windshield … and I fucking face-plant right on the concrete.” He needed facial stitches and a cast on one arm, but still played his next show.
Even mature MGK still goes hard, though it’s all pretty innocent. On an overnight ride from New York to Baltimore, his tour bus is still raging as 5 a.m. approaches. While a lugubrious lighting guy, whom everyone has taken to calling “Bobby Hill,” rolls a fat joint for him, MGK breaks out an electric guitar and mini-amp, assaying a slowed-down “Voodoo Chile” before breaking into “Let You Go,” an unabashed pop-punk song from his new album. He hopes it could be a hit, though he’s been told it has “too much guitar.” His reply: “How can there be too much music in music?”
Shots of Ciroc are poured, and Bloom tracks start blaring over the bus sound system, while MGK and his whole band shout along to the track “Golden God,” rapping the whole thing in my face. When it’s over, they play it again, and repeat the performance. “Yeah, bitch,” shouts Rook, before swigging directly from a vodka bottle. “That’s our shit right there!”
Here is a thing you should never say to Machine Gun Kelly: “I love your old shit, where I feel it in my heart.” Those are the exact words that a semiwasted thirtysomething blond fan mumbles to him on the street after his sold-out Baltimore show. The performance went well: He and his band faithfully covered Blink-182’s “All the Small Things,” and he broke into an impressive a cappella freestyle when the sound briefly glitched. But he winces at the fan’s attempt at praise, which echoes nostalgia he’s spotted online for the younger, more messed-up Kels. “I gotta grow,” he tells her. “I can’t be broken forever.” She tells him she likes the new songs, too, but it’s too late.
As he heads back into the womb of the bus, MGK can’t get the lady’s words out of his head. It doesn’t help that he’s had a bunch of hits off an atomic-powered joint donated by another fan, who had promised that it contained “10 different flavors of weed.” “What the fuck!” he yells, pacing. “I just gave everything. I gave everything on that fucking stage! That’s not right! They don’t even know! I might not even walk the same at 40 years old because of how much shit I leave onstage. I’m fighting every night up there! How are you dissatisfied?” In the corner of the bus is a young woman who’s seen dozens of MGK shows; the band members, who know her well, call her Penny, after the Almost Famous “Band Aid.” As MGK delivers his lament, she wipes away a single tear.
“That’s my soul on that album,” he continues. His tour manager, Andre Cisco, points out that the fan couldn’t have heard the whole album yet, but MGK shrugs that off. “Let people have fun!” he continues. “Not everyone wants to be in misery in every song! Not everyone’s had a heroin addiction. Let everyone feel something.”
He plops down on a couch. “They just don’t even know,” he says. “That, like, defeats me. I live this shit! You tear that shit down, it eats my soul.” But after a few minutes of pep talk and some hits from a perkier variety of weed, his mood shifts. Talk turns to his belief that Foo Fighters once set a world record for decibel levels at Wembley Stadium. “We’ll do Wembley soon enough,” he vows.
He wants that, badly. He wants other things too. To bring rock and live instruments back. To be “one of the G.O.A.T.s.” To play Coachella. To have Sean Combs, who signed him years back, publicly repeat compliments he pays in private (“I wish he’d acknowledge what he says I have. I’m asking for one more leap of faith”).
But on the other hand, he says, “I don’t really care if I’m accepted at this point. By who, the quote-unquote cool kids? Fuck those kids!”
So what’s the real goal? “I don’t want to everhold my head down again,” he says. “I just want to, like, remain inthis.” He pauses, scratches his chin and rethinks it all one more time. “Actually,man,” he says, smiling for once, “I couldn’t give a fuck. Like, Ijust want to not have to think about buying a cheeseburger.”