30th and University Ave. in North Park, San Diego is quite an eclectic intersection of worlds – thrift shops, MMA gyms, dive and sports bars, fine dining and greasy spoons, chain coffee shops and Clair de Lune. Sort of like the intersection of a 30 year old scientist, an accidental social worker/pirate hair stylist, punk rock and raw hip hop. The mix of patrons, and employees for that matter, at Claire de Lune is no exception to this conglomeration of variety on Monday afternoon. One would have no idea that the woman exiting the fuel efficient compact car and purchasing a chocolate chip cookie and Vietnamese iced coffee is one half of the female hip hop duo, Nikki and the Mongoloid. Equally unassuming is the young woman rolling up on a BMX/road bike hybrid, eager to meet up with her partner in rhyme (and older sister) to get her fix of caffeine for the afternoon. One sign that Nikki, the younger of the two, is at least a fan of hip hop is her Rosie the Riveter t-shirt on which is an image of Rosie with a mic in her hand. As we converse, waiting for Mary (the Mongoloid) to purchase the refreshments, that love of hip hop becomes quite evident. As we bask in the setting sun and patiently await the pick-me-up, we dance around the discussion we are both anxious to have. Thankfully Mary soon pulls up a chair and the three of us settle in for an unexpectedly natural discussion, spanning education, family, friends and, of course, hip hop.
So, who are Nikki and the Mongoloid?
We are sisters from Ohio who make dope hip hop music and we’re a force to be reckoned with. We say we’re a force to be reckoned with because we are doing it like nobody else in San Diego right now.
What is “dope hip hop” according to N and the M?
When I think dope hip hop, I think of good beats and positive lyrics and having fun…a lot of other emcees have gimmicks [and we don’t need gimmicks].
So, you are both 9-5ers, what do each of you do to pay the bills?
I am an assistant manager for a support and employment organization – we help with job placement, training and occupational assistance for developmentally disabled adults. And I’m a pirate (meaning: expired liscence/self-employed/sharp skills) hair stylist; I do hair and make-up on the side (N). Um, [awkward pause and looking for the words] I am a scientist [laughs]. My official title is “associate biologist”. I work for an environmental consulting organization. I get to do a lot of field work… I get to help developers pave over California [with a hint of sarcasm] while trying to save animals/habitats along the way (M).
How does what you do at work translate to the music you make?
I’m a biology nerd, and as a nerdy person in general, I’d say that gets into my rhymes a lot. I talk about it because it’s just a part of my life. I don’t really know too much, how my job really… my job inspires me in a lot of ways… to live to my full potential… so I guess it does in a lot of ways. We help people achieve their goals. We are there for the community, and we are trying to help the marginalized to become recognized as contributing members of society. I did, and do, participate in activism to support day laborers and to ridicule racists/racism that harms our communities (Google:Circa to find videos of Mary in action).
You brought up marginalized groups, do you feel that women have been marginalized in hip hop?
Oh yeah, if I had a dollar for every time someone offered the constructive criticism that we just need an “image” (you need to be sexier)… It’s crazy how many people feel that our physical image is not acceptable for hip hop and that it’s maybe holding us back, in the long run. People always say, “we wanna collaborate” and we think “collaborate” (makes a hand gesture to let me know that the word collaborate in this context seems to mean sexually).
Your song, “Are We F—in'”, does that have anything to do with that concept?
That’s actually about a particular incident that was really funny (funny strange, not funny haha) where this guy, after a set we performed, pulled out a fake gun and acted like he was going to rape me and a friend in this dark corner where the porter potty was. Fortunately I had heard that someone at the show had this fake gun, so I was like “f— you! what the f—?”… and we had just gotten finished with this little freestyle where we were saying “are we f—-ing tonight?” way before that song ever existed. Basically he put us in a rape scenario and tried to play it off like a joke, but it wasn’t funny. So basically that’s what the song is about. Even after a bunch of people told him how funny it wasn’t, he just didn’t get it. We tried to get him to see how the whole scenario could have gone down had it not been at the show and had the people he was messing with didn’t know that the gun was fake, how it could have been different. But the funny thing is, that just because we say the word f—, people think the song is just about sex. We have some other songs about sex, we have this song called Foreplay, that’s kinda about sex, but it’s more about rhyming, but people hear what they want to hear. We really try to be assertive, and talk about misogyny and how it’s not okay. And there are people we don’t want to work with, because we don’t want to support [some of the things that they, implicitly or explicitly, stand for].
Do you feel it’s your responsibility, as women coming up in hip hop, to educate people on social issues regarding women?
Oh yeah. I think that we need to do it in life in general, and doing it in our music is a way to take that a step further than just doing it every day. Even in simple things, like in language, like when someone says, “hey you GUYS” when addressing a group of like ten women and two guys (I try to make sure not to say “you guys” for the rest of the interview now…). Or like when people say “that’s gay”. We have always been vocal about things like that, I don’t know why we would not talk about it. Having a chance to have the spotlight, not only do we want to talk about it, but we kind of need to, only because there’s so many sh—- role models out there for women. Like models and actresses and the rest of the pop community; it is such a terrible thing to aspire to be. So far, we just love to be our selves, and people love it.
How did you two get into the art form, into hip hop?
We listened to a lot of hip hop growing up and a lot of electronic music and drum and bass. I went to raves a lot as a teenager and was into punk rock; Cleveland had a good punk scene. So I started writing poetry because I was afraid to say that I wanted to be a rapper. I started going to these poetry open mics and would read my rhymes and people loved ’em, then came to San Diego and had some good mentoring and just kinda started doing our thing. I had been listening to hip hop and writing sh—- poetry since I was thirteen years old, but I didn’t put the two together until I was like “I’ll be your hype woman, let’s do this”. And then we started doing it, but we couldn’t get beats because no one would take us seriously; that’s why we started off playing with a band, which is like a whole different energy, which we love, but hip hop is all about DJs and emcees, and it’s really important to us to have those elements, so we had to find someone who would make us some beats. It was really a challenge. WE were serious though.
There are a lot of people that dabble with making music. What was it that made you two take that step to really pursue this seriously?
I love hip hop, and I’m a ham, I love being the center of attention. And there’s a lot of sh—- hip hop out there, but there are also a lot of little pockets out there making good hip hop in San Diego and it’s inspiring to me to see those little pockets of dopeness working together – that is one of our main inspirations. There’s a bunch of division in San Diego hip hop, based on race or sex or sexual orientation, and getting everyone together for the right reasons is important to us.
So was your move from Ohio to San Diego part of taking the music more seriously?
I came out here for a boy. I was dating this guy, when I was nineteen, he moved here and he was like “you should move out here” and I kinda needed a reason to get out of my house. We were having some issues going on in my family that I was wanting to not deal with, so I kinda left Nikki stranded in Ohio. And I told her that when she turns 18, she’s gonna come out to San Diego and everything will be okay, and then I took off [laughing]. Then that relationship didn’t work out, but still, I had no reason to go back to Ohio so I stayed and shortly after Nikki came out here and shortly after that, we started making music. I want to revise that, before she moved out here, when we were kids, we hated each other for most of our childhood. Then I would come and visit her out here and then we started to become friends.
That makes we wonder, what’s it like working creatively with your sister?
Musically we click. Yeah, we butt heads friends-wise sometimes, but musically it just works and it has always worked. We sort of go back and forth, one of us will motivate the other to do more or better, but only in a positive way. Like, one of us will write something dope and be like come on, I want to record this. And the other will want to write something to go with it, to match it. It’s funny too, ’cause people will say “I thought you just meant you were homegirls” and we’re like, “no, really, we’re sisters, like blood”.
Who are some of the artists that have influenced you?
Tribe Called Quest… I just love them. Tribe and Beastie Boys – we listened to them because our older sister gave us a view of what was better than pop radio. And rnb too. Wu-Tang, I love Princess Superstar and MC Paul Barman and Kool Keith – I would definitely say he is a big influence. Digital Underground! DU is one of my favorite groups ever. Jeru tha Damaja and Guru and Premier and Kurtis Blow. All kinds of stuff… Almost nothing that’s out right now… maybe Kid Cudi…[with some qualifiers]
What do you listen to right now?
The Coup, Crown Royale (Rhettmatic and Buff1), Das Racist – super parody, into comedy, it’s a love/hate thing. As far as San Diego goes: Cali Buds, the Kastle Creeps, the West Indies, S.H.E. Wrote it for You, MissKat – she is multi talented. We’re always lookin’ for new music. 2MEX, Bilal Salaam, Zion I, De La Soul, Del the Funky Homosapien, Paul Barman-super nerdy and super intelligent.
Okay, so back to your music. As we talked about before, there is a seriousness in your music, but songs like Gaslamp Masacre are a lot of fun. What’s the deal with Zombies?
We love horror movies, and we wanted to tell a story, and that beat… yeah that beat was like dark, but the break was like upbeat… but a lot of our songs come from jokes between us that turn into really good ideas. Yeah, and we think it’d make a dope like video, where we like have to kill this show downtown because the zombies eat all the wack emcees, so we need to kill the show… and plus we sampled The Night of The Living Dead, one of my favorite movies.
You mentioned that the BEAT took you there. One thing I noticed is that your cadence is usually in the vein of very playful, classic (old school) hip hop, yet your beats have a really raw vibe and are really hard hitting, is that juxtaposition intentional when you choose your beats?
Well, for me, I think it comes from wanting to rhyme to the kinds of beats that I like to listen to. Yeah, we love that boom bap. So, when we started making the album, Defcon 5 offered some beats and when the collaboration began moving forward he just started throwing beats at us. He was like, do you like these samples? These beats? He even sampled some Devo. He was like give me some samples and we went through our records and picked out some stuff we really liked and started giving those records to him. And, since he started listening to us and he saw us perform, I think he made the beats maybe how he thought we would like them and we picked the ones we wanted. We met up with him because we were big fans of the West Indies, we met him through Jorge (DJ Adamnt). Oh, and the whole album was recorded analog, we just wanted that feel. We did the recording on this sixteen track, it really makes us stand out when we do live shows, especially when most of the performers are more rap than hip hop.
Well now you have mentioned a few of the people that you admire and that you have worked with, so who would you consider in your inner circle musically?
Dizzy for sure. Dizzy has kind of been instrumental in getting us where we are today, and in getting people to take us seriously, so yeah, Dizzy for sure. And he’s made a few beats for us… and he hooked us up with DJ RedLight who definitely has our back and has done some scratching for us. And Jorge, DJ Admnt, has done some scratching for us, the whole West Indies crew, DefCon5 and Doug Masters; Doug Masters is one of my favorite emcees in San Diego. And the San Diego Pirate Punks, Sid from the Pirate Punks is also a big hip hop head and he has gotten us some shows where we have been able to do a lot of hip hop and punk rock stuff. They go hand in hand – we have allies in the punk scene too. We might get to do a show at Comic Con because of it too [tentatively said]. Oh and Vic for sure, from Dope Clothing/VSP…and…Jiji from Urban Underground and Mike – they’re not like in our inner circle, but they are like our heroes, we just love what they do. It’s nice to have like good, professional promoters not ripping people off and who are putting together good shows. (some hints at Vic connecting the ladies with Ugly Duckling at a recent show and the possibility of a collaboration) And [?] Carmichel who is super talented, even though he doesn’t really fit in with a lot of the San Diego hip hop; he’s not really out there yet, but he will be. And MissKat, we did a track with her. We definitely love the people down at Vishionz – Jen and John have been so supportive and they support local hip hop. We like to support local business and we’re pot heads… So, that’s a lot of our main supporters and the people whose backs we have. Oh, and we definitely want to say thanks to Lenny at nan-notha.com for promoting us and being generally dope.
Okay, maybe you could describe a story that sort of embodies the process of building such a nice posse of mutual support in the SD hip hop scene.
Yeah, yeah, yeah [both laughing]. The first show Dizzy got us was at a strip club, this little venue on the side of Pure Platinum in Kearny Mesa. But you have to go in through the strip club to get in. But it was kind of off to the side. That was like when we entered a new scene, that was our first Dizzy show. It was Eternal‘s, from the West Coast Killa Beez, spot and it was a really good show; it turned out that a lot of people came out to that show. We met a lot of people, but one person in particular who we ended up working and freestyling together with. And telling people we did a show at a strip club is like… and rolling up with Dizzy… it was dope. And that was my first time at a strip club. Not mine. But, uh, yeah… that show and then Urban Underground, we love that spot for real.
Who have been your favorite artists to have shared a stage with?
Typical Cats were f—— ridiculous! Qwel like murdered it that night (referring to a recent Urban Underground show at The Kava Lounge), it was a really amazing night. I agree, but I would have to say Ugly Duckling. We have looked up to them for so long, and Ugly Duckling came downstairs at the beginning of our show and watched our whole set, and we got to talk to them after the show and they were really feeling We Do It Cuz We’re Live; that was exciting and they like shouted us out when they performed later. It was dope.
Okay, so, is there a lyric that has effected you deeply that you would like to leave the readers with? Almost like your go-to when you need to remember what’s important in hip hop.
MC Paul Barman – “underground’s not a sound, it’s when you dig with a shovel and find what you love all up under the rubble.” It’s really not about your sound, it’s all about your attitude and where your heart’s at – Nikki
That whole song Hand Me Downs by Soul Position, that song makes me cry… no, no, no, Nas’ I Know I Can. I know it’s like a mainstream hit, but just the kids singing the chorus “I know I can”… I like cry every time I hear that song… I know it’s so generic, but like at the end “save the music y’all” and when all the kids… I don’t know… -Mary aka the Mongoloid
Then both girls rap Kanye’s third verse to All Falls Down and lament the fact that he has sort of, at least seemingly, lost sight of the sentiments in that song… what an amazing way to part ways and transition us into our Monday night.
Thank you to Nikki and the Mongoloid for your time and energy, both in this interview and in pursuing authenticity in this music we love.
Peace and Love,