By Jackson Connor
2:15 PM EDT, June 12, 2012
It's the morning after Summer Jam 2012 — the "biggest hip-hop festival in the world," according to the event's sponsor, New York radio station Hot 97 — and Mike Bowen, who often goes by the pseudonym Mike Waxx, is running from business meeting to business meeting, hopping in and out of Manhattan taxi cabs. While most of the hip-hop community is busy gossiping about headliner Nicki Minaj's failure to perform at the concert following public insults from a Hot 97 DJ, the 20-year-old Westport native is more concerned with what was on stage last night: a black beanie with the word "ILLROOTS" printed across the fold in olde English lettering.
"[Big Sean] did an outfit change and threw on one of our hats," explains Bowen. "An artist like Big Sean, someone with such a huge following, wearing something I designed in my apartment…it's crazy." Reportedly 60,000 people were in attendance at the festival.
At so young an age, Bowen has become something of a rap renaissance man, well respected and sought after in certain parts of the industry. He founded the wildly popular music blog ILLROOTS.com as a sophomore at Staples High School. He launched his own clothing brand, ILLAMERICA, last February. And for the last year he has been doing video production, web design, and a number of other creative odd jobs for Kanye West's record label, G.O.O.D. Music. Bowen worked on the highly-stylized motion graphics in West's "All of the Lights" music video and has directed a slew of other projects for various artists, most notably the video for Big Sean and Nicki Minaj's hit "Dance (A$$)," which currently has over 44 million views on YouTube.
"Working with Nicki was interesting — she's probably the biggest artist in music right now," he says. "We just wanted something fun, creative, artistic, and different. I don't know, something people would relate to."
The video features the G.O.O.D. Music-signed emcee Big Sean rapping on a white and gold throne, the camera acting as a kaleidoscope while a parade of women bounce around him. The word "Ass," (or "Dance," if you couldn't get around the age restrictions on YouTube) flashes repeatedly in different languages on the screen, and Minaj of course shakes hers a fair amount before the video is over. It's no cinematic masterpiece, but it is, to say the least, "fun."
Bowen was always interested in design. In elementary school, he would create custom T-shirts for the Superbowl featuring the teams' logos, and in high school the only classes that seemed to hold his attention were the ones that incorporated graphic design, typography and Photoshop into their lesson plans. At 15, a friend introduced him to hip-hop and the genre's burgeoning mixtape culture, leading him to start creating original album art, concert videos, and ultimately launch his own blog.
"I was just a young kid on the Internet, hitting up rappers on MySpace, asking to do interviews," he explains. "I was reading a couple of smaller [blogs], but none of them are really relevant anymore, and none of them were really doing original content like interviewing artists and going to shows and filming concerts."
Since its birth some five years ago, ILLROOTS has built a reputation by finding and supporting new artists before the mainstream catches on. In 2009 the site conducted one of the first interviews with Drake, well before he went on to dominate the charts.
"That's the main thing I think is so dope about ILLROOTS — we're the first ones to co-sign an artist before they start to pop," says Bowen. "We're not afraid to voice our opinions on what's good."
Bowen now resides in Bushwick, Brooklyn and will be aiding Big Sean with the release of his sophomore album, as well as working closely with G.O.O.D. Music artists Pusha T and 2 Chainz. He is designing a new collection for ILLAMERICA (he hopes to one day open a store in Westport), and launching a third version of the ILLROOTS site — something he still tries to make a top priority, seeing it as the best way to tie together all of his projects.
"I really want to reinvent the music industry in a sense," says Bowen. "There's a lot of old people in the music industry who have been doing this shit for, like, 30 years, and I think it's time for a fresh new perspective on the way things should work."
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