The first time you hear Mission Man, it’s hard not to be reminded of the Shaggs. Though the Ohio-based rapper works within the general realm of hip-hop and the Shaggs traded in bizarro-world '60s pop, the initial reaction you'll have is quite similar, "I've never heard anything like this before."
Born Gary Milholland, Mission Man has been recording and performing wherever anyone will have him since 1997, just prior to his eighteenth birthday. He’s recorded hundreds of songs over the course of eleven albums, writing, producing, and releasing them completely on his own. He raps about his day-to-day (working at Papa John’s, playing basketball, sticking to a diet) and isn’t without a certain classic hip-hop boastfulness, but the most common themes in Mission Man’s songs are his unceasing need to stay positive in the face of adversity and the pursuit of his dreams.
The rub: Mission Man employs no discernable use of melody, rhythm, pitch, or song structure, by even the most generous definitions. Admittedly, there’s nothing inherently shocking about that idea. There are numerous rappers who flow off the beat, and the notion of musicians manipulating the conventions of a given genre is practically essential to said style’s survival. But we're not talking about an experimental musician here. Make no mistake, Mission Man wants to be worldwide. Indeed, Milholland was astute enough to realize that calling himself Mission Man, in addition to spelling out his raison d'etre, would place him directly between Method Man and Mobb Deep in a hypothetical record store. That he sounds nothing like either, and would be the potential target of immense ridicule from fans of those artists, apparently never occurred to him, or if it did, it left him undaunted.
Milholland is a unique case. His music makes virtually no sense in the context of an artist who is presumably working toward commercial goals. He sings off key, his backing tracks shift between corny Muzak-style surges to discordant atonal constructions and his rhymes are delivered in an endearingly vanilla monotone. Yet Milholland is for all intents and purposes a regular guy who knows exactly what he’s doing and loves every minute of it. To simply call his music bad or make fun of it, in addition to being lazy, is to overlook a compelling body of work that is a testament to vision and sense of purpose. In many ways, Mission Man is your classic “outsider artist,” and while that term carries with it plenty of baggage, there’s no denying that there is something compelling about an artist who is creating absent any regard for the expectations placed upon him by an audience, his peers, or the conventions of the medium.
A new short-documentary called Mission Man: Do What You Love by Lawrence Kim explores how and why Gary Milholland soldiers forth in the face of what one could argue is largely self-imposed adversity. What could at first glance be cast aside as an arch "know your meme" novelty about any number of YouTube oddities, is in fact a nuanced, completely straight-faced, and surprisingly moving look at how we define success and happiness, and why it's good to have outsized ambition.
You can watch Do What You Love via YouTube in its entirety below, while reading a brief interview with director Lawrence Kim .