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 .
What were your first impressions on hearing Mission Man's music? Did you enjoy it in any conventional sense?
I think the first song I heard was "Chillin' at the Papa". My first thought was, I haven't really heard anything like this before. Of course it was funny, but I was also struck by his vocal delivery and that pre-programmed keyboard backing track. It was a really unique combination. I enjoyed it, for sure.
How has your appreciation of what Mission Man is doing as an artist evolved since making the film? Do you hear his music differently now?
Before I made the film, I knew Gary's music was important to him, but actually following him around for a few days and seeing him do his thing made me realize just how totally devoted to his music he is. In this sense, I would say he is a true artist (though I shudder a little bit using that word)—he has a unique vision and he's pursuing it at all costs.
Making the film has affected how I hear his music, yes. I understand more of the meanings behind some of the lyrics now. I'm also more tuned into his musical sensibility, because I understand his process a little more.
Do you have any insight to Mission Man's writing process? It certainly seems like it would take a fair amount of effort to create music so antithetical to conventional notions of rhythm, pitch, and melody.
Gary does have a fairly idiosyncratic musical and lyrical sensibility. I don't really understand it but it makes sense to him, apparently. I remember once we were filming, and Gary was playing a keyboard, and to me, it sounded like a bunch of random notes, but then we asked him to do it again (there was a camera problem or a sound problem or something), and he basically played the exact same thing verbatim. So it wasn't random after all.
Gary's totally uncompromising when it comes to his music. He is expressing himself as purely and as directly as possible. He doesn't care at all if his songs don't sound commercial enough or hip enough or whatever. Maybe that's a liability--I don't know. But I admire the fact that he's sticking to his vision.
Do you think Mission Man is of a piece with other "outsider" musicians like the Shaggs, Florence Foster Jenkins, or Wesley Willis, or does he have more perspective on what he's doing?
I'm a little wary of the term "outsider music"—I think it's kind of a lazy way to group together things that may have one or two things in common, but not much else in common (see: "world music"). But if an "outsider artist" is someone who expresses themselves honestly—without a whole lot of concern for how the result will be perceived—and the result is a little unconventional, then I would say yes, Gary is an outsider artist. In this sense, anyway.
At any rate, he certainly isn't sitting there in his home studio thinking, "I'm going to record some weird-ass music now." He records something because it seems right to him. There's very little irony involved, as far as I can tell.
When dealing with artists like Mission Man, there's always a fine line between appreciation and mockery. As a filmmaker, what were your intentions at the beginning? What were you hoping to learn about Mission Man?
Some friends and I had been listening to Gary's music for a while and we would try to decipher details of Gary's life and worldview from the song lyrics. We'd also try to figure out how he recorded the music—what instruments he was using, whether the backing track for this song was just a slowed-down version of the backing track from another song, stuff like that.
At that point, I didn't know a whole lot about Gary, but I admired his honesty and his positivity. And his tenacity. I wanted to find out more. Eventually I got the idea to try to talk to Gary directly. I had a lot of questions, and also I thought it would be cool to finally meet the person behind all of these songs I had been enjoying. I thought that it might be a good idea to record the encounter, for the benefit of other Mission Man fans and whoever else. So I e-mailed him and asked if my director of photography and I could follow him around for a few days and film him. He graciously agreed, and that's how things got off the ground.
It was kind of difficult to get the tone right for the movie. Some people who saw rough cuts thought that I was mocking him, which is the exact opposite of what I was trying to do. It's tricky. Many aspects of his music are funny, including some things which I don't think were intended to be funny. But I hope my larger point shines through—namely, that I admire and am inspired by Gary. He's doing exactly what he wants to be doing, and he doesn't let what anyone thinks of him or his music put a dent in his relentless positivity and belief in himself. I think a lot of us could learn from his example.
What were his initial reactions to the idea of a film? How did they change or evolve throughout the process?
Gary was enthusiastic about the film from the very beginning. He was generous and patient almost to a fault. He really did everything he could to help us out.
Off the top, what's your favorite Mission Man lyric?
I choose to focus on the positive
Because I don't have long to live
And I want to live while I'm alive
That's why I love and give until I die