“Funky shoes to fill: Durham native Michael Mills pursues music career”

By Quinton Harper
UNC Staff Writer
the Durham VOICE

Michael Jackson, the legend, died June 25, two years ago. Another Michael, Michael Mills, 25, an emerging singer and songwriter from Northeast Central Durham, aspires to fill Jackson’s shoes.

Music isn’t the only thing Michael Mills has in common with Michael Jackson.

Michael Mills, whose stage name is Miguel the Tyrant, poses for a photo after performing at Broad Street Cafe in Durham. (Staff photo by Quinton Harper)

Nearly 5 feet 11 inches tall and with size 11 feet, Michael Mills has the same lanky, tall and thin, and somewhat awkward frame that Michael Jackson had.  At one point Mills even had the slicked-back jheri curl that Jackson sported throughout his career. Like Jackson, Mills has a flair for style, fashion, and clothes.  Probably most ironic however, is the fact that Mills, like Jackson, comes from a family of talented musicians.

Mills says he hopes one day to be as successful as the King of Pop, but in order to do that Mills – whose stage name is “Miguel the Tyrant” – must first fill his own father’s “funky” shoes.

 Mills’ father is Aaron Mills, bass guitarist for Cameo, the highly successful funk and R&B band from the 1970s and ’80s. Cameo is most notable for their 1986 smash hit, “Word Up,” as well as hits such as “Candy” and “Back and Forth.”

Music runs in my family,” Mills said.  “My grandparents played piano, my father is a bass guitarist, my oldest brother, A.J., is too.  And then I have two younger brothers who are independent artists in their own right,” Mills said.

“My dad has been doing music for as long as I have been alive,” Mills said.  “He had a studio and a music room in the house I grew up in, and he always told me and my brothers his stories of traveling overseas to perform.”

Mills said he and his brothers often got gifts and souvenirs from countries around the world.

“I don’t feel over-shadowed by my father’s success,” Mills said. “Of course, I would like to be better than him, but it isn’t a goal that I’ve set out to complete.”

In 2009, Mills completed his first demo album, “Shoes and Tattoos.” It has five songs – “Place Out There,” “If,” “Even Me,” “Drive,” and “Blast-Off.”

He said his songs talk about following your dreams, being different, and managing different types of relationships, not just romantic ones.  “All of my songs are about personal experiences,” said Mills, who writes all of his music.

The lyrics to Mills’ song “Even Me” for example, talk about an experience where Mills was interested in dating someone who was pessimistic about their relationship.

“You don’t have to be alone when you go home,” Mills said, quoting the lyrics to the song. “There was definitely chemistry between us, but they also put up a bunch of barriers and hindrances that made it hard for us to work,” he said.

Producing a record to demonstrate his talent in the craft is an intense process that requires a lot of time, money and effort. Mills, who has been writing songs for two years and in the studio for the past four months, said he spends about 10 to 15 hours a week working on the record, and has spent almost $1,500 completing it.

In 2010, Mills completed his second project, “Once Present Future King,” a mix-tape of 11 songs featuring some of his own work, but also remixed version of songs by artists who inspire him.

“It’s a process that’s nerve-wracking, time-consuming and requires a lot of discipline,” Mills said. “Being a performer is a lot like being an athlete. You have to eat right, get enough sleep, and exercise and train vocally.

Mills describes his music as a mixture of genres including jazz, pop, alternative rock and dance, but said that if he had to fit it into a music genre box, it would be funk.  “Eclectic artists like M.I.A., Justin Timberlake, Kelis, Pharrell, Christina Aguilera, and Mariah Carey are some of my favorite artists. I draw some of my musical influence from them as well,” Mills said.

In addition to completing his own demos, Mills has also performed in several gospel-oriented stage plays, including “Not In This House,” and with the Chapel Hill cover band, “Juicy,” which played mostly hip-hop and R&B, and catered primarily to college students.

“Performing with Juicy is an extremely good opportunity to practice interacting with the crowd and singing in front of a live audience,” Mills said. Though stressful, Mills said he is very thankful for the opportunity.

Thomas Gamble, also a member of Juicy, is Mills’ demo producer. Gamble, a 2008 classical studies and piano major, said that Mills is hard-working, creative, and very talented.

“Music is one of my passions,” Mills said. “I want someone to listen to my music and take away something from the song that will help them. Primarily, I want my music to help others.”

Mills said he also wants his music to add a different perspective and help people to accept the fact that differences are what make us unique.

“I want to bring diversity to the popular music scene,” Mills said. “Few artists successfully genre-hop, but I want to produce albums in different genres – pop, R&B, and alternative rock – and have them all be successful. ”

According to Mills, there are definitely many challenges and limitations that make it difficult to stay focused on the art of music, and it’s very easy to get caught up in the lifestyle of the music industry.

Breaking into the music industry is not easy, but it’s not impossible, Mills said.  “In addition to talent and ability, you have to be at the right place at the right time.”

Staying focused on the end goal, being disciplined, and making steps that are realistic and achievable help Mills be successful.  “My ultimate goal,” he said, “is to win a Grammy music award for ‘best new artist’ and ‘album of the year.”

Just like the other Michael.