Moving to Madison helped CRASHprez, aka Michael Penn II, define his style.
Like most graduating seniors, UW-Madison student Michael Penn II is excited for his future, even if he doesn’t know exactly what his professional life will look like.
But as CRASHprez the local MC, he has a clear vision of his future five years out: “To hopefully be very successful in music, be on the incline with it, working on albums and touring a lot,” says the tall, slender 21-year-old journalism student, who will graduate in just a couple of weeks.
He’s not delusional, though. Penn knows music is a gamble and his goals need to be grounded. “I can’t be full-on into music until it pays my bills — all my bills,” he says. And he admits to having doubts about following his dreams: “Like, am I wasting my time with this? Should I just go get a regular job?”
Self-doubt aside, there are quite a few indications that he’s not wasting his time with music.
First off, CRASHprez is well loved locally, both on and off campus. He’ll be headlining the local stage at this year’s Revelry Music and Arts Festival (UW Library Mall, May 2), an event he’s played the last two years. He has also recently opened local shows for Riff Raff, Danny Brown, Chiddy Bang, People Under the Stairs, Lil B and DJ Abilities.
He’s built his following with an energetic stage presence and timely content that’s relatable to younger hip-hop fans. “A lot of my raps are about me being black and young, and what that means,” says Penn. Some of his recurring topics include the search for identity, the value of black lives, lust, penance and anger.
Issues surrounding recent police-involved deaths of young black men have also seeped into the rapper’s music, including tracks like “Kill Me Dead” and “Love the Police.”
“[These incidents] made me think about where I fit into that picture because I never thought I did,” says the Maryland native. “I’m black, but I’m from the suburbs and my dad is a policeman. It made me peel back and think.”
Moving to Madison helped Penn define his style. “I didn’t start rapping like this until I was here,” he says. “I didn’t feel extra black until I came here. But here, your skin is so juxtaposed with so many of the people on the street.”
CRASHprez’s most popular song, “Thom Yorke Is Black,” has drawn more than 25,000 plays on his SoundCloud page alone. Produced by Milwaukee native and UW-Madison grad student *hitmayng, the mellow beat builds and fades around a piano loop.
Penn says he is happy with the attention the song has gotten. But “labels aren’t knocking on my door yet,” he says. So he’ll continue to push on.
The CRASHprez name comes from two sources: Penn got nicknamed “Crash” in the summer of 2010 when he nearly passed out from dehydration while performing poetry in Baltimore; and “Prez” comes from the praise he received from an elementary school nurse who told him he could be anything he wanted, even president.
He sees bits of himself in rappers Earl Sweatshirt, Atmosphere and the early Charles Hamilton, but he primarily identifies with Childish Gambino.
“My goal is to drop something substantial and satisfying at least once a year,” says Penn, who spent spring break doing shows in Minneapolis and Chicago.
As the harbinger of new hip-hop that is unapologetically aggressive about politics, he hopes to push back against the boundaries rappers and rap fans put on the genre.
“To divide Chief Keef from Common is stupid,” he says, citing as an example the sharp contrast between Keef’s angry, intoxicated style and Common’s socially conscious vibe. “It’s elitist and ageist. It’s like house negro versus field negro. Let’s not do that anymore. All of it has a function, all of it has value.”
For CRASHprez, rap is a tool people can use to understand the puzzle of life: “We’re all storytellers. All you can do is put something out there to try and explain life, which is really something we’re never going to understand.”
Fearing the well-worn “track to normalcy” he sees in other artists as they age, Penn says he’ll do his part to keep rap strange and noncomplacent: “(It needs) to continue to be weird and transform itself.”