Mike Posner sits in his Randolph dorm room laying down hip-hop beats at 3 a.m. He has performed on live radio and was almost signed to a rap label. He has Ron Artest's number in his cell phone.
White, Jewish and passionate about hip-hop.
Yes, Mike Posner is serious about this.
And yes, he's damn good at it, too.
He's so serious, in fact, that instead of sending the requisite Mrs. Field's cookie cake or love-worn Duke hat with his college application, he sent a CD of his latest beats.
Having lived his whole life on 12 Mile Road-four miles from where a certain other white artist has his roots-Posner is quick to address the race issue. At 5'10" and 155 pounds, he can't exactly claim to embody the mainstream hip-hop ideal.
"When you're a rapper and white, so much baggage comes with that-they assume you're stupid and racist," Posner says. "People say you're trying to be a thug, but if you listen to my music there's nothing remotely thug about it."
He has a point. Posner's music is as much a dichotomy as the man himself.
Jay Z's "99 Problems" laid over Gavin DeGraw's "Chariot." Tracks with heavy beats and lightening-fast rapping, but pop hooks that would fit in a Nick Lachey album. And it all seems to have a hint of electronica.
On the walls of his Randolph dorm room, a Kurt Cobain poster shares space with Talib Kweli and Dilated Peoples.
"There's a scene for me, but I don't think there's a community here at Duke," Posner says, sitting amidst thousands of dollars of recording equipment. He presses play and one of his favorite high school tracks, "Grey Sweat Pants," fills the room:
I'm something else, new-wave, original
F- a punchline, everything I say is literal
As he listens to his music, he blasts the volume and then becomes very still, bobbing his head slightly, not blinking, locking into the beat.
His father is an attorney; his mother, a pharmacist, and both have been supportive, even if they don't necessarily understand their son's interest.
"At first it was real weird-I was embarrassed," he says. "I think the words go too fast for my Dad.. I don't think that they would listen to it in the car for enjoyment."
Longtime friend Jacob Smith says Posner has stood out for as long as he can remember. "It's always kind of been known that he was the little white kid who could rap," Smith says with a laugh. "But he's really singing original music.. Every year there was somebody who came out with a CD, but nobody as seriously as Mike."
Posner's first album, Reflections of a Lost Teen, was a hit at his high school, but he knew he was a stronger producer than performer. And scoring an internship at legendary Detroit hip-hop station HOT 102.7 put Posner on the fast track to success.
The day Artest came to the studio, he was so impressed with Posner that he gave the 18-year-old his phone number with an eye toward signing him for a record deal.
"Me and my buddies were like, 'This is outrageous, if he comes over and asks for a beer, we better hand it to him carefully,'" Posner recalls.
Plans to meet fell through, but Posner says he spoke to Artest a few weeks ago and the basketball player said he still wanted to get together. "In the music industry, don't get your hopes up; people make promises and they fall through," Posner says, shrugging. But still, there are constantly opportunities knocking. He says Kanye West heard a song he produced and said, "That's what's up."
For a while, Posner considered putting off college, or at least going to a school closer to rap world. "Maybe Atlanta or Detroit," he says, pronouncing the latter 'DEE-troit.'
Taking some time off wouldn't have been a bad decision, says B. Wright, a rapper who has worked with Posner in the past.
"He may have to sacrifice one or the other down the line," Wright says. "People might doubt him at first, but once they hear his stuff they won't be disappointed."
But until then, Posner is stuck in Durham. When he first arrived in August, he says he had some concerns-and not only that his roommate would be a country music fan.
To his surprise, reactions to his music have been overwhelmingly positive in his hall. Freshman Paul Jones, who lives two doors down, admits he was suspicious at first.
"My first impression-honestly-was that this kid's just 'out-there' weird," Jones says. "I thought he was the biggest ditz ever."
Now, Jones says he is a huge fan of Posner's music, although he appreciates the thick walls when his neighbor is cutting beats late at night.
And Posner continues to produce in between his full course load.
Recently, Posner participated in a five-day Red Bull Music Lab in Raleigh, where he produced a new track called "Eyes on the Pavement," which may appear on a Red Bull CD at the end of the year.
"If you want it, it's not so far fetched," he says. "If you go for it, there's a place in the industry for you."