Interview: Mila J discusses the time she danced in a Prince video, the struggles of being a woman in the music industry, and her torrid new EP "213."
Mila J is one of those people who's been in the music industry forever. She starred in Prince's video "Diamonds & Pearls" before she turned 10. In the '90s, she was a member of an R&B trio that included her younger sister, Jhene Aiko, called Gyrl. Later, she would front another girl group called Dame Four. She was barely into her twenties when, burnt out, she decided to step away from the music industry for a hiatus to pursue other, lower-stress passions. She ultimately returned as a solo artist in 2014 with her debut EP M.I.L.A.
What part of LA did you grow up in?
Ladera slash Baldwin Hills. LA is pretty weird. You turn one corner, and it’s a whole different section of a city. But between Baldwin and Ladera.
Did you like growing up there?
Love it, love it. Out here, everything is just so close. 20 minutes – if you want to go up to the mountains, if you want to go to the city – it was all kind of accessible. The area I was at was diverse as well. Even the schools that we went to, I felt like it was a melting pot.
My mother really did a good thing, because when I was younger, even like preschool and elementary, [our schools] were called international children’s schools. When we were in school, there were so many different races and so many different mixed people, to the point that you weren’t aware of race. It was like “Ah okay, there’s just all different types of people here.” I didn’t realize that until now that that has a lot to do with the reason my mindset is so open.
What were you like as a kid?
I didn’t play with toys, The only thing I really played with was, my mom got me and my sister a My First Sony – one of those little recording devices -- and that’s kind of what we played with. I was very loud.
My mom was always like “I don’t know where you came from.” I’m a very free spirit. She said I was very observant. I was the second of five, my older sister, we’re almost three years apart. She told me I always watched and would just be observing. But then I was always super high energy. My mom definitely enrolled us in dance early. We needed to be doing something ‘cause I had too much energy!
How old were you when you were cast in Prince’s “Diamonds in Pearls” video? Do you remember that experience at all?
Yes, I do remember it. I remember the experience like it was yesterday. That was the artist that my father introduced all of our siblings to first. You know, Purple Rain was first concert, and so when we got the call for the audition, we were like “Oh my gosh, it’s for a Prince video!” That song alone is actually one of my favorite Prince songs.
What was Prince like?
He was quiet. But I was a kid, and we’re nervous anyway to even look at him. At that time, he was very quiet. Over the years – we actually reconnected with him and become friends. And obviously he was just normal – the most humble person ever. But yeah for that video, we were staring like we just saw a unicorn.
Who were your biggest influences growing up, both in terms of singing and dancing?
Besides Prince, Janet and TLC were huge influences. Mary J. Blige, she was always super dope to me. When Mary came she infused just a whole 'nother personality. That other girl. And I was like “Okay, that’s how I feel. I feel like I’m a little bit rough around the edges.” I felt like I was able to relate to those women.
I always started off in groups. And when I was in a group, I was always the rapper. I love Snoop too. The first album I ever bought was The Chronic. That was before they asked your age for you to buy albums. So I actually liked a lot of rap growing up as well.
Do you see any connection between singing and dancing, as far as mentality or maybe spiritually? Do those come from the same place for you?
I would say that they do because movement is like expressing an emotion. So they definitely correlate. When you’re in a certain mood – in dance, you’re gonna move different depending on how you feel. I definitely think that they kind of go together.
You met Ty Dolla $ign when you were a kid. Were any other artists who became stars that you met growing up?
[Ty & I] started in the industry kind of at the same age. We just always kind of knew each other, we were both around. Ty is actually my friend. Other people who I have just known I’d see in passing – LA is just one of those places where everyone comes here trying to make it. LA is just so big on its own that you’re all just constantly running into the same people. The list – I mean from Brandy to Ray J to pretty much anyone in LA, I know. I’ve seen ‘em, I’ve grown up there. We aren’t like “friends” friends, but friends enough. We know each other, we see each other out. Meagan Good, everybody pretty much.
You’ve been in the game for so long. You met Prince at a young age. Do you ever get starstruck?
Besides Prince, I’ve never been starstruck. He was the only person where I was like, “This is crazy.” But then once I had a conversation with him, it was even more weird, because I’m like, “He’s so normal.” So after that, I’ve never been starstruck.
I think it has to do with just growing up in the industry. Because I was so on the other side of it, I never had a chance to look at it as an outsider. I was always on the set or seeing how things happen behind the scenes. And honestly, being around people and seeing that they’re normal, my mind was never able to go to that place – it is kind of funny to see your friends, and everyone is big now. I dunno, I’m kind of happy that I don’t get starstruck.
Everyone’s normal. Everyone’s got the same amount of drama going on in their personal life as the next person. Yours is open and the other person’s isn’t. Once you realize that, there’s nothing to really be starstruck about. I definitely appreciate people’s art though for sure. I’m in awe of their talent.
What would you say is the biggest obstacle you’ve had to overcome being a woman in the music industry?
Obviously, it’s a male-dominated industry. Women have to work the hardest because you have women judging you, and then the men are like “she’s this, or she’s that,” and then they’re tryna get with you. You gotta stick to the business. And sometimes it’s hard, because when a woman comes off as strong, people are like, “Oh, she’s a bitch.” But with men, it’s like, “He’s about his business.” I actually care. I’m a people person. At the end of the day, I don’t ever want someone to take me the wrong way or come across as a bitch. You want your stuff done the same way the next man does, so it’s definitely hard – but I got a good team around me. I’m pretty vocal. I’ve learned to speak up for myself for sure. Before I didn’t want to come off the wrong way. I have to speak up if I want something done. Definitely owning that boss mentality, really. And not being afraid of it as a woman.
I’ve read that you’ve never been on vacation, and that kind of struck me. If you went on vacation, where you would go?
It changed last year. We went on our first one – a family vacation. For New Years, I went to Hawaii. And it was awesome. Awesome awesome awesome. But I didn’t think I would love Hawaii as much as I did, because my dream trip was always Jamaica. I want to go.
What do you do for fun?
Shop. I like outdoors-y stuff. I’m always down for a hike. Working out. Movies, clothing, anything active, I’m down. I’m like, “yes, I’m down to race cars.” Miniature golf. I like anything fun, active. I hate staying in the house. I’m not a homebody at all.
You stepped away from music for a long time. What led to that decision?
When you’ve been doing this since you were four, by the time you’re 20, that’s a long time. It wasn’t just one thing and I was done with it. It led to that moment when I said, “You know what? Let me take a year, gather my thoughts, gather myself together.” I never just had like a breather. And that’s really more so what it was. I knew I wasn’t quitting, because it’s really all I know. It was more like taking a break, taking a vacation – figure out who I am as an artist. Because in a group, you’re always compromising part of yourself.
What kind of artist will I be on my own? Do I want to rap? Do I want to sing? Do I want to do both? It was a lot of figuring out to do. Meanwhile I picked up some other things that I like. I did some fashion stuff – well I didn’t finish, I dropped out – but I ended up getting into – skin care and that whole world. I ended up going to school for that. Getting my license to be an esthetician – just trying to figure out what are things that I like.
An esthetician – is that like a makeup artist?
Makeup artists do sometimes have that license, but basically an esthetician is more so just to focus on skin care.
Your new EP ‘213’ is obviously a reference to L.A. Other than the fact that it's a capital of entertainment, what do you think makes the L.A. music scene so strong? The weather maybe?
I think the weather does help, actually. It puts you in a laidback state, and I feel like you’re not stressed. You’re usually not too hot, not too cold.
I think also because L.A. County is so big. There are so many different sections coming out with their things, different vibes. And so many people do flock here. I think some of those things rub off on people here as well. Because it’s just such a gumbo pot, it’s not stuck in one sound.
What producers did you work with on the project? What sort of studio vibe do you like when you’re making music?
My sessions are kind of boring. I can’t work with that many people in the room. I can’t work around 15 people at all. I have ADD, and I would be like all over the place. You know, if I see people talking outside the booth, I might be like, “What are y’all talking about?”
The EP, I worked with just me and I. Rich. We have a really good chemistry. I’m able to call him and tell him I wanna try this sound, and he’s able to play every instrument by ear. It’s usually just me and him - we have a studio and we just go and vibe. We did “Kicking Back” in literally 20 minutes. Once the beat was made, we just sat in there listening to it, and the words came out and we knew this was bomb. Certain times we have sessions, and you know it feels forced? Certain sessions everything flows. With me and him, it typically happens like that.
“Kicking Back” sampled Kool and the Gang’s “Summer Madness,” which is a classic sample. Was that your idea to flip that?
Yeah, that has been on my sample list in my mind forever.
That song is like – that’s why I love it so much. That sample – I’ve always wanted to use. It’s just classic, it reminds me of L.A.
I actually have started learning how to produce.I always have these ideas, and when I call this one producer who I work with – I was telling him like “Man!” and he’s like “Okay, you’re giving me so many different things” and I’m like, “No, I want to sample this and I want to flip this.” I need to learn how to get it on my own.