After less than a year in the music scene, New York crooner Mack Wilds has already attained serious status, even nabbing a Best Urban Contemporary Album Grammy nomination for his debut LP New York: A Love Story which put him up alongside the likes of Salaam Remi and Rihanna. Known to the world primarily as an actor—and particularly as Michael from The Wire—most people don't know that Mack's first love was always music. A native of Staten Island, the "Own It" singer grew up in the shadows of local icons the Wu-Tang Clan, who have assisted in cultivating the rapping and singing that Mack has ridden to his second peak of success. Along his journey, Mack also caught the sights of Jay Z, who has served as sort of mentor over the course of the newcomer's career. Mack recently stopped through XXL headquarters, telling us all about his present, his musical future, and the relationships that have guided him along the way. —Miranda Johnson (@Randa_Writes)

"I basically grew up around Wu-Tang. They’re like my Guardian Bees, I guess.”

XXL: How would you define yourself in the hip-hop world?
Mack Wilds:
I would define myself as a hip-hop artist that sings, pretty much. Bigger than that itself, I feel like I embody the essence of what hip-hop is. The growth, the struggle, what I’ve come from and what I’ve built my entire life. And hip-hop always seems to be the story of the underdog, so I could definitely tell that story pretty well. I mean like any genre, there’s a bunch of in-betweeners in any genre.

Why do you feel it’s so important to incorporate hip-hop with your singing?
For me, it’s what I grew up on. I was the kid who grew up on Wu-Tang Killa Bees On A Swarm. So I resonate with hip-hop more than I do the sing-y R&B-type stuff. So I’ve always had a hip-hop mindset, so much so that, when us guys go through that whole puberty  and we lose our voice thing, I started rapping. I was already writing poetry, so I started rapping, running around to different neighborhoods battling kids. Going to my school, taking kids' money battling each other. And I finally got my voice back so I went back to singing, but hip-hop has always been a big part of my life.

Growing up, you had some really close ties to hip-hop, right?
I grew up around Wu-Tang. My dad had this barbershop in Park Hill [Staten Island] and you know, Raekwon, Method Man, and RZA used to come in and get they hair cut right before they’d go on tour. So I basically grew up around Wu-Tang. They’re like my Guardian Bees, I guess.

What’s some good advice a Wu-Tang member has given you?
Just to say focused. It’s so easy to get sidetracked when it comes to the music business; there’s so much access. There’s so much that’s given to you. So just to keep your head on right and to make sure that you stay focused at all times. And that’s pretty much what they all tell me, all the time.

It seems like for you, you have the best big brothers in hip-hop—Wu-Tang and Jay Z. Has Jay Z ever given you advice?
Jay is the type of guy who drops gems, one liners. I think one of the things that he taught me was to never ask for any hand-outs. He said one thing to a bunch of us, it was me and all of my cousins, it was like, “you can do this music thing if you want to, I’m not gonna stop you. If you feel it then you feel it but if there’s ever a time that your name comes across my name, like if I hear your name in passing, I’ll throw you a bone."