Coming to the end of their first headlining tour, Mike B. and Ken Nana are still full of energy and ideas. The duo, united under the neon-lit name MIKNNA, has had a landmark year since dropping their debut album 50/50 (Side A) back in 2016. Since the release, Mike and Ken have embarked on a tour sprawling from their hometown of Los Angeles all the way to Stockholm and Berlin.
In between international flights, the two have carved out enough studio time to cook up “Mona Lisa,” “Cues,” and “MPH,” all of which received major attention following their release as singles. Industrious and dedicated, Mike and Ken haven’t looked back since their chance encounter on the street brought them together in the studio. From the outside, MIKNNA comes off streamlined and natural. However, the duo faced a massive uphill challenge growing MIKNNA from the ground up. At its core, Mike, Ken, and their group of friends and family behind the curtain have grafted since coming together to define what MIKNNA means to them and what it should mean to listeners.
I caught up with Mike and Ken before their show in Berkeley to chat about what the path leading up to their solo headlining tour, what they’ve learned since hitting the road, and where their group is headed:
“We linked up two years ago. I came out of work for a break and Ken was just skating down the street. The chances were so random, and at the moment we were like ‘we need to get into the studio and do some work ASAP.'”
Ken and Mike found an instant chemistry after hitting the studio together. Ken found in Mike the type of complimentary and consistent vocalist he had long been looking for. In Ken, Mike was able to link up with a versatile and experienced producer whose musical style just as capable as solo work as it used underneath Mike’s vocals. The difference, however, between linking up for a few songs and committing to each other as a duo is huge. Mike and Ken had their work cut out for them cultivating the chemistry and balance that MIKNNA boasted on its debut album. Ken emphasizes the importance they put on cementing this chemistry before anything else.
“Before we started making music we sat down and had a long conversation about our styles, our backgrounds, and what pushes us to make music. We really took that time to get to know each other and feel it out to find that balance.”
The time and work put into crafting MIKNNA shows through. As a group, they have an incredibly salient conceptual drive. From the music to videos to press photos, MIKNNA is a shadowy, neon-lit fusion of classic R&B and neo/electro-soul aesthetics. Outside of the group, Mike and Ken work with their team to create their collective Nana Lifestyle, another conceptually driven creative brand born out of the coming together of minds from different backgrounds and influences. As Ken describes, “the whole package” is evidently important to the entire team. Mike places a similar importance on connecting the minutiae of their work to the broader elements.
“A lot of it comes down to our taste level and what we want to do aesthetically and sonically—it all needs to be complimentary or it doesn’t work.”
The balance between Mike and Ken has racked them up millions of listens on leading singles such as “Trinity Ave” and “302,” as well as over half a million streams on their most recent release, “MPH.” With the numbers to back them, Mike and Ken took the next step in translating their studio chops to the stage on their tour.
“You really have to be on your game all the time. There’s no lower gear you can be in when you’re performing, but it’s a challenge that helps to motivate. Really we just try to take it one day at a time. Work as a team trying to think about how we can just elevate and move forward. That’s the fun part! Figuring it out.”
On the stage in Berkeley, MIKNNA look as comfortable as anyone. Ken, vibing and stationary at his drum pad and mixer cuts a distinct silhouette opposite Mike, who bounces around the stage with verve and enthusiasm. Playing through 50/50 (Side A), MIKNNA boast the same intimacy live that their studio work benefits from. The duo make it a point to engage the audience, creating an atmosphere that buoyed and was buoyed by the performance. Mike and Ken are up on stage to enjoy themselves and their music over anything else. At one point even taking and audience request to play “Mona Lisa,” they both came off relaxed and positive, relishing the moment and how far they had come. With shows on November 29 and 30 in LA and San Diego respectively, MIKNNA look to finish off 2017 and their tour strongly.
“What’s next? Just working to finish up the next project and a lot of new music. Think of it like an evolution of everything that we’ve gone through over the last year, building and working out the kinks. And hopefully we can keep up with our consistency. We’ve been grinding, but consistency keeps us all on the same page so everything can keep moving. We’re excited.”
Coyly describing the upcoming project, Mike and Ken can’t seem to stay away from the word “fun.” Mike characterizes their work as a “sonic vacation.” At their most simple, the musicians behind MIKNNA are music fans. Their technique and style helped them cultivate a unique and eye-catching sound, but it’s also an entertaining endeavor for two super musicians. Evolution, coalescence, fusion—however you characterize MIKNNA, what is undeniable is the pure enjoyment that drives the group. From top to bottom, the MIKNNA team’s appreciation for and ability in their trade is evident on stage or over headphones.
2018 looks set to be a big year for MIKNNA. Before then, catch MIKNNA’s closing shows in Los Angeles and San Diego here, and revisit 50/50 (Side A) below.