After weeks and weeks of writing about how good, that’s ‘of-all-time’ great, West Oakland-born, East Oakland-residing rapper J. Stalin is, we decided to speak to the man himself. The day was 4/20 and we caught up with Stalin just minutes after he’d woken up to a breakfast joint, and several hours before he would rock a crowd at the Smokefest in San Jose.
What was it like growing up in Cypress Village, West Oakland?
It’s projects. It’s like everybody know everybody; a lot of people selling drugs, a lot of people doing drugs. It’s primarily black, there’s like no whites, no latinos, there’s some Asians though.
You started out selling candy right?
Yeah I started out selling candy on the BART [Bay Area Rapid Transit] when I was like 12. Then when I was 16 I started selling drugs.
What kind of drugs?
Crack, cocaine. My mother, she was on drugs too so that didn’t help the situation. My mom, she been clean for like a year now.
And you started rapping from the first time you went to jail.
I went to jail when I was 17. I got caught with some crack-cocaine. And I started writing raps after that and just kept pursuing it. Then I hooked up with Richie Rich through an old family friend of mine, DJ Daryl. That’s the producer that produced ‘Keep Ya Head Up’ for 2Pac. He introduced me to Richie Rich.
And after that you kind of did your own thing.
After I did music with Richie Rich, I started working with Tha Mekanix. Richie Rich was supposed to put my album out, but they was taking too long so I left and started working with Tha Mekanix.
How long did it take between leaving Richie Rich and getting ‘On Behalf Of The Streets’ on shelves?
That was like two years. I enjoyed making that album. We recorded that album in like two weeks. That’s one of my best works.
Let’s not forget ‘Gas Nation’ though, the production was more diverse but it’s still banger after banger.
It’s like I didn’t even expect Gas Nation to do as well as it did, because that wasn’t planned. It wasn’t planned out, and it didn’t have a big thought process into it like On Behalf Of The Streets did. It was just a situation that came up where I had somebody that was gonna promote it real fast and real good. So I just did it. I had mostly all those songs already recorded and I just put them together.
But it does still sound like a proper album though because the sequencing is so good.
That’s probably my favourite album.
What kind of tracks do you prefer to make: the kind of Mekanix, laid back, woozy kind of tracks or the more hyphy bangers?
The more laid back Mekanix type tracks. I like making songs where they got feeling in ‘em. Emotion, where you really saying something. And I like making music that’s timeless, that’s gonna mean something 10 years from now, five years from now and so on.
Would you say Tha Mekanix are your favourite producers to work with?
No doubt, no doubt. Yep. It’s Kenny Tweed and Dotrix 4000.
Is there a big difference between the music you’re making now and the kind of stuff you were thinking up when you started writing in jail?
Back then I used to write a lot more because I didn’t really have no studio to go record, so I just had all these raps wrote down in a book. And now I don’t got all these raps wrote down in no book because I be recording them all now.
Are you doing things off the top?
Nah. I can though. I can freestyle, but I like sitting down and thinking my music out and coming up with concepts for a song and that type of stuff. I don’t like doing nothing spur of the moment.
So take us through your writing process.
I usually sit down and I listen to an instrumental, probably be smoking a joint or having a drink while I’m doing it, and most of the time I write the verse first and then I come up with the hook around the verse. What I was saying in the verse, I make the hook primarily around that and, nine times out of 10, I never write my hooks down. I only write the verses so the hooks I just come up with them off the top of the head.
The way you flick your voice up and down, you know change the pitch, have you always done that?
Ah yes. That’s not something that I do on purpose, it’s just something that when I feel a certain way about something I have to say it a certain way to give it a certain type of emotional feeling. It just do that on its own.
So it’s straight from the heart.
Speaking of the heart, you did a track on the Livewire Da Gang album, ‘Pay Ya’self Or Spray Ya’self’, called ‘Missing U’, where you talked about dealing with life after Mac Dre went, and other fallen friends and artists. When did you first meet Mac Dre, what did he mean to you, and what did he mean to the Bay Area in general?
I met Mac Dre when I was working with Richie Rich, at The Grill Studios. That’s where Richie Rich used to record, that’s where a lot of Bay Area artists record their music and get it mixed and mastered. I met Mac Dre there and he was a cool dude, always smiling, always friendly, you know what I’m sayin? Always had some good advice for the young, up and coming rappers and he just, he was like, the hyphy movement was his. But he didn’t get to capitalise off it, you feel me? Mac Dre is forever gon’ be a Bay Area legend. That’s how I feel about it.
Is the Thizz Empire as potent now as it was when he was alive?
Nah, I don’t think so. Because they started to branch off. It’s hard to keep a big thing like that together when you lose the head, you feel me?
Are you still going to drop that N.E.W. Oakland album with Mistah FAB and Beeda Weeda?
Yeah, we working on it right now. But I’m still working on ‘Prenuptial Agreement’ right now, just tightening that up and making sure that’s my best work to date. But yeah we gon’ do that though. We had already done it and then the computer crashed, so we gotta record a whole album over. It’s just frustrating but we gon’ do it though.
When are you going to release ‘Prenuptial Agreement’?
It should be coming out on Livewire/SMC/Fontana this summer. Tha Mekanix got like eight tracks on there and DJ Fresh got like two. Also I just dropped a compilation called Livewire Radio, I got five brand new tracks on it and the rest of the Livewire is on it with a lot of other Oakland artists too.
As CEO of Livewire Records, have you ever been faced with the dilemma where you’ve wanted to help someone get off the streets but their music isn’t quite there yet?
All the time. I run into a lot of people that’s in that category. They wanna get signed by Livewire and be on Livewire, but they got that problem. I just tell them ‘just keep on writing man, just keep on pushing man, ain’t nobody gonna promote you like you’. That’s what I tell people. But yeah, I run into that situation often.
How important have labels like SMC been to the whole Bay Area rap movement?
That’s the only label we got out here. That’s the best thing for us independent artists to get on a bigger scale and get noticed more. SMC is like our Koch.
Now Lil Blood, whose solo track ‘Stressed Out’ you had featured on ‘Gas Nation’, is he still locked up?
Yeah Lil Blood got six months, he’ll be home soon though, he good. His album was scheduled for June but he went to jail so he had to push it back. It’s called ‘Heron Music’.
Are there any up and coming producers from the Bay that we should watch out for?
Yeah, you should watch for Sneaky Mike, that’s a real talented guy, Swerve, Beat Roc, Teison, Jon Jon On The Beat, just to name a few though.
Southern Hospitality Competition!
We’ve got 15 sealed copies of J. Stalin’s ‘Gas Nation’ CD for the first 15 people to answer the following question:
Name a producer that has worked with Stalin but is not mentioned in this interview.
Answers to: email@example.com.