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Bad Boy Entertainment

If Ya Don't Know, Now Ya Know: Notorious B.I.G.'s Final Album 'Life After Death' Defined An Era

Meet the masterminds who mixed and mastered Biggie's 'Life After Death' album. 

Birthed out of Bad Boy Records in 1997, which was still in its infancy at the time, Notorious B.I.G.'s Life After Death was poised to be a breakout album from the rapper, that would continue to push forward Puff Daddy's dream of getting big and changing an otherwise saturated industry.

While the album would serve as the follow-up to his 1994 project, Ready to Die, unbeknownst to just about everyone, it would also serve as a eulogy for his death. Even so, the album's crisp, club-friendly beats on singles like "Hypnotize" and its striking storytelling on "You're Nobody (Til Somebody Kills You)," made it a classic and turned Biggie into one of the greatest to ever do it.

The album was released on a somber note, rolling out two weeks after the late rapper was killed leaving a VIBE party in Los Angeles. But those who worked closely with him on the album remember the early stages of its creation and Biggie's star power with fondness.

In celebration of the 20th anniversary of the Notorious B.I.G's Life After Death album (March 25), hear stories from some of the producers who worked, created, and partied with Biggie, and how they defined an era of hip-hop.

The Producers

Steven "Stevie J" Jordan ("Mo Money Mo Problems," "Notorious Thugs," "Another")
Nashiem Myrick ("Somebody's Gotta Die," "What's Beef")
DJ Clark Kent ("Sky's The Limit")
Easy Mo Bee ("I Love The Dough," "Going Back To Cali")
DJ Premier ("Ten Crack Commandments")

Meet the B.I.G. Crew: How They Got Started

Stevie J.: I grew up around music. My dad had a gospel group called the Jordan Gospel Singers. I used to listen to them sing and play music all the time. They used to have instruments sitting around after rehearsals, so I got in the mood of playing drums at seven years old. [My dad] gave me some pots and pans and said, ‘Once you beat a hole in these, I’ll give you some drums.’ Two months later, I had a hole in them joints. That inspired me to then pick up the guitar and the bass, the piano, trumpet, saxophone and xylophone. Then when I met this group by the name of Joe Public, they showed me how to make a complete song. From then on, I met Jodeci and after, I met Puffy and it was all history.

Nashiem Myrick: My father was a DJ and he introduced me to the turntables and music. I was in a group with a fella by the name of Harve Pierre, who works at Bad Boy still, and David Abraham. We were under Empire Management and signed to Payday Records. That’s my only experience with the music industry before Bad Boy because we got dropped on my birthday in 1991. My friend Harve was friends with Puff, so once Puff did the transition from Howard [University] to Uptown and then to his own label, [Harve] followed and brought me along.

DJ Clark Kent: I’ve been a DJ since nine, producer since 21. I’ve been a record company executive since 24. I’ve travelled the world as a DJ, as Dana Dane’s DJ, Rakim’s DJ, Biggie’s, Puff’s and Jay Z’s DJ. I make records. I have fun. I loved music since I can remember.

Easy Mo Bee: I grew up in Brooklyn in the housing projects of Lafayette Gardens. I had a father from the South, who’d always bring a lot of gospel, blues, soul and funk around. That’s where I got the love of music from. Besides him being the one who originally introduced me to music, I watched hip-hop begin to take place right in the back park in those projects. That’s where I caught the bug, watching those block parties with the DJs and turntables, and that’s how I became a DJ at 12 years old. After DJ-ing, I made the natural evolution from playing records to wanting to make them. I didn’t know what they called it. I just knew sooner or later I wanted to do that.

DJ Premier: I’m originally from Houston, Texas and I used to work at a record store in Houston called Soundwaves Records and Tapes. The guy that got me the job heard my demo with the group I was originally with when I was going to college. My main MC and I cut newer demos, and impressed Wild Pitch Records with something new, but it didn’t pan out. So my MC got to the point of frustration where he said he was going to join the military and [eventually] joined. That’s when I told Guru [original member of Gang Starr] that I’m down to join Gang Starr because now I’m without my MC. Next thing you know, I joined the group. The other members were from Boston and didn’t want to go to New York. I was brought into the group as the third generation of Gang Starr. There used to be Guru and Damo D-Ski. Prior to that, it was Big Sug and Guru and Swav D. Sug was incarcerated, so since he was gone, that’s how I ended up in the group and carried it on from there. The rest is history.

First Impressions: 'You Know You Just Said F**k Your Mom?'

Stevie J: It was rare for an artist to just go in the booth without a pen and a pad. He would go in with nothing but a story in his head. It just blew my mind that an artist could write a phenomenal rhyme with just an imagination. He was one of the best artists to work with, not to mention that tone and his gifts to be the most fun and funny guy ever.

Easy Mo Bee: I hadn’t really worked with stuff too rough of a texture. I think about the roughest thing I had worked with was a remix for Freddy Foxxx a.k.a. Bumpy Knuckles. I started working with Biggie [on Ready to Die] and he said, ‘F**k the world. F**k my moms. F**k my girl. My life is played out like a jheri curl. I’m ready to die.’ He came out of the booth, and I said, ‘Yo, you know you just said f**k your mom?’ He said, ‘Yeah, yeah. This how I’m feeling. Not literally f**k my moms. But it’s hard out here. I’m going through a lot.’ But the more we worked together, the closer we got. He said, ‘Yo Mo, my mom got cancer on her breast. I got a baby on the way, and Puff talking about this music. I hope this sh*t is going to work out.’ He was optimistic about it and hopeful, but he still wasn’t really sure what was going to happen. I grew to understand him more, and from there, it made it easier for us to work together.

DJ Clark Kent: Nothing was hard. Nothing was a fight; nothing was confusing. There wasn’t anything that he was a hard a** about. If you could make him understand it, he would say, 'Alright.’ It wasn’t no, ‘let me explain why you have to do this.’ It was, ‘This why we got to do it.’ He was the easiest artist I’ve ever worked with on any level. Even when I could tell there were things he didn’t want to do, if I could give him a clean, easy explanation, he was cool. He was the artist that if he respected you, he trusted you. That’s the reason why somebody like Puff could make a decision on "Juicy," because he trusted him.

DJ Premier: Biggie used to be on the corner of Fourth and Washington Ave and I lived at this brownstone right down on Washington, in between Lafayette and Green. You had to go to the corner where B.I.G. was posted to go to the corner store for food, weed and our 40 oz. It just became normal to see each other posted on the block. I never had a chance to listen to his demo. When I finally heard it, I liked his attitude and his delivery, and the wit of how he constructed his rhymes. It matched the way he looked when you finally saw him, like, ‘Wow, you look like just what I heard on the tape.’

Live From The Studio

Nashiem Myrick: For the most part, me and B.I.G. had a kinetic relationship because I used to always give him my material and he would love it. Working with B.I.G. was natural. [We] would understand each other, as far as music was concerned. I’d sit in with B.I.G. on his sessions when everybody would leave and go out to a club. He’d bounce things off of me in the booth like, ‘Nash, how that sound?’ I’m like, wow, this guy is asking me to direct him. That’s the relationship we had. We had one big disagreement. He used to bring this one chick from around his way to the studio. I know they was involved at one time, but I don’t know if they was involved then. She was just a cool, beautiful chick. She would always come and pay me some attention when she came to the studio. So what happened was, B.I.G. married Faith [Evans], and then after the “Big Poppa” video, [the chick] came at me and told me the truth: ‘I like you. I always liked you.’ I knew this was going on! So me and her started dating, and she got pregnant by me. B.I.G. took offense, then me and him didn’t speak for like six months and we were working together! Imagine being in the studio with someone and he’s not talking to you, but we still have to produce songs together. It was crazy to me. One day, we had a party in Queens and B.I.G. stepped to me and we aired it out.

Stevie J: The relationship that me and B.I.G. had in the studio is, he trusted me with me being a musician and producer, to do what I do, and I trusted him as a phenomenal MC and storyteller that he was, to do him. It was never no, ‘Try and do it like this.’ He knew what it was. He knew what he wanted the outcome to sound like. So it was never a discrepancy in the studio with me and him. Nine times out of ten, all the beats I played him, he liked them all. B.I.G. would come in the studio with his Jarell Branson and his Don Perignon, his Malibu, cranberry pineapple juice, and might be some Remy there. He would be there with all the boys, they’d be talking while he’s writing, and by the time B.I.G. was ready to go in the booth, all the n***as was sleep. It would be  2 a.m., but you’d hear some of the stories that all the dudes was telling in the rhymes. So how could B.I.G. listen to every single thing in the room and put it all together? I mean phenomenal! That's storytelling at its best.

Easy Mo Bee: B.I.G., Junior Mafia and Lil Cease used to be in the studio like, ‘Mo, just chill man. You sensitive!’ They used that word ‘sensitive.’ I’m from the projects in Brooklyn, and they just called me sensitive. Are you calling me soft? It got to the point that I stopped trying to talk to B.I.G. One time I went to Puffy and said, ‘Listen man, I’m telling you, you better be careful and think about some of the things he's saying. If you ain’t too careful, you might have women’s rights organizations pulling your album off the shelf and all kinds of sh*t.’ He said, ‘Everything's going to be alright. Just chill.’ Seriously though, I think the roughest thing that had come out of New York before Biggie was when Coogie Rap made that album Live and Let Die. Typically back then, that was the roughest thing that ever came out of New York. The West Coast was "ganstering" it up. We wasn’t really doing that yet. So the kind of lyrics he was kicking, I was just concerned about them. That’s all.

DJ Premier: It was just a regular studio situation. In hip-hop, you always got your crew there. Everybody’s smoking weed, drinking, talking sh*t. You always got girls in the room. Girls always want to be around rappers, especially in the 90s because we were really young, rock n’ roll stars in our culture and money was coming in. We didn’t have billions, but a couple hundred thousands was like being a millionaire back in the day. It was just like a frat party.

Disc Notes: Mixing and Mastering

"Somebody's Gotta Die"

Nashiem Myrick: That’s the first track he had for Life After Death. I gave him that during the finishing of Ready to Die, right after I gave him “Who Shot Ya.” It wasn’t even for Life After Death because he didn’t even make that up yet. It was a year before we even started the album. He was working on it gradually. He’d let me hear a verse here, a line there. And then after he finished, I heard the whole story, and put all the sound effects in it. B.I.G. is just a great storyteller, and that was a signature on the album. It bridged the Ready to Die with Life After Death. The last track of Ready to Die, "Suicidal Thoughts," goes right in "Somebody Gotta Die." It’s the perfect blend. The way it’s constructed was fairly new because we had a lyricist like B.I.G., who was painting you such a picture, that we could add elements in it. If you listen to that song, it’s like a movie on wax. You hear all the sound effects, the backgrounds, the rain, people walking, the door shutting, and it goes right along where you can actually picture the song in your head as a movie. No one was doing that at all... We took a lot of things out of a lot of songs because I probably overloaded them too much, but we had time to really sit down and just master that album correctly. I finished "Somebody Gotta Die" after B.I.G. died. He didn’t hear the finished version.

"I Love the Dough"

Easy Mo Bee: It was kind of difficult picking the tracks because we had just finished doing Ready to Die. When it came time to submit tracks for [Life After Death], I’m submitting Ready to Die texture. Puff said, ‘No, we already did that. This time I want it to be more radio, more club.’ He said, ‘ We going to touch on that, but I already got them records from other people.’ I remember during the Ready to Die album, I had made a beat tape. At the end of the beat tape, I put “I Love You More” by Rene and Angela on there. I didn’t make a beat with it; I just knew it was a cool idea. Puff listened to the whole tape. I said to him that [the song] might be a good idea for B.I.G. to use, and he said, ‘Nah.’ So on the second album, when I submitted all these Ready to Die rough texture songs, and he’s like we want something more radio, club, I said, ‘Puff remember that “I Love You More?" What about that?’ His exact words were: ‘Well, hook it up.’ I went back home and hooked the beat up, drummed it up, added some keys, rounded it out, and I brought it back. We took that into the studio and I remember setting up the tracking session at Daddy’s House, but they were just beats. They didn’t have the lyrics. I remember Biggie came in, him and Jay Z, talking and stuff. Then after a while, they started to write in their heads and pace and mumble to themselves. They did that for a while and then B.I.G. told me: ‘Yo Mo, me and Jigga going to step out.’ That was the last time I ever saw him. I waited from that afternoon time to about two or three in the morning and he still hadn’t come back. I had another meeting the next day and I remember telling [Deric "D-Dot" Angelettie] I had to leave so I could get up in the morning. I never got a call about that next session.

"What's Beef?"

Nashiem Myrick: The idea came from Carlos Broady, my partner that I produced with on many joints. He actually sent the raw version to me. When I got it, I immediately gave it to Puff, along with some other tracks. The thing with that is, B.I.G. did the song and I heard the verse, but I didn’t hear the hook. That was the one thing where I said, 'I don’t know about this one.' Puff is looking at me like, ‘What is this guy, crazy?’ But I didn’t hear the whole song, just the first verse. I’m like, ‘Puff, I don’t know about this track. Maybe it’s not the one for B.I.G.’ So Puff brought me in the studio one night and played me the whole song. He said, ‘You still feel that way?’ When I heard it, I got it. You can’t hear that in pieces; you got to hear the whole composition. Then I’m like, wow, B.I.G. did it again! This guy can’t fail. That joint is crazy. And he explains it to you, what's beef. A lot of people was having fake beef in the industry and that was not beef, my man. Beef is when your life is in jeopardy.

"Mo Money Mo Problems"

Stevie J: I’m in the lab in the Midi Room and Ma$e came through. Ma$e said, ‘Diddy, I want you to flip this right here. You got to freak this for me.’ They put that on, I sampled it, looped it up, put the drums on it, replayed the guitar part and added a baseline to it, and that’s that. Ma$e went in and laid his part, then B.I.G laid his. It was actually supposed to be for Ma$e and B.I.G was like, ‘I'll trade you a song for that. Let me get that.’ That’s how B.I.G. got it. Then Kelly Price came and laid the hook. At the time, and even still today, she had that real sultry voice. Once she put that hook on there, we knew it was gone. After, Puff laid his rap, and it was a wrap.

"Notorious Thugs"

Stevie J: I’m in the Midi Room at Daddy’s House studio. I wasn’t a smoker. That wasn’t my thing; I just liked to sip a little bit. We were supposed to be going to L.A. the next day to do the track with Bone and B.I.G., but we didn’t have the track yet. We had a lot of tracks, but B.I.G said, ‘I want you to do a new track for the Bone joint. Here, smoke this.’ It was a weed blunt with liquid hash in it. He’s like, ‘It got leak leak in it.’ I’m like, ‘What is that?’ I didn’t know what it is. He said, ‘Man, just smoke that sh*t.’ So that’s the track that happened after that. The rest of it was history. We got on a private jet, went to L.A., and went in the studio with Bone and B.I.G. Puff kept playing everybody else track. B.I.G. said, ‘Man, play the track from last night.’ That’s when the room erupted. B.I.G. did a song with Bone and cloned the whole sh*t New York style! Who does that?

"Another"

Stevie J: [Lil'] Kim and him were really beefing so you hear all that stuff at the beginning where she said, ‘F**k you,’ and he said, ‘F**k you, b***h.’ They were really going back and forth at each other at that moment. That was real; it wasn’t just ad-libs. So what I did with that track, I pretty much played everything over on the sample ["Another Man" by Barbara Mason], which is what I’d do if I sampled anything. I played all the instruments over and I found the exact drum sounds from the samples and put them on that.

"Going Back to Cali"

Easy Mo Bee: That song is based upon "More Bounce to the Ounce" by Zapp. Mind you, this is the time when B.I.G. and Pac are having their difficulties. It had spilled over into a full fledged East, West war. I told my old manager, in New York at the old block parties and house parties, that joint that would always make everybody go, ‘ohhh yooo!’ is and always will be,"Love is the Message" by MFSB. That’s an anthem. So I was asked, ‘In California, what is compared to what we got in New York? What is that anthem out there at the house parties.’ With no hesitation he said, ‘Man, "More Bounce."’ So I hooked up the "More Bounce" beat. I must have chopped that song into so many pieces. I was trying to cater to the West Coast. I was trying to get everybody on the same accord musically. I figured if I could use an ingredient, something that they loved, maybe that could take our attention off of this nonsense. Let’s party.

Mind you, I didn't know what kind of lyrics B.I.G. was going to put on there. We did not sit down together... The way I found out the song was titled "Going Back to Cali" was I was in the store around the way one night, and Blake C from Junior Mafia came in the store. He said, ‘Mo! What up man? I just came from out there from Cali. I had to leave and come back. They out there balling, having mad fun.’ First of all, it took me by surprise because I was like don’t they got beef, Biggie and Pac, and the East-West tensions? What is he doing out there? Anyway, Blake C was like B.I.G. laced my joint. He said, ‘Yeah, yeah. That "More Bounce" one, he called that "Going Back to Cali."’ I said, ‘What the f**k! Come on man!’ ‘He said, ‘Nah Mo, it ain’t dissing Cali. Matter of fact, it’s bigging them up. You got to hear it.’ I said, ‘Don’t do this sh*t man!’ He said, ‘Trust me, you’re going to love it when you hear it.’ I heard the song, and I was like okay, but I still had this fear about how they would receive it. What’s crazy about that song is here I am just musically trying to cater to California, stroke them a little bit, not knowing that Biggie would come along and he would do that lyrically on the song. I had no complaints about the mix.

"Ten Crack Commandments"

DJ Premier: That was a promo that we did for Angie Martinez on Hot 97. Back then she did a show called “The Hot Five At Nine,” where she played the top five records at nine o’clock. If you listen to the scratch at the beginning, it only goes to nine before the beat drops because it’s nine o’clock. Then when the beat drops, I only go to five because it’s five at nine. It was never ten because it was never intended for Biggie to begin with. Angie was the biggest thing on Hot 97 at that time. Everybody from Wu-Tang to every popular artist that was on the radio at that time, was doing dope promos for Angie’s “Hot Five at Nine” show. So [me and Jeru The Damaja] did our hot five and it just happened to be that beat. That’s why it was so simple. I didn’t want to overproduce. Puff happened to be on the radio that particular day. He heard it, and was like, what’s that? He started putting word out on the radio, ‘Yo Premier, if you hear this, call us on Hot 97.’ He didn’t say he wanted the beat at the time; he just said call. This was back in the time of pagers. All my homies are hitting me up telling me Puffy telling me to call him. I’m said, ‘Word? I’m in the car listening.’ I hear him interviewing, and then maybe 20 minutes in, he said it again. ‘Premier, I’m still looking for you baby. Call Hot 97.’ Once I heard him say it, because I needed to hear it myself, I called. He got on the phone and said him and B.I.G. wanted that beat. He told me the song was called “Ten Crack Commandments” and it was already done. I brought the same reel to Daddy’s House and muted Jeru’s vocals and added a ten because it was only intended for “Hot Five at Nine.” I didn’t have a ten so I put the T-minus ten countdown from NASA when they launch the rockets. Flew that in, and we had a record in maybe an hour. I really like that beat because it was simple. I’ve been driving for a long time and hip-hop comes from the car booming system and the radio. Everything I do is geared towards boomboxes and cars.

"Sky's the Limit"

DJ Clark Kent:  I didn’t have “Sky’s the Limit” in mind. I’m a producer, so I was making tracks all the time. It wasn’t like it was something specific. I made the track and it was actually given to Jay Z first. LL Cool J even had it, but they didn’t want it. We were on the road, and B.I.G. said, ‘When we go back out, bring some tracks so we can start working on Junior Mafia's album.’ I’m like, ‘You serious.?’ He’s like, ‘Yeah, we going to make an album.’ We get back on the tour bus and we sat there playing tracks, and he picked what he wanted for Junior Mafia. He came up with the hooks immediately and simply went back home, but in the midst of him picking “Player’s Anthem,” he heard the track for “Sky’s the Limit.” He said, ‘I need that.’ I said, ‘For who?’ Because all I’m thinking is Junior Mafia. He goes, ‘I need that for me.’ I’m like, ‘You’re going to do a solo on this album?’ ‘Naw I need that for my album.’ In my mind I’m going, no. You can’t have it. I’m like, ‘You’re not doing that album right now.' He goes, ‘Yeah, but I’m gonna. I need it.’ I said, ‘So you want me to hold this record until after we do all this other stuff and you maybe make a new record?’ He’s like, ‘I need it.’

The funny part about the track is that I had given it to somebody before. I had to go back to that person and say, 'Do you want it? Yes or no? This is how much it costs because if you don’t want it, I got to give it away.' The guy was like, ‘No, it costs too much.’ So I was like okay, forget it. I kept it for B.I.G. He came up with the hook while he was listening to it, so I knew immediately that it was going to be that good of a record. When Biggie came up with the hook, I was like, oh yeah that’s crazy and he just kept singing the hook. Not everybody can discern Biggie’s voice, but if you listen to “Sky’s the Limit” well enough, you can hear him singing with 112. When it got mixed, I forgot to take his voice out. He sang the whole hook and the verses and everything, then we gave it to 112 for them to sing. In the process, the track gets laid first. The artist goes in, does his verses, puts a scratch hook in. 112 got the record, they sang the hook, and then the record went to mixing, which was the part where you make the song as beautiful as possible. In the mixing, you’re supposed to take out what you didn’t want. The song didn’t really have anything that we didn’t want except for that Biggie vocal on the scratch hook, but it kind of got stuffed in there by accident.

Was It A Hit?: Initial Reactions

Easy Mo Bee: I already knew [Life After Death] was going to be a hit, but when I saw that cover art with the hearse and him standing [to the side] in all black, it shocked me. It looked eerie and spooky. When I saw that cover I said, 'He is going to die.' From that point on I became very worried and fearful for him.

DJ Premier: When it got time to drop Life After Death I definitely knew he had some joints. I was already like damn, this guy got some f**king sh*t. He played me “You’re Nobody (Til Somebody Kills You),” which scared me because that can manifest itself, which it did. And not that, that’s not true of what he said lyrically, because it is. It also made me fear that something could happen to him. Especially after Pac had already passed, it made it even worse. It was frightening.

DJ Clark Kent: I don’t know if it was the first of any kind, I just knew that it was dope. When you’re in it, you’re not thinking we’re making history. You’re like, are the records good or not? That’s all that really matters and we knew the records were good. You have to understand, he already had Ready to Die. That was amazing. Then he had Snoop Dogg’s, Nas’ album, and Reasonable Doubt to look at to go, ‘Alright, what I gotta do?’ But the best thing about him is that he didn’t change who he was. He still is the best rapper we ever heard. He understood that Jay Z was the best MC, but he also understood he was the best rapper.

B.I.G.'s Downfall

DJ Clark Kent: There’s video tapes of me in the party dancing, drinking champagne and wearing a Versace shirt. I was Vice President at Motown Records, and B.I.G. said, ‘Yo, we gotta go to London.’ And I’m looking at him like, 'N***a I got a job.' He’s going, ‘Dog, I need you to come to London.’ This is the conversation we’re having inside the party. Twenty minutes later, I got on the phone and was like, ‘Yo, I think I need to do this.’ Then we all were leaving. I turned one corner, he turned around the other corner. I’m at the stop light, the light changes, and then you hear shots ringing. His car was stuck at the light. We didn’t know that they were shooting at his car. We get to where we’re going and I get a call, 'Yo, your man got shot.' I had to double back and go to the hospital. We were going to go to London. Earlier in the day, we were laughing about sh*t.

Stevie J: I was in the car in front of him. I was in the party. I had bought all of the Don Perignon that night, spent about $7,000. I was with him earlier that day. We were at Andre Harrell’s house listening to the album and talking about going on tour, making a whole bunch of money every show. Just a few hours later, he’s not with us. The day before that, me and him in the studio and he’s having a baby with Faith and I’m having a baby with Antoinette [Bennett]. And he said, ‘You could be my son’s godfather.’ I said, ‘You could be my son’s godfather.’ We talking about getting money together for the rest of our lives and this happened. It’s just f**ked up that you could take a life of somebody so [phenomenal]. He didn’t deserve that. That part of the history of my man’s story was not the coolest part.

Nashiem Myrick: That night before B.I.G. went to Cali, we was in the studio and had a chance to talk. I told him, ‘I’m not going to L.A. with ya’ll.’ I had a feeling about that because I usually go everywhere with them. If the whole crew is going, I’m there, but I said, ‘B.I.G., you know how we do. You got problems out there.’ Even if a n***a live around the corner from you, if you got beef with n***as, you don’t go around the corner. I said, ‘Just be careful.’ He said, ‘Yeah, we got that. We got that.’ I felt good when he said it. I was like alright, he must know what they doing. So to get that call, it really didn’t sink in until later on. How did B.I.G. die? It doesn’t happen to people, a big artist in the prime of his career getting murdered.

Life After Death: The Legacy

DJ Clark Kent: The only reason reason why it holds so much weight is because it’s a great album. Him dying had nothing to do with the fact that it’s a great album. Him dying is the tragedy of that album. That ain’t the impact, that’s the tragedy. Still, if he lived, it would be an amazing album. It ain’t about life or death; it’s about the music. A great album is a great album. There’s no science. Bet you know a song by Stevie Wonder. They’re great songs. They can’t go away. You can’t erase what a great song is going to do to you. If a great song is made, it’s going to be great forever.

Nashiem Myrick: Not to boast or brag, but we was making classic joints. We wasn’t making music that was involved with the times. We was doing music on a whole other level. We wasn’t caring about what the sound was at that time. We was the sound at the time. The imagery in those songs comes from a whole different circumstance. We was doing things so different, and I think that imagery that we had then, still transfers to today. You have records from the 50s and the 60s that still big hits today if you really look at the charts. And it’s because of the imagery that Motown had back then. That doesn’t come around every year or every decade. That comes around once in awhile, and [Life After Death] was one of those times. I was involved in one of those moments.

Stevie J: The music that was on Life After Death is timeless music. I listen to a lot of songs right now in the club, and I’m turnt. But I’m not going to be turnt next year to hear that joint. I’m going to go back to that classic Life After Death album. I’m going to go to “Nasty Boy,” “Notorious Thugs,” “Mo Money Mo Problems,” and I’m going to be like, damn, I can play that for the rest of my life. Classics are around forever.

DJ Premier: You can’t deny greatness. Even those younger generations... I know Lil Yachty said, ‘I wasn’t into B.I.G. or Pac.’ And that’s cool, but it doesn’t disservice to B.I.G’s longevity. B.I.G. didn’t hold down two decades alive; he’s holding down decades dead. His music is not forgotten in the presence of his situation.

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Skyzoo And Von Pea On Brooklyn Gentrification, Modern New York Hip-Hop And Artistic Integrity

Initially using rap’s blog era to make a mark, for over a decade Skyzoo and Von Pea have taken different approaches to the same concept - lyrically deft music that pushes the creative envelope while simultaneously landing well with trained ears.

Commonly recognized for the dual role of rapper/producer in the whimsical group Tanya Morgan, most of Von’s core following stems from 2009’s Brooklynati - a concept LP centered around a fictional city merging the influences of TM’s New York and Ohio members. A decade later, his latest solo LP City For Sale focuses on the true to life socioeconomic devastation caused by gentrification in his actual hometown of Bed-Stuy.

A kindred spirit of sorts, Skyzoo is heralded as a multilayered thinking man’s emcee who is street smart yet sophisticated, bleeding Brooklyn culture through songs like “Spike Lee Was My Hero” and never hiding his affinity for jazz. Blessed with the good fortune of working with production titan Pete Rock for a whole album in the same vein as Gang Starr, Retropolitan captures the essence of coming up over the past three decades in New York’s five boroughs. Contrasted with City For Sale’s narratives about how systemic change affects neighborhood residents, both artists present themselves as pillars and modern upgrades to what their golden age predecessors achieved.

Two sides of the same coin, Skyzoo and Von Pea displayed a mutual respect and camaraderie on a conference call with VIBE, as they waxed poetic on where they’ve been in and outside of music, the keys to maintaining consistency over the years and what it takes for underdogs to get their just due on the heels of 2020.

VIBE: Your latest albums City For Sale and Retropolitan are acclaimed companion pieces with seemingly similar aims. How does it feel to lead the charge in a sense for keeping traditionalism alive?

Skyzoo: For me, whether New York was the way it is now or how it was 15 years ago, my music would sound the same. I probably speak for Von as well knowing the type of artist and individual that he is. When I made Retropolitan, it wasn’t about saving New York rap. It was about making music that reflects who I am and who Pete Rock is from a production standpoint. I did what came naturally, rapping about the changes going on in my world. If the idea of us leading the charge comes with it, then so be it.

Von Pea: We spoke before both albums came out, and Sky was telling me how what was happening with the Slave Theater [as shown on my album cover] was an early idea that sparked Retropolitan. We’re both from Bed-Stuy and around the same age, so we’ll talk about the same thing in our music from different perspectives. What’s happening in Brooklyn [with gentrification] is happening in so many other cities, but us being from Brooklyn is [reflected] in the music. We’re not trying to pretend it’s still ‘94, it is 2019 but our music comes from who we are and everything we’ve gone through from day one.

Being from Harlem, I know how I’ve felt about gentrification, but growing up I didn’t experience the same blocks as Brooklyn natives. What are your memories of your area when you were growing up and how did it feel to see the changes happening around you?

Skyzoo: It’s funny you said you’re from Harlem, me being from Brooklyn I feel just as bad for Harlem and I ain't even from there. Harlem was ours even before we were in Brooklyn. When you were down South, you just wanted to get to Harlem and make something of yourself. To see that happen there is a slap to my blackness. It’s like how much of this sh*t you gonna take from us?

Brooklyn was one of the first places to get hit by gentrification on a wide scale, and it started with proximity. Manhattan was too expensive and overcrowded, so people figured “Williamsburg is right there, we can get on the L train for one stop and be in Manhattan in 3 minutes.” Then Williamsburg gets overcrowded and expensive, so let’s push it back to Bushwick, Bed-Stuy and Fort Greene. Then the Barclays Center is built and you can’t just have a billion dollar stadium in the middle of the hood. You gotta build bars and cafes around it and now you’re kicking grandmothers out and people trying to make it to the next day.

People will be walking their dogs and if I’m walking my dog and nod, they don’t acknowledge me because in their mind they’re like “You’re not gonna be here in three or four years anyway, we’re gonna own this.” We can enjoy this together, don’t look at me like I don’t belong, because if we had to take a test on who belongs more, I’m gonna ace that (laughs).

Von: I remember looking at reviews from people moving in and they would flat out describe the neighborhood saying “It’s sketchy, but we’re waiting it out.” That planted the first seed for City For Sale, it was the first time I thought of the concept of somebody coming for my neighborhood and it no longer being for me.

Skyzoo: You can enjoy the neighborhood despite your nationality, background and tax bracket. It’s not about keeping people away, but when we wanted the garbage picked up or for police to show up, we couldn’t get it. So now that all of that has changed and the neighborhood is pristine, if we had to thug it out when it was pouring rain, we should be able to enjoy it when the sun is out.

City For Sale by Von Pea VIBE: You’re both ambitious artists who use narratives in your music. How did you come up with the concepts for these albums, and what were the exact statements you were looking to make?

Von: Going back to New York and thinking about Jay-Z, no matter what you think about The Blueprint, The Black Album or 4:44, he’s gonna let you know Reasonable Doubt is his masterpiece. I would never say I was trying to make my masterpiece, but I was trying to make that album that was the one for me. My group Tanya Morgan has Brooklynati and on the last song I said that for the past 40 minutes I was trying to beat that album and make a solo version of that for myself. I wanted to make a record about my city for today, people like Skyzoo and Torae never tried to bring New York back, they talked about where they were from presently, so I thought about what Sumner Projects and Myrtle Avenue were like today.

Skyzoo: Working with Pete and knowing what I was getting into, he’s one of the greatest of all time and I didn’t just get one joint, it’s like 11 or 12. Think of all of the people who have done all of these wonderful things in the game that don’t have a whole album with him, being on that shortlist was serious. The only pressure on myself is to beat what I’ve done before, knowing what he brings and what I wanted to do to match that. Like Von said, it was never about bringing New York back. It was just about making music that represented me. I always respected how the South never tried to sound like New York or LA when nobody was thinking about them. Master P, T.I. and Pastor Troy represented who they are and never tried to be us. As much as they respected us, they never tried to make a Wu-Tang joint.

Von: You gotta be yourself. You can’t tell somebody else’s story and sound authentic.

VIBE: Along with gentrification and other changes in the city, some would argue New York lost its musical identity. If you can identify with that feeling, how do you think that came to pass?

Von: I would disagree. Maybe you could say that was the case for a little while, but a record like “All The Way Up” [by Fat Joe & Remy Ma] sounds like a New York club record today. French Montana’s music has trap elements but to me they sound like current New York club records. You can get traditional sounds from people like us and the city’s current sound comes from things like transplants and the internet. You look at A$AP Rocky’s generation, they don’t just sound like Dipset, they sound like they were listening to Scarface.

Skyzoo: I think that’s a dope point. As large as the internet is, it made the world smaller. No matter where you are, everybody has access to the same things at the same time. While I agree with Von, I think on top of that New York has always been the home of the hustle. Whatever is winning, New York is gonna do it because we’re about that paper. If heads is wearing white tees down to their knees, we’re doing that, and if we’re scamming and swiping cards we’re doing that too. Being the home of the hustle is a pro and a con, because musically all these little kids in their early 20s see what’s winning and run after whatever is gonna get the paper, and the identity gets lost in that.

VIBE: The three of us have similar stories, growing up in the hood but never letting it define our limitations. This idea tends to come up in your music often, what gave you focus to see that there was more to the world?

Von: It really was just rap. I had an older cousin who was pursuing a rap career. We would drive around in his car listening to whatever was popular whether it was [Pete Rock & CL Smooth’s] Mecca & The Soul Brother, The Cactus Album by 3rd Bass or LL Cool J. He was trying to be a rapper and I had only seen rappers on TV. I was never into comics but Big Daddy Kane, Slick Rick and KRS-One were my Superman and Batman growing up. Then I discovered Tribe and De La Soul and my best friend growing up put me onto Death Row, and I realized all of these people were from the hood like me.

Skyzoo: For me, it definitely was Hip-Hop but the difference was having my pops. I grew up with both of my parents my whole life, even though they never were in the same house. I spoke to my pops every day even if I was staying at my mom’s crib. When I eventually moved in with him, I would come from hanging out in the hood and we would have Leroy Campbell paintings on the wall and he was listening to artists like Ronnie Jordan, Anita Baker and Sade. It taught me how to be comfortable in both types of surroundings.

Retropolitan by Skyzoo & Pete Rock VIBE: You’re both pretty prolific, dropping quality music almost annually whether free or for sale. What would you say has been the key to your consistency over the years?

Von Pea: For me it’s being a fan and competitive. I could be listening to Sky’s latest record, Drake or a dude I just heard of yesterday, but if somebody is spitting that sh*t I’ll be like “That was ill, why didn’t I think of that? You hear that flow? This beat is ill, I should have flipped that sample.” Then I’ll turn on the drum machine, fire up the Notes app and write some sh*t. I’m a huge fan, but I have to remember I’m one of these people and I have to keep up too.

Skyzoo: Same for me. If you’re doing anything creative, the day you’re not a fan anymore is the day you lose because you gotta know what’s going on out there in order to compete and coexist. I always want to one up myself creatively, while knowing the business end and what it takes to stay out here. You can’t drop every five years unless you’re Jay, Beyonce or Nas, that’s the era we’re in. I don’t believe in dropping 30 mixtapes a year, but one a year will keep me on tour, selling records and merch, and collecting feature money because the new record is out. You have to keep the fans locked in without them forgetting. If you’re gonna be in this, you gotta actively work.

VIBE: What is it like to take the road less traveled at a time where it can feel like there’s a limited audience hanging onto the type of music you make?

Von: I met Skyzoo at the Little Brother “Lovin’ It’” video shoot in 2005 and in all of that time, you see people try to get signed only to sit. People who were dope as f**k being themselves would be like “I got the Lil Jon-sounding record because Im trying to put my album out.” Even sadder is seeing someone become totally different because they’re trying to get on...I say it’s integrity on my part. A label will want to sign you only for you to sound like another person on that label and I never understood that, so I’m just gonna do me. If I could make a hit record being myself I would do that.

Skyzoo: Like Von said it’s about integrity, where I’m able to look in the mirror and be happy with the music I made. You never want to have moments where you’re like “I can’t believe I made that type of record.” There was never a moment when I dumbed down, for me it was like how can I do what’s working, while doing me at the same time and making it make sense.

Von: Fat Joe tells this story where KRS-One said “No one is shooting at my shows because I don’t talk about that.” We see what’s going on with [Tekashi 6ix9ine] in court, you talk up certain things and people are gonna approach you [with that same energy.] So I keep it true to who I am and what I’m doing.

VIBE: I know gentrification, fixing New York’s infrastructure or even the state of Hip-Hop are issues that are too big for any of us to tackle, but what’s the role you want to take on with your music?

Von: It’s part selfish, but as I’m trying to figure out what I want to say and do next, I just want to continue to have the respect of my peers and for people to say “Von is dope” or “Tanya Morgan dropped another classic record.” I don’t know if that’s vanity (laughs), I just want to be acknowledged for being dope and anything else is a nice perk.

Skyzoo: I want people to relate to the music, see themselves in it and leave a legacy. We’re always celebrating 15, 20 and 25 year anniversaries of incredible albums and I want my music to be looked at like that. We do that with Marvin Gaye, Stevie, James Brown, Michael Jackson and all of the music that shaped this country and world. I want my music to be represented like that as something that lasts, having the same impact as Illmatic, Ready To Die, Reasonable Doubt, Midnight Marauders, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx and sh*t that I listen to like it dropped yesterday.

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Missy Elliott's "Hot Boyz" Remix Remains A Heater 20 Years Later

“This is for my ghetto motherf***ers…”

When needing to avoid the dreaded “sophomore slump” while crafting 1999 album Da Real World, Missy Elliott called upon the talents of Nas, Eve, Q-Tip, and Lil Mo to create a remix of her single “Hot Boyz.” The track’s legacy is being one of hip-hop’s most beloved all-star posse cuts. When icons at the height of their talents and popularity execute in the manner that this quintet does on this track, magic transpires. Having spent 18 weeks at No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot Rap Singles from December 4, 1999 to March 25, 2000, its prestigious chart record was recently topped by Lil Nas X and Billy Ray Cyrus’ “Old Town Road.” On the Hot Rap Singles charts, the track hit No. 1 in January 2000 and spent nine months on the charts. The song’s longevity as a hit is undeniable.

Join vocalist Lil Mo as we revisit the cusp of the millennium to celebrate an unlikely track worthy of super-acclaim, finally receiving long overdue recognition of its excellence for its 20th anniversary.

AN ICONIC PRELUDE

In the era between 1995–1998 (1995 included as tracks produced in 1995 that were released in/impacted 1996), Missy Elliott likely accrued 65 official production credits, 70 singles, features, or guest appearances, and worked on her first two solo albums with a combined total of 34 tracks between them. In compiling this impressive volume of work, she also spent time in the studio as a producer, songwriter, arranger, collaborator, and engineer with somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 artists, highlighting the fact that when the “Hot Boyz” remix dropped on November 9, 1999, the idea that a song featuring an artist of her then already prodigious talent, combined with that of Nas, Q-Tip, Lil Mo, and mega-producer Timbaland was a guaranteed hit. It actually wasn’t.

By 1999, Missy Elliott was a breakout hip-hop star following up the success of her debut album Supa Dupa Fly’s singles “The Rain,” “Sock It 2 Me” and “Beep Me 911.” But as a collaborator, she was thriving and maintaining relevance. Missy’s protege Nicole Wray’s seductive rap ballad “Make It Hot,” Timbaland & Magoo’s artist album lead single “Up Jumps Da Boogie,” and Total's simmering hi-hat driven soul ballad “Trippin’” were all hits bearing Missy’s musical fingerprints.

Recorded over eight months between 1998-1999, Elliott’s sophomore release, Da Real World was originally titled She's a Bitch, as a positive way of expressing herself as an empowered woman. Previous to this, Elliott had crafted five top ten singles for other artists (702’s “Steelo,” Aaliyah’s “If Your Girl Only Knew” and “Are You That Somebody,” SWV’s “Can We,” and Total’s “Trippin”) so far in her career, quite possibly a case of giving away her A-level material for others while retaining significant, but not quite breakthrough pieces for herself.

“Missy had hits, but yeah, we knew we had that ‘one’ in us," Lil Mo remembers. "The team was incredible. We felt excited and unstoppable.

"We were working nonstop. We were also working with Jay-Z, Puffy, Beyonce, I even vocal produced Whitney Houston and Aaliyah, there was so much happening. We knew we had hits, we just didn’t expect a ‘Hot Boyz’-level hit.”

THE INGREDIENTS OF SUCCESS

Nas’ rap career reheated after his debut and follow up albums Illmatic and It Was Written. Namely, 1999’s “Hate Me Now” featuring Diddy was a global success. Q-Tip was still a member of A Tribe Called Quest but making solo waves—his single “Vivrant Thing” dropped a month prior to Missy’s remix. Eve came to the record by way of the Ruff Ryders clique, and likely because she was the most-anticipated female emcee of the moment. Lil Mo was Missy’s protege and worked with (but not signed to) her GoldMind label, having done considerable songwriting for the aforementioned Nicole Wray’s debut album. As for Timbaland, he had recently exploded into mega-stardom, having produced 18 top ten Billboard Hip-Hop and R&B Chart singles in three years' time. Timbo brilliantly found a way to blend the coarse edge of urban radio with the seductive vibe of the late-night quiet storm format into a potent, pop-friendly formula. His trademark sound was off-kilter: not so hard that it offended adult contemporary listeners, but also not so smooth that it alienated the streets.

Lyrically, this song plays as a haughty come on from a social-climbing female looking to land a date with a hard-hustling playboy pushing the hottest whip on the streets. Pulsing, MPC-boosted violin samples over a skittering hi-hat provide the underpinning. There’s the slightest bleed of one note that reverberates in a way that makes it a perfectly imperfect earworm. The excellence of the track is that it's a bed for Missy to showcase her soul vocal chops. The emcees fill in the edges with familiar, pop chart-aimed voices. Lil Mo's vocals filter through the entire mix, so loud and still somewhat unrefined, but for the purposes of a track so minimal in its construction, absolutely perfect. If ever needing proof that the greatest hits oftentimes break the “rules” of conventional production logic, look no further.

“When Missy was writing ‘Hot Boyz,’ we got there that night, and we immediately ate dinner. We had unlimited budgets back then, so why not! (laughs) Then, we—as we always would—would start cracking jokes while in the lounge,” Lil Mo recalls. “I heard the beat, she started putting down the words, and then she’s like, ‘Go record some ad-libs [to the beat], and take it to church!’ When I first heard the track, there wasn’t much to what Timbaland had put together, but it still had that magic. Missy heard it once, told me to not be worried about what it sounded like now, because she knew what it would become. We finished the version with her and I on it alone, but she had already told me who she was reaching out to for the remix. The song—with Nas, Eve, and Q-Tip’s parts added with mine—and the video were done in a week. Missy’s powerful. And when she has a plan, she’s going to do what she says she’s going to do.”

“We recorded and mixed the original version of the record in the same night,” Mo continues. “Timbaland’s production, mixing, and engineering team at that time was incredible. Jimmy Douglass was his engineer, and once he got the record, he went into seclusion and came back with a hit.” Douglass is likely the most decorated of the modern era session engineers, having worked with the likes of Aretha Franklin, Roberta Flack, the Rolling Stones, Hall and Oates, and every significant Timbaland production in the past two decades of his career.

THE SONG “RADIO DIDN’T WANT TO PLAY”

Regarding the single which she noted that “radio didn’t want to play,” Missy told Billboard, “I remember one of the stations in L.A. was the first to pull it. And something happened, I can’t tell you what happened, but whatever happened, it ended up back at the stations...and it ended up in the Guinness Book of World Records.”

“I want guys to feel like they could ride around and listen to this because the beat was so hard. This beat feel like all the male rappers would want to get on this joint right here,” she said. “Eve snapped EFFORTLESSLY and came through on this song,” Missy also noted via Instagram. Lil Mo continues regarding Eve, “Missy gave her 16 bars on the record and she wasn’t even lit yet! That’s the equivalent of giving someone one million dollars!”

 

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“HotBoyz” one of the hardest R&B bangaz🔥 Let’s talk about how @therealeve SNAPPED EFFORTLESSLY on this song here 🙌🏾 Eve came through👏🏾I remember this song had so many bad call outs at 1st that some radio stations stopped playing it 😩🙁but through the grace of God it went #1 stayed there for 18 weeks & ended up in the Guinness World Book of Records🙌🏾Won’t he do it🙏🏾 big up @nas @thelilmoshow @qtiptheabstract

A post shared by Missy Elliott (@missymisdemeanorelliott) on Nov 21, 2018 at 7:35am PST

The first voice heard the remix is that of Nas. The flow is reminiscent of Firm-era Esco, equipped with swagger raps and cop-bait. Then, as Nas correctly says, “Missy’s about to tear it up....”

Missy’s opening verse takes her from quirky, awkward 'round the way high school homie to college senior home before graduation looking to make a move on making babies, then quite possibly getting married. She’s the embodiment of a thug’s dream wifey: able to cook, clean, and provide ultimate sexual satisfaction in the same breath. When she says “I’m a fly girl, and I like those…” she’s effectively refreshed much of her entire brand imaging and also opened herself up to female fans of say, Nas, who kicked off the record. It’s a stroke of genius.

The second verse is a stunning evolution. Missy’s now best renowned as a feminist sociocultural bellwether. However, here, she’s cooing about being a hot guy’s date because he drives a Jaguar XK8. Moreover, she wants all of her friends, if his friends drive cars similar in luxury to the XK8, to meet. Yes, feminism is not a monolith. This moment is empowering in a sense that actually fits the notion of feral female sexual desire showcased here like a glove. It’s truly fantastic songwriting.

Eve’s up next, having notched two top 40 features (The Roots’ “You Got Me” and Blackstreet/Janet Jackson collaboration “Girlfriend/Boyfriend”) and two debut album singles (“What You Want” and “Gotta Man”) at this point in her career. In the 45-second feature, the “illest pitbull in a skirt” wastes no lyrical motion. No cute ad-libs, nothing approaching platitudes about her sexual prowess. Spitting gangsta vitriol is her method, and what’s to boot, in the video version of the remix (sans Q-Tip), Missy returns to maintain her lyrical aesthetic, going in about how she’s going to “dig in your pockets, dig in your wallets, is that money I’m foundin’, now you got my heart poundin’...” Missy’s a true lyrical chameleon, showcasing her ability to meet any rhymer halfway. In the non-video version, Q-Tip, uncharacteristic to his Native Tongue ways but likely more method acting in time with the aesthetic set by his fellow performers on the remix, is pure cocksure sex fiend here. It fits.

A LEGACY THAT CAN NEVER BE REPLICATED

“What? 18 weeks at number one? Yeah, people thought we were paying for that. MTV, BET, everything,” says Lil Mo, answering the questions surrounding if payola or illicit wrangling was involved with “Hot Boyz’s” epic run. “To this day, people go crazy when you play it. It was a genuine hit record. We had no Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Myspace to boost it...that single hit because of nothing but Billboard and radio.” Continuing, she remembers, “when I used to get my hair braided, it would take the girl six hours. I swear, in that six hours, I might hear ‘Hot Boyz’ 12 times.”

When asked if it would be possible to recreate that “Hot Boyz” moment, Lil Mo pauses, and then bittersweetly opines, “artists today don’t have the same type of confidence or creativity that we had back then. We had both, plus genius creatives pushing us to not fit into expected standards, but to be ourselves. That’s a gift and blessing. It inspires you to, when they give you the mic, to just kill it.” Lil Mo also credits the tune for kicking off her career “in a major way. It opened the door to me working with Ja Rule, Jay-Z, it helped me blow up out of control! My career struck gold.”

Upon hearing that artists like Kash Doll were inspired to become rappers because of songs like “Hot Boyz,” in her recent live performances, Lil Mo has updated the song’s hook to reflect modern times. Switching the hook from “Where your Lexus jeeps, and the Benz jeeps, and the Lincoln jeeps, and the Bentleys and the Jaguars, and the fly cars...Where you at” to “Some drive Bentley jeeps, some drive Lambos, even if they drive an Uber now, as long as he’s driving, baby,” has allowed the song’s relevance to resonate with just as much excitement for the current generation.

For her final note, Lil Mo reflects on her decades-long friendship with Missy. “This is 20 years of friendship. I just saw Missy last Saturday and though I don’t see her like I did all of the time two decades ago, it’s like we pick up exactly where we left off. The camaraderie that comes from making records that big is real. Our friendships, a song like this, they sustain and surpass the test of time.”

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Stalley Talks 'Reflection of Self: The Head Trip': 'I Haven't Been Vulnerable Enough’

Ever since leaving Maybach Music Group and making a dive into the independent market in 2017, Stalley has been peeling back the layers and giving listeners access into his life and thoughts through his music.

Fans got their first taste of Stalley's personal life post-MMG with his noteworthy three-volume EP series Tell The Truth, Shame The Devil. Through this series, Stalley updated listeners on his well-being and voiced his feelings about the trials and tribulations of the music industry. Last January, Stalley continued to flirt with vulnerability with his EP Human. On that project, the Ohio lyricist looked beyond the flashy rapper lifestyle and showed his listeners that he's human just like the rest of us.

This month, Stalley is making his return to the music scene with his latest musical effort Reflection of Self: The Head Trip. The nine-track EP is Stalley's most eye-opening project yet. Teaming up with producer Jansport J, Stalley again invites listeners into his closeted life, this time revealing the inner workings of his mind. "This project came from me doing a self-reflection of myself and kind of figuring out where I was in my headspace," Stalley tells VIBE. "I'm taking you all on a trip through my head and the random thoughts and ideas that come through my head. You guys have never heard me like this before."

VIBE chopped it up with Stalley some more to talk about Reflection of Self: The Head Trip, his favorite tracks off the project, opening up and being vulnerable in his music, how writing his rhymes helped elevate his lyrics, and more.

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VIBE: What was the inspiration behind Reflection of Self: The Head Trip?

The first part, Reflection of Self, is me reflecting on where I've been and what I've been going through. The Head Trip is me taking you on a trip through my head as a listener and just getting you to bend those corners and every avenue and crevice of my mind to kind of see where it all comes and plays out. It's present Stalley. I think a lot of my music I've touched on the past. Now it's very current and emotional and what I've been going through and what I've been seeing musically as a man, as a father, just observing the world and itself. Not just sinking myself into music but just really observing the world and what's going on and putting it into the music.

After opening up on Human, what did you do differently on this project to bring listeners into a journey through your mind?

I think with this I tapped more into my emotional side. I dug deep and I'm a very closed off person sometimes and I don't really open up, not even to friends and family. I kind of pushed myself and pushed those limits to really talk about some things that have been bothering me whether it's been mental health, whether it's been my relationship with God, whether it's been my relationship with music, and how I want people to listen and perceive and grab my music. I want to be able to teach, and help people to grow, and help people to learn and to do things that the music did for me when I was growing up.

What was the hardest topic for you to talk about on Reflection of Self?

I think it was just the whole fact of people not seeing me sometimes. People don't see me posting on social media or speaking. I touched on it on the second verse on "All So New." I said “I kept it inside I was barely outdoors,” and that was real. There was a time where I would only go to the gym and back home. I would be in the studio or whatever but I was really closing myself off to the world and a lot of friends and family.

Upon listening to the album the production sounds like it was heavily influenced by early 90s rap. Were there any projects or producers from that era that you listened to as a source of inspiration for this project?

No, it was really just conversations Jansport and I would have when creating this project of just bringing ourselves with that kind of essence but making it current and making it about us. We definitely are fans of the Pete Rocks and MadLibs and the Dillas and people like that. We wanted to make our own version of that and make it current. I think we succeeded and did a great job. But I didn't really listen to anything in particular. I really wanted to close myself off, especially musically, and just really dive into my own head. I didn't want any influences. I wanted to speak from my heart and my soul. I think that Jansport was able to give me the perfect soundtrack to that and with that, it came out that sound.

How'd you link with Jansport?

I linked with him actually through Twitter. We chopped it up on there and followed each other. We spoke and talked about building and doing some music together. We exchanged information, got on the phone, and really just built. It took us a couple of months to really get where we got but it was awesome.

What are some of your favorite tracks off the project?

A couple of my favorite tracks are "Peppermints and Water," "Hold It Up," and "Bad Ass Kids." "Bad Ass Kids" that's a record that it kind of brought me back to when I was a kid and then to observing even my children and the kids that I've seen and been around and just really wanting to protect them. I want to be that person that they can come to for knowledge and grow with. I think that we lost that sense of community and the OGs and the older people really giving morals to the kids and that's what "Bad Ass Kids" was for me.

"Peppermints and Water" was just me reflecting. In the studio, I always have peppermints and water and I just kind of reflected over that. Some people reflect through weed or through a drink or whatever but that was something that I reflected on. "Hold It Up" you know everybody in hip-hop says you have to hold it down and stay this way, but I feel people say it but don't really hold it down. So I'm like instead of holding it down I'm trying to hold it up. I'm trying to uplift, build, inspire, and help people grow mentally and spiritually. Whatever it is I just want people to be better people. I'm trying to be a better person so we're working together on that.

These are some of the sharpest bars you ever spit. What did you do to elevate them this go around?

I went back to writing. I got out of my head and I let my soul talk. I let my spirit talk and guide me. I think before I was more into my head like I gotta say this a certain way or just putting unnecessary pressure on myself. But literally, the music is more spiritual for me. I tell people if the music doesn't move me to move you I can't do it. I don't want to do it. So with this, it's just straight spiritual and letting my spirit, soul, and God guide my pen. I'm so proud of the writing. This is some of my best writing if not my best writing by far. I'm proud of myself for always continuing to get better and pushing myself to try to help and inspire.

Did writing your verses down help you get all your thoughts out in a concise manner?

Yes, I do. I think that I was able to guide myself a little better. People like to say “guide your pen” but I really was able to guide myself and my thoughts. I was able to structure it a little bit instead of it being me regurgitating s**t out. It flowed more like poetry and like a book. I like to look at my projects as a good book. I want to write you a chapter or a book of my life and just give you myself. I think I was able to do that by picking up the pen and putting words to paper again.

Did you have any fear that writing would take away from the raw emotion of rapping from the head instead?

Yeah sometimes because I think that the freeness comes when you have the cadences and you say things a certain way. Sometimes you don't want to feel like you’re reading off of a paper or you don't want to be reading your thoughts because then it becomes more of a spoken word type feel. But I think that my flow was immaculate on this even then because I think from previously not writing and having that experience of just going off the top of my head I'm able to be more comfortable in my pocket when it comes to writing.

Do you see yourself continuing to be vulnerable throughout your music in the future?

Yeah, I think I need to for myself and my fans. I think that I haven't been vulnerable enough. I haven't given my fans enough of me. I haven't given the world enough of me. Again like I said earlier I have been very closed off and secluded in my own thoughts and in myself because maybe it's my upbringing or maybe that's just my star sign. (laughs) I don't know where it comes from but it's just me. I really want to be more personable. I really want to help. I keep bringing up the word help because I know there are people who are like me who go through things that I go through and I want to speak more current and I want to speak more present. I think that this project is the most current and present that I've been in my music.

After a project like this, what other stories or what else do you feel you have to tell people about yourself?

I think that with timing and growth it will show. There are a lot of things that fans or even myself need answers to, but I think it's going to take a little bit of time for me to do a little bit more reflecting and growing. I always try to push myself to the limit and I'm going to do that even more with this now that I have started to open up, I really want to crack that shell and truly open up.

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