Stro-shot-by-Elijah-Dominique-for-Mass-Appeal-1549489774 Stro-shot-by-Elijah-Dominique-for-Mass-Appeal-1549489774
Elijah Dominique/Mass Appeal

Stro Doesn't Want To Be A Rapping Pop Star, He's More Than That

The Brooklyn lyricist and actor talks about his new album Nice 2 Meet U, Again, his deal with Nas, defying LA Reid while at Epic Records and more.

Some people say that authenticiy is significantly missing from the new generation of hip-hop, but Brooklyn emcee Stro wants to rock the type of rhymes that made him fall in love with the culture in the first place. Confident, bold and focused, the 22-year-old, who first came to prominence at age 14 on FOX’s short-lived talent competition show The X-Factor, is creating his lane in rap music with his latest EP Nice 2 Meet You, Again.

The eight-track project features a slew of finely tuned cut bars, dreamy melodies, and lucid storytelling reminiscent of what the Brooklyn rapper grew up on. Stro sat down with VIBE to discuss young adulthood, his musical influences, upcoming film/TV gigs and where he sees himself in the next few years.

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VIBE: Given the way hip-hop has changed over the last decade and the current state of hip-hop, how do you see yourself changing the game with your own music?

Stro: I'm channeling a certain level of greatness. I feel that's something that we don't really see too much, especially amongst younger artists today. We always see people like The Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac and just write them off as legends and make it seems like they're untouchable, when I feel like I'm an artist that's trying to not only reach that level but extend it and take it farther than they even took it, just elevating the culture. People won't have any more excuses as to why something is wack. Right now if the music is wack, we'll say, “Oh, he's young, he's not supposed to make good music.” Nah, that's bullsh*t because you got all these like myself who are still putting out quality hip-hop from a young perspective.

On the intro of Nice 2 Meet You, Again, you say, "Tell L.A. Reid, I'm not a pop star." You were signed to Epic Records several years ago and at the time, L.A. Reid was the chairman and CEO. Why don’t you want to be a pop star?

That's pretty much what happened when I was signed with Epic Records, they were trying to sway my music or my style more in that direction. I ain't mad at him. Of course, I'm glad it happened how it happened, but that's just not who I am. That’s just not the element I'm from, and that's not the story I came to tell. That line wasn't nothin' too serious to me. It was just like, just off-the-rip I'ma let people know and I figured L.A. Reid will hear this one day. So I'm like, just let him know I ain't a pop star because that's not okay in the industry trying to force everybody into these boxes. And if you can't become what they think you are, then they say, “Oh, you're not ready for the business.” Nah, that just isn’t my style. When the time is right it takes off, and I think the time is right now.

So no ill feelings toward him?

No, no, no. I actually seen L.A. Reid, a few weeks before I released the EP and I was laughing. I told him, "Yeah, I just signed to Nas." I just seen his son Aaron Reid, too. They cool as sh*t. It's nothing personal. It's just hip-hop. That's an element we forgot about in the culture. Just speaking what's on your mind at the moment. It's not always meant in the serious tone.

You’re signed to Mass Appeal. How important is it that a record label coincides with your goals? Nas also has a reputation for not playing the pop star game.

I don't even think in the realm of pop star this or that. I just make good music. I know I'm trying to make the best music period. I'm not thinking about radio or underground now. When we look at Jay-Z, you're not thinking about underground or radio, you're just thinking like “ni**a that's Jay-Z, that's hip-hop.” Same thing with Biggie or Nas. These are legends and that's why I think they are able to be here forever. I'm modeling myself off of Snoop Dogg. Snoop Dogg has been here forever and been relevant forever. Whatever he's doing is just staying new and just staying hip-hop. A lot of people think hip-hop is old school when hip-hop is really just fresh, so we could get as experimental as we want. We can go back and trace the roots if we want. We can do whatever we want just as long as there's some fresh sh*t.

Have you met up with Nas yet? If so, has he offered any advice?

I haven't hung out with him. I've linked with him in the studio once to play him some tunes and some songs off this project. He had actually heard it before we met, and he was vibing with it. I was just getting good feedback through other people from him.

We didn't have a super deep discussion but one thing we did touch on was how hard to go with lyricism. I mentioned my plan as far as putting out Nice 2 Meet You, Again and the next body of work and how I was going to approach the actual records and sh*t like that. I told him I had a fear that sometimes it's too lyrical, sometimes people don't want it. But he made the point that now people actually want to hear that sh*t.

So, you shouldn't hold back. You should go out every time because people actually want to hear it. I feel like that's true though. I think we entertain the bullsh*t, but we know the difference between soul food and McDonald's. Sometimes, people want soul food.

Do you believe that the best work, whether it's yours or others', comes out of the most minimalist involvement? Not having the biggest budget, or having very few producers or writers on your team?

Definitely. That's why I'm grateful to Mass Appeal. Their support is genuine because they don't just post the songs and retweet it. You actually go to the office and motherf**kers like, "Yo, good job on that. What can we do to help you promote this project?” We're always coming up with new ideas whether it's for visuals, what we want to be the next single, what we want to put out next and highlight next. So just to have that is motivating for me that other people are giving a sh*t about what you do, they act as if this is really their job because it is their job. It made me feel like I can't sit back and be lazy.

You're 22 now. How's adult life been treating you?

I know 21 was really like when adult life hit me. Like oh sh*t, I got bills, all sorts of obstacles and then maintaining the music. [Now, at age 22] I understand that sh*t is real. Let me prepare. Preparation is a very relevant word in my life today. Preparation, faith. I got that sh*t tatted. Preparation and faith just in the journey and for moments like these.

Now people take you more seriously when you got facial hair, too. When I walk in the room now...they want to hear what you have to say. I'm being dramatic and exaggerating, but I'm older, I'm wiser, I've experienced more, and I think the music is at a point where it's undeniable. You can say it's not for you, you can say it's not something you'll listen to all the time, but you can't say it's wack.

On songs like "Ghetto Story," you talk about growing up with a single mother. How have your mom and family been involved in your career, whether it was direct involvement or emotional support?

I mean I guess, but it been that way. It's never a situation where it's we're each other's therapist and no crazy sh*t like that. We just talk we like family. I feel like every family does that or should do that, but it's never a situation where it's like some dramatic or sympathetic a** sh*t. If I'm f**king up and my money's low, I'm going through it, my mom would tell me, ‘get your sh*t together.’ She'll do what she can do, but it's not like a Disney family. We still from Brooklyn. They support me, but that's has been there since day one.

So, your mom is Jamaican?

Mom's Jamaican, my whole family's Jamaican.

Do you plan on incorporating reggae and dancehall into your music?

Oh yeah, of course. That's what I listen to. My favorite reggae artist right now is Super Cat. It's been that way for a while, but I look at him as an emcee. If you really go back and study a lot of Super Cat sh*t, that's what inspires a little bit of my aesthetic. Just that original vibe, that unquestionable, undeniable type of firmness when you're in your voice and in your statements and in the way you carry yourself. That's something I get from the West Indian side.

While growing up, was there a record that made you say, "Okay, music is what I want to do"?

I'd been listening to rap since I was like five. The first hip-hop record I would say I fell in love with that I can remember is "Gimme the Loot" by The Notorious B.I.G., and that was real young. But I don't remember saying then that I want to be a rapper. It was just something I feel like I was like involved in since I was born. But I remember when I wrote my first rap, I heard 50 Cent's "Candy Shop" on the radio. I was just copying the structure. I didn't know what the hook was, what bars were, what verses were. I was just saying, "Okay, he keeps saying this part over and over at this time, let me write my sh*t in the same type of form." And that's the first time I ever wrote a song.

Who are your top five favorite singers and rappers of all time that are from your hometown of Brooklyn?

Jay Z, The Notorious B.I.G., Big Daddy Kane. I guess SWV counts with two of them is from Brooklyn. (Editor’s note: Tamara "Taj" George is from Brooklyn, while Lelee and Coko are from the Bronx.) If I had to add one more person, f**k it I'ma put myself in there man. You got the legends, but I try to have like an out of body experience when I'm observing or presenting my art. So, when I listen to my sh*t, I know it's like “this sh*t is wavy.” It's like Brooklyn, but it's a fresh perspective of Brooklyn in a way. We haven't seen it, so I got to throw myself in humbly. But even if you think it's cocky, f**k it. I don't care.

You’ve also done some acting. You were in Red Band Society with Octavia Spencer and then you were in Earth to Echo. Do you want to be along the lines of Will Smith or LL Cool J in terms of conquering both Hollywood and music at the same time?

I think more along the lines of like the Tupac or Ice Cube. No insult to Will or LL, but I feel like I'm a little more rugged than that. I don't like to see myself as too clean...I'm not trying to be a Jaden Smith or no sh*t like that. I'm just trying to be a Stro.

I want to provide a new example. When we see Ice Cube, that's an example. When we see Tupac, that's an example. Now I want it to be like when we see Stro, that's an example. Even with Drake, that's an example, but I can't say I'm like Drake because we just have totally different paths. With acting, I'm trying to curate it a little bit more because I've been blessed to be a part of a lot of dope projects. I just did a film for Netflix called See You, Yesterday that's produced by Spike Lee, directed by Stefan Bristol. That's coming out in 2019. Did something for TNT, a short series. I was in two episodes that's coming out soon in 2019. Did an independent movie called Loose with Octavia Spencer, we got to work together again, that was dope. That’s coming out in 2019. I try to do a little bit of everything, but at the same time, I try to make sure it's stuff I actually want to do. You want to stay afloat but you still gotta curate and make sure that it's dope content. I feel like I'll be a part of more statement type of films [and shows] in the future, like Atlanta and Insecure.

Who taught you how to act? Was it a coach? A veteran actor in the game?

Stepdad, who used to be my manager. That's literally the only thing we really did was go over scripts and send in the audition tapes in the living room. I think he had dreams of being an actor at some point in his life and he actually dabbled in acting. He's done extra work.

It seems Hollywood is looking to have more diverse roles for black male actors so they don’t have to play stereotypical roles. Have you thought about using your acting and music as opportunities to make statements about social issues?

I try to just make sure I'm a part of dope sh*t as long as it's dope. One thing I don't feel like I need to play into though is any political statements when I'm acting or even [in] my music. I feel like everything is a political statement now. I don't want to do that. I want my music or my brand or the world of Stro to be a voice for the listener, an escape from the politics. Rappers and actors shouldn't be politicians. I mean you can, you should always be fighting, speak[ing] for your people. But I still want the highlight of what Stro is doing to be "Yo, this sh*t is dope," not because he's trying to say this or that.

Cardi B and Chance the Rapper are doing a Netflix rap competition series. Being that you came up through X-Factor, what are your thoughts?

I'm not in that world. I think that's dope, but I'm not going to lie and be like, "Yo, I'm going to be watching you might be a judge on there." That's the thing about X-Factor and sh*t like that. My mind isn't be there, bro. My mind was always on the dream, it wasn't on the attention. So, when people bring up The X-Factor, I don't know if I come off more standoffish when I talk about it, but to me, that was a step that was like what Martin Lawrence did with Star Search before he got his own show. That's how I approach it.

Astro was in X-Factor at 14, Stro is 22 now. Where do you see yourself at 32?

I don't know, man. I don't know exactly where I see myself because my life is very random in a good way. I didn't see myself acting, that's not something I'd go to school for. I never took acting classes but that's just something I ended up trying and sh*t ended up working in. I was very embraced and accepted by the film world.

So, I don't know. I'll definitely be doing more acting, more music, touring. Definitely have my own label Grade A Tribe Records, which right now it was still an idea, more of a concept and it is a label. But over the years I plan to really make that a real thing.

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You can catch Stro on the road for the Starting 5 Tour, which kicks off tonight (Feb. 6) in Santa Ana, Calif. Entry is free for fans and you can RSVP at tix.to/starting5tour.

 

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Music Sermon: The Evolution And Extinction Of Male R&B Groups

Male vocal groups were a mainstay in black music for decades. Whether it’s gospel harmonizers, the lockstep, perfectly blended Motown, or Stax and Philadelphia International sounds; the synth, glossy, dance and pop-infused ‘80s; or the last great decade for R&B groups in the ‘90s, there had always been two or more gathered in the name of multi-part soul harmony. And then – there weren’t.

Music fans were in heavy debate a couple of months ago about the current state of R&B – male R&B artists, specifically - and whether real R&B music exists anymore. (Puffy chimed in with a pretty definitive answer.) The decline of R&B artists has been noted, but R&B groups have been damn near extinct since the early 2000s. Girl groups (do we still call them that in the woke era?) are still on the endangered list and tagged for monitoring by music conservationists whenever a new group emerges, but the guys are feared gone for good. The last year male R&B groups had a presence at the top of Billboard’s Hot R&B/Hip Hop Songs chart – not even a crossover chart, the R&B chart - was 2001, during 112 and Jagged Edge’s last strong album runs (“Where the Party At” peaked at No. 1 on September 15, 2001).

King of R&B pic.twitter.com/DCUCDFjCOY

— Diddy (@Diddy) December 11, 2018

How did such a staple in black music just go away? How did we go from your granddaddy and ‘nem doing doo-wop on the street corner in the ‘60s, to your uncles and ‘nem doing talent shows in the ‘70s and ‘80s, to your cousins and ‘nem singing in school cafeterias and bum-rushing established artists at shows to audition in the ‘90s…to nothing?

To talk about what went wrong, let’s explore R&B groups over time.

THE FOUNDATIONAL GROUPS

I don’t have scientific evidence to support this, but you can trace all R&B back to a handful of artists/acts. Every vocal style, performance aesthetic, production technique, and sound evolved from someone and something that came before. This is especially obvious with groups, because R&B groups are a formula. They’re a musical equation of members, style, presentation and song. You couldn’t just pull four random people off the street – even singing-ass people – and put them in a group. The chemistry had to be right. The voices had to blend well. And there had to be at least one star. This formula was, of course, perfected at Motown – Berry patterned the label after an assembly plant, duh - but ‘60s acts laid blueprints and instructional guides. And ‘60s groups had the best names; The Temptations, The Impressions, The Platters, The Spinners. How did they come up with those joints?

The Temps are the male vocal group template. They’re one of the defining acts of the Motown sound, one of the best-selling male vocal groups of all time, and subjects of the best TV miniseries ever (“Ain’t nobody comin’ to see you, Otis”). The Temptations were tight and precise, with effortless vocals and footwork.

The Miracles championed the smooth, sensitive front-man style. They were the first Motown group to land a No. 1 hit, and the first to start the trend of changing the group’s name to highlight the star. I can name everybody in the Temptations, I can’t name anybody but Smokey Robinson from the Miracles. Smokey was also a quintessential music man, wearing multiple executive and creative hats. He was not only one of Motown’s first artists and first stars, he was also the company vice president and one of its key writers during the formative years.

Sam and Dave may the greatest soul duo of all time, powered by Stax Record’s legendary session band, Booker T. and the M.G.’s, with Black Moses himself, Isaac Hayes, writing and producing. They brought all of the black church into their vocal performances.

THE BANDS

With the emergence of funk in the ‘70s, bands moved to the forefront. A strong frontman was still necessary, but the band was the star. Complex choreography was replaced with high energy production and performance. It was about the jam. By the mid-‘80s, however, the black band was already dwindling. Advances in production were slashing recording costs, time and effort. It’s much easier to throw a producer and an engineer in a couple of studio sessions than travel musicians in, pay for rehearsals and schedule multiple days to record live in the studio. Sadly, this created a cycle. As music production continued to advance, lessening the need for session musicians, fewer new musicians were coming up anyway.

Tuskegee natives The Commodores started as a jazz band (musicianship!), but made their name with the funk. Several members played multiple instruments - for example, Lionel Richie also plays the sax. Shout out to my actual, real-life uncle on drums in this video.

The Isleys get the Male Vocal Group MVP award as the longest running group that managed to stay relevant and chart hits from the ‘60s through the ‘00s (do you know how hard that is?!). I’m going to back up a little: most music fans know the Isleys first as a funk and soul group, but they started as a doo-wop group, and even had a stint on Motown.

Also, there will be no Ernie Isley slander in my earshot, ever. Not never.

The prototype for all young black male groups of four or more members to follow. I don’t even need to say anything else.

First thing’s first, James “J.T.” Taylor is not “Kool.” With that out of that way, Kool & The Gang also started as a jazz band and evolved into funk, then disco, and eventually contemporary R&B. A lesson here is that if you know musical foundations and theory, you can adapt to almost any genre - ask all the producers who grew up playing in the church. Their evolution of sound over the years was such that a lot of folks under 40 still don’t realize that the group behind “Summer Madness” is also behind “Ladies Night” and “Celebration.”

CONTEMPORARY R&B

The biggest problem with the group/band structure since the history of recording groups of any genre is, someone is inevitably identified as the star. Then the balance shifts, and eventually it falls apart. It happened routinely at Motown, and the ‘80s was maybe the most successful era for breakout frontmen. Michael and Jermaine from the Jacksons, Lionel from the Commodores, Smokey from the Miracles (although it took a while), Jeffrey Osborne from LTD, Teddy from The Bluenotes, Babyface from The Deele.

Bands that survived the funk and disco era (like Kool & the Gang and the Isley Brothers), and the new groups on the scene, adapted to the new quiet storm sound taking over R&B in the beginning of the decade.

In the mid-late ‘80s, a new crop of young groups emerged, mixing contemporary R&B sound with classic four and five-man group style and harmony.

The new jack swing sound emerged in the late ‘80s, and tempo, rhythm and 808s make R&B party-ready again.

THE GREATEST DECADE

The ‘90s was the saturation point for Male R&B groups. There were fifty’lem groups. That’s an actual number. You can find lists of the 20 greatest Male R&B groups of the ‘90s. I don’t think I could put together a list of 20 R&B singers. The ’90s was also a massive decade for the expansion and evolution of the R&B genre. New jack swing, hip-hop soul, neo-soul, gospel-infused inspirational R&B. Whatever flavor you wanted was available.

There were classic groups with doo-wop inspired style.

Young, high energy new jacks with choreography for days.

I always say that Troop is the physical embodiment of new jack swing.

There were also groups that were a little more mature in content, what the old heads used to call mannish. (We had no business singing along to "Come Inside" so hard!)

The ‘90s also introduced R&B artists that moved like rappers, complete with combat boots and group chains.

By the ‘90s, commercially successful black bands were basically defunct. There were only two still standing. (For the purposes of this discussion, The Roots are solely hip-hop.)

THE FINAL CLASS

The last class of successful male R&B groups debuted in the mid-late ‘90s, and carried over into the early ‘00s. The shift in the landscape was clear early in the decade. The neo soul movement, while triggering a brief return to live music production, spawned mostly solo stars. And hip-hop was like the new fish you add to your lively aquarium, only to wake up each day and discover it’s eaten another of its fellow tank-mates, until it finally had the tank to itself. R&B songs were rarely sent to radio without a version featuring a rap artist. Contemporary R&B got less mainstream airplay; songs needed to have some bounce. A staccato flow. Something other than standing flat-footed and singing over melody. For the past decade, the lines have become even more blurred between the two genres, leading to the R&B debate mentioned earlier. These bops went out of fashion, but they went out with a bang. Shiny suits and leather, big budget videos, 25 dancers. Sigh…I miss those days. #BringBackVideoBudgets

So, what happened? On the business side, the rise of digital piracy hit the formerly recession-proof music industry unexpectedly, and then it was slow to adapt to digital downloads and streaming, which very quickly upended a long-standing business model. The cost and effort of developing a group, paying for vocal training, choreography, styling and travel, plus dealing with headaches from group dynamics (the term “herding cats” could be changed to “herding recording artists” and still be a perfectly apt analogy) was netting an increasingly diminished return on investment.

On the talent side, infighting between group members has always been a problem; resentment towards whomever was being groomed for solo success, fighting over name ownership, fighting over money, or just getting sick of each other. It’s broken up families: Raphael Saadiq and brother Dwayne Wiggins seemingly don’t rock with each other - or, rather Ray doesn’t rock with Dwayne. (Editor's note: Raphael Saadiq told VIBE why he doesn't see a Tony! Toni! Toné! reunion in the cards.) It’s broken up childhood friendships – the members of New Edition hashed out their differences and reunited for a tour and BET’s The New Edition Story, just to fall right back out and split in two factions, with Ralph and Johnny holding the name New Edition hostage.

The mid-00s featured a big youth culture moment thanks in part to 106th and Park, and black boy bands – like B2K and Mindless Behavior – were central to that. Even with R Kelly’s pen game on “Bump Bump Bump,” however, B2K were bigger at crossover radio than R&B, which was probably the desired result. Puffy tried to restore the feeling with Day 26 in 2008, and they landed a #1 Billboard 200 debut, but had no hit singles.

The shift was even visible in music recognition. From 2003 to 2011, the Grammy for Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group was awarded to collaborations. Destiny’s Child was the last group to win, for “Survivor” in 2002, but the last male R&B group to take home the trophy was Blackstreet for “No Diggity” in 1998. The recording academy eliminated the category altogether in 2012.

Shout out to Teddy Riley, by the way, for having three successful groups in the ‘90s (even though he can’t perform under the name Blackstreet anymore because Chauncey Black owns it. I told you, messy).

There’s been a nostalgia-driven ‘90s revival in music and culture for the last few years, and R&B groups from the era are having their moments. BET’s The New Edition Story was a ratings bonanza and a generated buzz and marketing moments for over a year. Anniversary pieces about classic R&B records and singles from 20 and 25 years ago seem to hit every other week. DJs who were babies in the ‘90s have added new jack swing and hip-hop soul classics to their sets. The last few male R&B groups to release albums to any fanfare were – wait for it - ’90s R&B groups. Jodeci’s reunion album The Past, The Present, The Future in 2015, and Bell Biv DeVoe’s Three Stripes plus 112’s Q Mike Slim Daron in 2017.

These groups still tour. Hell, you can catch almost every group listed above in some type of iteration. It might just be one original member and three strangers at a supper club, but you gonna get them hits. The audience is there for the classics and the nostalgia, but mainstream labels still aren’t interested in new music from established groups, or sinking the money into developing new talent. It hasn’t made sense, financially, to the powers-that-be. The label mantra for the past decade has been “R&B doesn’t sell.” Ballads or mid-tempos with no rap features and no autotune are usually only programmed on Urban Adult radio, which is a slow-moving format listened to by mostly physical album buyers. And oh, look at that, there’s almost no place to buy physical albums anymore! Digital streaming hit R&B hard. Streaming is a singles and playlist format, R&B is an album game. Brick and mortar record stores have closed (except for specialty shops), and big box stores pull albums from the shelves because CDs don’t sell much. But then they don’t sell because fans can’t find the music. Thankfully there is, finally, a shift back to contemporary, soulful R&B in progress – about a decade later than music cycles usually happen – led by artists like H.E.R and Daniel Caesar. Artists who play instruments! And write songs about love instead of sex! And sell records and win Grammys doing it! But it remains to be seen whether there’s room for the eventual return of the group. I’m keeping my fingers crossed.

#MusicSermon is a weekly series by Naima Cochrane that highlights the under-acknowledged and under-appreciated urban artists and sub-genres from the '90s and earlier. The series seeks to tell unknown and/or forgotten stories that connect the dots between current music, culture and the foundations of the past.

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Michael Levine/SHOWTIME

Don Cheadle On The Good Insanity Of 'Black Monday' And Battling Twitter Trolls

Don Cheadle isn’t insane; he just acts like he is, really well, on Showtime’s Black Monday. On the Wall Street dramedy about the 1987 stock market collapse, Cheadle has made fun of the AIDS epidemic and snorted cocaine off of a video game accessory as Maurice “Mo” Monroe, star trader on the show. As offensive as Mo is, Cheadle joined the cast after he “read the pilot, it made me laugh and I thought it was insane...in a good way,” according to the actor speaking with VIBE.

The 54-year-old Grammy-nominated director wasn’t rocking the Jheri curl and polyester threads like his character does in the show when the actual 1987 stock market crash occurred. At that time, he was a broke, struggling actor who admittedly could fit all of his worldly possessions in his car. Black Monday lets Cheadle experience the cocaine binges, robot butlers, and Jheri curl juice he never had in his past. But, fake or not, Cheadle doesn’t want to be on camera saying all of the absurdities Black Monday creators Jordan Cahan and David Caspe think up.

“Jordan and David are always pushing it and it's often up to us to say, 'Yeah, that's a bit too far. If you're going to say the line on camera, that's fine. I'm not going to say that on camera' (Laughs).”

With VIBE, Cheadle recasts Black Monday’s lead roles with rappers, talks smuggling blackness into a show about Wall Street, and why he doesn’t back down from Twitter exchanges with trolls.

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VIBE: What are some things you share with your character Mo?

Don Cheadle: That's a good question. I don't know. I know I'm nowhere near as intense as he is. I'm not as ambitious at all costs as he is. My sense of humor can kind of be on that level. But, never in public. You know how you could go in with your friends and be like, 'Please don't ever tape this' (Laughs).

One of the characteristics you two share is being confrontational. Do you ever worry that your personal opinions on Twitter could affect TV ratings?

Naaaahhhh. I've never had anybody of any position come to me and say, “You're really risking something and you got to knock that off.” No employer has ever said anything to me. There's a lot of bots on there, for one. A lot of people -- presumably people -- that come at me and say stuff like, “You just lost a fan.” I’m just like, “You were never a fan. Let's be real.”

On the show, Mo and Regina Hall’s character, Dawn, are the only prominent Black characters, yet their blackness has yet to be the focal point of an episode since the series’ premiere. Was that intentional and will the show explore blackness in the ‘80s?

It comes up in the second episode when they're in the store. Mo is telling her, “Those white boys will f**k you, they'll date you, but they won't give you a spot.” We want to pepper that stuff in, kind of smuggle it in and not lead with it. That's not something the characters talk about every day. They know who they are, they know what they're dealing with, and it comes in and out of the show. It's not the focal point of the show, which I like. They are black and it is front and center, but it isn't the subject matter.

The second episode has the classic back and forth negotiation scene between you and Dawn. Were there ever scenes where you and Regina couldn't get through it because y'all kept making each other laugh?

We would crack each other up a lot. Both of our desire was to always get it on camera, so we never really lost it during a shot. Maybe once or twice. But, most of the time we would get the take and then we would crack up. I'd always be like, “When you said this line.” She would be like, “When you said this.” We kind of improv a lot on the show and some stuff gets in there. When she said, “Who wants to titty f**k Keith” [in the series premiere], Regina just improv’d that.

So it was all Regina Hall's idea to mount Paul Scheer and thrust in the air as if she was titty f**king him?

Yes, that was her (Laughs).

The third episode starts with the most ‘80s scene we'll probably see on television this year: you snorting coke off of a Nintendo Duck Hunt gun while talking about Michael Jackson and Brooke Shields dating.

(Laughs) Yeah.

Are those moments intentionally put into the show to show that Black Monday is set in the ‘80s?

I think, absolutely, we're trying to juxtapose that time period to now and see the things that remain and the things that change, and see how far we've come in some instances and how far we still have to go. Absolutely, all of that cultural stuff is very fun to play with. We always want to make it a part of the show. We don't want to full out do something that has no bearing on anything just to make fun of the ‘80s.

The music for the show has been great. Knowing what you know about Mo and the ‘80s, what would be his morning playlist before a day of kicking a** on Wall Street?

Oh, he would definitely listen to Run-DMC. I think he's into all of that early hip-hop with [Big Daddy] Kane and LL Cool J. He's deep into that. He probably also listens to some of the stuff that was coming out of Europe at that time. Stuff like the Eurythmics, Annie Lennox, a lot of that stuff. UB40 (Laughs). At one point in the show, he's like, “Don Henley's coming to play. I don't really f**k with his music, but he's number one, so I'm listening to it.” He likes what's popular.

You once said you wanted to cast Kendrick Lamar for the role of Junior in the film Miles Ahead.

Yes.

If you had to cast the roles for Dawn, Mo, Blair, and Keith with rappers, who would they be?

Oh, wow. Who would Dawn be? I think Dawn might be Queen Latifah. I like Dawn as Queen Latifah. I don't think Keith and Blair would be any rappers (laughs). I can't think of any rappers Keith and Blair would be. Not that there aren't some. I mean, they might be 3rd Bass. Who would Mo be? That's a good question. Who do you think Mo would be?

Mo is so out there I was thinking…

Ol’ Dirty Bastard?

Or a really animated Leaders of the New School Busta Rhymes.

Yeah. Definitely, a young Busta Rhymes. Kool G Rap also.

If they're going to be doing as much cocaine as Mo does on the show then it has to be someone from Wu-Tang.

(Laughs) It has to be O.D.B.

I did a little bit of IMDB digging and saw that Kevin Arnold is listed as your stunt double for 5 episodes of the second half of the season. Is Mo about to get crazier in the second half of the season?

No comment (Laughs). Things get crazy.

With a show titled after and centered around an event that it appears will be reached by the season finale, is there any way this show could come back for a second season?

Fingers crossed. I think the jumpoff is Black Monday, and the show is still going to still be about the stock market, Wall Street. That one day was just what started a lot of stuff. Things kept going on from then and are still going on.

Catch 'Black Monday' on Sunday nights at 10p/9c on Showtime.

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Stacy-Ann Ellis

Meet Koffee, The Rising Jamaican Star Who Is Hot Like A Thermos

Back in 1962, a 17-year-old Jamaican singer/songwriter named Robert Marley recorded a song called “One Cup of Coffee” and went on to take reggae music around the world. Fast forward 55 years to 2017, when a 17-year-old Jamaican singer/songwriter named Koffee dropped her first record, “Burning,” setting her on a path to become the most talked-about new artist in dancehall reggae right now.

Koffee got her big break when veteran singer Cocoa Tea invited her onstage at the January 2018 edition of Rebel Salute, Jamaica’s biggest roots reggae festival. “She name Koffee and me name Tea,” he quipped, calling her the “next female sensation out of Jamaica.” The artist born Mikayla Simpson doesn’t actually like coffee though—she prefers hot chocolate.

After graduating from Ardenne High, the same school dancehall star Alkaline attended, Koffee turned her focus to music. She shot a live video with new roots superstar Chronixx at Marley’s Tuff Gong Studios, then dropped her breakout single “Toast,” produced by Walshy Fire of Major Lazer fame. That video has racked up 10 million+ views and made the artist, who stands just over five feet tall, a very big name on the island. Now signed to Columbia UK, Koffee will release her debut EP Rapture next month.

“Mi only spit lyrics, don't really talk a lot,” she states on the track “Raggamuffin.” But when Koffee turned up to VIBE’s Times Square headquarters, bundled up against NYC’s February chill in a hoodie, thermals, and Nike x Off-White sneakers, she opened up about her musical journey, the power of gratitude, her surprising inspirations, and how she plans to spend her birthday.

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VIBE: I haven’t seen you since your EP listening in Kingston. Congratulations on an impressive body of work. Koffee: Thank you. I feel humble and proud at the same time. I really put a lot of thought into the EP, the way I structured it, and the content, the lyrics. It really means a lot to me, so I appreciate you saying that.

It’s amazing how much you’ve accomplished since Cocoa Tea brought you out on Rebel Salute. Yeah, and that was only a year and a month ago!

So how did the link with Cocoa happen? Actually, it happened through Walshy Fire. After my very first single “Burning,” Walshy reached out and sent me some riddims, in hopes of us working together, which we ended up doing. We were supposed to meet up at a studio in Florida and when we went there Cocoa Tea was already in the building. We were like, “Wow, Cocoa Tea!” Because Cocoa Tea is a reggae legend for us in Jamaica. Walshy actually introduced Cocoa to some of my music, and Cocoa was like, “Wha? Mi gonna bring her out on Rebel Salute next month!” This was in December, and Rebel Salute was in January.

Timing is everything. Rebel Salute made a huge difference. It opened me up to a lot of opportunities. Even today a lot of places that I go, people remember me from there. I was doing music before. I’d done a few shows here and there, but the audience at Rebel Salute is very important. It’s an epic stage to present yourself.

Were you nervous? Just before going out on the stage I was backstage pacing back and forth. I was trying to keep warm as well because it was chilly that night. But I was really nervous because it was my first time being in such a light.

Do you think being so young has helped you? Like, you may not overthink everything. I think you have a point. Because I’m young, my mind is a bit more pure, or uncorrupted. Experiences do have a way of taking away your mental space and the things you’re willing to try. Staying in “the comfort zone” is the most comfortable thing, but sometimes pushing yourself to step outside of that will help you overcome your fears. That, and just the drive and motivation. I definitely try to keep challenging myself.

Reggae has always been a male-dominated industry, but female artists are definitely on the rise. How do feel getting catapulted into that category? I feel like it’s a big responsibility, and “to whom much is given, much is expected.” So I don't look at it as, “Oh, I’ve made it.” But I acknowledge that I’m in a position where I have a responsibility now to fulfill and to pull through. It just pushes me to work harder, make more things happen, and just keep it going.

I love the line in your song “Raggamuffin” where you say, “Mi give them heart attack inna mi halter back.” Was that inspired by Althea & Donna’s “Uptown Top Rankin’” from the ‘70s? Yeah, I love that song. That’s the thing, I would say that every artist is an influence to me. Growing up, I would hear these songs being played by people next door, down the road, all around. Just in the Jamaican environment on a whole. So those songs definitely do have an influence on me, the messages from those times. Once you hear it, it’s in your head. You know it now and it really makes a difference in how you think, how you speak, and everything.

When people think of a female dancehall artist they usually think of colorful hair, long nails… But you seem to have your own swag. How would you describe your style? I would definitely say unique, but at the same time, it is natural to me and not calculated. I don't put a name to it and say, “I’m gonna be this way.” I just kind of flow and whatever you see is me doing what I feel. Like, I’m not sure what these pants are, but I bought them in Berlin. I got this hoodie in the UK—I’m not sure what brand this is either. I was just trying to keep warm. My friend Ayesha from the UK styled me with this top recently for a shoot.

There’s a line on “Burning” where you talk about “Koffee pon di street, tank top inna di heat / Jeans pants an’ Crocs / No socks pon mi feet / Knapsack mi a beat / Well pack up an’ it neat.” Was that your real-life dress code in 2017? Yeah, I remember at that time that’s how I used to roll. You know in Jamaica it’s hot, so I probably had my tank top and my jeans on, or my shorts. And I had this one pair of grey Crocs that I just wore everywhere. And I always have my knapsack. So yeah, that was my reality at that moment.

How far away does that feel, now that you have a stylist and travel the world? That’s amazing. It’s a transition that’s really beautiful and something I really appreciate.

I have a feeling you’re going to re-introduce words like “appreciate” and “give thanks” into pop culture. I hope to start a wave of gratitude. Even by writing that song “Toast,” when I say “We haffi give thanks like we really supposed to,” it reminds me to be grateful. I aspire to be humble and I pray and ask God to help me be grateful. I try to maintain it and I hope that will inspire other people to do the same.

Let’s talk about “Toast.” On the chorus, you say “We nah rise and boast.” But then again, a lot of reggae and dancehall artists are very “boasy.” That’s part of the culture. When I say “Wi nah rise and boast” it means that no matter what happens along the journey, we’re still gonna remain the same. We gonna big up we friend and hold a vibes. I’m just making it clear that we never come fe hype.

You can spit pretty fast, but I feel like some people may be missing some of the things you say. But if you listen carefully you’re talking about real things. Thank you for noticing that. When I wrote “Raggamuffin,” a lot of my musical influence came from artists like Protoje and Chronixx. Chronixx has basically been an advocate for the youths, so his message had an impact on me. When I was vibing to the beat, I wanted to cover myself, cover my country where I come from, good things and bad things, and the music, reggae itself.

Growing up, did you see inner city kids not being looked after by their own government and their own people? Most definitely. I wouldn't say that the government is responsible for the lives of everybody as citizens. But there are some general things that need the government’s attention and they don't pay the attention that they should. They'd rather focus on things that can garner income. There are roads that need to be fixed in places that tourists don't necessarily visit. And nobody cares about those roads. Minor injustices, major injustices—just things that really need to be spoken about so that people can think about it and look into it.

BDP used the term Edutainment—education and entertainment. Is that something you present in your music? Yes, it’s definitely something I aim for. I think that it’s important to keep people interested enough to want to absorb what you are saying. And then it’s equally important to present something that is worth absorbing. Something productive, something inspiring, motivating. Just mixing both so that you have their attention and you’re also delivering something that’s worth their attention.

You were still in school when you did your song “Burning.” As a new artist did you have to convince the producers to work with you? Gratefully, no I didn't have to convince them. Because I did a tribute to Usain Bolt before that. I wrote a song with my guitar titled “Legend” and posted a video of me performing it with my guitar on Instagram.

Usain came across it and reposted it, so that garnered a lot of attention. People from the music industry reached out to me, and in that group of people was Upsetta records with their Ouji Riddim. They sent it to my first manager like, “Let’s see what she can do” and so forth.

There’s this thing in Jamaica called Sixth Form. It’s like you graduate high school and there’s an extra two years that you can do as like a pre-college. I applied for it and didn’t get through. Right after that, I did the tribute to Usain Bolt and then Upsetta sent me the Ouji Riddim. I was in a state of mind where I felt disappointed. I felt the need to motivate myself, so I was like “Come with the fire the city burning!”

How does your mom feel about all of this? I started writing lyrics at 14 years old, but she didn't find out until I was 16, when she saw me perform at a competition in school. I invited her there and she was taken aback, like, “Wow! So this what you've been doing?” (Laughs) She wanted me to do academics like every parent wants. And she was little disappointed when I didn't get through to Sixth Form. But over time, as I wrote more and performed more, she began to trust my talent and just trust the process. So she started appreciating the music and now she's fully on board.

What did your mother think of “dancehall pon the street,” like you sing about in your song “Raggamuffin”? As you know I’ve been living with mommy since I was a baby up until I was 17, so being under her roof I didn't go out much. I was always in the house just chilling and stuff. I know that there’s a dance on like every corner. lf you are driving, you always hear music playing. You have the oldies dancehall, you have the new dancehall—everybody just hold a vibe. That’s basically where that line comes from.

Do you go to dances now? I’ve been going to a few parties and getting out, but I haven't been to like a dance dance. I’ve been to Dub Club, you get some really good music there. But Dub Club is like a relaxed kinda vibe.

You recently performed at Bob Marley’s 74th birthday celebration in Kingston. Do you still listen to his music? Most definitely! Bob has set such a great and amazing foundation for the music, the industry, the genre itself, the country, the youth... He’s set such a great example that you haffi really learn from it and take a lot from it so that you know where you’re coming from. You haffi understand how to execute in honor of such people.

What are some of your favorite Bob songs? Well, I performed “Who the Cap Fit” that night, so that’s one of my favorites. And I like “Is This Love” and “Natural Mystic.” That’s just a few.

I know that’s a hard question. What about a dancehall legend like Super Cat? Hmm… “Mud Up” woulda be my favorite Super Cat.

Really?! Yeah, because of the flow he has on it, not necessarily the content. See, I’m from Spanish Town. Jamaicans on a whole, we like vibes. We like lyrics that, as we would say, “it slap!” It touches you, and really hits that spot. So I listen to a lot of different things, and the lyrics that I listen to aren't always conscious. But what I derive from music is not necessarily the message. Sometimes the flow that you’re hearing, that’s the wave for the moment. It may not be the best for the youth, but that’s what people like to vibe to. So you take that vibe, put a positive message to it, and that’s the spin. So I listen very widely.

One of my favorite songs on your new EP is the “Rapture” remix. It was dope that you got together with Govana on that. When I first wrote “Rapture,” Govana had recently done a song called “Bake Bean” that took off in Jamaica. When him drop that, it’s like the flow really resonate with me. I was like, “This is dope.” So when I did “Rapture” I was listening back to it and thought I should probably try to get Govana on this track. And it turned out so sick!

That’s cool to have the credibility where other artists respond to you like that. Because I'm sure it’s not always that easy. No, it’s not always easy. Me haffi give thanks for the way people have been responding.

So no one has kissed their teeth and said, “Nah man”? (Laughs) No, not yet. (Laughs) But what I have to appreciate is just when another artist really listens and pays attention. Sometimes an artist can be good and they don't get the response or the attention that they deserve. Some people don't want to listen, so I give a lot of respect to who is willing to listen.

Well Govana has given you that “crown” in his verse, which reminds me—how did the song “Throne” come about? I remember Walshy sent me that riddim in the first batch of riddims that he sent me. The riddim for “Toast” was also in that batch, but I started with “Throne.” It was basically like a challenge for me. I was like “How am I gonna spit on this?” Because the riddim sounded so dynamic. I was like “mi haffi mash this up!” Hence the fast spit-fire kind of vibe.

What music are you currently listening to on your phone? I don’t listen to my own songs that much. I’m vibing to Mr Eazi. I’ve been going in on the Afrobeats. Burna Boy. Smino the rapper. And I’ve been going in even more on Bob Marley.

Well, it’s reggae month right now. So there’s lots of legendary birthdays—Bob Marley, Dennis Brown. That makes the month even more significant! By the way, I’m born in February also. (Laughs) February 16th.

Happy Earthstrong! Were you keeping that quiet? I just remembered. I’ll be 19!

Wow—you’re gonna be out of the teens soon. What you gonna do on your 19th birthday? Wowwwww—I dunno. I’m gonna see when I get to Jamaica which party. I’ll probably just try and go to a dance or something. That ah go be mad!

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