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.
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.
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.