While the two decade wait for Guns N Roses's Chinese Democracy may been shocking to rock music fans, but it's nothing out of the ordinary for the average Hip Hop listener. 2011 has already seen the release of Saigon's elusive debut The Greatest Story Never Told, Lupe Fiasco's nearly shelved Lasers and Joell Ortiz's oft-delayed Free Agent. Even Dr. Dre is preparing to drop his long-awaited thrid LP Detox at some point this year (that's what he's been saying, at least).
One such album that fans have been fiending to get their hands on is California trio Strong Arm Steady's Arms and Hammers. Back in 2007, emcees Krondon, the group signed to Talib Kweli's Blacksmith imprint at Warner Bros Records and quickly hit the studio to record their debut. But as the years rolled by, it became clear that Warner Bro wasn't wholly capable of handling Kweli and company, and eventually, Arms and Hammers was seemingly lost in the wash of label politics and dwindling record sales.
That's not to say Strong Arm Steady didn't keep busy, however. The crew's been keeping up their presence in the industry with mixtapes, guest appearances, solo projects and last year's critically acclaimed album with Madlib In Search of Stoney Jackson. Now, five years and over 150 recorded songs later, Strong Arm Steady finally released their long-awaited Arms and Hammers and are ready to take their rightful place in the echelon of California acts. Emcees Krondon, Phil Da Agony and Mitchy Slick sat down with DX to talk their new album, the Pete Rock and DJ Khalil beats they lost to Kanye West and Eminem, and the past, present and future of west coast Hip Hop.
HipHopDX: Arms and Hammers has been five years in the making, and now, it’s finally dropping. How does it feel for it to finally come out?
Krondon: It’s almost overwhelming for us. You put so much time, effort and energy into one particular thing. It’s easy for a man to have many, many focuses, but it takes an extreme particular man to focus on one thing [for that long]. So you have three individuals that focused on one particular thing for a long period of time, and the master chefs that we are…we kind of put together something that if it took us this long to create, and we did over 150 songs for this album, we wanted to make sure that it stood the test of time, like the records that came before it that are the same capacity and magnitude…it’s something that had to go on [so that] beyond ten years from now you want to listen to it. The time that we put into it, it’s definitely worth the wait.
Phil Da Agony: That’s why we did the Madlib album [In Search of Stoney Jackson] last year. We wanted everybody to get a taste of something. We smashed the mixtape scene when we first were coming out doing shit as Strong Arm Steady, from collective stuff to individual mixtapes. We’ve been working real hard on Arms and Hammers for a minute. Like Kron' said, we sat up on a lot of great songs. A lot of great songs are going to be on this album…if you’ve been waiting for a long time for this album, you’re going to be satisfied. So like Kron said, we have 150 songs. A lot of great songs might not have made it. You might’ve heard the Eminem leaked track [“Talking to Myself” ]. You might’ve heard the Pete Rock record [“Makings of You” ]. You still might not have even heard the R. Kelly record we got. It’s like so many elements in recording that went on in the last four or five years.
We did want to give you something to hold you over, and that’s the Madlib record last year [In Search of Stoney Jackson]. That’s like the light album, [with] Arms and Hammers being like the dark side - not just to say that the songs and the content [on Arms and Hammers] is dark, but just to show the difference in the two [albums]. The Madlib record was heavily sampled record and it was a little gritty and grimy and has got a lot of talking…whereas the Arms and Hammers album has a lot of live music, bigger sounds. We’ve got Jellyroll, DJ Khalil, Blaqthoven. It’s just a bigger sound than what the Madlib record is, so we’re still giving you the great songs like Strong Arm Steady does, but we just brought a different element…and theme behind this album.
DX: You brought up Stoney Jackson, which was definitely one of my favorite albums of last year. With that being said, where you guys see that project in comparison to Arms and Hammers?
Phil Da Agony: [Stoney Jackson] was another piece of the puzzle leading up to [Arms and Hammers].
Krondon: The thing you have to understand, brother, is that with music, you can’t ever think that one time, what happens far too many times on the west coast, is that the consumer and/or fans from the outside feel like they can predict what’s coming next from us. You’ve have a profile that has a…[reputation for making a type of music], you kind of get thrown into that and thrust under that [label] and some of the things that we put out prior, I can’t blame it. But honestly, when you look at a group like Strong Arm Steady and the dynamic and the breakdown of the individuals, that in itself is unpredictable, so the Madlib [element] is strictly a representation of that understanding that you can’t predict what this particular brand is going to do next: you don’t know.
[Stoney Jackson] was completely left of center. It was completely not what you would think Arms and Hammers would be…but it’s exactly what we wanted to present and represent for our brand, especially before we came and brought you a bunch of things that you are in some ways familiar with.
Phil Da Agony: This Arms and Hammers is really on some strong music. You’ll hear it and being like, "Man, this is definitely gangsta I’m listening to right now," whereas you’ll listen to the Madlib album and be like, "This is Hip Hop"…it doesn’t really matter what we got with, we’re just going to give you all our best in arena. Being that there’s so many elements in the group, that’s what we bring to the forefront. We can’t do everything on one album. If we did…Arms and Hammers would be that album, because if you love Stoney Jackson…we’ve got a Madlib song on Arms and Hammers for you, too.
We just went in to a whole other element of just content and subject matter and what we’re attacking. We’ve got songs on Arms and Hammers like I’m from the hood [like] “Klack or Get Klacked” where over here [on Stoney Jackson], we’re talking about what kind of food and what kinds of vegetables you’re eating, so it ain’t really real to get pigeonholed because we’re everything. We’re not just one thing…we’re everything that could come out of Hip Hop that’s some dope shit, from Dr. Dre to DJ Khalil.
DX: As we were discussing earlier, Arms and Hammers has been five years in the making, and that’s largely due in part to what Blacksmith Records went through over at Warner Bros.
Phil Da Agony: [The label situation] wasn’t a good look, and we were a little upset about that because we like the music to be up with the times. We updated this album all the way up into last year, but we’re constantly sitting and recording songs every year and changing songs out and putting songs in. In that sense, we wanted to keep y’all up to date with what we’re doing. But it’s unfortunate. Nobody had control over the powers that be over at Warner [Brothers]. Not only with the situation that [Talib] Kweli had, but the whole black music department they had over there. I think even the head of music over there was released at some point, so that’s just the powers that be in dealing with the major labels and stuff. It was definitely frustrating going through it.
We’re just here for making great music, it wasn’t like the situation wasn’t there so we’re not interested in putting out a fresh product…nah, the album and the songs keep getting better along with time, but in actuality, if that situation [with Warner Brothers] was still there, this should be our third album coming out, because like Kron' said, we did 150 songs. It’s nothing for us to be able to chop up three albums out of that, but for what we have and what we’ve got to work with, this is the best album to but forth to date. We might not have had the budget to put the R. Kelly record out that we’ve got, which is incredible, but we’re still giving y’all an incredible, crazy fucking album.
The music and the label problems, we try not to get caught up into that too much, and the music is pretty much going to stay the same. Those titles I used ain’t really going to rock the boat of what Strong Arm Steady’s doing musically.
DX: Now, you guys already mentioned this earlier, but I wanted to turn to the two tracks from Pete Rock and DJ Khalil that ended up going to Kanye West [“The Joy”] and Eminem [“Talking to Myself”]. Both were great tracks and it’s really a shame that you didn’t get to put them on Arms and Hammers, but is it at all sad to have to see them go?
Krondon: No. Like I told you before, we did a 100-and-some records for this album. We’ve worked with everybody from Kanye West to will.i.am to [DJ] Khalil to Akon to R. Kelly. We really worked with everybody, and we really were able to sow our oats as artists and musicians in the sense that of working with everybody, so it didn’t really matter [that we lost those records]. We’ve worked with Pete Rock [on “Makings of You”], Pete Rock is our brother, he’s part of our movement and we got I don’t know how many beats from Pete rock. He worked and lived in our crib, we went to New York and fucked around in his crib. Him getting a record with Kanye and Jay-Z [on “The Joy” ], we’re just as happy for him as we were to work with him and have the record ourselves. Of course, we feel slighted and little way about it as musicians to hear the greatest in the world on our record that we had first, but you’ve got to look at is as great minds think alike at some point.
That’s my thing, bro: at some point you’ve got to give respect and credit to Strong Arm here if you’re going to give credit to the Kanye and the Eminem here. You have to, especially we had these records five years prior to you even hearing them surface from these guys, the producers have to come to us and say, "Hey man, I’ve got to take this record from you because the biggest artist in the world wants to use it." You’ve just got to applaud that.
Phil Da Agony: Yeah, you’ve got to applaud that, that’s [still] such a great thing…it ain’t really about the records. We’re going to take from forever. There’s always going to be a dope beat, but the fact that where our ear was [on these records], that’s where we at with it. We want y’all to know, we’re hearing these shits four or five years before that shit even comes out. We’re happy more than upset that those records went where they went, because if you look at the “Talking to Myself” record, DJ Khalil’s studio is right next door to Strong Arm Steady’s studio. I saw Khalil yesterday, like, "Khalil, you ready for that Grammy [with Eminem]? Because you’re going to be getting it next month!" And that shit felt good to say to my brother who I know has been working just as long as I have on our craft and art and making it, so I’m happy for that dude.
And the Pete Rock situation, this is big for Hip Hop. I’ve been a fan of Pete Rock, as we all have been, for a minute, so to hear Kanye who I know might not have even given Pete Rock that kind of [love]. He might have said ‘I’m the new Pete Rock’ before he even sat in the studio and built with Pete Rock about things. Pete probably felt the same way before he had the chance to get in there and give Kanye these snares and show Kanye these drums. That song didn’t make the album, but if you hear Kanye’s record, you’ll hear sounds from Pete Rock’s snares and different drums and shit. That shit is big for Hip Hop.
Now, what’s important to us is that HipHopDX [and the fans] recognizes that and is like, "Yo, that shit is something that y’all saw way ahead of time." We just want the people to know where Strong Arm Steady is musically. That’s why we say we the best, not because we’re better than anybody else that’s doing it, just because…[of] where we’re trying to take this shit and the levels we’re thinking on and where it should go.
Krondon: And we took a note out of Kanye West’s book that the best only receives the best, so when you look at Arms and Hammers and Strong Arm Steady…you guys say, "Man, these guys work with the fucking best [artists], and they do the best shit," and you’ve got to think that the best only receives the best.
Phil Da Agony: And that was cool for us to know that the record we gave away [gave] my brother a Grammy. That’s like, yo, we’re on the right track to be doing what we’re supposed to do, and that’s just reassuring more than anything.
DX: Speaking of working with the best, just from the looks of tracklist, Arms and Hammers has a lot of really great guests on it, from Too Short to Kurupt. As California artists, how important is it to you to hold down and pay respect to the old school west coast veterans like them?
Mitchy Slick: I mean, those are west coast legends, man. Those dudes have been on some of the albums that made the west coast what [it is] today, so to have them also a part of our record [is great]. Kurupt…he’s probably one of the best lyricists, period, east or west coast. And then you have somebody like Too Short, who’s been putting out records before we even thought about making records.
Phil Da Agony: He’s what cats was bumping on the west coast, on some El Caminos and Nissan trucks. That’s that Too Short era…he’s like the Rakim of this pimp rap shit, so to have him on a song like “On Point,” it was an honor just to collab and do stuff with these legends. And new the cats, too. Game ain’t a new cat, but he re-invented west coast Hip Hop with what it could be doing…so to have him apart of the record was an honor.
Krondon: It’s like I said, that the best only receives the best. It just puts us in the playing field there. We want you guys to look at us and hear us in that arena, and not to use that as a crutch, but…we did with all of those things [and artists] because they respected us as equals.
Phil Da Agony: Yeah, it was natural, that’s my brother’s saying. It wasn’t something that we sought out to do. When we do music, we just like to do the music and be like "Yo, such and such would sound dope on here." It ain’t like he goes the blueprint and we’ve got to get these dudes strategically. We love doing music. If you’re dope on the west and we fuck with you, most likely we’ve got a song with you.
Mitchy Slick: These dudes really are our peoples. We ain’t just doing songs with them. You might see us hanging out, fucking around doing some other shit more than you even hear us on records with everybody from the west. I’m talking about Bad Azz to Ras Kass to will.i.am. We’ve really been here from the beginning, from the top to the bottom. This music here…you know how when [Dr. Dre's] The Chronic came out, it wasn’t for the Bloods, the Crips, the eses, the alternative; it was for the whole west coast…that’s what [Arms and Hammers] is really like, though. We made this shit for the whole country, but we represented the whole west coast in the process of doing it.
DX: Going off of that, you guys are tightly linked with some of California’s top late ‘90s underground Hip Hop artists, like Dilated Peoples and Xzibit. Looking into the future, where do you see that aspect of the music culture going, whether it’s somebody like Kendrick Lamar or Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All?
Krondon: I’m glad you said that…you just said the Yin and the Yang of the west coast right there. That’s where it is: you’re going to go from having an Odd Future, to a Kendrick Lamar, to a Strong Arm Steady, to a New Boyz…to a Casey Veggies, who’s 17 years old and still in high school but can hang and rap with some of the best of them. You’re not going to what to expect, and that ‘s beauty in it. More so than even the south…and the east coast, from the west coast you have a resurgence of talent that’s so unpredictable and uncanny that you have to embrace that. That’s something to really be celebrated and embraced right now.