Every Hip Hop head knows that summer is full of mixtape and album releases. It’s nothing new; artists have been providing fans with their summer road trip soundtracks for years, and these past few months have been stacked with enough hits to keep fans’ heads nodding for months.
Even as summer starts to wind down, rappers have yet to stop their frantic pace of music production, with a seemingly never-ending list of release dates rolling out each week. Ohio-based emcee and former NCAA Division 1 basketball player Stalley, whose Honest Cowboy mixtape drops August 8, is no exception.
The Maybach Music Group label rep will also be on the collective’s joint album “Self Made vol. 3,” set for release on September 17, the same day as Drake’s Nothing Was the Same.
With a following that has grown at the rate of Rick Ross’ tattoo collection, Stalley has continued to woo fans with his lyrical talent, adding to the diverse range of artists associated with Ross’ label. His ability to ditch basketball after a series of injuries, make it through the dense ranks of Hip Hop and earn a spot on Ross’ MMG label doesn’t hurt either.
From his shoe game and LeBron’s potential return to Cleveland, to performing with KRS-One and the evolution of MMG, Stalley had his hands full during our latest interview.
Stalley Says MMG “Are All Like Brothers”
HipHopDX: You’ve been with Maybach Music Group for over two years now. What’s it like working with labelmates like Wale and Meek Mill?
Stalley: All of ‘em are great guys. All of them have their own individual styles and unique ways of recording, so it’s good to basically be around all the guys—from Wale, Meek [Mill] to [Rick] Ross to Rockie, just everybody…people like Omarion and Meek and Ross and those guys that have been in the game a little bit longer than I have. It’s just soaking up game, picking up different ways on how to move around this industry. It’s cool.
DX: Who’s your favorite MMG artist to work with?
Stalley: All of them are favorites because they all have they own style. We’re not around each other a lot because we all have our own personal careers. It’s not like we’re in the studio all the time or working around each other a lot.
DX: Has coming to MMG changed your style at all?
Stalley: Nah, not at all. It’s only helped me gain more eyes and ears on me as an artist and opened up different opportunities for me. As far as my style, nothing has changed for me…since hopscotch. I came in rapping.
DX: MMG is busy working on Self Made Vol. 3, which comes out September 17. What can fans anticipate off of that project?
Stalley: I’m excited about the records I have on there. I gave Ross about four or five records; I believe all of them made it. I’ve just been sitting on tons of music, just recording and working on my album and working on these different projects that I’ve got going on. So it was good to just be able to throw him a few records that I knew I wouldn’t be able to use, or wasn’t going to use on one of my projects, and have him use ‘em on the Self Made.
DX: You’ve said before that when it comes to Rick Ross, it’s family first. Does he treat MMG like family?
Stalley: Definitely, we’re all like brothers. It’s nothing but love. He always looks out for us and lets us be us and puts us in the best position for us to grow and have opportunities to be heard and seen, so it’s always family first with us.
DX: Is MMG’s shift from Warner Brothers to Atlantic going to have any implications with your distribution or promotion?
Stalley: Warner and Atlantic are pretty much under the same umbrella anyways, so it was a smooth transition going over to Atlantic, and we all got the same distribution and everything. It’s still Maybach. At Atlantic we still got the same push, the same team. We’re still in the same position as far as it goes with that priority list. We were at the top of it, so we’re great.
DX: How does your relationship with producer Ski Beatz help your sound?
Stalley: Me and Ski, we did some great music together. We did the “S.T.A.L.L.E.Y.” record, and we did “Address.” Those are two great records that I had videos with him that allowed people to really start to get to know me, but I think my sound really came from my Ohio brethren Rashad, who I did Lincoln Way Nights with.
DX: What’s it like forming a relationship with a producer?
Stalley: It’s important that you sit with somebody who gets you, gets where you come from, gets where you’re trying to go in music, what your sound is and what you’re trying to accomplish in music, and to sit and build with one producer. Even if it’s a few producers, it’s definitely a great thing to have a relationship with a good producer who really gets to know you inside and out. And when I say inside-out, I mean inside of the music and outside of the music, just on a personal level, because it’s easier to get those emotions and those feelings out of you and into the music.
Stalley Recalls Being Influenced By Nas & Outkast
DX: You’ve cited Dame Dash, Nas and Andre 3000 as some of your influences. What did you learn from those artists about rapping that you may not have been able to learn from some of the Ohio artists that are doing it right now?
Stalley: Not being scared to go out on a limb. Just go out there and grind and not really pay attention to what’s going on. You’re always going to have people who like you and people who don’t like you—[I learned] just being yourself. People like Nas and Andre 3000 are artists that came in the game and had their own sound, their own identity, their own personalities, their own way of dressing, their own everything. As a youngin’, to see them come in and impact the Rap game and the world the way they did, it was just amazing to me. And that’s what drew me to those artists in particular, especially Outkast. When Outkast came out, nothing or nobody sounded like Outkast. Nas, even though he had that East Coast sound and that lyricism, it was still different than the Jay-Z’s, the Biggie’s, the Boot Camp Clik’s and the stuff that was out at the time. And I feel like that’s what I do with my music.
Even though I’m from Ohio and the Midwest, you’ve never heard an artist or seen an artist that looks like me or raps like me or raps about the things that I rap about—even though they’re still some of the things that Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, Kanye, Common or Twista rapped about. It’s still the Midwest reputation and influence, but it’s still me. And I think that’s what makes it dope and makes it unique. I come from Massillion, Ohio, a small Midwest town. But Nas put on for Queensbridge, not Queens, New York or New York City; it was Queensbridge. Same with Outkast when they did Decatur or Savanna. They represented the Atlanta sound, but they took it so specific and exact to the neighborhood they grew up in, and that’s what I think I do in my music as well.
DX: I’m just glad there are still rappers out there listening to Boot Camp Clik…
Stalley: Smif-N-Wessun’s “The Shining” is one of my favorite albums of all time. Everything about it is dope, from the production to the raps, the whole vibe and mood of it. It’s just a beautiful record.
DX: Who are your top five favorite Ohio rappers/producers of all time?
Stalley: I would say Layzie, Krayzie, Bizzie, Wish and Flesh…all the Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, man. That’s my top five right there; I love Bone. But I’m so proud of everybody else too that’s coming out of Ohio right now, like Cudi, King Chip, MGK and all those guys. It’s a good movement and the good start of a movement.
I mean when you think of the Midwest, the only people who really had a strong impact on music was Chicago. Chicago had Crucial Conflict, Twista, Kanye, Common to GLC. Now Chicago’s got Chief Keef and King Louie and all those guys. So we’re just trying to really put that stamp on it to and represent for the Midwest like Chicago has.
DX: Ohio’s been putting on for a while now too though.
Stalley: I think it’s time for the Midwest in general, not just Ohio or Chicago or Detroit—because we know Detroit has great artists too, like Eminem and Royce da 5’9, Big Sean and those guys. But it’s time for the Midwest to really have that movement. We’re the only people that haven’t had that strong movement, and it’s a surge of it comin’ through. The East Coast had its time, the West Coast had its time, the South had its time, but the Midwest hasn’t really had that powerful five-to-ten year, 20-year run yet, and I think it’s coming.
DX: Maybe you can change that. Honest Cowboy comes out August 8, what can we expect out of that?
Stalley: I’m caught up in it. I’m really excited about this project because it’s probably some of the most personal music that I’ve put out. It’s definitely a different side of me. You’re always going to have that classic Stalley and riding music, but there’s definitely some records on there that get you a little deeper into the way I think and the way I feel. I don’t want to give it away, but there’s some touching songs and some songs where I’m very opinionated about certain things. “Raise Your Weapons,” we dropped that and it was one of the more political, powerful messages that I’ve put out so far since I’ve been doing music. And that’s what it is; it’s just a lot of honesty. It’s just me being a cowboy. Me being someone who just goes out there and doesn’t care about what people think or say and tells you what I feel, think and want to say without caring about what you feel.
And it’s exciting because this is a big step to me. I’m someone who’s from a small town and someone who’s really to myself. I’ve always been that way. Growing up as a kid I was always the one that walked through the hallways by myself. Even though I played sports and I was popular, I just always kept kind of stuck to myself and stayed secluded in my own thoughts, so it’s big for me to actually express myself through the music. It’s a hard thing to do for me but that’s why I’m excited to put this out.
DX: I know you played Division 1 basketball and you’re a big hoops fan…
Stalley: Yeah man, we could talk for hours about that. And you know we from the Midwest so we get passionate about that stuff…It’s still going to be hard for anyone to get past the Heat though. I don’t know if you heard my new record “A-Wax,” but I gave Joakim Noah some love.
How Sports & Car Culture Influence Stalley’s “Honest Cowboy”
DX: Before we get too heavy into the hoops, you dropped a visual trailer for Honest Cowboy about a week ago. How important is it to do stuff like that? It seems like everyone has those visual trailers now.
Stalley: I think the trailer and those visuals give you another voice and another side that the people don’t always get to see or that you don’t get to explain through the music. So I think it’s important that you give ‘em blogs or trailers here and there, and give ‘em a deeper behind the scenes look into the music. [You have to] explain a little more in detail than the music might touch on, because sometimes you can’t put everything in the song. I’ll probably drop a few more to give people more insight on the project.
DX: You’ve given a lot of your tracks away for free on your website during a time when the debate about free versus paid-for music has been big. Why do you give fans free music?
Stalley: The way music is—how fast it goes and how much is put out through so many different artists—it’s oversaturated. So it’s important that you give out quality music and really get those fans to support. Once your fans know that you consistently put out great music and you’ve given them so much, it’s going to be easier for them to trust in you and feel comfortable with purchasing your album—especially when they can get it for free. Even when you put out music for sale they still get it for free, so it’s important that you grow that type of support and just put out that constant quality so they’ll be like, “I know what I’m going to get so I don’t mind spending my little $10, $12, $15 for this album.” And also, I want to have that conversation with them, meaning that I want them to know who I am and understand me a little bit more before you just throw an album in their face.
DX: Are there going to be a lot of references to sneaks and cars on Honest Cowboy and in your verses on Self Made vol. 3 like there have been in your previous work?
Stalley: Oh yeah, definitely. I’ve got to throw that in because that’s a big heavy, heavy, heavy part of my life. Me not talking about a car or some sneakers in my music is like Wiz [Khalifa] not talking about marijuana smoking. I’ve got to mention it, no matter what type of song I’ve got to do it. It’s just something that’s so important to me and something that’s always been through my life growing up, so I definitely try and set the mood and set the scene a little better. I’m always around a car, in a car or I want to be around a car so, it’s always going to be heard in the music. And I’ve always got some fresh sneakers on my feet, so I’ve got to always throw that in there too.
It’s a lifestyle, man. It’s a full time job to be a sneakerhead, and I can’t even keep up. If I’m a real sneakerhead, I can’t even be doing this interview right now. Something’s coming out right now. There’s something to be looking out for right now if you’re a sneakerhead. Nike drops six new releases every week, and that’s just Nike. That ain’t including Reebok, Adidas and all that.
DX: Well I know you played Division 1 ball at the University of Michigan and a bit at Long Island University. Who has the better shoe collection, you or labelmate Wale? I know he played some D1 football.
Stalley: He did, he did. Both of us didn’t really have a chance to reach the pinnacles of our career, and I didn’t even really get to touch the court like I wanted due to injury. So I think we live a little through the sneakers with that. Just being an athlete, that’s how a lot of us get started into collecting the sneakers or just appreciating sneaker quality, the materials and the impact that it has on the culture…and the timing and where you were at and what year and what colorways your team wore. Wale has some great footwear, but I got to say I have the best sneakers in the game, because its quality over quantity and I have some great, great kicks. But I’m sure he’ll say he has better too, that’s just opinion. But we’re definitely two people who are passionate about the sneakers.
DX: You were a guest editor for a shoe website at one point, and you wrote for SLAM magazine at one point so you know your stuff. What’s your all-time favorite shoe? Do you have a current favorite?
Stalley: The Jordan True Blue 3 is my favorite sneaker. Currently, I love the Flyknit Chukka’s in every color. Since they’ve been dropping those, I have every single one. I’m on the search for those. There’s only one pair that I don’t have and they’re an HTM pair that dropped overseas that I didn’t get my hands on. I have the other HTM joints, but I don’t have just this one pair. But the Flyknit Chukka’s to me are one of the best sneakers that Nike has done in a long, long time.
Stalley Reflects On Working With Scarface & “Hypebeast” Culture
DX: What do you think about Hypebeasts and everything going on with Jordan’s right now?
Stalley: It’s a crazy world right now, man. There’s Hypebeasts in every aspect of culture. Sneakers, clothes, cars, jewelry, whatever man; people are just doing whatever is popular just to get it, and they don’t really do their research or really pay attention to understand the whole culture and what people have been through.
The thing that sucks about it is that people die over it. Just like in “Swangin’,” me and Scarface were talking about that record. And it was important for Scarface to speak on that, and he talked to me about it, and he’s like “Man, you don’t understand. People die over these rims.” People glorify this stuff and they just throw all types of stuff on their cars, and it’s just like, “C’mon man. People die over this!” And I don’t think they understand. People die over gold chains; people die over Rolex watches everyday. And for people to be running out being these Hypebeasts over this stuff and not even know the importance or the significance of this stuff...I just wish that in music, in fashion, sneakers cars, fashion, whatever it is, I just wish people would study it more and pay more attention to it. People need to learn more about the history of these things before they just go out and get it because everyone else is doing it.
DX: What was it like working with Scarface?
Stalley: Aw man, it was a dream come true. That’s Uncle Face! I learned a lot about the swangin’ culture. Like I said, swangin’ is something that I wanted to pay homage to being a supporter of the swangers and the Houston movement. Up in the Midwest, we’re big on cars but we didn’t really do the poke-outs too much. I know in Ohio, we did blades and we did Dayton’s, spokes and stuff like that. So just to hear a little bit about the culture—the swangers and the original poke-outs—from him was dope. I’ve had homies who died over fatty’s, pokers, Dayton’s and stuff like that, and to hear him tell stories about how his partners died over these ‘84s and these poke-outs, it was great to hear how two cultures can be so similar and so passionate about the rides.
And that’s what I really wanted to come across in the music. We enjoy, we ride, but at the same time this is a culture. This is a movement. Like I said, “Uncle Bun and Scarface / The reason why my car laced with a detachable Alpine face.” Those guys are the reason I went and put sounds in my car and took the Alpine…you remember the detachable faces for the car radios? That was the reason why I did that. And then I said, “I had my trunk laced with fifteens and loud bass ‘cause I had to listen to Screw, right / First time I poured lean I had to use up two Sprites / I swear I drove like all night / Under that Houston star, lazy – rest in peace to Pimp / And Big Moe, the Barre Baby.”
And again, people have died over this culture, over this syrup. That’s Syrup City down there, and people have died over that. People think sippin’ syrup and drinking lean is cool. But I’m saying, “C’mon man, but rest in peace to the originals, to Screw and Pimp and Big Moe…it’s serious.” Pay homage, show your love and your respect, but just know that there are consequences to everything, good and bad.
DX: You’ve worked with classic artists like Scarface, but you’ve also been on stage with artists like KRS-One, Method Man and Redman, and Camp Lo and all kinds of Golden Age rappers. Who’s been the most fun to perform with?
Stalley: Every single one. That’s like picking a favorite from MMG; I can’t pick one favorite, because everyone has their different energy and different styles. I picked up a lot of different tricks and trades on how to control crowds from Method and Red and Mos Def. Just watching all of ‘em is great. These guys are from the Golden Age, and they come from when you really had to put on a show. It wasn’t just a live performance; you had to put on a show. And that’s why I take my craft and my showmanship so serious, because coming up as a young artist—I’ve only been doing music for five years now—but in these five years that I’ve been doing music, to be alongside some of those great artists during shows has taught me so much and the importance of that showmanship.
DX: Who was the best to party with before the show?
Stalley: Camp Lo, probably. On the low they were the best party. They are turnt up at all times. They are some good guys, comical, very funny guys, man, and they just let loose. I really enjoyed being around them. Those are the originators right there; a lot of people took their styles from them. A lot of people took their styles from them, and those are two guys that came into the game, who dressed a certain way, rapped a certain way, and they made their mark and that’s where music has to get back to.
A lot of people follow trends; it’s wack rapping. Everybody on the radio, in the club and you the wack one or you’re boring or whatever it is. But back in the day, it was cool to be the opposite, and it was cool to be different. It was cool to rap about different things and dress a different way, and that’s what I’m trying to lead back into the game—just having that honest cowboy mentality, that original mentality of just being you and saying whatever you want to say, because nobody can say your life the way you can say your life.