Stalley is a veteran rapper in the game from Massillon, OH. He first started to get noticed in 2011 with his mixtape, Lincoln Way Nights. This, in turn, led to a major label deal with Rick Ross’ MMG label (aligned with Atlantic Records). Stalley then put out three projects including his debut album Ohio. In 2015 they decided to cut ties and Stalley interestingly decided to go back to being independent rather than resigning elsewhere. Now, he has his own independent label – Blue Collar Gang – and has released five projects there, including his recent record, Pariah.
Despite all the ups and downs, Stalley has had a lengthy and unique career and has held onto his core fan base and sound. We spoke to the rapper about everything from his new project Pariah and unfinished collaborations with Shia LaBoeuf, to challenges with independence and breathing techniques. He’s been in the game for ten years but still has the enthusiasm and curiosity of an up and comer.
The new project is named Pariah, meaning outcast. Could you expand on why that resonates with you personally? I feel like I’m more of a popular outcast. Someone who walks to the beat of his own drum but is still popular amongst peers and in the culture. I don’t want people to look at being an outcast as negative. It’s ok to be looked at as a weirdo, as long as you’re being yourself. Following your beliefs and creating your own story is what Pariah means to me. I feel like I’m the king of the outcasts, there’s just something different about me. I’m not someone who feels I have to make a certain type of music or wear a certain type of clothes or jewelry to be recognized. That might make an interesting career path, but at the end of the day, it’s all worth it.
You were at one point signed to MMG and now you’re independent. If you came into the game right now, you might be urged to stay independent because of the lane you exist in. What are the highs and lows of staying independent and where did the initial decision to go down that route stem from? I speak to some of the younger artists today that I’m cool with about the MMG situation and they be like, “if I was you I might’ve just stayed independent.” And I’m like, times are different, it’s easy to say that now because you have so many different resources. My debut album came out [Ohio on MMG and Atlantic records, October of 2015] …There was no such thing as Apple Music, there was no Tidal. The only streaming services you had were Spotify and Pandora. Streams didn’t count towards record sales. So, you fast forward five years now in 2020 and there are so many more ways you can get your music out to people. Being independent is a beautiful thing and I’ve always had an independent spirit. That’s something that caught the attention of Rick Ross and Atlantic Records because of the way I carry myself and conduct business. But there was a lot of learning.
I don’t dislike anything about either one, but I will say the adjustment has been tough at times. Now I have to figure out how to market myself, promote my music, and get it to people. We have social media. Not to be morbid or negative but I tell people being on a major, Atlantic and MMG, was like being in prison. And I came home to a whole new world of technology. When I went in it was like flip phones, when I came out it was iPhones. I’m learning. Before being an artist, you wanted a little more mystique, you could be a little bit more to yourself, but now people wanna see every part of your life. So, me being someone who gets so engulfed in the music sometimes I gotta realize it can’t just be the music. I can write music and rap circles around people, but you still have to find a way to make it connect in a way that they feel almost married to it.
What initially connected me to your music was your flow is a combination of serious rapping mixed with a stream of consciousness and poetry. Your vocal pattern won’t hit the beat in the way you’d expect, but you come around the other side and hit it in the pocket. Is that intentional or conscious? Or does it just naturally happen that way? I think it kinda naturally happens that way. This is the first time I’ve actually been able to speak on this. For years I’ve heard people say, “oh Stalley rap offbeat.” It’s like people used to talk about Miles Davis, Coltrane, and Ornette Coleman. Other jazz musicians or fans of jazz would criticize them and be like, these guys are playing offbeat. This is just how I hear music naturally. It lands perfectly but it doesn’t land where you think. I guess you could say it’s poetic. I feel like my vocals are more blended into the beat, more of a compliment, more of an instrument instead of the beat overpowering me, or me overpowering the beat.
It’s always felt more like poetry to me because you never let your thought get cut off. You use words to your advantage but you’re crafty so you’re able to catch the beat around the other side. You say all the words you need to get your full thought across. Yes, and that’s what’s most important to me. To get my point across to the listener.
So, let’s dive in more with the music. My favorite track from Pariah was “Heavy Lifting” where you talk about the topic of saving money. From going major to independent, how have you navigated different versions of doing that within different structures? Why are those values important to you? I grew up with a single mother. You know that typical story that a lot of people have. We lived in apartments and projects my whole life. Three years ago was the first time I ever lived in a house. A lot of people don’t know I lived in New York City for 17 years. And there were times I had a lot of ups and downs. And then I got a lot of money and was tryna figure out how to navigate that. How to not spend frivolously and take care of people who have taken care of me my whole life. It’s very important to manage money and maintain it. God has blessed me with the ability to do a good job at that. I think it’s really important for up and coming rappers in the game – especially now with Covid-19. They see how important it was when people were telling them to save that money for a rainy day ‘cos this is a rainy day. I was supposed to go on tour overseas and this stopped me from doing that. So that stopped money. It’s very important to save and manage money and try to alleviate a lot of the wants and focus more on the needs.
You released Pariah during quarantine. Was there any hesitancy to do that from yourself or your team knowing the prospects of a tour were precarious? It definitely was, but I felt this was an important time. I felt I had a lot to say. I just wanted to give them something to smile about, to enjoy. I know a lot of people are at home or inside and thought it was something to give them to really sit with. I think my music is great for isolation. I just dropped a video today. We social distancing, so it’s just me in the video with a car posted in front of an abandoned store. I know some people are tapped into Netflix, some are streaming music, some are reading, but I just wanted to give something in these times to hopefully help others.
On “Tokyo Proverbs” you say “you’re not breathless,” which I think has a double meaning of telling people to say what they think, but also be aware of their actual breath. Are you into breathing techniques and meditation? How has Japanese culture influenced you here? I get a lot of moments where I catch really bad anxiety. Breathing techniques have always helped me. Also, I pray a lot. I’m Muslim so that’s a great meditation for me as well. Then as far as being influenced by Japanese culture, I love their sensibilities.
In New York, I had a friend named Kentei. He worked at a streetwear store called Prohibit. Me and him we used to hang out with a couple [of] other guys. They were always some of the nicest people. Their style was always dope. They always respected different cultures and I learned from them a lot. And that was my kind of way of paying homage.
Dope. So let’s go back to your roots. Your label is called Blue Collar Gang. What does the term Blue Collar mean to you? Man, it means everything to me. My mom was Blue Collar to the bone. Where I grew up it was nothing but Blue-Collar workers. Every time I woke up, I saw people dressed in Dickies suits and Carhartt boots. It was always around me. I would walk outside, and I would see people under their car hoods, or in their car trunks, cookin’ up stereo systems, or fixin’ spark plugs, or doin’ tune-ups. So that Blue-Collar lifestyle was the way I saw people grind and hustle and work [their] asses off every day. I speak for the everyday man or woman, the people who come from those areas who may get overlooked. It’s beautiful now to see artists from all over the country from smaller towns that aren’t hotbeds for hip hop music get put on just because of Instagram, or Twitter, or Youtube. Blue Collar Gang to me is giving those people and those fans somebody to connect with and to really have a home. On the project, I said, “this my Ted Talk for the introverted stay at homes.”
Is that your favorite bar on Pariah? It’s top 5 at least. I love the bar when I said, “stackin’ chicken, in other words I’m Marshawn Lynchin.”
We got into your affinity for clothes a little bit. You talk about your clothing with specificity sometimes even down to the threads. Are there any people in your life who inspired that? My sister for sure. I watched her be a fashionista before that was even a word. She even made her own clothing and had her own line for a while. But also all my guys in the neighborhood. The guys who went to work every day and still made it stylish. Always stayin’ sharp. You know that was what the older people said, “always stayin’ sharp.” Who else…? Uh, dope boys. You know dope boys always stayed fresh in my neighborhood. Dope boys come out sweats, Jordan’s, little gold on [their] neck, nice t-shirt. Even my Japanese influence being put onto twenty-ounce salvaged denim, real thick cotton shirts, and cashmere sweaters. The attention to detail down to the stitching I learned a lot about through traveling.
Who did the artwork for Pariah? And what is the significance and meaning to you? Vada Azeem. He’s an artist and rapper on Blue Collar Gang. He’s literally one of the most talented people I know. I told him I got this project it’s called Pariah and I told him the meaning and that I had this picture of me. He said he was inspired by Murakami and KAWS to do these characters that were kinda pullin’ at me. Again, like a popular outcast, these characters tryna grab my attention in different ways.
During “Onset” you describe yourself as a villain. Why is that? Sometimes you have to be a villain. Sometimes you have to be the person to let people know that I’m not here to play. Sometimes they don’t take the passion and love you have seriously because they’re like, “that’s just a nice guy.” Sometimes people say, “A closed mouth don’t speak for me.” I said that on Lincoln Way Nights. Sometimes you have to be stern in your message. I feel like some villains have great causes. I love to create different vibes and different feelings on each project. It’s truly what I’m feelin’ or goin’ through at the moment.
I have one more thing I wanted to express from a fan’s point of view. The video for “Petrin Hill Peonies” is one of my favorites of all time. It’s funny that you said that because I actually became friends with Shia LaBoeuf from that video. That situation, or [mine] and his friendship is one of the reasons why I even left MMG.
Have you ever said that before in an interview? No, I haven’t. So just a quick story. He reached out in a booking email saying like, “yo I’m a big fan, I just saw this video blah blah blah.” Just you know breakin’ all this stuff down. But he was talking like a fan and at the end, he was like, “I would love to work with you, I wanna shoot a video for you…”
Wait did you ever…? Well no, and that’s part of one of the fallouts between me and label. So, he sends this email like a fan and says, “please reach out to me here’s my number…and this is Shia LaBeouf.” So my manager at the time calls me and is like, “bro some dude sent this email ranting and raving about the song and video and he sayin’ he’s Shia LaBoeuf, but I don’t know if it’s really him cuz of the way he was showin’ love.” Then my manager got his number and called and it was him.
Then we exchanged numbers, talked, and became friends. But that video is special to me because of that. We were actually supposed to do a short film for the Ohio album. So, you were gonna get the CD and the movie. We did a lot of stuff together to prepare for it and it’s unfortunate that it didn’t happen. I pray that eventually our schedules line up and we can get together and get something done.
Well, let’s try to speak that into existence. That would be amazing.
Particularly because your album is called Pariah. If anyone knows about wanting to be a positive influencing outcast, it’s Shia LaBeouf. Exactly. We connected on a lot of levels [because] of our relationships with our parents and stuff. He’s just a good dude. And like you said the perfect definition of a pariah for sure.