J-Stalin knows how to make an entrance.
The first time we meet, in November 2004 at the Mekanix’s recording studio in East Oakland, he enters nonchalantly, sporting an embroidered eye mask as though it were everyday wear. He walks up to me and shakes my hand. "I’m J-Stalin. I write and record two songs a day," he says with boyish pride.
I had a hard time retaining the notion the rapper wasn’t a boy, for though he’d recently turned 21, his five-foot frame and preternatural baby face gave the impression of a raspy-voiced, blunt-puffing, Henny-swilling 14-year-old.
Yet he already had a storied past. A teen crack dealer, or "d-boy," from West Oakland’s Cypress Village, Stalin was busted at age 17, spending the next 11 months on parole with weekends in juvenile hall. During this period, to both stave off boredom and possibly escape the multigenerational cycle of dope-dealing in his family, the young Jovan Smith began writing raps, finding out about the other Stalin in 11th-grade history class, and soaking up game at the Grill in Emeryville, where family friend DJ Daryl had a recording studio.
After letting him watch for a year, Daryl put Stalin on a track — the result so impressed Daryl’s frequent collaborator, Bay Area legend Richie Rich, he immediately commissioned a hook. Stalin would end up on three cuts on Rich’s Nixon Pryor Roundtree (Ten-Six, 2002) and on two as a member of the Replacement Killers, a group that included Rich and Crestside Vallejo’s PSD. Several more songs from this period had just surfaced on Rich’s 2004 compilation, Snatches, Grabs, and Takes (Ten-Six), though Stalin had since defected to the Mekanix’s production company, Zoo Entertainment. By the time we met, the highly productive crew had recorded most of Stalin’s upcoming debut, On Behalf of Tha Streets.
During the next 18 months, J-Stalin would generate no small amount of buzz, thanks in part to high-profile guest shots on projects like the Jacka’s The Jack Artist (Artist, 2005) and the Delinquents’ Have Money Have Heart (Dank or Die, 2005). Three advance tracks from On Behalf — "Party Jumpin’," featuring Jacka; a clean version of "Fuck You"; and an homage to the classic drum machine, "My 808" — have accumulated spins on KMEL, while the video for "My 808" has more than 20,000 plays on Youtube.com. Too $hort says he’s "next," E-40’s dubbed him "the future," and major labels like Capitol and Universal are checking him hard.
To crown these achievements, Stalin’s copped a coveted spot hosting an upcoming project for the Bay Area’s mix-tape kings, DJ Devro and Impereal, alias the Demolition Men (see sidebar). Named after Stalin’s penchant for calling the DJs at 7 a.m., ready to lay verses, The Early Morning Shift is a potent fusion of mix tape beats and Mekanix originals, laced with Stalin’s melodic raps and distinctively raw, R&B–style vocals. Taking advantage of the industry’s current structure, whereby you can drop a mix tape or two without compromising your "debut" album marketability, The Early Morning Shift will be most listeners’ first chance to hear the prolific J-Stalin at length, in the company of stars like Keak, F.A.B., and the Team, as well as Stalin’s Cypress Village crew, Livewire. Having generated some 60 tracks in the scant two weeks devoted to recording the disc, Stalin has literally given the Demolition Men more than they can handle: Talk of a "part two" is already in the air, though the DJs are still rushing to finish the first for an early-May release.
The Early Morning Shift comes at a pivotal time in J-Stalin’s career. At the very least, the mix tape will warm up the Bay for On Behalf, which Zoo Entertainment plans to release independently in the next few months. With everywhere from Rolling Stone to USA Today catching on to the Bay’s hyphy/thizz culture, and major labels lurking in the wings, it’s probably only a matter of time before Stalin gets a deal. But the rapper is adamant on signing only as part of the Mekanix’s Zoo.
"We don’t want an artist deal," he says. "If they give us a label deal, it’ll work, because I ain’t fittin’ to sign no artist deal."
If this sounds a tad dictatorial in the mouth of so young a playa, consider that Stalin left a famous rapper’s camp to work with a then-unknown production duo, a decision fraught with risk. But Stalin’s instincts regarding his own artistic strengths are sound. He thrives on quantity, and the Mekanix’s intense productivity suits Stalin’s seemingly endless supply of rhymes and hooks. The duo’s ominous, minor-key soundscapes provide perfect vehicles for the rapper’s exuberant tales of West Oakland street hustle and melancholy, often poignant reflections on d-boy life.
"I used to listen to their beats," Stalin recalls, "and be like, ‘Damn, them niggas got heat!’ Plus they ain’t no haters. I mean, I’m a leader; I ain’t no follower. They allow me to still be me and fuck with them at the same time."
A few months ago I had a chance to watch this process in action, dropping by the studio as Dot and Tweed were putting the finishing touches on a hot new beat, one in tune with current hyphy trends yet retaining the dark urgency characteristic of the Mekanix sound.
"Let me get on it," Stalin says, as he usually does when he hears something he likes.
Sometimes Dot says yes, sometimes no, depending on their plans for a particular session. With a beat this fresh and radio-ready, one they could easily sell, Dot is noncommittal: "What you got for it?"
Without a pause Stalin breaks into a melody, accompanied by an impromptu dance: "That’s my name / Don’t wear it out, wear it out, wear it out …" Simple, catchy, the phrase totally works, and in less time than it takes to tell, he’s in the booth laying down what promises to be the main single from On Behalf: "That’s My Name."
Sitting behind the mixing board, Dot shoots me a smile, as if to say, "See why we work with this guy?"
On the Go Movement
With The Early Morning Shift about to drop, and On Behalf on the way, the only thing Stalin needs is his own catchword, à la hyphy or thizz. Enter the Go movement. Among recent innovations in Bay Area hip-hop slang is a certain use of the word go to indicate a kind of dynamic state of being, widely attributed to Stalin.
"I ain’t sayin’ I made it up, but somebody from West Oakland did," Stalin says. "Even before there was hella songs talkin’ about Go and shit, that shit came from ecstasy pills. We used to say, ‘Goddamn, you motherfuckers go.’ And then you refer to a female like, ‘She go.’ I swear it used to just be me and my niggas in the hood. I started fuckin’ with the Mekanix and sayin’ it at they place. Then, before I knew it, everybody was talking about Go."
Like thizz, Go quickly expanded beyond its drug-related origins, partly because it epitomizes so well the fast-paced environment of rappers’ lifestyles. Among the early cosigners of the Go movement is the Team, whose album World Premiere (Moedoe) dropped at the beginning of April. Not only did the group release a between-album mix tape and DVD called Go Music (Siccness.net, 2005), but Team member Kaz Kyzah has hooked up with Stalin and the Mekanix for a side project called the Go Boyz. First previewed on Go Music, on a track also featuring Mistah F.A.B., the Go Boyz have already recorded their self-titled debut, and Zoo is in talks with Moedoe about an eventual corelease.
"Where I’m from, we don’t say, ‘Go stupid.’ ‘Go dumb.’ We just go," Kaz Kyzah says, explaining the term’s appeal.
"Really, it’s a way of life for us," he continues. "Me, Stalin, Dot, and Tweed, we’d be up all night just goin’. Every song was recorded at like four in the morning. Listening to some of the stuff now, you can feel it in the music."
Getting in early
Since I began this piece, Stalin, it seems, has gotten even bigger, as word of The Early Morning Shift and the Go Boyz has spread through the scene. People are suddenly lining up to work with him, and he’s already committed to new projects with DJ Fresh, Beeda Weeda, the Gorilla Pits, and J-Nash, an R&B singer featured on Mistah F.A.B.’s upcoming Yellow Bus Driver. In a late-breaking development, E-40 confirms he intends to sign the Stalin/Beeda Weeda duo project to Sick Wid It Records.
During our interview, Stalin and I run by DJ Fresh’s studio so J can lay a rhyme for an upcoming installment of Fresh’s mix tape series, The Tonite Show. Another rapper, watching Stalin pull a verse out of thin air four bars at a time, is clearly awed: "He’s amazing. I mean, he’s on the records I buy."
Stalin takes it all in stride, though; aside from when I’ve watched him perform live, this is the first time I’ve ever seen someone react to him like he was a star. I get the feeling, however, it’s far from the last. SFBG
Fri/28, 10 p.m. doors
280 Seventh St., SF
Bring on the Demolition Men
The Demolition Men, Impereal and DJ Devro, definitely didn’t earn their reputation as the Bay Area’s mix-tape kings by staying at home. As DJs the duo has performed together and separately at clubs all over the world, from China and Japan to South America and Europe. Native Spanish speakers — Impereal hails from the Colombian community in Queens, NY, while Devro is Southern California Creole — the pair also hosts Demolition Men Radio, broadcast Thursdays from 6 to 7 p.m. on Azul 1063, a hip-hop station in Colombia’s Medell??n. Yet if you live in the Bay, you’re most liable to see them on the street, selling mix tapes out of their backpacks.
"We’re like a walking promotional retail machine," Impereal jokes. "If you don’t buy a mix tape, you going home with a flyer."
Such determination, coupled with the DJs’ high output (more than 30 releases since late 2003, including three volumes each of R&B and reggaeton) and elaborate graphics, has finally kick-started the Bay’s once lackadaisical mix tape scene.
An integral component of hip-hop in New York and the South, enabling new talents to be heard alongside vets and vets to issue bulletins with an immediacy unavailable to corporate labels, DJ-assembled mix tapes at their best are the ultimate in no-holds-barred hip-hop. Considered "promotional material" and usually printed in limited quantities, the discs are generally unencumbered by legal requirements like sample clearance.
Until recently, however, mix tapes weren’t much of a factor here. While the Demolition Men are quick to pay homage to their local predecessors — like Mad Idiot, DJ Natural, and DJ Supreme — Natural acknowledges the mix tape scene was a bit dead before the Demolition Men began shaking it up.
"Out here DJs were concentrating on clubs," Natural says. "Then they started putting stuff out constantly." Now there’s sufficient trade in mix tapes for Natural to move his formerly virtual business, Urban Era, to brick-and-mortar digs at 5088 Mission, making it the Bay’s only all–mix tape music store. Yet even with increased competition, he notes, the Demolition Men still routinely sell out.
In addition to their up-tempo release schedule, the success of the Demolition Men’s mixes might be attributed to the conceptual coherence they bring to their projects. While they do put together general mixes featuring more mainstream fare — such as the Out the Trunk series, which boasts exclusives from Ludacris — the duo’s hottest projects tend to tap into the Bay’s reservoir of talent. Aside from their multifaceted Best of the Bay series, the Demolition Men have released mix tapes hosted by Bay Area artists like Balance, Cellski, El Dorado Red, and the Team.
Currently the Demolition Men’s most successful disc has been their most ambitious: Animal Planet, not so much a mix tape as music cinema, starring the Mob Figaz’ Husalah and Jacka. A mighty 34 tracks — featuring production by Rob Lo, Traxamillion, and the Mekanix, and appearances by F.A.B., Keak, and Pretty Black — Animal Planet is an incredible collection of almost entirely exclusive, original material, seriously blurring the boundary between mix tape and album. Its success has encouraged bold undertakings, like The Early Morning Shift with J-Stalin and Block Tested, Hood Approved, a mix tape/DVD starring Fillmore rapper Big Rich. "I guess we’re taking the mix tape to the next level," Devro says. (Caples)
Demolition Men DJ
Thurs/27 and the last Thursday of every month, 9 p.m. doors
81 W. Santa Clara, San Jose