In the late 1960s, West Oakland, a community situated in the northwestern corner of Oakland, California, became the Black Panther Party’s center of operation. The political organization made the neighborhood its primary location to rally, serve the community, and protect black citizens from police brutality.
However, the group dissolved in the early 80s, around the same time that the crack epidemic reached its peak. J. Stalin hails from that very same historical and crime-ridden neighborhood. Born in the 80s, an era when drug dealing flourished across the globe, he’s a product of his environment. A West Oakland dope dealer turned independent record label founder (Livewire Records) and prosperous rap artist, he’s one of few that’s had the chance to escape the streets before being murdered or sentenced to football numbers.
A representative of West Oakland’s 10th Street and Mandela Parkway, J. Stalin has emerged to being a forerunner in the Bay Area’s rap movement. Over the years, he’s released a number of notable projects such as On Behalf of the Streets, Gas Nation, Prenuptial Agreement, his The Real World street album series, Memoirs of a Curb Server, and much more. He’s also had videos for his songs “Everyday my Birthday” and “Money In Ya Jeans” featured on MTV.
Far from a rapper that fills his lyrics with awing punchlines and mouth-dropping metaphors, Stalin prefers to keep it simple but candid with his music. His detailed and vivid songs about the street life makes listeners feel as if they were there with him when he was selling his bundles of dope.
J. Stalin recently dropped his latest album, Miracle & Nightmare On 10th Street (with DJ Fresh), a 31-song, double-disc installment. Highlights on the project include “Corner STO, pt. 2,” “Nightmare on 10th St.,” “Colma,” “The Money Blower,” and “In the Rain” featuring Freddie Gibbs.
J. Stalin took time out to talk about his latest album, explain the pros and cons of being from West Oakland, what caused him to get into the street life, his love for Jordans, and what he has coming in the future.
It was fun creating the album because before we really started working on the album, we had the miracle and nightmare concept. So when you’ve already got concepts for the songs, the album comes out a little different. The album already had its direction before we started working on it, and that was like my first album that I’ve ever done like that. All of the rest of my albums, I’ve recorded them first and then named them after they were done. This is like the first album I’ve titled and recorded the songs around the title.
What made you take it back to the double-disc days with this album?
Nowadays, people just don’t have good music. I know from me being a fan, I’ve bought an album before to where it’s a whole album, but it’s only a few songs on there I liked. I just wanted to give people enough music. Like my new fans that never heard me, I just wanted to give them enough music to pick for themselves whether they like me or not. You can’t really judge a person on one or two songs. They really need to hear what you’re really about. That’s where that really came about.
You reconnected with DJ Fresh on this album. It’s the first time you too have collaborated on a major scale since your The Real World series. How was that for you?
Me and Fresh got that relationship. Me and Fresh like brothers. Besides the music shit, he come to my house and we kick it for like four or five days without even recording no music. Just kicking it. We always gone get this money together. We hadn’t did one in like a whole year, so it was about that time again.
There’s a lot of songs on this album. How long did it take for you to create it?
We initially recorded it in like six months. We went back and changed some of the songs in like three months, so I’ll say nine months. It was done after six months and then the next three months we critiqued the album. We went and listened to it, took some songs off, added some songs, and threw some features on some of the songs. When the album was initially done, we didn’t have no features. We went back got a few features. Changed a few songs. Nothing is never done when it’s done. It’s done but it’s just done enough to critique. And once you critique it, then it’s done.
On the album you talk about being “Birthed in West Oakland by a dealer-turned-smoker” and also that your mom taught you how to cook crack. Can you touch on this?
My mom was like one of the biggest drug dealers in Oakland in her time of day, plus she was a female. Like 90 percent of the kids that grow up in Oakland end up selling drugs. So, when my mom found out I was selling drugs, I was already grown. I was 18. I had a car and everything already. She’s one of them people that felt like if she can’t stop or change what I was doing, at least she could show me how to do it right. So then she taught me how to sell drugs and stay free. She taught me about the dope game. Like, ‘if you gonna be in it, you have to have good product. And if you gonna have good product, you have to cook it yourself, because everybody that’s selling hard dope already, they already cooking it and putting their twist on it. You don’t know how much baking soda is in it when you’re buying hard from somebody. So pay extra money to buy it soft and I’ll cook it for you and tell you how to cook it. At the end of the day, it’s not quantity, it’s quality.’
You’re also about the fact that you sold drugs to your family members and the family members of your friends. How did that affect you?
I had friends that sold my mom drugs before I sold drugs. And I’ve sold to my mom before. Shit, a person who is on drugs feel like they can get the best deal from people in their family and people they know. With a person that’s selling drugs, if you’ve got family members that’s on drugs, they’re going to buy it from somebody else anyway, so they might as well buy it from you to keep the money in the family. Even when I wasn’t selling drugs, my mom was still messing with the drugs. I was telling her to buy it from my friends instead of a nigga she don’t know because at least I know my friends gonna’ take care of her, ya feel me?
What made you decide to indulge in the street life?
When you in Oakland, like when I was 14, I had friends driving to school my same age that was selling dope, ya know? If your friends got a car, you want a car too. It’s not everything on my family. It’s just your environment. If all of your friends are going to sell drugs for two or three hours and they can make $500 to $1,000, and they’re not going to jail and they’re still going to school every day, you be like, ‘shit, maybe I can get me some of that money and get me a car too.’
How difficult was it for you to make the transition from the dope game into music?
I didn’t really stop selling drugs until The Prenup (2009) came out. I got one big check and I stopped.
I became aware of you through The Jacka’s “Never Blink” song off his The Jack Artist album (2005). I haven’t heard anything from you two lately. Are you guys collaborating on anything in the future?
I got a dope new song on my new album coming out in January with Jacka, Husalah, and Ampichino on it. It’s real dope. Jacka is one of those people that helped me when I was nobody. I will always be in debt to Jacka. I love Jacka. That’s my nig. I’ll forever be in appreciation to him, Keak da Sneak, Mistah Fab. All of them helped me a lot before I was anybody. I would never ever try to charge to do any music with them. I owe them a lot. They put their hand out and reached out to me when I was a nobody.
In your music, you make occasional references to Jordans and you sport them in a lot of your music videos. Can you tell me about your love for them?
I’ve had every pair of Jordans probably twice. I’m talking about from like the first ones that came out. I’ve had every pair when they initially dropped, because when I was kid, I lived in Chicago. I lived in Chicago for six years. I was in Chicago when Jordan was the biggest shit on earth. I’ve been wearing Jordans every since I could remember. Like my mom would buy me Jordans and wouldn’t pay rent. That’s how deep my Jordan connection goes back.
How is the music industry for you as an independent artist? Have you been affected by the uprising of the Internet, and how it has become much easier for people to download music for free?
Yeah, it affected the whole game, ya know? You gotta turn more of your promotion to the Internet, because that’s the people that are really buying and downloading music now. Flyers don’t work as good as they used to, because mu’fuckas ain’t even coming outside no more, ya feel me? If I can’t change the situation, I try to find a way that I can adapt to it, ya know? There’s no way I can change that, so I just try to learn more about the internet and how can I boost my internet fans up and my internet promotion up.
How’d it feel to see some of your songs featured on MTV?
That’s a dream come true, because you know every rapper watch videos. We been watching videos since “The Box.” That’s when mu’fuckas really started believing. Like mu’fuckas don’t believe, like they may see your CD in the store, but mu’fuckas really don’t believe until they hear you on the radio or see you on TV. Then, that’s when it gets real. That’s when it got real for my momma. Like, ‘oh shit, my son’s on fuckin’ MTV.’
You highlight a lot of your life in your music, but what’s something about J. Stalin that a lot of people don’t know?
That I’m a real family man. I really ain’t into the party scene. I don’t really go out to clubs unless I’m getting paid. Unless it’s one of my shows. I go out to eat with my momma more than I do with my girlfriend. I’m just a real family-oriented person, because that’s how I was raised up. I was raised up around my family. I was taught that family’s all you got. Friends and females come and go, but your family is all you got. Y’all bonded together by blood. Y’all mustered together.
You had a song called “Taylor Made” featuring Da Thrill and J. Fly. What happened to J. Fly? I haven’t heard any music from him since then?
He got shot like eight times—twice in the head. He in recovery now. He had to learn how to talk again. His speech a lil’ slurred but he coming back slowly but surely. That happened not too long after I dropped that CD [The Body Snatchers]…like a month or two after I dropped that CD. He’ll be back. He on the label so he good. We just waiting for him to get back.
You’re coming out with On Behalf of the Streets 2?
Yeah, that’s my next album. That’s the album where I got the song with me, Jacka, Husalah and Ampichino. It’s called “Never Let You Down.” It’s coming out in January. The single “Stay Strapped” is on there as well.
Anything else you working on besides that?
I’m just working on On Behalf of the Streets 2 right now. I’m trying to finish that. We got a new Livewire group album coming out, but that ain’t gone be out probably til’ December. I’m just trying to critique this album real fast. I want this to be the one, so I’m taking it slow, placing all my focus on this album right here. With my last album, I only put like one video on MTV. With this one, I’m gonna try to put like three of the videos on MTV. We got a radio single this time for this album. We’re going to promote it more like a major album but on an independent scale.