stik figa

Even with an enviable catalogue that spans eras, Stik Figa spent the past year considering retirement. In a hip-hop landscape that seems to value extremes — party records or sad rap — the Topeka native felt himself caught up in an untenable in-between state. At least until Michael Tolle, mastermind of Mello Music Group, called to toss around ideas for a new record.

Despite having made records that most independent rappers would consider foundational elements of their catalogues, Figa considers his latest release on Mello Music Group, Central Standard Time, to be his debut. If its predecessor, City Under The City, was a meeting of the minds between Stik Figa and L’Orange, this one puts the ex-battle rapper’s full creative vision at the forefront.

Tolle made it clear he wanted Figa to make the record HE wanted to make, and the artist tested the waters to see how far the label would go. The first name tossed out for a feature was Rappin’ 4-Tay, the result of his having grown up Scarface and Bay legends like E-40 and the playaz club kingpun. Until now, he never felt like he had the chance to display the full range of his influences. Now he has 4-Tay and all the champagne that such a cameo brings to table.

Figa takes pride in doing a few things well: he artfully documents his life and surroundings while rapping about being a better rapper than you. He unapologetically wears it on his sleeve. That’s perhaps the result of being from Topeka, a long way from the coastal cultural hubs that garner much of the attention in hip hop. It’s not Detroit or Chicago or Atlanta. For a while it was hard for him to even get a show at home, leaving him to opt for the neighboring college town of Lawrence instead.

The result of that perseverance is this efficient nine track, 25 minute player that touches on trend chasing, failed relationships, and the racial strife found in America’s geographic middle — home of the newly imagined “forgotten man.” The white working class that has been supposedly reeling from a string of economic and cultural defeats from recently lost manufacturing jobs, and here, perhaps even back to Brown vs. Topeka. Or as Stik succinctly puts it:, “I been black longer than I’ve been my first name, called nigger before a nigga ever learned names.” —Allen Poe

How was it traveling to New York to promote the album?

Stik Figa: I was mad happy about it but I also temper my expectations. To have guys in New York and at Sirius talk about how the new music is dope is exciting, but I try to temper my expectations. It feels like there’s a lot of buzz around the album, but it’s hard to really tell. The whole process reminds me I’m doing something right. It shows me I’m at least decent…still working on being very good, but for now I’m at least decent. It’s good to get away from the day to day grind, but I’ll be honest, I was glad to be home.

You mention early on when you were “trying to figure it out,” you felt like you had to rap like you were from New York, but in time you determined you would rap like you and part of rapping like you, meant embracing and expressing where you were at/from. Was there any specific event or turning point that made you realize you didn’t need to sound like a certain region sounded?

Stik Figa: I think for me it was finding out where certain artists were from that I considered nice. Scarface, being the incredible rapper he was, was from Houston. Same with Devin the Dude. When I really got into his music through cousins of mine down south, it started to make more sense, that I can take my influences and put them through a filter, not parrot them. So, I told myself the easiest way to do this was just remain myself through and through.

I feel like this has become part of your appeal, this blue collar ethic and sense of humor in your music.

Stik Figa: The rappers I look up to have always kind of carried that, like there was a Scarface line off The Fix album that spoke to me, he must have been talking to family members or something he said, “Does that make me less of a man than someone who does work with his hand?” It’s something I related to because that’s the world I come from. You get up, you go to work, take care of you and yours. All this other stuff, until it becomes a reality, is make believe to me.

So when it comes to music I figured somebody needs music they can relate to and hopefully that isn’t something they goes away. Like Johnny Cash made music the ordinary dude working in Appalachia could feel. That’s what rap is for us, that’s like the blues record for our generation. If we keep that storytelling and relatability in it, then we can last longer than the 6 months or whatever time the new trendy song might span. I could be completely wrong and that could just be romantic as hell.

I think that makes sense, there’s proof in your own catalogue even. Me and a few friends still have City Under The City, in rotation. I feel like you have those songs where once one speaks to you, you don’t forget it.

Stik Figa: That’s always been my goal. I feel like rapper’s have five different modes they can rhyme in. I have two. I have real life raps, I can tell you what’s going on out here or I can tell you about how I rap better than you. That’s it. I’m not like a Lupe Fiasco, like yo, “This songs about a robot, who’s actually an apartment building, that’s actually a metaphor for despondent youth.”

CST is in a way a debut for you, an opportunity for a lot of people to get to hear a project in which you had free creative license (with the push of a highly regarded label behind it) to basically make the record you wanted. What do you hope first time listeners will take away from it? What do you hope your familiar fans will take away from it?

Stik Figa: I hope new listeners get a sense of who I am as an artist, from my sense of humor, to the dexterity and my ability to be completely honest in my music, and I hope I make a fan out of them. Or they can completely hate what they heard too, that is fine as well ’cause at least you know all that stuff just isn’t for you. As far as people who have known, I just hope they remain reassured that I am making the music I want to make, and they stay along for the ride.

You came from a military household right? You mentioned you come from a world where you get up, work, provide, and take care of yours. My father was a carpenter with a very work oriented mind set and a really high work ethic. I was terrible with my hands and not sharp mechanically but I took really naturally to writing and poetry and artistic shit.

My question for you is, do you feel conflicted between this Puritan work ethic, “Be a real man,” type mindset that maybe you were raised around and expected to become vs your passion, which is artistic? Do you ever grapple with the notion behind Scarface’s line, “Am I any less of a man if I don’t work with my hands?”

Stik Figa: That is a great question. I think that my upbringing was very traditional. Seeing older black folks from the south providing for their families, and also having great pride in your work. I have found a way to reconcile those values in other ways, by making sure that the core principal of “doing your absolute best work” is always applied it to my art. I never forget those values and the people that shaped them in my music.

How does being outside of the mainstream markets as a rapper not NY, LA, Chicago, or Detroit get you written off more easily?

Stik Figa: Absolutely. I look at the amount of time it took someone as supremely talented as a Tech N9ne and how long it took to the get industry on board, when everyone else already knew. I think had he been from anywhere else in the nation he would be at this same place he is now, years ago. Even in the coverage I’ve already seen of CST, they’ll say things like, “hip hop from Topeka, of all places.” I guess, it just doesn’t make good business sense for people on the coast to say things are ‘cool’ until a certain number of influencers decide. But, it had to stop mattering to me is what I knew, ’cause I knew I had a perspective to offer this culture that I love so much.

I just finished up watching Hip Hop Evolution on Netflix. The first 20 years are all about how the culture developed in NY and LA. This section ends with Dr. Dre’s album The Chronic. When was the first major turning point in hip hop history that took place outside of the coasts, in your opinion?

Stik Figa: Wow, outside the coast, for me it’s either the superstardom of Bone Thugs or Nelly. Nelly more so for me cause he said ‘Kansas City’ in a song! I was like wow, they right down the highway from me, I recognize those accents and that attitude. When more St. Louis artist started winning, that may have been the first little peep into what was possible. I hope that series at least mentions the Midwest, we’ve given a lot and have gotten zero credit.

You are also talking about making some inroads into fly over states. Do you plan to tour off CST?

Stik Figa: If you want me, I will come. But I’m planning to come out this spring/summer!

The first visual off CST was for “Cold.” What are some of the unspoken divides in Topeka?

Stik Figa: In Topeka we speak in terms of east and west. The further east one goes, the older the town gets. My neighborhood is on one of those borders, MacVicar Ave. In the video I am on the east side and in central Topeka specifically. These are considered to be “troubled” neighborhoods by locals, but it’s home for me.

I was troubled to see you pour out so much Hennessy at the end but that’s neither here nor there. It’s funny though, how one person’s comfort zone ends where another person’s begins and it feels like real danger to them, but a lot of that is socially conditioned.

Stik Figa: I was so sad that he needed another take of me pouring the Henny, I almost cried, almost. And yeah, it’s wild when you think about it ’cause the town is small but we still have these barriers set up, it’s unfortunate.

One of those barriers I find frustrating in Kentucky is trying to set up hip hop shows. A lot of venues here are opposed to it in my experience. Some because their idea of what a musical act ought to be has to include a band, but a number of times it’s about how they don’t want their patrons to think they are becoming a “black” club/bar. The rock shows at these venues wind up with more bar fights than any hip hop shows I’ve been associated with. What’s a rap show in Topeka like? And are most venues open to having hip hop carry the night, especially on high revenue nights like Friday or Saturday?

Stik Figa: In the past we had those same problems, and some of the fear was justified. So much so that I found myself playing in nearby Lawrence and Kansas City, rather than at home. Many venues were afraid of having black folks as patrons for a number of years. That has eased very much with the new era, and more small dive bars are becoming more welcoming. And we have a developing arts district as well that is becoming more open to having hip-hop shows. It’s tough demographic wise where country and metal tends to do better in this city, but we are easing our way in to some of these places.

Did you get to talk with Rappin 4-tay at all? How was it talking to a childhood idol?

Stik Figa: Yes, it was incredibly cool and down to earth. Fun, behind the scenes story. I told him my name was ‘Stik Figa,’ he told me ‘Nah, you Six Figa cause that’s how much you gonna be worth after this!’ It was incredible, I interpolated my favorite song from him in the hook, which is “Never Talk Down,” which had MC Breed and Too Short. It’s an honor man.

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