“It’s About Creating Moments That Feel True to Our Lives:” An Interview With Sterling Toles

Son Raw speaks to the Detroit producer about his hometown and working with Boldy James on their forthcoming collaborative album Manger on McNichols.
By    July 28, 2020

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Sterling Toles isn’t a familiar name in the wider global music industry, but in Detroit, the visual artist, musician, producer and man about town travels in the same circles as a Moodymann and the late J Dilla. His under the radar reputation may soon change however, with the release of Manger on McNichols, a collaborative album with the hotly tipped Boldy James, fresh off signing to Griselda and releasing a stellar body of work with Alchemist. Manger on McNichols however, is an entirely different beast: initially recorded to sampled rap beats over a number of years in the late 00’s, the project’s music and overall structure were subsequently re-imagined with the help of a number of Detroit musicians, evolving into an album capturing the joy and pain of life in Detroit, as reflected through hip-hop, jazz, gospel, soul, funk and Detroit’s legacy of dance music. It’s a truly astounding work, and so I reached out to Sterling to find out about its gestation, his personal story and how Manger on McNichols tells the story of a city. Son Raw

This conversation was lightly edited for clarity.

Obviously the world and the U.S specifically is going through a lot right now, how are you maintaining?

Sterling Toles: Staying out the way, as much as I can. I feel like I’ve been waiting to do this forever, to have this much quiet time and time to reflect and think about where I want to go creatively. I’m thinking about what I want my presence in the world to be like. For me it’s a beautiful time to reflect and come out clear. I appreciate it on a lot of levels.

Let’s get some introductions out of the way since some people might know you, some might come to you through Boldy…

Sterling Toles: Lots of people! I’m Detroit born and raised. Lived the first few years of my life in South West Detroit, moved to the East Side when I was 7 and lived on the East Side ever since. So I definitely rep South West Detroit, definitely rep the East Side. My education has been in a part of town that was repackaged as Mid Town, but it’s the Cass Corridor. I’m a tried and true Detroiter.

Detroit’s got this rich musical history from gospel to soul to free jazz and a lot of strains of dance music and Hip Hop which reflect on the album. For your journey, what was your path into music?

Sterling Toles: My father was really into music and we had a radio station for years, WJZZ, which was Detroit’s local jazz station in operation until about the late 90s. Jazz is very much a part of the backdrop of the city. I knew who Grover Washington was and who Michael Franks was before Michael Jackson! I would always hear that kind of stuff as a real young kid and by the time I was 5 or 6, or maybe even earlier, I had my own record collection because my dad saw I was really into music, so he’d buy what I responded to. By the mid-80’s, my cousin named Keir Worthy was actually one of the first hip-hop promoters in the South. He was responsible for Stetsasonic, Schooly D, Ice-T – getting those records to all the different outlets in the South. Then he parlayed that into a marketing director job at Elektra and Def Jam. By the late 80’s he was sending me promotional boxes of tapes that never came out. I had records that never saw the light of day! I also had a cousin on the Eastside that was a rapper when nobody was really doing it. He was the first person I saw rap in person, around ’83-’84. So between my two cousins, I had a really in depth relationship with the music. From there, it was on – I enjoyed the stuff from my father but this felt like MY music.

From falling in love with your own thing, to becoming a participant in the music and the culture, how did you take that step?

Sterling Toles: I was rapping around ’84, when I was about 8. We had our little crew at our school, so I was writing rhymes by high school. I would also freestyle a lot, I liked how spontaneous it was. Once I graduated high school, I went to the Parsons School of Design in New York. I went to art school be an illustrator but also to pursue music because my cousin was there. This was ’94 – I moved to New York between Illmatic and Ready to Die! I actually saw Pac and Biggie perform at the Paladium. My cousin was working for Steve Salem, who at the time was managing Snow who had a big hit with Informer. It was so big they started a label based off that song: Motorjam Records, which was blocks from where I was going to school. Everyday after school I would walk to the Motorjam offices at Bleaker and Broadway and listen to the demo tapes. That’s where I stumbled across a demo from a guy from Detroit who was making incredible music called M.F 911, they put out a record executive produced by Chuck D and Ced Gee, but their label had folded. His number was on the cassette so we started talking and since my situation in New York was shaky, I went back to [Detroit] and we started recording. So that was my introduction into actually recording. I joined a group called The Foundation with a guy called Kaos from Kaos & Mystro who were one of the first groups in Detroit – Kaos performed at Tiger Stadium when Nelson Mandela toured there after his release – and some other people who became important in Detroit Hip Hop. I did that for a few years, as a rapper in the group, but eventually everyone went their separate ways. By then, I was getting bored with Hip Hop, I felt late 90’s hip-hop was just following the template instead of continuing to evolve and expand. To me, the evolution of the music was happening in a lot of other shit like Portishead and Bjork and Massive Attack, Squarepusher, Aphex Twin and Stereolab. People were pushing the technology of the machines to make music. I wanted to rap to THAT shit, but no one else was feeling it, so that’s when I started producing, to make what I was feeling.

That’s going all the way through hip-hop’s lifespan! Jumping forward a bit, you mentioned that you began the first phase of Manger on McNichols with Boldy James in the mid 2000s. This album was a journey in itself, but how did the recordings start? How did you meet Boldy?

Sterling Toles: One of the guys in MF 911 had a digital recorder that you could make full tracks on, and he knew I didn’t like the studio – recording in a studio felt like doing something intimate at Kinko’s, it didn’t feel right. He didn’t know how that recorder worked, so he said I could hold it and find out how it works to teach him. They lent me this machine and it ended up being at my crib for years, so that’s how I started. So the first thing was, I had a friend named Murph who knew a lot of rappers, so he wanted to do a compilation. One day, Idol, a local rapper, was working on a song… but he had a very attractive woman with him so he wasn’t focused and it was taking a long time. Boldy had come with him and was rapping to himself in the corner, so we told him to say the rhyme, and we basically had him do it over Idol’s beat. Idol was gracious about it, and Boldy did the whole 4½ minute song in one take. We did a chorus at the end, but it was really done in 5 minutes. He asked if he could come back and I said my door was always open: my whole thing was that it took me so long to be in a position to record, that I knew I had an opportunity to help other guys who were in the same position, so they could cut their chops. That was the first song Boldy ever recorded. EVER.

A lot of rappers, you check their early work and they’re still searching for their style, but Boldy’s cadence and vocals sounds exactly the same on Manger on McNichols as he does on music recorded this year. Was he rapping like that from the beginning?

Sterling Toles: From the beginning! He knew who he was when he started. He sounds pretty much the same too, vocally. The thing is, he’s really not a rapper. This is not a contrived or formulaic character. That’s literally who he is. He’s not lying about nothing, and he’s always just being himself. The funny thing about it, is that there are two new songs on Manger on McNichols and NO ONE can tell which ones they are. The brilliance of him is he never does anything that dates the record. He won’t say hot catchphrases or words. He’s always understood that.

At what point did you realize that these tracks you were recording with him could become their own project? Because before we even touch on the technical side of what you did, there’s this whole lyrical thread about Black life and life in Detroit that Boldy touches on throughout the record. How did you find the narrative? Because it doesn’t feel like a bunch of rap tracks recorded over several years.

Sterling Toles: That’s the role of the producer. To seek common things and threads that weave in and out, then bring those to the surface and connect all the dots. When we recorded the majority of the vocals, that was 2007 to 2010. That stuff [that he was rapping about] was really what was going on in his life at the moment. Because you have to think about it contextually, today, he’s got at least a foot in the industry so it’s a little bit different now. The majority of this was recorded at a time he was 100% in the streets and at my place, just making songs to get away. So these songs cull narratives from when he was completely knee deep in all that shit. There was no rap career at that time. A lot of the things that came up were things he was going through at that moment.

There’s a trajectory on the album that I began to sculpt over time, but [Boldy’s words] were what was happening. Early on in the recordings he had a baby on the way as he mentions on the first song. By the end of the album, it turns out those babies were twins and they died from a situation that shouldn’t have happened. “Middle of Next Month” was recorded as a way to not retaliate. That’s why the song is so heavy. The chorus says somebody got to die – that was real, not just a Biggie quote. As I observed all of it, I started seeing the threads around 2010, which was when Boldy started going to Chicago to record with [his cousin] Chuck Inglish and our sessions were winding down. I started seeing these themes of life and birth and death and rebirth. And who were are intrinsically versus who we’ve been conditioned to become. A lot of us are confined to or imprisoned by circumstance, and we’re in dire need of attempting to reclaim who we truly are.

So those words and those themes that Boldy evoked are the first key to the album, the other side is you completely changed the music he was rapping over after the fact. How did that decision come about? Was it messing in the studio? Was it planned? Because the results are clearly not boom bap.

Sterling Toles: I joke that it’s what boom bap could blossom into. Part of it is that it was pretty sparse initially. Once the musicians started coming in, I became way more interested in having it sound like the records we were sampling than a record made out of samples. It’s a full circle from discovering original records through hip-hop to then wanting to make hip-hop records that sound like those originals. I became enamored with creating a record that if you take his vocals off, it’d be a record you’d love to sample from.

One thing that really stands outs is there’s very few musical bars that sound like loops. There’s always something coming in or coming out, but it’s tough to pull off that balance while keeping a focus on the emcee.

Sterling Toles: It’s because Boldy raps so open. I wouldn’t do that with a rapper that spits really densely. I’ve worked rappers where that wouldn’t work. But because Boldy’s rhymes have open space, it allowed me to add sounds that would grow and blossom in those spaces. Also, because the subject matter was so dark, it gave me an opportunity to make something beautiful. His darkness gave me permission to make some pretty ass shit, sonically! And also, I wanted hear a record that was dense sonically, a lot of time producers are afraid because the emcee is the star. I was actually working on it when To Pimp a Butterfly came out and people said “Ay! Your shit sounds like that!” but I went fuck it, I’m here! And I love that record. I wanted to make a rap record that you could sonically pick apart like Stereolab’s Dots & Loops or Radiohead’s OK Computer. Or another one is this Eddie Gale record on Blue Note called Black Rhythm Happening, records that are sonically rich. I wanted Manger on McNichols to be about the tangible world Boldy was immersed in versus the sonic backdrop. I wanted it to feel unpredictable because of the life that we live. There’s a lot of layers and density to living in this city. I wanted the music to sound like the living social construction that he’s living in. If he’s a fish in a fishbowl, I wanted the music to be the water.

To achieve that, you called in a lot of different musicians. Who were some of these people? How did you get that community together to take the project from where the raps were done to the finished album?

Sterling Toles: I do a lot of stuff in the city. There are a lot of people who may not know I do music but they’d know me from visual art. So I travel in a lot of different circles and meet people who are musicians and that create and things came together that way. It’s funny because a lot of the performers aren’t known for their music but they do play, and this was an opportunity for them. For example, adrienne maree brown who sings background on a song, she’s an author of several books that are some of the most important work that has come out of this community in the past several years. She happens to have an incredible voice, but I know her through organizing. I also knew people through my cousin who was working at labels; he was close to Amp Fiddler and Bubz Fiddler and he brought Bubz through. I didn’t even want to ask Bubz because he’s a legend to me! I was at the house playing a record for him and he went “man, you’re not gonna ask me to do this record!?” I was scared – this was someone who’d played with George Clinton! He’s part of that holy grail of the Detroit Music community. So it was really organic, I’d meet someone and he’d say he played trombone and it would happen. My M.O wasn’t professionals: I don’t feel like I make professional music, but I make personal music. So it was about documenting the spirit than just having an instrument on a record. The instrument itself is just the medium, so I didn’t care about what stage of development they were in. The guitar player on “Detroit River Rock,” he was just learning the guitar! So it spanned the gamut from legends to people who’d just started. I wanted this record to be a community document. I think it works because Boldy has a way where it seems like he’s rapping about dope all the time, but he’s really rapping about LIFE. Not everybody sold drugs but everybody understands the doubt, frustration, regret and hurt. So a lot of people saw a commonality with what he was saying when they played on the record. So there are people who aren’t even familiar with his style of rap that are playing on the record, which is dope.

Hearing about how you came up in the late 80’s, the way this record came together, it sounds like it draws from what the Bomb Squad did, but not out of records, out of people playing.

Sterling Toles: I was gonna tell you that too! I was making pretty Bomb Squad shit. I didn’t worry about samples either because I had a conversation with Boldy and asked if we should worry about clearance, but we decided we were doing this for us. That’s how you get a song like “Detroit River Rock” with so many samples…

About the M.O.P sample in it, even as a non-Detroiter I can connect that to how Dilla would sample their adlibs. Then you’d have a clip from Moodymann and the Electrifying Mojo elsewhere. There’s a real sense of history in weaving those references in.

Sterling Toles: Boldy and I both love the city so much. You notice in his rhymes, there are a ton of references already. Like on the song with Alchemist – Giant Slide – that’s referring to Belle Isle [home of the giant slide]. I wanted to make a living, breathing document to the history of the city. You take the intro, the man talking on there is Jimmy Boggs: he helped to orchestrate the march in 63 in Detroit when Dr. King came. If I’m not mistaken that was the first time he said the “I Have a Dream” speech. Jimmy Boggs was friends with Martin and Malcolm and the Panthers. His wife Grace was also an activist, PBS made a documentary on her a few years back. I worked really closely with Grace and the organization she had called Detroit Summer, so Jimmy was connected to the auto workers movement and Black revolutionaries. Then there’s an excerpt from Martha Jean “The Queen,” she was like the Detroit gospel equivalent of Mojo. Then there’s the Aretha sample, she was a Detroiter. I treat it like archeology, I really was interested in documenting the history and culture of the city to root what Boldy was saying in the experience and culture of Detroit. Ultimately, it’s about community because Dilla and Moodymann are friends, and Moodymann and Amp Fiddler are friends! Everybody’s connected. Moodymann is tight with Mad Mike from Underground Resistance and I’ve heard some of their shit that nobody’s heard because we’d hang and they’d play me some music. So I wanted to give people a window into the ground and the soil and what it means to be a Detroiter.

Finally, one of my favorite moments on the record you actually sample a Boldy interview about a song not being out… on the actual final version of the song. That’s very meta!

Sterling Toles: It was funny because that was an interview Boldy did for The Cypher podcast for an early project. With Boldy, we’re more like brothers, we talk but we might not even talk about music, we just happened to make an album. So it dawned on me when I heard that interview for the first time, as I was working on Mommy Dearest, that line when he says you killed me so I died and I came back – he was not only saying that to his mother, he was also saying that to me. Because in the interview he says “Sterling kept asking me to be more personal and as I got more personal, the darker my music became.” And it’s true, I kept telling him to be more personal because I knew he was going through so much, and as someone involved with art therapy, I know the importance of actually dealing with the things that you’re going through. None of the people around him wanted to listen to it though. So in that clip when they ask if someone close to him couldn’t listen to his music, we recorded some songs that were just too difficult for his wife to listen to. Cause she lost these kids and now there was a song about it. It was heavy. I realized that I was taking him to a place where the people around him weren’t ready to listen, but I knew it was important for his development and well being. So this project was about brotherhood, because I knew he had to process grief and get some of it out, more so than us making an album. He would joke that I was his therapist, but I just knew the shit he was going through. For me, I don’t care about where my music career takes me, I don’t give a fuck about that. I’m the person that’s figured out how to live to keep making pure statements creatively. It’s not about being the hot thing. That’s my intention, so I have no problem playing Russian roulette with my career. It’s about creating moments that feel true to our lives.

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