Max Bell been on the waitlist for the new Supreme x MPC Live model.
For some, flipping samples familiar to the layman is unthinkable. You’re either lazy or bereft of ideas. If you’re Stro Elliot, you’re simply good enough to render all reservations irrelevant. The 44-year-old producer and Roots member has made freaking instantly recognizable source material a vital piece of his artistic raison d’être. James Brown, Kool & The Gang, Marvin Gaye—no one is off limits. When you’re talking to the Brown estate about stems instead of a lawsuit, you’ve cracked the code.
“I’m a big Dilla and Pete Rock fan,” Elliot explains. “I’m a big fan of people who took relatively well-known records and said, ‘I’m going to do something different with it. I know it’s been used to death, but I think there’s more meat on the bone. There’s something else that can be drawn from that melody, that drum loop or that chord progression.’”
On tracks like “Marvin’s Mood” and “The Summer Love Song,” Elliot doesn’t rely on the loops so much as he reimagines them, composing beats with concussive and dynamic drums that still sound smooth. Not a second feels stale. Every deep pocket of groove is so well-arranged that you could pass off “Marvin’s Mood” as an alternate take of “I Want You” and “The Summer Love Song” as an unreleased Mos Def cut (all due respect to Da Bush Babees). And if you’ve followed the often exhausting career of Kanye West, you might’ve unknowingly heard West’s gospel choir borrow from Elliot’s brilliant Soul II Soul flip, “Soul II Stro.” Listen once and the opening scene of Belly may never hit the same again.
Long before beats, Elliot was a military brat obsessed with his family’s vinyl collection. The family moved roughly every three years, whenever his father was reassigned. Music was the only constant. After becoming fluent in trumpet and drums in high school, part of which he spent in Germany, Elliot became a producer/MC in rap group the Procussions. Their conscious, anti-capitalist messaging notwithstanding, they moved to Los Angeles and dropped a record on late-era Rawkus. When the group briefly disbanded, Elliot’s beats began to circulate on the internet. Though he created in relative obscurity, he found champions in local DJs, especially House Shoes, who’s released the bulk of Elliot’s publicly available material via Street Corner Music.
Elliot also found fans and kindred spirits in Jazzy Jeff and Questlove. Since joining The Roots in 2017, Elliot has spent most of every week working on The Tonight Show, making short themes for sketches, filming sketches, and playing with The Roots on the show. Weekends and vacations from TV were spent gigging with The Roots. However, the pandemic enabled Elliot to finish a few records. In both cases, he was granted owner-approved access to music that others could only dream of sampling carte-blanche. During our two hour convo, we talked about those records, his musical background and preferred equipment, flipping the familiar, the whole Kanye thing, The Roots, and much more.
What were your folks playing in the house?
Stro Elliot: Mostly soul and jazz. My father was really into what a lot of people would consider cheesy, contemporary jazz music that you would find on 94.7 The Wave in Los Angeles. In my opinion, the music was much better back then, so I didn’t find it cheesy. My parents’ record collection was something that really gave me the best tools. While it was predominantly soul and jazz, you would find like one Led Zeppelin record or one Carole King record. That was enough for me to say, “Okay, let me take this one record and see what else they made.” That opened up whole other worlds.
Did moving frequently because of your dad’s work affect what music you heard?
Stro Elliot: Since we moved a lot, I found that the most consistent form of getting music came with the video age. Everyone had music video shows, whether it was MTV, VH1, or BET. There were cable access shows that play great music, The Box being one that people remember. You could actually call in and decide which videos they played next and stuff like that. Mostly that and then conversations I had with my friends was how I got exposed to a lot of music. Much later, the internet played a great role in terms of how much I could actually research things on my own. That was a good companion to my vinyl digging.
Did you receive any formal musical training?
Stro Elliot: I started playing trumpet in middle school, around the sixth grade. Drums were out for obvious reasons. I wanted to play the saxophone, but it’s a very expensive instrument. The trumpet was the one instrument that my parents could get access to. I think we had a neighbor who played trumpet, and he mentioned how cheap it was and that he could teach me. I played for about four or five years. The second time we moved to Germany, the school asked me if I played any instruments. I lied and told them I played drums. I got to play drums until my paperwork showed up. Then they gave me the choice. I guess they played well enough that they were like, “You can stay on drums if you want, but your paperwork shows that you were a pretty good trumpet player.” I did a little bit of both all the way through middle school and high school.
When did you become interested in hip-hop?
Stro Elliot: I always had a passion for music, but I remember when I heard [A Tribe Called Quest’s] first album. Up until that point I knew I loved and wanted to make music. I looked up to people like Quincy Jones and these amazing musical icons without even really considering hip-hop as a viable vehicle to do what I wanted to do. I loved jazz and soul and thought that was what I was going to do. When I heard Tribe’s first album, it was the first time that I realized that you could incorporate all of those things into hip-hop. There were other things coming out at the time that had like jazz loops and stuff like that, but Tribe was on another level. The first time I heard “Bonita Applebum,” I was like, “I can’t tell if they have a band that’s playing this.” I didn’t know the sample. That was part of their appeal. They were using records that nobody else was using. Also, they landed in my lane.
At what age did you begin making music? What did that sound like?
Stro Elliot: My mother brought me a keyboard that I begged for when I was 16. At the time, we were living in Germany. I didn’t live close to any friends or anybody that might have been doing music, so I just needed something to have on my own. I made a deal that if I got a certain amount of good grades on a report card, my parents would get it for me for Christmas. And they did. From 16, I was self-taught as a keyboard player. That same year, my grandfather gave me his old guitar that he had laying around in his basement. And then there were pretty much whatever other instruments I could get my hands on. I still had a trumpet from the band, and I wanted to play whatever was laying around.
When did you first make what you would call a “beat”?
Stro Elliot: Around the same time. Nothing I’m proud of, obviously. [laughs] That keyboard, as archaic as it is now, was my first instrument apart from the trumpet. And the trumpet is a singular line instrument. Now I had this instrument that I could create harmony with and make whole pieces of music with, as cheesy as they might have sounded. That’s when I started trying to crank out ideas and things that I always wanted to do as far as melodies or doing pause tapes for samples. My brother had this great boombox. It was a double cassette joint, so you could do the loop tape thing, but it also had this input that I would plug my keyboard into. It was almost like a ghetto four-track, the way that I would use it. It allowed me to layer samples and actual music. That’s where it started with me wanting to really incorporate live instrumentation over samples in an effective manner.
How has your setup evolved over the years?
Stro Elliot: I explained the very beginning, which was very rudimentary. The first time I got a piece of equipment that moved things forward was probably the ASR-X by Ensoniq. By this point I was in a band, and two of the members had ASR’s. I remember going over to one of their houses and bringing a pile of records, stuff I always wanted to sample, and working through the night. I didn’t sleep for 48 hours. I was just up because I was super fascinated by this instrument and the capabilities to do so. Inevitably, he gave me that ASR. That was pretty much the beginning of the quest for the perfect gear, if you will. I’ve used MPC’s and pretty much every kind of DAW. I started in Pro Tools, used Logic and a little bit of everything else. I found that when I started using software based production tools, there was a part of me that was always trying to create or recreate some of my old school gear setup. I always needed a pad that I can physically play on. I need to be able to bang out drums and ideas on pads, not just a keyboard. So there was always going to be some form of sampling pads along with a keyboard. It’s always been a combination of that: a controller keyboard, sampling pads that I can drum on, and then everything else is kind of in and out. I’ve had a Fender Rhodes for years that I’ve played with. I’ve always had a guitar handy just because. I’m not even the greatest guitar player, but I could knock out a melody line and layer some stuff.
What’s in your studio these days?
Stro Elliot: Right now, there is the Ableton Push, which has been my go-to instrument for the last five or six years. There’s a machine AKAI makes called the APC40, which I use in conjunction with the Push, whether it’s just for triggering certain things or having extra knobs and levers and whatnot. And then a controller keyboard that sits on top of my Fender Rhodes that I have yet to plug in, which is a reminder to get it fixed. And then just a guitar that I have laying around.
Do you have a preferred DAW?
Stro Elliot: I guess it would be Ableton because I’ve been in it for the last few years. But all DAW’s have made great advancements. Some of them are kind of mirror images of each other. James [Poyser] from The Roots is a diehard Logic user. Every once in a while, he’ll show me something that I didn’t realize was in there. And I’ve had that experience with other people that talked about other DAW’s. I used Studio One before and would probably still be using it if there was a way for me to use the Push with it. It’s got a lot of functions that I really miss. Ableton has them, but either I was more comfortable with them in Studio One, or they just kind of worked better. A lot of DAW’s do a lot of things really great and some things not so great. You have to pick and choose which of those things are most important to you, I guess.
If you’re comfortable revealing your source(s), where do you get your drums?
Stro Elliot: Everywhere. It frustrates the crap out of people who want to know. My brother Mark [Kelly] got into production not too long before I joined [The Roots]. One of his first questions was about drums. I was like, “You’re gonna get mad because it’s gonna sound like I’m holding something from you, but I’m not. There are drums everywhere.” You take a fill that opens up a record and there’s an open snare, an open hi-hat, or an open kick somewhere. There are things that have a low end, like somebody knocking on the door or beating on the table or a car door shutting. There’s an endless amount of percussion that you can pull from places, whether I pull it from a record or something I recorded with a field recorder. Lately, my go-to has been this program called Addictive Drums. It’s a virtual drum set, but it allows you to have a lot of control in a way that you wouldn’t normally have with something digitally based. You can tune in, change where the mics sit, put a certain level of reverb and certain effects and kind of pan them out. Lately, I’ve just been recording myself and chopping myself playing. Then I’ll run those through certain effects to make them sound dirty or more cohesive with whatever I’m sampling or putting together.
Your family wound up in Colorado after your second time in Germany. What was the music scene like there, if there was one at all? What brought you to California?
Stro Elliot: There really wasn’t one. I hate to say that out loud because I felt like we got a lot of flack when we were there. The group I was part of, the Procussions, kind of came out of nowhere. We all met through different people and got put together because nobody else was really making the kind of music we wanted to make, hip-hop specifically. The more we started to perform, the more we realized how few venues there were. When we started to record, we realized that there was even less of an industry to support our music careers. We were fortunate to befriend a couple of promoters who always booked us as opening acts. Whenever we opened, we talked to other acts. They all told us the same thing, “The show was great. The music is great. You guys have to get out of here. There’s nothing here that’s going to help you guys grow. Without an industry here, you’ll just be running in circles.” Half of the groups we talked to were from Los Angeles or California in general. They were all very cool and said they could help us out or introduce us to the right people. We took that to heart. J went out first, and we followed. Two months after he went out, I followed. Two months after that, our third member moved out. We just used whatever DJ’s were available, since we couldn’t necessarily bring our DJ with us.
You handled all the production. Was that an instructive for later work? What did you learn about making beats during that time?
Stro Elliot: [After the group moved from its Wu-Tang phase] to three members, all three of us were pretty different. J was a little bit more aggressive. People often compare him to Zack de la Rocha in Rage Against the Machine. The other member was somewhere in the middle. He had an average rapper’s vocal tone with a true school aesthetic. I was kind of at a lower tone and had a deeper voice. We kind of rounded things out that way vocally. From a production standpoint, I had to learn how to cater to three different kinds of voices, three different kinds of styles, three different kinds of energies. I think that was a great college, if you will, for me to go to in terms of learning how to work with other artists. I had three very different dynamics, three different very characters or personalities. Trying to cater to that all simultaneously was something I definitely grew a lot from.
After you briefly disbanded the Procussions, what was your plan? Were you making a lot of beats?
Stro Elliot: There were a couple times we took sabbaticals and didn’t know what was next. For me, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. I was very happy being in a group of individuals. I’d always enjoy being a part of something rather than being in front of something. When the group disbanded, the only thing I knew was that I still loved making music. I didn’t know what capacity and how I was going to do it. It kind of happened organically. I did what I always did. I’d go through my daily routines, open up my equipment and start making music. I started making remixes and stuff like that. I would get a hold of acapellas and some ideas that I thought would sound cool together. That became my introduction to a lot of the people that I still know today and called close friends, mostly DJs. The DJ community was really receptive to everything that I was doing. For me, it wasn’t necessarily that I had to make a choice. I continued to do what I was doing and found people who really loved it and wanted to nurture that.
You released Stro’s Old Beat Farm in 2011. Was that your first official instrumental record?
Stro Elliot: That was my first official instrument record. That was instigated by a close DJ friend, Inka One. I think his name is even on the artwork. It got to a point where I was sitting on music. I was working on some other things, and Inka was always really honest. He’s like, “You’re one of my favorite producers. I love the stuff that you make. But I’m watching all these producers put out mixtapes and beat tapes, and I’m thinking, ‘Why haven’t you done this yet?’” He kind of beat me in the head with it for a couple months until he was finally like, “Send me whatever you got. I’ll weed through it and pick the best ones. That’ll be the release.” I did that. I sent him everything, he picked out his favorites, and I might have made a couple changes of my own. J hooked me up with somebody that could do the album artwork. That was the first thing I released on Bandcamp.
At the time, did you feel like some of those tracks were many years ahead of the curve?
Stro Elliot: I don’t know if I felt they were ahead of the curve, especially because there were tracks on there that were maybe seven or eight years old. Not a lot of them, but there were a couple that were that old on there. Even the newest tracks on the album were probably two years old by that point. As an artist, you become really self conscious about your own music. I was super reluctant to even release it. I was like, “There’s nothing on here that was made in the last two years. Why would I put any of this stuff out?” But in my humble opinion, the thing I came to find — which I think is still true — is that producers are always ahead of the curve. There’s a lot of times you’ll send lyricists and vocalists beat tapes and ideas, and I don’t think they’re ready for it. They don’t know what to do with it yet. Years down the line, you’ll find that they’ve caught up. Almost every producer I know has these stories of giving people beat tapes and watching artists select beats that were made five years ago. For that reason alone, I’ve always felt like producers were slightly ahead.
“Soul II Stro” was on that record. Would you mind recounting what happened when Kanye West liberally borrowed from it for Sunday Service?
Stro Elliot: The “Soul II Stro” track has been one of the most interesting things I’ve ever been a part of. It was initially done because there was a sound clash they were doing at The Root Down, where these incredible L.A.-based producers went head-to-head. I was a fan, so when I was asked to do one I was like, “Bet. Cool.” They seemed to have a hard time pairing me up with anyone. I was more than happy that they paired me up with somebody that was actually my homie, Newman from a group called Giant Panda. That battle was the first time I performed “Soul II Stro,” along with three or four other tracks, some of which people still play today. I put all of the tracks on MySpace because I knew everybody didn’t live in L.A. That was when it started to circulate. There were even some inquiries of people who wanted to use it, but nobody wanted to pay that sample fee. The same thing continued to happen over the years. On my first release with House Shoes, he included it. It was just this track that never seemed to die. I started to feel that people were sick of it, but it hasn’t been true. To this day, I still get people talking about that particular track.
So the night before Coachella the homie Benji B out in London hit me up. He told me that he was doing Coachella with Kanye. He expressed how much he’s always liked that record. They were doing a version of the Soul II Soul song, which was more along the lines of how they used it for Belly, an acapella. He introduced my idea, and they loved it. The members of the band, the choir, and inevitably Kanye. To this day, I’ve never met or spoken to Kanye. Benji told me that there was a possibility that they might want to use it and wanted to know if that was okay. I was like, “Sure.” So the very next day, I’m watching Kanye’s performance from my couch. I was definitely one of the people confused about what he was doing, like, “Is he gospel now?” Then out of nowhere comes the Soul II Soul moment. I literally thought it was going to be a thing that they linked to a little bit. I didn’t realize it was going to be something they used a big chunk of. They used it on James Corden’s show and on multiple occasions. It was always pretty humbling. That became the thing that I would hear about pretty often. And people would ask, “Did he steal it? Did you get paid?” It’s always been a tricky track for me because it’s basically somebody else’s music. I never paid to use that song. So there’s a part of me that never really had an issue with the fact that I wasn’t really ever paid for [Kanye] using it.
On one of The Roots tours, we were on a bill with a bunch of ’90s acts from the UK like Jamiroquai. Jazzie B from Soul II Soul happened to be there. I didn’t meet or talk to him, but somebody else in the band had a discussion with him. He mentioned that he liked the track. To me, that was enough. Like, okay, “He likes it and that means he doesn’t sue me.” [laughs] As far as Kanye was concerned, I would feel very uncomfortable getting paid for something that Soul II Soul didn’t get paid for first. If it did ever come down to this situation, I would be like, “Make sure they’re squared away first. Whatever’s left over is what I’ll take.” Otherwise, it’s not that big of a deal. It’s super humbling every time I see a clip of them performing it, it’s always really great that the choir and the musicians are all amazing. And they’ve all been really great at reaching out.
Many of your most well-known beats work with really familiar samples. Why are you drawn to flipping such universal stuff?
Stro Elliot: There’s part of me that is being an asshole in some of it, but some of that comes from my influences. I’m a big Dilla and Pete Rock fan. I’m a big fan of people who took relatively well known records and said, “I’m going to do something different with it. I know it’s been used to death, but I think there’s more meat on the bone. There’s something else that can be drawn from that melody, that drum loop or that chord progression.” For me, I had to get out of my own way. There were records I wouldn’t touch it just because they were records that I grew up on. They had a sacred place in my brain. And then I would hear somebody else use it and be like, “No, no, no. If you’re gonna use it, use it this way.” It became about that. But even if they weren’t songs I grew up loving, there’s these moments in all these great pieces of music that are popular for a reason. There’s sometimes a motive like, “I’m gonna do this just to be a prick about it.” People will be like, “Why are you sampling Michael Jackson?” If I was a producer in the room at the time and this acapella was playing or that keyboard line was playing, or these drums were playing, I would have done something different. It’s almost wish fulfillment. But it’s also me poking the bear. At live gigs, if you play the first couple seconds of a familiar record and then you flip it into something different, you’re going to get people that are excited about it or people throwing their beers and burritos at you.
Hypothetically, if you sample someone like Marvin Gaye or Kool & the Gang, are you worried about clearances?
Stro Elliot: I’ve gotten fairly lucky. I haven’t really been flagged for anything or had anybody really come after me for anything. Actually, it’s been the opposite. People in charge of certain estates are fans of the records. I give all the credit in the world to the DJ community, because the DJs know and have conversations with these people. There are a couple of stories where the DJ would be aware who was in the venue and would play my record sampling said artist just to get a response out of them. Nine times out of 10, the response has been nothing but positive. I do think about [clearance], but less now than I used to. Things are becoming a lot more open. People are making their catalogs available… But whenever people ask me, I say, “Do what you want to do until it becomes a problem.” But I haven’t really had to deal with that too much.
So the lesson here is: If you’re going to borrow, be good.
Stro Elliot: [laughs] Maybe the fact that what they liked what they heard kept them from being mad and sending their lawyers after me. But I don’t know that for sure. Anyone who might read this, don’t take that 100%. Maybe ask other people if it’s good first.
House Shoes has been one of your biggest proponents, and he’s put together to excellent compilations of your older stuff, Stro Elliot and “Marvin’s Mood.” Why did you decide to work with him? What has his support meant to you?
Stro Elliot: I first met House Shoes at an event in downtown L.A. I was there with some other friends. They had mutual friends that were DJing at this spot, and I ran into House Shoes. At this point, I didn’t know what he looked like. But I did hear somebody reference him when they were talking to him, so I introduced myself. We’d heard a lot about one another, and that’s where the relationship started. We talked about music, and obviously I wanted to pick his brain about Dilla. The second time I ran into him — there’s something different that happens to Shoes when he’s got a little liquor in him. He came up to me and was like, “Yo, motherfucker, we need to put out a record. You’ve got a lot of heat and people need to hear that.” He was really convincing. He ended up doing the same thing that Ink One did years earlier. So I sent him everything I had up until that point. He’d heard “Soul II Stro” and some other things, so there were already things that he knew that he kind of wanted to put on it.
I think he constantly lurks on my social media pages because I’ll leak something I’m working on and he’ll be like, “Send it.” Even now, we’re in the process of possibly putting together another project along the lines of everything we released up to this point. It’s based off of stuff he’s heard me play during sets or posted on social media. He pretty much told me, “This is pretty much what I was for dilla. Dilla was a person that, kind of like you, kept his head low and just made music. When I hear something that sounds incredible, I want the rest of the world to hear it. Let me be that for you.” That’s pretty much been the basis of our relationship. And judging from the other people on the Street Corner roster, he has an incredible ear. It means a lot to be part of the Street Corner roster because every other producer that’s there is pushing the culture forward and making great music.
When and how did Jazzy Jeff first hear your work?
Stro Elliot: He’s got singles that the Procussions put out that I thought were just regional. One of the first times that we actually got to speak, he was like, “I’ve been following what you’ve been doing for a long time. I remember the Procussions. I have all those on wax somewhere.” If you know Jeff, it makes sense. There’s a part of him that seems absolutely ageless, and I think it’s that thing that you see in young people. There’s a curiosity there, a desire to never stop learning. Jeff not only knows about every musician and every piece of music, he knows about the equipment and the gear. He always has his ear to the street. If anything pops up, that’s of interest to him, he champions it. I’m so privileged that he championed something that I had something to do with in the beginning.
There’s also a story that Mad Skillz told me. He was touring with Jeff. One day, somebody hit me up on Twitter and was like, “I think Mad Skillz is looking for you.” Sure enough, Skillz hit me and was like, “Are you the one that made this Soul II Soul track? Can I get your info? I want to have a conversation.” 30 seconds later, my phone rings. It’s Skillz. He just goes into this story where he was doing a show with Questlove, J. Rocc, Jeff, and someone else. J. Rocc plays the sample and they assumed it was going to be this Fat Joe song that came out using the same sample. When it went into my beat, according to Skillz, they all lost their mind. They were like, “What is that?” That prompted Skillz to go on Twitter the next day looking for me. We just talked music, and he was like, “Send me everything you’re doing.” I don’t know if that’s how Jeff got the record. I’ve heard stories that he also got it from my homie DJ Day. Then Jeff was coming to L.A. to do something at Guitar Center honoring the pioneers of DJing like Grand Wizard Theodore and Flash, and he invited me. I brought J, and we went to watch him perform. It was amazing. Nu-Mark was there also and did an amazing set. In the little time that he had outside, he’s like, “I love your music. Let’s build.” That pretty much became the basis of that relationship.
Did Jeff turn Questlove on to your stuff? How did that relationship develop?
Stro Elliot: Not directly. He was there in that Mad Skillz story, and I feel like he’d heard my music or at least heard my name. He showed up to the first Playlist Retreat, and I went to introduce myself in the hallway. I’d met him once or twice before, but before I could get a word in he was like, “Stro Elliot.” He believed that myself, Tall Black Guy, and 14KT all lived in the same house and “just made music to end the world on a daily basis.” [laughs] That was his exact wording. Based on that conversation, I knew he was aware of me for a little bit.
The Roots normally do The Roots Picnic every year in Philly. This one particular year, they decided they wanted to do one in New York. He wanted to get a bunch of New York artists. He had Nile Rodgers, David Byrne of the Talking Heads, and Alicia Keys. He wanted to have Wu-Tang there. He hit me up and was like, “I don’t just want to do a ‘Roots Play Wu-Tang.’ I that you play drums very well with pads, meaning you can sample the exact kits RZA used.” That gig became my introduction to not only as a band and as individuals, but that whole scene. I hadn’t been in New York in a long time before that gig. Doing that gig opened up a lot of other things while I was out there. Two months later, he invited me back to work on an album at Electric Ladyland studios. Our relationship was mostly cultivated through that, then he asked me to join the band probably six or seven months later.
When did you officially get the offer to join the Roots? Was it an easy decision?
Stro Elliot: That was the summer of 2017 when I moved to New York. If anybody knows Quest, he can sometimes speak in the most cryptic manner. He started texting me these questions, like, “Have you ever thought about moving out of LA? How long do you plan on doing music?” Inevitably, I was like, “What am I missing?” He was like, “A position opened up in the band. Everybody else wanted to hire somebody more traditional to fit that part, but I thought it’d be really interesting to see what it would be like to have somebody who’s less traditional.” On top of that, he appreciated my prowess as a producer and being able to bring that into the plate as a member of the band.
Initially, I said, “Yeah.” I felt like, if a Questlove calls you and asks you something, you should probably just say, “Yeah.” But immediately I got off the phone and called Jeff. By that point, we’d talked about a lot of things, career decisions and stuff. He’s been through everything, so I appreciate his viewpoint on a lot of things. I so wanted him to tell me “yes” or “no.” Jeff’s not that kind of person. He was like, “This kind of decision you have to make for yourself. It’s about what you want to do moving forward. There’s probably going to be some cons to go with the pros, but it’s all about the inevitable, what do you want to do.” Then he did a great thing for me. James Poyser doesn’t live too far from Jeff. One day, James just happened to be over Jeff’s crib, and we had a little phone conference where James told me about the day-to-day of what it is to be a member of that band, the expectations, and whatnot… Mostly, [my hesitance] was just about my artistic freedom and the time consumption of what it is to be in this band, which is something that I learned in my first three months. I joined in the summer. For the uninitiated, there’s no life outside The Roots in the summer. On top of doing The Tonight Show every night, we would take off on the weekends. We would take off on the weekends and go to LA. It wasn’t like we would take off and do a show in Boston. We would get on a plane and be halfway across the world to do these weekend gigs and hop right back to be back in time for work on Monday. And when we got the most significant time off in the summer, we do a European tour. We do an entire West Coast tour. They never stop moving. I had to become okay with that and that I’m going to have less time to do the things that I’ve been doing for the last few years.
How has the job affected you creatively?
Stro Elliot: I’ve learned a lot since being in this band and being around other musicians and watching them work. I don’t have time to do all the things that I want to, but there hasn’t been a shortage of ideas over the last four years. There’s so much to be inspired by. I give credit to [Black Thought] and [Quest] for being the best role models you can have in terms of being in this industry. They don’t really stop working or seem to have any limitations as to what they might try and get involved in. They’re involved in everything from music to food to fashion to their own television ideas. And some of that comes from the fact that they’re just interested in everything. The daily conversation with them could be about literally anything. They grew up being fans of a lot of different forms of entertainment, and I think that shows now in their career choices. Before everything set down, Tariq was getting ready to open up a play. It’s great to be able to watch these two people do exactly what they want to do in their own way. It inspires me.
What have you learned about drumming from being around Quest that you might not have picked up listening to the records?
Stro Elliot: Absolutely nothing. [laughs] Growing up, I always listened to a lot of different drummers. I was exposed to the greats, the Buddy Rich’s of the world, Neil Peart, and all these people who were world-renowned drummers. It’s funny watching Ahmir because I think everyone in music agrees, he has this killer pocket. He can emulate almost any break, but when he just sits down and plays with a rhythm section he has this feel, this pocket… If you ask him for some of his favorite breaks, they’re all things that have a serious groove and pocket. I don’t think he points to any super ridiculous intricate solo, outside of maybe something that was done by Average White Band. There’s a part of me that really appreciates watching his approach to drums, and I learned the art of subtlety and a good groove. There doesn’t have to be a ton of movement as much as it just has to feel good.
There hasn’t been a Stro release of entirely new beats in many years. What’s in the vault? Why is it in the vault? When are you opening it?
Stro Elliot: When everything shut down last year, it opened up the opportunity for me to dive into stuff and finish some things. Specifically, there are two projects coming out. One is with a [library music] label called KPM. Anybody who dug for vinyl is familiar with those green covers with simple font. It was libraries of music that they would use for commercials, television, or movies. They reached out at the end of 2019 and said they were giving several producers access to their entire catalog, which is vast. It took me a long time to complete that project because there was so much music. It was overwhelming. They opened up the library and wanted me to put together a 10 track album. That’s finished, and it’s supposed to come out in April or May.
The other project I was really happy to get involved with was a James Brown project that I think was simultaneously instigated by House Shoes and Questlove. Universal did kind of the same thing as KPM, but [I only had access to his 25 Greatest Hits]. Some of that kind of fell into my wheelhouse. “You want me to use something that’s well known? I’m gonna do it my way.” I finished that at the top of the year, and that might not come out until the end of the year. I’m really happy with the way that that came out, even as weird as and disjointed as it might be because it was such a weird time. While making that record, everyone was scared and it was a weird and really crappy time in the country. In spite of that the project came out well. I’m excited for people to hear it. Me and Shoes are always talking about putting out music, so it’s very likely that you might also see a six to eight track release that comes out with some of the better stuff that was created over that period as well. There’s always music happening. I think I’ve also tried to just stay involved with a lot of my friends or the people that I work with and creating music with them. It’s the one thing I’m sorely missing more than anything now: not being able to be in the studio and working with some of these people that I got very used to working with for weeks on end sometimes.
At this point in your career, what are your goals?
Stro Elliot: I’ve never been much of a goal oriented person, and that’s kind of the misconception about where I’m at now. I think there are a lot of people that assume that me being in this band and the things I’ve got to be part of over the last four years was something that was on a vision board. It absolutely wasn’t. It was also the reason why I was willing to say no to the job much as I saw the positives in it. As you get older, you just want to be happy, be around good people, and be content. [Before joining The Roots], I was. I was making good music and around people that I loved working with. It wasn’t the it wasn’t the exposure and the money I’m making now, but I was okay with that. That’s never been my thing. Looking forward, my goals are pretty minor. They’re projects and things that I would like to get my hands on. People in my corner, my brother most notably, have been barking for me to put out an actual album, not just instrumentals. Whether it’s me on vocals or if I got a bunch of guest vocalists, that’s a goal of mine that I want to put out. I also want to get into streaming more consistently. I miss performing and being on a stage, and that obviously doesn’t happen as much as it used to. Whether I do it on Twitch or IG, it’s something.
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