“It Should Just Flow”: An Interview With Stalley

Stalley's independent spirit embraced being present on his latest collaborative project with producer Apollo Brown.
By    February 2, 2022

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When Stalley moved to North Georgia some five years back, he was searching for space. The hills of the Blue Ridge promised ample back roads for the car enthusiast to wander, a stark contrast with cramped New York City, where he’d lived since the turn of the century. In some ways, the move was strategic. It was fairly close to his home state of Ohio, a quick drive to Atlanta and thus easy flights to New York or Los Angeles. But mostly, the move provided a much needed change of perspective. Around the same time as his relocation, Stalley parted ways with Rick Ross’s Maybach Music Group. Feeling creatively stifled and frustrated at the lack of promotion for Ohio, his 2014 debut with MMG, Stalley decided to go at it alone.

Free from the furious pace of New York and the rigid expectations of a major label, Stalley felt a bit more limber. He started hiking the mountains near his home, taking in the serenity of his slice of Southern Appalachia. Musically, he opted for a more meditative practice, letting his thoughts flow free in the booth rather than writing beforehand. As he entered a new period of creativity, Stalley’s music began to become more reflective. A more present mind allowed him access to thoughts and experiences he hadn’t fully processed, thus giving his intelligent trunk music a newfound vulnerability.

2017’s triple-EP collection, Tell the Truth Shame the Devil, found Stalley at the bottom of a double cup, sorting through depression and pent up anger over bleary-eyed Atlanta trap beats. The clouds parted on 2019’s Reflection of Self: The Head Trip, allowing Stalley slow his heart rate over Jansport J’s limber basslines. The record stuck true to the title; Stalley stepped back from the ledge to consider his career arc, at one point rapping, “My rise in this game was a bit premature” on “Peppermints and Water.” 2020’s Speak No Blue continued his contemplative bent but focused more on the stresses of interpersonal relationships and friendships that had eroded over time. His trademark lifestyle raps—cars, clothes, wallets that never seem to empty—remained ever present throughout his work, but were shaded with a gratitude not especially present during his time with Maybach Music.

An independent spirit has been a common theme in Stalley’s career—he keeps his team small, rarely does features, and is incredibly selective with the artists he invites onto his records. Having built a loyal fanbase over the years, he no longer feels the need to chase who’s hot, preferring to build collaborative relationships organically. So when Apollo Brown reached out hoping to work together, Stalley listened to his gut and agreed, joining the ranks of another MMG—Mello Music Group.

The pair’s instincts were right. Blacklight finds the two in top form, forging an easygoing chemistry across fifteen tracks. Though Stalley’s explored a number of different sounds, Apollo understands the kind of beats on which he shines: colorful melodies that burst through the mix, screwed down martial tempos, and taut drums that keep everything just shy of weightless. Sounding more invigorated than ever, Stalley integrates the experiments of his post-Maybach years into a cohesive whole, effortlessly combining his odes to box Chevys with interrogations of his anxieties. It’s a comfortable and exceptionally listenable album that sounds just as good on headphones as it does whipping through winding mountain roads.

When we spoke in early December, Stalley remarked that the waning autumn had been one of the most vibrant in recent memory. After returning home from a business trip in mid-November, he stepped into his driveway and was struck by the beauty surrounding him. He stood there for a couple of minutes, soaking it in, grateful. Having found the space he was looking for, he’s able to be more present than before, more attuned to his thoughts, and thankful that he’s still able to pursue his dreams. – Dash Lewis

How was quarantining [in 2020]? You were probably pretty active, since you released a lot of music and now you’ve put out Blacklight.

Stalley: For me, it was a good thing. Me and one of my friends, he’s a producer, we joke about it all the time—not in a laughing matter with COVID, but just the quarantine part of it. We was like, “This is amazing for people like us because we love to create and make music but we don’t like to go nowhere.” You mean we get to create, make art, create music, and put it out to the world and not have to leave? That was kind of amazing.

I didn’t know how it would affect me mentally. There was trying times, times where you just didn’t know what was happening. A lot of people that were close to me were affected by it. A lot of people that I know had close ones and family members who were affected by it. We lost a lot of people within the hip hop community, and within our families as well—that was obviously heartbreaking and scary. We didn’t know what this was, we didn’t know how it was developing, how it was going to spiral. So, there was times of a lot of worry, like what’s next or how are we going to adapt. I think that I was able to adapt well by being able to stay creative and teach myself new things.

I started recording myself more, started working on a little bit of mixing, learning Pro Tools a little bit more, and just trying to be teachable. I started doing merchandise graphics, and being more hands on with designing and things that I always wanted to do but I might have felt like I didn’t have the time. I was always on the go, on the hustle and bustle, moving around. So yeah, I would definitely say that COVID helped me get to that point. Really tap into areas that I probably wouldn’t have been able to tap into if the world had been going the way it was going before that.

Did you start recording [Blacklight] over quarantine or was that more [2021]?

Stalley: That was more [2021]. I started maybe late summer, early like fall. So maybe somewhere around July, August, I started recording.

Did you go up to Detroit to record with Apollo?

Stalley: [Laughs] Apollo, probably still mad at me for this. He was like, “Yo, I want you to come up there,” but I have a different way of recording, right? His thing was, “I usually send beats, let the artist write to them, then we get in the studio together and record everything.” But with me, I don’t write, really. I turn on beats and just rap. It’s kind of the Jay-Z method: whatever comes out, I just let it flow. Then I start building off of whatever I have. Sometimes it might be a line, sometimes it might be a whole verse. That’s just my process.

So Apollo was like, “I want you to come up here” and I was like, “Well, I have my engineer. I really don’t like people touching my vocals that I don’t know. As far as your production, I don’t care what you do because that’s your process, but I usually record myself, take it to my engineer, and we sit and mix it. Then we can give it to you.” [Me and Apollo] ended up flying out to LA and sat with my engineer, [Professor H], at his studio and mixed all the vocals. From there, Apollo took everything back to Detroit and him and his engineer did all the rest.

Was he sending you final versions of the beats?

Stalley: Nah, he wasn’t. I wouldn’t say they were rough drafts, but I won’t say they were final either. It was enough of the production for me to hear it to create with. It wasn’t like a skeleton. I can’t speak for him because I’m not a producer, but I feel like for someone who really produces, the beat is never done. I know that once he got the records, he did build around them a little bit more. Whether he created more space around my vocals, or made it feel warmer or bigger or whatever the case may be.

So when he would send you a loop or a less complete version of the beat, how many versions of things would you create? Are you making demo after demo and then splicing it together?

Stalley: Nah, honestly, I create something to complete it. It’s very rare that I go back to something because I’m an artist who likes to live in the moment, right? So anything that I say or do when I’m recording, I feel like that’s what I was supposed to say and do. I’m not one who goes back and corrects.

You might look at a painting of trees and one tree might not be as straight as others, but are you going to take away that whole piece and create it again to make it perfect? That’s kind of how I do with my raps—if I say something, I feel like that’s what it was meant to be said. Unless it’s something that really bothers me, like if I could pronounce something better or I could put something in pocket a little bit better. But other than that, I create for it to be complete.

It sounds like making music for you is an act of presence.

Stalley: Yes, that’s a good way to put it.

What does being present in the moment mean to you?

Stalley: When I’m creating, it means everything, right? It’s all feeling. It’s all about that moment, what you’re feeling, what you’re going through, what you want to say, the clarity of what you want to say. And when I mean clarity, it’s not just vocally but also in your head. Sometimes you’re thinking of a rhyme and you could have cluttered thoughts. So, I won’t create until I feel like I’m fully present.

The music, the beat, everything has my full, undivided attention. If it isn’t just coming naturally, I can’t do it. Once I go through beats, when I hear it, I hear it. Something should come, whether it’s a song idea, hook idea, the first few sentences of a verse or whatever. After that, it should just flow.

You probably know within a few seconds of listening to a beat whether or not it’s for you.

Stalley: 100%. I know right away. I turn on a beat and right away I’m like, “Oh, I got something.” If I don’t, I don’t use it.

I have to feel it. I don’t know how to describe what I have to feel, but it’s something that I have to connect with in the production that gives me a feeling of joy. Some type of love, happiness, put a smile on your face. It’s rare when I can get that feeling off a dark beat—unless I’m in that space, but I really try to not be in a dark space. I always want to give music that gives you gems, jewels, knowledge, whatever you want to call it. Something to hold on to that sticks with you, that’s uplifting, that makes you want to better yourself, or makes your day a little bit better.

I’m thinking about your discography—there’s a common theme of beats that you tend to rap on, but you’ve also worked with a ton of different producers for a lot of different sounds. I wonder if there’s something that you always look for or if you’re open to whatever is coming your way?

Stalley: I’m open to anything and if it speaks to me, it speaks to me. I used to get a lot of producers who sent me one type of beat. It would be kind of like a soul sample or heavy 808 bass like car knocking—rightfully so, that’s kind of like what I came in on, so I understand why people would think Stalley and think a certain sound. Or they’ll be like “He’s a lyricist so let me give him something kind of boom bap, soulful, chopped up sample that he can just spew on.” But I used to have to tell producers, “Send me something that you would send to Future.” [Laughs] Don’t just send me something that you think that I want to hear. Send me whatever because you’ll be surprised when I can come up with.

Okay, so you’ve got a beat. It produces that feeling and you’re ready to go, but your mind is cloudy. What do you do to get yourself into that present headspace where things just flow?

Stalley: Man, I kind of just tried to think positive, be in a positive space mentally even if I’m not having a great day or something is bothering me. Sometimes I might want to write because I am going through something that angers me or upsets me, but I still try to reflect on it on the brighter side.

I try not to dwell on the negatives, you know? A lot of times—I’m sure you heard this, you’re a writer as well—sometimes you go through things or you’re sad, and the first thing people say is, “Yo, write about it. It’ll make you feel better. Just put that energy into making music.” And it’s like, nah, that’s not how it works for me. It’s funny, sometimes I’ll reflect on things and I can create a song, where it’s kind of emotional or heartfelt—it could be talking about a relationship, a friendship, a lost one, or anything like that. Sometimes I’ll write that song years after the situation.

And I can still make you feel like it just happened. Some people hear a project and they be like, “What was you going through?” I’ll be like, “Actually, I was having the time of my life. I got to a point where I could actually reflect on those things and speak about it.”

It seems like there’s three distinct parts to [Blacklight]. In the beginning, you get more into your origin story. The middle third is full of the triumphant lifestyle raps that I think is key to your style in general. And then in the last third feels a little more internal. You rap about anxiety and mental health stuff.

Stalley: Definitely. I deal with anxiety and stress. We all have our mental things that we deal with. Things that mentally might cloud us or stunt us. It could be a short period of time, it’s not something that holds us down, but it’s something that slows us up, right? You can overthink things and you can put yourself in weird spaces. So, I know that a lot of us go through it. I go through it a lot, so I just try to put it in the music and let people know that they’re not alone.

I try to be present in the music a little bit more. When I first started making music, I think I was always kind of trying to tell people my story: this is who I am, this is where I came from. So now I try to be more clear and let you know: this is what’s going on in Stalley’s life right now. This is what I’m dealing with, what I’m going through, what I want to become. I’m still dreaming; I’m still trying to accomplish dreams that I had ten minutes ago and ten years ago.

I was at Jum’ah earlier just reflecting like, “I don’t think I will ever stop dreaming. I hope I never stop dreaming.” I started thinking like, when do you fade away, when do you perish? I hear these cliche sayings like, “You stop living when you stop dreaming,” but I do believe that. I always want to encourage and inspire people to keep dreaming, keep believing in themselves, keep going. So a lot of that’s in the music, too, you know what I mean?

We live in such a weird time, especially with music, where it’s so fast. It’s given to us so much in abundance that if you’re not doing it in people’s face, people tend to forget, right? So there could be people who followed me from my days when I was signed to Atlantic Records, MMG and all that. Now I don’t get the same type of visibility, so people can be like, “Stalley fell off.” Those same people could never give me a second chance because I already fell off to them them, right? I think that happens in life in general, not with just artists, but just people.

People don’t don’t see you, or you switch a job or you change your lifestyle in any way. Some people could get more spiritual, some people could stop smoking and drinking so they’re not hanging around the same people. Then it’s like, “You’re not the same person.” They don’t want to accept change. They don’t want to accept victory or success, unless it’s the type of success and victory that they see in their head, the way they define it. So I try to put that in the music as well. Don’t let anyone tell you what your success is or what your accomplishments are because of what they put on you.

It sounds like you consider yourself a bit of a teacher.

Stalley: Yeah, I would like to. I would like to be able to teach, but I would like to be able to be the fun teacher too, you know what I mean? I never want to be preachy. [Laughs] “This guy.” I don’t want to be that. I want to be able to show you that I love the same things you like. I love a lifestyle that you like. I love cars, I love jewelry, I love spending money, whatever the case may be, I love those things, too. [Laughs] But there’s also a realer side to it.

There’s also a spiritual side, there’s also a side where none of that stuff is important, either. All the people who talk about dressing and clothes—all the designer, all the sneakers—I had a line where I said, “I dance in a puddle to show them that this shit is worthless.” Because that’s really my personality. It’s like, I wear sneakers, I wear clothes, and people be like, “Why are you wearing those?” I’m like, “They’re supposed to be worn!” I just want people to know that. Don’t bank on those things to make you happy or to define you—that’s what I’m really trying to say. We can all enjoy those things but we can all still have substance about ourselves, too.

When you started talking to Mello Music Group, was it the plan all along for you to work with Apollo?

Stalley: That’s how it was brought to me first. Apollo came to me and was telling me that he was a fan of my project, Lincoln Way Nights, and he would love to work on a project with just me and him. I was also a fan of what he’s done in the past as well, so I was like, “Yeah, that would be dope.” That’s how the Mello Music situation came up. I felt like that would be a great fit to be able to link with [them].

It’s a good situation for both of us, right? I think that what they’re doing and what I’m doing aligns. We have the same sensibilities, the same outlets, the same goals, same fan bases, so I felt like it just made sense. I was always looking for a label or partnership or someone who understands Stalley—the artist, the man, the brand—and wants to lock arms and walk through the fire with me. They are a perfect match for that.

This is the third record you’ve done in a few years that’s all with one producer. Gone, Baby Gone was with Black Diamond. Reflection of Self: The Head Trip was entirely Jansport J. And now you have Blacklight with Apollo Brown. Is that format something you find yourself trending more towards?

Stalley: I’ve always loved that because you get to create that chemistry and that sound. I love a project where I can really sit and build with just one producer and we can craft a sound. It goes back to what we said earlier about emotions and documenting a time, putting it in a capsule. I think that’s what happens when you get to work with one producer. You’re pulling energies from each other to create a sonically together album, you know what I mean?

I just love that. You get to be more hands on, more one on one. If you have any ideas, the producer has any ideas, you could run them past each other. I might hear something and be like, “Yo, can you sample this” and send it to him. Sometimes when you work with different producers, if you’re not working all together, like as one, the sound can start being a little bit everywhere. But when you’re working with one producer, once you start working and you find those first three, four songs, you’re like, “Okay, that’s the sound, that’s the direction.” Then you build off of it from there.

Do you think that there was a special kind of chemistry that you and Apollo were able to get to because you’re both from the Midwest?

Stalley: I do. Again, it’s about having the same sensibilities. Coming from blue collar areas where you get it out the mud. You grind, you grit for everything. You work hard for everything. You don’t really have people showing you how to do things, you just figure it out as you work. I think that’s aligned with both of us in our careers. We have love for similar things like cars, street wear, and skateboarding and certain things that we connected on as we got to build and talk and learn more about each other.

Can I ask why you don’t have too many features on your projects? I know there’s two on Blacklight, but generally, I don’t think there’s more than a couple on your records.

Stalley: I’m someone who likes to work with people who want to work with me. I also like to work with people who, you know, I actually like as people. [Laughs] People I would consider friends outside of music. I don’t like to force things. I know a lot of people are just trying to get who’s hot, or who they feel like is going to get them streams or clicks or views or whatever it is.

I’ve never been one of those people. I don’t like to chase people down. I like things to happen organically and naturally. Now, if I bump into an artist and we have a conversation and we get to building, we start having mutual feelings for one another’s talents—oh, let’s work. It makes sense. But I don’t like to force anything.

In that sense, it seems like you take the long game approach.

Stalley: Yeah, definitely. It goes back to just being where I’m from, being from Ohio. Nothing’s ever came easy. Everything has always come with a challenge or with a little bit of hard work. If things get too easy, I’ll be looking at it weird like something wrong is about to happen. I know that’s not always the positive way to look at it, but that’s what I know. I’ve never had it easy—there’s never been a layup, for real.

I’ve always had to work for everything I’ve ever done. Now, do I want it to be that way forever? No. But I also work because when it does become easy, or when it becomes a little relaxed and I get into that cushion of things flowing naturally, I want to be able to be like, “Man, I did it.” I did it the way I wanted to. I did it with respect and respecting others, and I didn’t have to do nothing that morally disturbs my energy.

What I’m hearing in that is a bit of “don’t get too comfortable,” but also, “I want to be comfortable.” I think the “don’t get too comfortable” part is about the creation of the music—you never want to seem like you’re making stuff in the same way. Is that correct?

Stalley: Yeah, I think that’s my biggest challenge. I always want to get better. I’m all about progression, right? In everything I do, I always want to be better. One of the things that I like to see the most that’s a trending thing from my fans is people be like, “Man, Stalley just keep getting better. He sharpened up his flow, he sharpened up his concepts.” Things like that make me smile and motivate me to keep going, because that’s what it is. I don’t want you to hear the same thing or get the same from me.

That’s another reason why I like to pick one producer sometimes—I like to challenge myself with different sounds, with different vibes. If you listen to my projects—you just said three of them: Reflection of Self, Gone, Baby Gone, and Blacklight—none of those sound the same. From the titles of the projects, to the concepts, to the content, it’s all different. But it’s all me. Nothing is far away from me, ever, because I’m never going to get outside of myself. That, sometimes, can be challenging because artists pretend; they become something else. When you yourself, you gotta present yourself to the people in a new, interesting way.

Have you ever felt yourself get into a rut?

Stalley: I’m sure I have. I don’t know exactly when but that’s probably happened a few times. Everything started to sound the same or I don’t like the direction of this sound or what I’m talking about; I’m sure I get in those ruts. But again, it’s me getting in my own way, getting in my own head. Because that’s another thing—when you create by yourself, you don’t have outside opinions or ears, so everything can start sounding the same to you. You can make a project, it could be 10 songs, and you could feel like every song is the same song. But that’s because you don’t really have anyone in there giving you an ear to tell you anything different. It’s like that sometimes when you sit with a project and it’s not until you bring people in and press play. You see their reaction and you be like, “Oh, okay, this isn’t what I thought it was.”

I forget who said it, but an artist said that the best thing an artist can do is take breaks to live a life to make art about.

Stalley: Yeah, I’ve heard something similar. I think that’s the best thing to do—just live a life that you want to live so that you can put it in the music. You have to live, you have to experience things, and you have to give yourself a break.

I’ll put it like this: when I was signed, I had an A&R who would go to the label and be like, “Yo, Stalley is different.” Because, you know, they would talk about how I would spend my time in the studio. Some of the artists go to the studio every day. Then me, I would go to the studio for a month straight, a week straight, whatever, but then there’ll be times I don’t. And I remember the A&R was explaining like “Yo, Stalley is an artist who, when he goes in the studio, he’s going to make a song that he can put out, no matter what. When we leave the studio, it’s gonna be music that can be put on an album or a project or single.

Whatever it is, it can be put out to the people. There’s other artists who just go in there and make all kinds of songs, and they’ll never come out. They’ll never see the light of day because they’re just in there doing it because they feel like that’s what they got to do.” You’re really not giving yourself time to be inspired, so now you in there making ten songs, but it’s the same song. Or you got to make twenty songs to get one song.

What things do you find the most inspiring outside of music? You said you like to read or watch movies, earlier you said you like to go hiking. Can you walk me through a little bit more detail of those favorite things? I did hear a podcast with you on it recently where you talked about how much you like the Beat Poets. I thought that was really interesting.

Stalley: [Laughs] Yeah, I love colorful language. I don’t know how to really describe it. It’s one of those things, like when you see it, you see it. For instance, like a Jack Kerouac or a Hunter S. Thompson or somebody like that—the words they use, the colorfulness in the language, the description, the way they define certain things. It can be something so small as snowflakes dropping on a car, but they’ll say it like, “The crystal water of the frozen,” you know? [Laughs] And you like, “Oh, shit, that was dope. He just talking about snow.” It’s things like that inspire me.

Fashion inspires me; I love seeing colors and materials and me thinking how I can put this with that. These shoes with that shirt and not match but match so perfectly. It’s like a puzzle. Cars. Architecture and design. I love looking at French and German chairs from the 1800s and shit like that. It’s just the way it’s made and carved. It’s kind of a thing where it’s like, I know, but it’s hard to describe.

It sounds like you appreciate good craftsmanship.

Stalley: Yeah, craftsmanship is a great way to put it. I wish I could explain it better.

Oh, I totally know what you mean. It’s one of those ineffable things—that’s why you make music.

Stalley: Yeah, exactly! It’s kind of selfish at times, too, because people be like—it could be something like social media, right? People be like, “Yo, like you don’t post a lot on social media.” Or, “You never explain this.” And then I’m like, “It’s in the music, though.” Everything is in the music. If you just listen to the music, you’ll know everything you want to know about me because I do not leave out details. It’s hard to sometimes explain it verbally in the conversation or even in this interview, but I can put it in the music.

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