“Mob Music Isn’t A Phase; It’s a Lifestyle”: An Interview With J. Stalin

Yousef Srour speaks to the West Oakland rapper about being a leading artist within mob music, his R&B influences, prenups and more.
By    April 13, 2023

Image via J. Stalin/Instagram

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From now on, if someone asks Yousef Srour if he wants a receipt, the answer is an outstanding yes.

2010 was a completely different era for the East Bay. The Hyphy movement had gone dormant and the next generation began to slowly emerge. The former members of Mob Figaz – The Jacka and Husalah – began to have regionally massive solo careers. In Berkeley, Lil B started his own terminally online, globally-spanning Based Rap movement. And in West Oakland, J. Stalin and the Livewire crew started to became a Mob Music kingpin.

Born Jovan Smith, J. Stalin was raised in the Cypress Village housing projects of West Oakland. He’d always had a bit of a baby face, giving him an inconspicuous edge to his life on the streets. On his official debut, 2006’s Prenuptial Agreement’s “Rock Day,” Stalin outlines how his demeanor lent its hands to his success as a salesman, a face that no one can say no to: “Any other day in my ‘hood, it’d be a hot day / I don’t give a f*ck, for me it’s a sell rock day.”

Stalin rarely skipped a day of work. If he wasn’t dealing, he was rapping; if he wasn’t writing, he was selling CDs out of his truck. Creating generational wealth became J. Stalin’s fundamental purpose. To him, his own Livewire Records became an institution even more essential than marriage.

With Prenuptial Agreement, Stalin defined the sonic progression of Oakland’s post-Hyphy landscape. This was the birthplace of “mob music,” characterized by thick, lead bass-lines and synthesizers that spewed distorted melody amidst the hazy sound of The Mekanix’ production (and the screeching tires that weaved their way into their producer tag).

Alongside the dope dealers standing at the intersection of 14th Street and Kirkham Way, J. Stalin stood out the nostalgic chronicler seeing life through the eyes of the D-boy on the corner. He has the pen of a great R&B songwriter, but croons with perfect imperfections. His mezzo-soprano voice raps in accordance to G-funk’s nonchalant cadence; his singing warbles with deep emotion. It has a raw power.

After thirteen years of rumors and anticipation, the sequel Prenuptial Agreement 2 has finally arrived. Joined now with an even wider cast of characters, J. Stalin has recruited everyone from Bay Area legacy acts to its most recent rising stars, everyone from Philthy Rich to EBK Young Joc. But do be wary, J. Stalin’s long-awaited sequel is no guideline to engagement. In the last thirteen years, Stalin never married. Prenuptial Agreement 2 is a testament to the wealth that’s set in, the children he has had to raise, and the legacy of West Oakland coke rap. Maybe love is for thinkers and prenups are for doers; maybe the nuclear family is for the average Joe and independence is the path towards rap stardom. Regardless, J. Stalin has spent over a decade building Livewire Records from the ground up and he’ll be damned if someone tries to walk away with half.

What was it like to release Avatar 2 three years before the actual film came out?

J. Stalin: I’m a great writer. I write a lot of music – I write rap, I write R&B, everything. Those Avatar albums, my plan with those was to do them with R&B singers. I would write everything and the R&B singer is my avatar. We knew that Part 2 was coming out already way before it did. My cover on Avatar 2 is the actual picture that they were going to use for Avatar Part 2 hella long ago. When I used it, they changed it and they never sued me because they never put it out first. Somebody at EMPIRE got the Avatar 2 poster for me hella years ago.

Do you have any plans to continue the series?

J. Stalin: Yeah, I’m gonna do a [Part] 3 for sure, I just wanted to find another great singer. Those don’t work unless I have singers to work with. I’d for sure do a Part 3 because I do those out of passion. I don’t trip on getting paid for them because I do them out of love.

How do you manage to stay inspired?

J. Stalin: I never go to the booth if I’m not feeling it. If I’m not feeling it, I just won’t even go to the studio. I don’t call it uninspired because I love making music. I still consider myself more of a fan than an artist. I’ll be sitting around and be like, “Damn, I really miss recording. I haven’t recorded in a while. I miss it.” It’s like when your kids are gone or leave for a while and you’re like, “Damn, I miss my babies.” That’s how I am with the music. I’ve never been uninspired, sometimes it’ll be hard for me to create. You get over that shit.

How do you think Oakland has changed in the past 13 years, since you released the last Prenuptial Agreement?

J. Stalin: It’s more gang-oriented. Back then, you had to be from a certain area. Now, it’ll be East Oakland, West Oakland, North Oakland, they’ll all be in one gang. Back then, if you lived in North Oakland, you could only be from North Oakland. If you’re from West Oakland, you could only be from West Oakland. Now, you can be in a gang, and that same gang can have members from every city in the Bay, not just Oakland.

What are your thoughts on the go movement and mob music, both their creation and their legacy?

J. Stalin: Mob music – that’s our sound; that’s our drill. Hyphy was cool, but hyphy was a phase. Mob music is not a phase, it’s a lifestyle. Mob n****s made mob music. Ain’t no n****s running around saying they’re still hyphy. It was just a phase – that’s why mob music will forever live on.

You’re often cited as one of the leading artists within mob music. What does that movement mean to you?

J. Stalin: That’s just what we grew up on. Mob music is all about the sinister, Bay sounds and the direction of the song and the lyrics you’re going in. Mob is not hyphy. Not to take anything away from hyphy, but mob is not the hyphy sound. Mob is more sinister, more gutter, more street. The beats are like that too; they’re not as uptempo as hyphy beats.

Do you think that has to do with being from West Oakland?

J. Stalin: The mob is like the whole Bay Area. That shit goes back to E-40 and Delinquents and Seagram. Mob music goes that far back, like the “Dope Fiend Beat,” that’s a mob beat. That old-school Too $hort [mimics bassline].

Do you think the Hyphy movement is dead?

J. Stalin: It is dead, but it’s like the ‘80s or the ‘90s. It’s dead, but if someone were to throw a throwback-Hyphy party right now, everybody would go. F.A.B. do ‘em all the time, shoutout to Mistah F.A.B. Mistah F.A.B. will throw Hyphy parties and motherf*ckers will go just relive that time for one night, in the club. I won’t say it’s dead because it has life – it’s not a movement anymore.

Who are your favorite classic R&B artists?

J. Stalin: Classics – I f*ck with Freddie Jackson, Howard Hughes, I love L.T.D., Prince is my favorite artist of all time. Always Prince, Michael Jackson, all of them.

Were you listening to them growing up, or how did you start listening to R&B?

J. Stalin: The beats. I’ve always loved music. I consider myself more of a fan than an artist any day because I love music, I don’t just love rap music. I love all music. My love for music came from my mom. When I was little, my mom used to play a lot of music all the time. She used to play WHAM!, George Michael and Boy George and Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, all the time. I grew up around music. I used to be getting ready for school and my mom would be up cooking and playing R&B.

How did having a son influence who you’ve become?

J. Stalin: I think more before I act now. You don’t ever want to put yourself in a situation that’s going to take you away from your children. You think about that first before you react, compared to when you didn’t have kids and were just living reckless.

How do you think that being a D-Boy changed you?

J. Stalin: I learned a lot. It taught me how to save money. It taught me that if I could make money hiding something, it let me know what I could do with something if I could promote it, like music.

In that same sense, what has it been like watching Livewire grow?

J. Stalin: Phenomenal, man. It just started with a dream. When I was little, I always thought a crew was better than a person. I loved what Suge Knight had did with Death Row, what Puff did with Bad Boy, what Master P did with No Limit. I always wanted the label to be big and persist instead of me by myself. I wanted to let the label and the brand get that bread and that shine.

What sort of ideas from Master P and No Limit did you apply to Livewire?

J. Stalin: I would drop an album and then – you know the CD covers and the layout and all that – inside of my CD album cover, on the other side of the cover I would have everyone on Livewire’s covers on there. It would be like: Philthy Rich coming soon, Lil Blood coming soon, or we would have the dates that they were coming out on. Lil Blood, Philthy Rich, Stevie Joe, Shady Nate, Ronald Mack, Lil Rue – you would see their album covers inside. I got that from Master P directly.

Where do you want to see Livewire go from here?

J. Stalin: I just want to see it get as big as it possibly can get. I would love for it to get big enough to where I can go IPO and put it on the stock market and people can invest in it. That’s my goal.

You’ve always had that entrepreneurial instinct.

J. Stalin: That goes back to selling drugs. If you could sell drugs successfully and stay out of jail, you could probably run a Fortune 500 company. Selling drugs and doing it good is so much more like running a business instead of just making fast money.

What’s your relationship with The Mekanix like?

J. Stalin: Our relationship is like if Dr. Dre and Snoop would have never stopped working together; if they would have continued to put out albums together where Snoop rapped and Dre did the production. Like if Mannie Fresh would have never left Cash Money. That’s how J. Stalin and The Mekanix are. They’re like big brothers. We came into this music game together. We got our fame and our stardom together, off of each other. My relationship with them is more family-oriented than just working with some producers. Me and Dot[rix 4000] and Tweed [“Tha Great”] go out all the time and just kick it and not even talk about music, like brothers.

How have you grown with them over the years?

J. Stalin: They were my models of how to be a stand-up artist, and at the end of the day, a real man. Dot and Tweed, they didn’t just teach me about music, they taught me how to be a man in life. That’s priceless.

Why have you decided to release a sequel to Prenuptial Agreement now?

J. Stalin: I get asked about it so much. “We want a Prenup 2. Can we get a Prenup 2?” I had did a few songs and they was just giving me the Prenuptial vibe. I’m just like, “These songs sound like some Prenup songs,” and if I keep this vibe, I can do a Prenuptial Agreement 2. I’ve tried to do Prenuptial Agreement 2 before, and when it was done, I’m like, “That’s not Prenup 2,” changed the name and called it something else. My first three or four songs that I recorded for this album gave me that vibe, so it happened and that’s how it came about.

What was your process for recording this new album?

J. Stalin: I recorded probably sixty songs, and I just picked the best out of that. Also, I always try to work with artists that I’ve never worked with before. I want to give my fans new stuff with new people that they’ve never heard me with before. I have like five or six people on this new album that’s never been on a J. Stalin album before.

What do you consider the legacy of Prenuptial Agreement to be?

J. Stalin: I think the album is a classic. It’s for sure a California classic, a West Coast classic. That’s not my highest-selling album, but it’s my best album renowned by my friends. That album changed my life. That album took me from living in apartments to living in houses, from driving buckets to driving Benzs. I always consider that album to be my first baby, my child.

What are your thoughts on prenups?

J. Stalin: If I were to get married now, I wouldn’t get no prenup because I wouldn’t marry anybody I would need a prenuptial agreement with. That’s all trust – I wouldn’t marry somebody who would want to take all my shit if we broke up. I’ve dated girls like that, but I wouldn’t date them no more. You know how people are before it gets serious and deep. And if you don’t know, you’re just acting like you don’t know it or you’re ignoring it. The signs are there.

Have you ever been married?

J. Stalin: No.

What sparked the idea to title the first album, Prenuptial Agreement?

J. Stalin: Back then, I was really thinking, “I’m the one writing all these songs, I’m the one doing all these shows, I’m the one selling CDs on the corner. If this rap shit really happened for me, I’m gonna need a prenup.”

How do you look at your career as it’s grown over the years?

J. Stalin: Rap music has allowed me to be in my kids’ life as much as possible. That’s the biggest thing, and I appreciate it. It allows me to take care of my kids financially, but it also allows me to spend a great deal of time with them. I have a studio in my house and I can work with my children in the studio with me. It’s God, family, then music for me.

After hearing Prenuptial Agreement 2, what would you like people to know about J. Stalin?

J. Stalin: That I’m a dope-ass artist, I’m a great songwriter, I’m only getting better, and I’m just getting started.

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