All photos by Thomas A. Moore
In some ways, Stana’s story isn’t much different from a lot of upcoming grime artists. He grew up in Leyton, from a young age he didn’t have good role models, and between the ages of 16-28, he was in and out of jail, the longest stint being 8 years from 2006-2014. But unlike some other MCs with a similar trajectory, Stana has given himself a second chance. Since his release in 2014, Stana has been laser-focused on being a successful grime MC. He released HMP (Hear My Pain) in 2015 and since then has been working on his latest album, Destroy & Rebuild, which dropped on 27th June.
The album is long with 22 tracks, but the listener is taken on a journey. We begin with the energetic Intro, making it clear that jail is no longer an option and he is giving everything to music (“I’m fucking hungry, starving like I just started”). The title track unapologetically tells his story and therefore the reason why setting a better example is so necessary (“Gotta let the youngens take over, before we all fade to black Jay Hova / I’m a saint now Leyton ain’t over, but it’s time that we get a makeover”).
‘Can’t Believe My Eyes’ laments the fakeness and disloyalty he sees all around him, whilst ‘Make a Way Out’ continues the theme of staying away from negative influences with a smoother 70s vibe. We’re then taken into the depths of London with ‘London Badboys’ on which Stana uses the jungle Shy FX sample, Original Nuttah. ‘Real N****s’ has a bit of the trap vibe to it with a heavily repeated hook, and is an ode to the few good people he does have around him. ‘Song Cry’ samples Banks and is definitely one of my favorites. It’s a truly sad song about the time he spent in prison, not being able to see his kids and contributing to the breakdown of his relationship. However, Stana is definitely not feeling sorry for himself and turns his pain into motivation (“Because I was behind my door, just me and my mind at war, I nearly lost my faith, I had to find my lord”).
‘Bad Like We’, ‘Revenge’, ‘10K’ and ‘I’m Next’ take the sound from motivational and reminiscent to a more aggressive hunger to succeed, with no regard for anyone else’s game (“We don’t what care they say, we don’t care what they act like / We don’t care about their jewels, we don’t care about their trap lines”).
‘Go Low’ is definitely a song I (and you) want to hear in the club. I defy anyone not to start dancing when they hear these hypnotic dancehall/afrobeats and soft vocals from Kofi Blaxx – plus the descriptive lyrics from Stana making that picture real clear for you. ‘Pull Up’ continues with the dancehall theme, whilst ‘Henry the 8th’ starts with a Homer Simpson sample but don’t let that fool you, it’s the definition of a banger with a Tudor twist (“Feeling like Henry the 8th, droppin’ bitches every day”). ‘Burning Hot’ concludes this section of the journey, crossing over from girls to literally being hot in the game.
Although we hear about his kids on other tracks, Stana dedicates all of ‘Hope’ to them, specifically how they are his motivation and the importance of succeeding for their futures (“I hope they never grow to be like me, see the wicked things I’ve seen, go to places that I’ve been”). ‘Rocket Run’ seems it would fit better to come before ‘Hope’ as it’s on the same theme but we move onto ‘What They Told You’, which talks about how artists have changed to being more image-focused than being true to themselves (“Everybody’s got a Meek or a Drake sound, rapping like a geek in a playground”).
‘Boxed In’ onwards takes us on a slow return back to the start, with more emotional tracks looking at the years spent in jail, and how this is his time to make it even though he hasn’t known much different (“Love the life I live, live the life I love”). Stana is plotting his future despite everything that’s gone before, despite his surroundings and despite the state of the game. His determination is palpable and simply by the fact that he has this clarity, you can’t help but want everything to work out.
I was able to catch up with Stana at a pub in London and talk about the album, making personal music vs music that gets heard, who should be bigger in the grime scene, how US hip hop continues to influence the UK and why 50 Cent would be his ideal co-sign.
You’ve been MCing for a long time now but you just dropped your new album Destroy & Rebuild last week – how’s it been going?
The first few days were going really well, we just need to bring it back up now. It got to No. 6 in the iTunes downloads chart at its peak.
Have you done any performances recently?
I actually opened up for Future about 6 months ago! No one really knew us but we still performed in front of 10,000 people at Brixton Academy. Wretch 32 was there and he couldn’t even perform.
And do you have anything live planned for this album yet?
I actually have a charity gig on 22nd July with Axe FM to promote the album. I’m also going to Rotterdam to shoot a video soon for "Pull Up" – I’ve been there before and worked with sick producers. I started working on an album there called ‘London to Rotterdam’ and we shot some of my most successful videos, they are so professional. Everyone just does hood videos in London, shooting things the same way.
Since Gangbanger Volume 1 and HMP, things seemed to have a shifted a lot for you and for the grime scene, what do you feel has changed exactly?
For me, when I made Gangbanger, I was so relaxed. I didn’t have any ambitions to be a rapper. I always loved and wanted to be involved in music but I was in and out of prison between 2002 and 2006. I only released the album [Gangbanger] this year but people had the CD and they released it, and it made a lot of noise. But the difference between then  and HMP is I’m older and I’ve got kids now but I’m not in the mix of the streets, although my name’s in the mix.
You’ve grown up with people who are big names in grime now, do you think the right people have got big?
No I don’t think the right people have got big. I grew up around Lethal B – he got as big as he is because he was a hard worker and had the business side of things down. But the other people in his crew were better than him lyrically, he just had his shit together. Right now he needs to bring them through.
You dropped ‘Better Place’ with SBTV which is all about Leyton, and list all the famous people who have made it from there. Can you explain a little for our US audience where Leyton is and what it's like growing up and living there?
In Leyton, everyone is a minimum of 10 years behind of what they should be doing, especially the lads. So you’ll be 15, that’s the time you should be going to college, getting a paper round and so on, but they do that at 25. Everyone grows up around a wrong, older set of role models, that’s how I grew up. There were guys 5 years older teaching us wrong and it’s a cycle.
And is that still the same situation now?
100%. The difference is, when some people do well in music, it breaks the cycle somehow and some people drift because it makes them think they can achieve.
A lot of your music talks about staying away from the wrong people and being a good role model for your kids and others.
That’s right. When I came out of prison, these young ones were kind of saluting me like I should be rewarded for what I did, so I had to dim that, which is what I talk about in "Song Cry." I shouldn’t get praise for that – not at all, I should be frowned upon like, “what is he doing?” The music says that to them more, they won’t hear it if I just say it because they don’t believe that I’m not committing crime anymore. They need to believe you can get everything you want in life without trying to be a badman. The famous people in our areas are the bad boys, and it’s sad.
So why the name Destroy and Rebuild?
Firstly, I’m a big fan of Nas, I have to give him his credit. I made a track called "Destroy and Rebuild: Leyton’s Over" when I first came out of prison, it was a very personal track and aired some disrespect I got in prison. So that made me stick to the theme and think, this is actually how my life is. The first mixtape, Gangbanger, that’s what I was going through. That led me to prison, where I recorded "Porridge." Then prison sent me to HMP, and then from HMP to Destroy and Rebuild. So basically getting rid of all the negativity. And the next one is going to have to be something victorious. You have to listen to them all to make sense, I couldn’t have called Destroy and Rebuild anything else.
The album feels like a self-declared rebirth when you listen to it and you can completely understand the title.
It’s a new person almost – the person I actually am instead of the person I thought I had to be.
Can you describe the album in 3 words?
Real, honest, harsh. But my truth can be harsh.
Your children are mentioned a lot, especially in "Hope," and are obviously the main motivator for you. How does that affect how you have approached music now versus before you had kids?
Up until lately, I wasn’t really approaching it differently. I was stuck 10 years behind mentally and was behaving like a kid. I didn’t want my kids to think ‘there’s Daddy jumping up and down’ with booty shaking in the videos. Now that I have kids, I can’t show myself in a certain way, especially when they know that’s not the reality. It’s just a make-believe industry.
American mainstream hip hop has a lot of that but do you think grime is make-believe too?
I think grime is make-believe a lot. I know a lot of guys who ain’t in that life at all. But it’s real, there is a lot of people keeping it one hundred. There’s a confusion now between grime and hip hop. Sometimes things are ‘grimey-hip hop’, because they want the lifestyle. Hip hop is more about money, Louboutin’s, all of that, and grime is more about trainers and tracksuits. But there are certain big grime artists now making grime a bit pretty. There’s a lot of fashion in Ghetts’s music because they’re trying to appeal to the female crowd, and I understand it. But artists like Kano, Skepta and Stormzy do not glamorize clothing and jewelry, it’s irrelevant to them. They’re more like ‘this is my wave and this is what I’m running with’. But if you go to the top artists in the rap scene, they’re glamorizing all of that. If you put Nines against Skepta, Skepta is selling way more but he’s in the tracksuit where you can’t even see the logo.
You can tell on this record that you really want it, that you’re really hungry and want music to work out for you. I think this hunger differentiates grime from other UK music. Where does the hunger to succeed come from?
Grime has the drive because a lot of young guys that were out on the streets and that have become millionaires: Dizzee Rascal, Tinchy Stryder, Chipmunk, Kano, Skepta, JME. All these guys have become successful grime artists and came from nothing. The worst thing about it, they weren’t even considered good when they became grime artists. It’s weird what the streets can do, they can turn you into a billionaire. Just look at Dizzee Rascal. It’s inspiring, it’s done a lot for the UK, made a lot of people refocus. At one stage it was just street robberies, hoodies, ASBOs [Anti-Social Behavior Orders] and nothing else. But now, you’ll still see these guys in hoodies but they’re all rapping and not causing anyone any harm.
There's a split on the album between your personal journey / plans for the future and tracks quite explicitly talking about girls and partying. How do you see those two themes playing together on the album?
For instance, you have people who eat vegetarian, pork, fast food. When you’re selling music it’s the same thing. I might not personally jump up and down to these ladies’ songs because it’s not really my flavor, but I know that in the club they don’t want to hear "Song Cry"…I don’t want to hear "Song Cry" in a club! So you need to have the gourmet meal for the gourmet people, veggie meal for the veggie people…I can see it looks hypocritical sometimes but it’s necessary to get it heard by different people. My music is very personal, they can relate to the pain but not to the actual story.
Do you feel like it’s still your music if you’re trying to please everyone?
No, I feel like I’m people pleasing. I did that a lot on Destroy and Rebuild but I believe it was necessary because you can’t be so personal.
Do you think in the future if you get bigger, you’ll be more true to your music and be more personal?
Definitely. I think that I’d want to but you never know because you get into the Lethal B pattern where you drop a hit, and that’s all your record company wants. ‘We don’t care about nothing to do with your life, we just want Fester Skanks all day’. If I fall into that pattern, then I’ve sold out, because at the end of the day, you haven’t broken through unless you get your music into the mainstream.
Something I found on this album which you don’t find too much in grime is the featuring of religion and faith (Guvna B recently wrote about it for Complex in fact). Can you tell us how you view the relationship between music and faith?
I think you need to have a few songs like that if that’s who you are, because there are other people who share that belief. But at the same time, it depends what you do in your other songs, because people will say ‘you’re talking about that but then talking about drinking and smoking in those others ones’.
Arguably good production is the difference between and good and a bad track even if you have the best lyrics in the world. How do you go about getting good production?
When a beat maker sends me a beat, I like him to name it, so I’ve got a concept straight away. I need the producers to give me a 100% in that way; name your tracks for me, tell me what you felt when you were making it, what mood you were in. Music is so much about mood. When I make the track, sometimes I won’t finish it for 4 months, go back and change words. I’ve got a lot of tracks out there that I would change now. Other people can’t spot it but I can spot, ‘I didn’t pronounce that word with enough energy’.
I’m sure lots of artists feel that way. You’ve got Kanye changing his album all the time, although it’s really annoying..!
You have some really great samples on this album like the classic Original Nuttah from Shy FX on London Badboys and Banks’ beat from Brain on Song Cry, who I’m hearing used quite a lot now.
The producer chose that [Banks] and sent me the beat. I’ve had that since HMP but I held it back because I didn’t want it to go for free.
Although it’s not new, I’m hearing more grime MCs rapping over American beats. What do you think of that?
I think that the beats sound American. If it’s hip hop, you can’t tell where it’s from. I don’t know any Americans making grime beats, but they’re close – Future’s "Commas" is very close to a grime track, and "Panda," there’s grime artists all over those tracks. A lot of beats come through Europe and people think they’re from the UK.
You mentioned Future – trap seems to be the closest American genre to grime music. What do you think of it?
I like it, but what I don’t like is what they’re portraying. I can’t agree with it. I understand that everyone’s doing it but it’s negative music and hundreds of years from now when people want to know about 2016, they’ll be like ‘what are they talking about?’. I know it’s necessary for the clubs, it gets you uplifted. But when you sit and listen to it, no person in their right mind would follow that lifestyle. You can’t understand a lot of it, there’s a lot of slang nowadays. People make their own words up and they expect you to just get it, like "Panda," mate, were you talking about a panda?
Skepta is the only grime artist to make any impact recently in the US - he talks quite slowly and doesn’t use too much slang. We listen to American music and generally pick up what they’re talking about, but do you think it’s a problem if people can’t understand the lyrics or contextual references on grime tracks?
Music is music, so how it feels is always going to win. I don’t know what Future or Young Thug talk about all the time but it sounds good. When you want to hear what they’re saying, it’s a bit disheartening when you find out they’re just talking crap. I think it’s important that you’re clear otherwise they don’t know what they’re listening to.
So do you think we’re going through a time where lyrics just don’t make as much of a difference?
Yeah I really do. It doesn’t matter what’s being said, as long as it has a few key words in it, you’re good. Music today moves so quick, that whatever wave it is now, tomorrow it could be over, so you’ve just got to catch it. And everyone’s copying each other…badly. Like Panda / Future – and everyone else just gets forgotten. There’s a hundred Nicki Minaj’s trying to come up.
From the album, ‘10K’ is feels like very trappy. Is that because you specifically wanted to make a trap song?
I was looking at what the album needed and I had this artist JRiley who’s a killer with the hooks. He sent me the beat so we made that. It’s trappy but it’s for the UK.
Speaking of US artists, there are quite a few mentions on the album like Biggie, 2Pac, Birdman. How do American artists influence you?
I grew up on American artists, there was no UK rap I grew up on – everyone grew up on them. The UK now has got to that level where there are artists just as good as the Kendrick Lamar’s, the J Cole’s. But because the world is used to the American sound and the pronunciations, especially in hip hop, Americans are always that step ahead so everyone follows what they’re doing. Every grime artist that’s got far, it’s not been the grimey tracks that got them there – it’s been the house-y or dance tracks.
That’s definitely true on the most part. But then you’ve got Section Boyz are who really gritty and raw with how they sound and what they talk about, and they’re doing a mixtape with Chris Brown, and opened for Beyoncé at Wembley. Then you’ve got the other co-signs like Drake and Skepta, Kanye at the MOBOs and so on. What do you think of that?
Section Boyz were putting in a lot of hard work that people don’t really look at. As a group, they help each other push their name out. Linking up with Chris Brown and that, that’s just good networking and energy. If I had 10 of me, I think I’d be meeting up with Drake. One of me would say ‘keeping phoning him’, and the other me would be saying, ‘email him’ – it’s promotion.
Who would you most like a co-sign from and why?
50 Cent. As a person, I don’t like him. I think he’s a bit of a bully, but he’s one of the last people that was actually from the streets, that got his street music through and he made such an impact. He opened the door for a lot of people who were really from the streets. Before him, 2Pac had been to prison and all that but he also went to drama school and had that lifestyle. That’s the way I see myself in the UK.
What did you think of the ‘grime takeover’ at Glastonbury this year?
I think that’s good, it has to be, it deserves to be there more than hip hop. Grime and rock n roll are closer.
You have a lot of collabs on the album, which is part of grime. How does that process work with you?
On this album, I tried to keep it with people I knew who were serious about the music industry. Not someone I do a song with, then I contact you about doing a video and they’re like, ‘I don’t do music no more’. On HMP I had big names but those guys all let me down when it came down to videos. So it’s not about the names – if the music’s good enough, it doesn’t matter who’s name is on it.
Safone is probably the biggest feature on this album, who is from Birmingham. Is there the same level of competitiveness between London and other cities or is everyone just repping where they’re from?
It is real but it’s not hostile. It doesn’t matter if it’s Birmingham or London, you could live next door to me and I’ll want to be the best. But people don’t say things, I want to be able to say, ‘you’re the best and you’re not’. But everyone is thinking it and sometimes it’s the people that are not so good that hold back the people that are good.
Like US hip hop culture, the roots of grime are in freestyles and cyphers. You mentioned kids are doing this a bit more now because they’re inspired, where is that culture at – strong as ever or has it been weakened by sharing music online?
Just freestyling on the corner and posting up something random has got less because people understand the business side now. They’re overthinking it, when before no one thought it could go so far so they didn’t think about what they were wearing. But now, they come out in their best tracksuit, with a haircut and this watch on. It’s all too planned, there are no surprises - ‘we’re going to do this freestyle, we’re going to name it this, we’re going to get in contact with them’. When it doesn’t work out, it hurts the heart.
But do you think you’ve got to do that to succeed?
There has to be a structure to what you do but when it comes to the freestyles and the rawness of it, you can’t lose that. That’s why every now and again I try and throw a freestyle on my Instagram, just to let them know that nothing gets better than that. That feel of the first time you say something, you’ll never get that back again, and that’s what’s special. I reckon that’s how grime got so big – you just passed the mic to someone random in the crowd and they can rap. Anyone can rap now by the way, it never used to be like that, just use that flow and say the truth. You can teach anyone how to rap.
Who should we be keeping our eye on in the grime scene right now?
Definitely Safone, he looks very energetic. Ghetts because even though he’s older, he’s never ever got to where the Sketpa’s, the Dizzee Rascal’s, the Kano’s have gone. His name’s been in the mix but he’s never got that far. I think he deserves it the most, him and D Double E. The person who is the best: Chipmunk. They need to bring him back. He got big but everyone turned on him, so he’s turned into a ‘defender’ and I can see him turn into an ‘aggressor’, and get strong. People don’t know how to handle that power and they abuse it, so I hope he can go back to making money off his music.
Who do you think US hip hop fans would like in grime?
Stormzy because his delivery his epic. You get every word he says, and as long as you understand English, you’ll understand him. They should look at Chipmunk, I think he’s that guy who needs to be stared at a lot. He did a lot of work with Americans in the past but he wasn’t believable, they need to believe you there.
I do a series of matching hip hop and grime artists together, for instance, if you like Future, you should listen to Giggs. Who would your hip hop match be?
If you like Styles P, D Block, or J Cole – I listen to a lot of him so my music might have that same vibe.
We’re just going to finish with some rapid fire questions. Ready?
Burgers or chips?
Instagram or Snapchat?
Soundcloud or Spotify?
Nike or Adidas?
Artist you'd like to collab with the most?
Venue you'd like to play the most?
Favorite song from the album?
Find Stana’s music and videos here: Youtube.com/channel/UCfgoNynmCJ3pKBgrM3NlWoQ
You can download Destroy & Rebuild here: https://play.google.com/store/music/album/Stana_Destroy_Rebuild?id=Bqp6edrqhkw2qswyorkvpbmjymi