From local to up and comers to national headliners, the knowledge seeker in me loves hearing the inner workings of an artist. The short four-hour drive to Milwaukee, Wisconsin was well worth it to sit down with two of the cast members of the biggest independent label in the world. Strange Music founders and CEO Aaron Yates, Tech N9ne, and Travis O'guin have built an empire, but not without the help of today's guests. Ubiquitous of Ces Cru and Stevie Stone are no longer the fresh faces on the label but this interview gives them a unique perspective. From a fan standpoint, this interview is one I have looked forward to since I began working with Upcoming Hip Hop. Ubiquitous joined me first and wasted no time as he was preparing for the fan meet and greet.
UHH: Let's start by talking about the tour you are on now, Strictly Strange. You have been around a little while and toured with Murs, Mayday, Tech and many of the labelmates. How does this tour differ with tours in the past since you have veterans like Brother Lynch Hung alongside newcomers like Kenzie Nicole?
UBI: Yeah, I have actually been out with the core of the tour. I have toured with Brother Lynch, Stevie Stone, Krizz Kaliko and Tech n9ne. I have been out with all of them and it's pretty comfortable. Darrien Safron (the newest member of Strange Music) joined the tour part way through and I have never been out with him [but it's been pretty cool]. He comes out for a verse or two, being one of the newest members he is just getting his feet wet. [Kenzie] comes out just on the weekends, I think she is on eight [of the 66] shows.
One aspect that has helped Strange Music grow their empire to its current standings is their ability to tour as much as they do. In this tour alone, they have an astounding 66 shows. Along with their avid touring schedule, Stevie Stone and Ces Cru both released solo projects and jumped on a couple tracks from the latest all Strange Music collaboration Dominion. Before we got into any of that, we discussed the latest Ces Cru project, Catastrophic Event Specialist.
UHH: I wanted to get into this album because with your last album [Codename Ego Stripper] I felt you guys were able to experiment vocally and try some new things. What was the process going into this album?
UBI: Instead of starting with our core producer Seven, Michael “Seven” Summers, I started with outside producers to see what I could 'pick off the trees' as some of our centerpiece tracks to construct around [with Seven having some tracks on their as well], but I really got the centerpiece tracks from Kato [Recession Proof] and the Extraordinaires [Slave and Average Joe, also producing Seven Shakras on Codename].
The production of an album is often the unknown for fans, but with all stars like Kato, Extraordinaires, and Seven it is hard to go unnoticed. While that is the building blocks for any album, Ubi would go on to explain what he wanted out of the album from a visionary standpoint.
UBI: … I wanted on a cohesive message that would carry through the album and because of what was going on in the world at the time [we were going through primaries] it became a politically charged record because essentially that's what we were being hit with. If you are on social media you were being blasted with the republicans, the democrats, Hillary this and Trump that. That was the undertone of the record and then musically I wanted it to have a classic hip hop sound infused with jazz.
This answer would go on to be my favorite of the interview I've done as it shows off just what makes a great artist. It combines a formula that, in my opinion, is what makes a great album. Reminiscent of older 70s rock bands that would tell a story throughout an entire album, but be able to listen to any track stand alone and enjoy it. It reminds us how to pay homage to the beginnings of hip hop and its roots in jazz music. The most important line of his response to me is that he, along with Godemis who was absent due to sickness, made the album about what was going on in their lives and how the album reflected that. Hip hop to me has always represented life and our surroundings and when an artist, or duo, can bring that to the booth, authenticity is born. The authenticity of an album is something we discuss a little further as we talked another Strange Music artist.
UHH: Jazz influence in hip hop for me is one of my favorite things to hear. Being from the Twin Cities we have a local artist Why Khaliq who often uses live instrumentation and jazz in his music and of course Atmosphere, but also one of your fellow Strangers Murs.
UBI: Oh yeah, that 9th Wonder Project [Brighter Daze] is great. Dare I say I like it more than his Strange releases. Him and 9th have a chemistry and I encourage him to continue working with him because they have something that people are looking for.
While many look forward to Murs continuing to work with 9th wonder, the artist on Strange I had been looking forward to interviewing had just walked into the room. One of the oldest and most active members of Strange Music, Stevie Stone. He has been with the label for seven years and plans to release his latest studio project, Level Up, June 2nd.
UHH: I want to talk about the transition from albums because with Malta Bend you had a very deep personal connection with the audience while sprinkling in some party tracks like Run It and Get Fucked Up. This latest album you have released three singles and it has more of that party vibe to it.
Stevie Stone: Eat II is kinda a preorder that StrangeMusic put out alongside Options with the video. And then we have Whippin Up which is another party joint which Scott Storch did.
UHH: And this is what I love because your albums have that party style but then you have the ability to get deep and sometimes dark, as seen in the final single Paradise with Jenn Em.
Stevie Stone: Yeah and Paradise I am talking about the industry, it can be somebodies paradise or it can be hell and its just a little more substance. And you know with this album I wanted to have fun. Like you said, the last album was so serious and so deep that with this one I just went to LA and started throwing records and then ten songs in we named the album because of the production and we felt [the album] was a level up.
While the life of an artist on Strange Music can be draining between constant touring and producing high-level music, it is important to kick back and relax from time to time. For Ubiquitous, this includes the occasional, or habitual, a video game binge.
UHH: Bringing this back to Murs for a moment, he is a bit of a video gamer, but I have heard that you dabble in the consoles as well. Have the two of you ever faced off?
UBI: You know what, not really, but he really don't want no problems with me (Stevie laughing in the background). He really don't want to see me on these consoles.
Stevie Stone: And I'm 2K, NBA 2K all day
UBI: And that's honestly an arena that I fall back on, Madden and 2K. They got that, and I will get sunned, but any other, ANY other style of game [I got them]
UHH: I have been an Overwatch fan for awhile, it's probably the first game I could play all day long in a long time, but mostly I play Madden or NHL 2K.
Stevie Stone: Realistically, I quit school cause of recess cause I don't play.
The lighthearted conversation was the reminder that everyone who reads this needs to read. In life, stress, setbacks, pain, hard work and effort take pieces from you, but love, happiness and the feeling of a family rebuild that which we give away. The jokes had just begun, but one I was not privy to prior to this interview was the one that intrigued me.
UHH: So there is another member of the Strange family that I was hoping you could introduce me to. Who is Jimmy Hyme?
Stevie Stone: Everybody been sayin that lately, what was it, that Krizz Kaliko interview?
UBI: I think it was the group interview we did
Stevie Stone: Jimmy. Hyme. Alright, so you wanna know where that came from? Well, Jimmy came from...I think we were in Seattle one time and we ordered some Jimmy Johns and I was like Jiiiimmy. I just kept saying Jiiimmmyyy. And the dude comes, rode his bike over and I'm like Jiiimmy and we give him the money and I go Jimmyyyy. And he says “Dude, my names, not Jimmy” and I ask what his name is and he says “Johnny” or something close and I was like … Johhhnnyyyy. And then Krizz Kaliko put the two together somehow and says Jimmy Hyme [*Stevie often says Himmi Hyme in his songs as a signature call and is the name of his Mixtape]
The comradery of Strange Music is important in understanding how they stay sane through the long hours and tours. This aura is often extended to the fans, having a strong connection is what makes Strange Music shows unlike any in the industry. In keeping with this tradition, I reached out to fans and chose to ask Ubiquitous my favorite.
UHH: One fan reached out with a question I had often wondered myself when it comes to the recording process for Ces Cru. From songs like Soundbite and the acoustic Peter Parker, you and Godemis seem to transition so fluently. When you are recording songs like this what is the process like, do you record together or separately?
UBI: I mean it happens all different ways. We have made so much music together that we have tried all different creative processes. It all depends, on a song like 'When Worlds Collide' it is really just a four bar exchange throughout the duration of the song. I think when we did that we actually recorded from two different isolation booths and we had a window between us and we had separate mics. It made it a lot easier because if I was gonna do that, and record my half then leave four bar gaps [it would get to complex]. It was really better to record in a live format because it maintained that right energy.
When it comes to music and recording, finding the right fit to a song often is the difference between a good song and a complete thought. Whether it's the right beat to express your energy, the right process in the case of Ces Cru, or in the case of the next track getting the right feature or synergize the song.
UHH: Bouncing back to you Stevie, on Malta Bend you worked with another unique voice in the industry in Mystikal. Can you run me through the process of getting him and what is was like to record with a legend like him?
Stevie Stone: I think we both have a unique texture [but] the tones are totally different the rhyme format is totally different but I am a big fan of Mystikal I have been since the No Limits days. It was dope and a blessing to work with someone that I have looked up to as a child. I had a mutual friend and producer named Coco Beats. I wanted to get [Mystikal] and he had Beats by the Pound who use to do all of Master P's beats and is Mystikal's manager right now. Dave [Weiner], Strange Music vice president, worked with signing Master P and knew Beats by the Pound. So I kinda just linked them back together and then [Mystikal] heard [Rain Dance] and loved it and jumped on.
Stevie went on to explain the meaning behind "Rain Dance." "Malta Bend" was meant to a personal story of the town and life of his parents and how that related to Stevie. His grandma was half American Indian and with Tech N9ne, who also has American Indian, Choctaw, blood in him, the track was set to show off not only his roots but his party animal style. Seven produced the track and built a masterpiece with backdrops of native language and naturalistic sounds. This sound brought out an old school Mystikal sound that reminded me of the classic verse from 'Move Bitch' and reminded Stevie of the even older No Limits style.
Building and working with idols is a part of the growth of Strange Music, but maintaining a strong lineup is what has made all the rest possible. As with any family, they expand and the dynamic changes. Having two of the older members of the group I was intrigued by just how that dynamic had changed.
UHH: I am curious to know, from the both of you, what it has been like to watch the label grow and to see new faces come along and others leave. I wanted to start with you Stevie since you have been around a little longer than Ces Cru.
Stevie Stone: I mean we have a strong comradery and a family vibe. Everyone is super humble and we root for each other. Everyone wants everyone to win. That is the mentality I have and everyone else. When you come into Strange I feel like you have to have that because everyone has that mentality so if you are for self it isn't gonna mesh. The dynamic definitely has changed but it's [still] about doing good music.
UHH: And is that the same for you [UBI] coming in as a new artist and then as a veteran?
UBI: Yeah, we weren't signed that long after Stevie. I think it was Mayday and then Prozak got his public signing and then us, then Rittz, Murs, Darrien, Kenzie and Above Waves, etc. I think the label is goin under some sort of transformation with the pop wing opening. StrangeMusic proper is really just how many artists we have been able to hob-knob and that's what you hear with Strangeulation I and II.
The collaboration of this label is made possible because of the versatility of every artist on the track. Strange Music boasts so many talented artists and their fans tend to all appreciate every act. For any hip hop (or any genre) you often dream of different collaborations. For fans of Strange, they get to hear many of their favorite acts come together once a year for these label-wide collaborations. But every fan has their dream collaboration and for me, this was my opportunity to ask about mine. Coming from St Paul, home of the other deity in the Independent game Rhymesayers, I couldn't help but think of the past collaborations and what could come in the future.
UHH: Rhymesayers runs their ship very similar, from working a lot in-house to giving their artist majority control in what they produce. And since we are talking about collaborations I have long dreamed of a and even coined the name, RhymeStrangers collab. From Prof and Tech n9ne to Murs, Slug and Ces Cru, I have just been itching for more. Is this a possibility in the future?
UBI: I would love it, I mean Murs is kind of the gateway being that he was on both labels. He was kind enough to put us on a track with Felt. It was kind of a mail in thing [not recorded together] but I have been a long time fan of Atmosphere and Brother Ali in particular. I know Prof and follow him, he is dope and I would love to work with him sometime.
Stevie: And you know what's crazy is I think Richie is a publicist for them too, so we do have some connections there. And I feel the same way, I just love working with dope artists so I am down.
For me, this small glimmer of hope was the perfect way to end the interview. As they walked off to do their meet and greets with the thousands of waiting fans I spent the day taking in the local cuisine and brews of Milwaukee. Ubi and Stevie reinforced the mentality of Strange Music that I have come to love over the past few years. From their work ethic to their relationship with the fans, to the ever expanding mentality of taking over the world, this interview will go down as one of my favorites.