Over the course of the past decade, Strange Music has emerged as one of the stronger brands within the world of independent hip-hop, with Tech N9ne and partner Travis O’Guin building a diverse roster of talent. With an established track record for breaking new talent and finding diamonds in the rough and helping to develop their artists to become polished veterans, the fact that the label is currently placing its bets on rapper Stevie Stone is a strong inclination that he’s someone rap fans should take note of.

A native of Missouri, Stevie Stone first gained acclaim as an athlete, earning a basketball scholarship, but the allure of pursuing a career in music would prove to be to an opportunity that was too enticing for the chiseled wordsmith to pass up. Inking a deal with a local production company and catching the eye of N.W.A and Ruthless Records founder Eazy-E’s widow, Tamika Wright, Stone would ink a deal with the house Eazy built, releasing his debut album, New Kid Comin, in 2009.

Making the jump to the Strange Music team after cutting ties with Ruthless, Stevie Stone would unleash his sophomore release, Rollin’ Stone, before following that up with two additional efforts, 2013’s 2 Birds 1 Stone, and his last release, 2015’s Malta Bend. Having paid his dues while gradually raising his stock, Stone is looking to take the fast track to greatness with his new album, Level Up, the rapper’s most ambitious body of work to date. After recording his previous albums in Kansas City, Stone made a change in scenery this go-round, heading out to L.A. to spread his creative wings, an experience the rapper says was an enlightening one, and rubbed off on his music.

“The weather, that’s one of them,” Stone recalls when asked of his favorite things about the City of Angels. “The musical vibe, everybody is just out there working, man. There’s a lot of geniuses, lot of good vibes out there and music, so that’s one thing about it, the music. People know how to create music out there.”

With his fifth album in the bag and having grown in his personal life and as a creative, 2017 is primed to be a promising year for the rapper as he continues to establish himself as one of the coldest rising artists in the game.

XXL sat down with Stevie Stone to discuss his genesis as an artist, life as a member of the Strange Music family, crashing at producer Scott Storch’s house, his new album, Level Up, and more.

XXL: The past few months have been busy for you, with your appearances on Tech N9ne's Dominion compilation and your own solo album. How does it feel to be active and back in the swing of things?

Stevie Stone: Real good. The people basically been waiting on some new music not only feature-wise, but my own project and the direction I took on this album, too. It’s just good to have some fun so I’m just eager for the people to get it.

Your last album came out two years ago. What life experiences have you had since then?

It’s going up. I’m doing a lot of shows, went overseas, lots. Moved, had another baby. Life has been happening, but it’s all positive and good. I’m in a great space right now.

Where did you move to?

From St. Louis to Kansas City. I just moved closer to the label and all of that.

What's that transition been like?

Easier because I’m closer to everything now so the studio I was recording there anyway. You got your social department, they’re there, so I can just [check in]. A lot of times, it be of sight, out of mind, so, I just stay in sight and stay active, you know what I’m saying?

Speaking of going overseas, what were some spots that stood out to you?

Australia. I went to Australia and New Zealand. Australia was crazy, like Sydney, Melbourne. Just going over there, it’s an eye-opener because here in the states, we’re accustomed to one way, but when you go out there, you see it’s so much more out here. So, it opens your mind, opens your thought process and you just notice more out there. I love Australia, though. I can’t wait to go back.

You have a habit of taking a full year off between releasing albums. Is that a calculated decision on your part or is that due to the Strange Music release cycle?

That’s the label. I wanna keep it coming, you know what I’m saying? It’s all about content now. I think everybody really knows about content, you gotta keep putting out content regardless of how it’s doing and now you got these streaming services so it’s making it easier for people to stay current and keep on dropping things so I’m looking forward to that also. After this drop, I’m definitely not trying to wait two years before I drop another album. I will be dropping something else very soon.

Speaking of your contributions to the Dominion album, what song or verse was your personal favorite?

“Put Em On” was definitely one of them. On Dominion, the thing about it, I did a lot of tracks because originally it was supposed to be a double disc, so there’s another disc out there that they’re supposed to be releasing also. So, I would say “Put Em On.” That’s the one, talking about the day ones. Like what Rick Ross say, can’t forget about lil bruh and ’em.

You're originally from St. Louis. How would you describe your experience growing up there and how that influenced your music?

Well, I was born in Columbia, Mo. I just lived in St. Louis for like 12 years, you dig what I’m saying? So, I was based out of St. Louis when all of this happened, from my first deal and everything with that. But I was actually born in a little college town named Columbia;it’s probably an hour and a half from St. Louis and Kansas City. It’s right there dead smack in the middle. It’s a college town, so, it’s real diverse. I went to five elementary schools in six years, so I moved around. I know a lot of people there, got a lot of family there.

How did living and coming of age in Columbia and St. Louis translate into your music?

You know, every hood is the same, no matter where you go to, you feel what I’m saying? My mama worked a lot when I was young and it was just me and my mama that lived together, so, of course the streets and everything, that’s why the homies and everything like that. But my father, who lives in Iowa, my father was a preacher, but he was up in Iowa, so, I would go and visit him in the summer and Christmastime and all of that, so, there was a balance I learned from the streets and from the church and this is me.

I've read that your mother got you into music at an early age, exposing you to blues, gospel and other genres. Who are some of the artists you recall having a big impact on you?

Luther Vandross, Marvin Gaye, you know what I’m saying? Man, the list goes on, oldies. I mean personally, my favorite, I love Luther, but I think it was just music in general that she put me onto. My grandmother, I remember my grandma, she liked country music, my mother listened to gospel and blues and stuff like that, then my sister and ’em was listening to hip-hop and my cousin and ’em listened to rock and roll.

So, I was always in a cluster of music, a big ass melting pot. A lot of instruments. My mother played piano and organ, my pops played piano, brothers and sisters sang, so, it was always music. And I remember being young, mama having choir rehearsal, the drummer playing in the front room. Or parties, Saturday night, everybody partying, then my sisters having parties and ’em was having parties and I’m the youngest one there. So it was just a melting pot of music all my life, you know what I’m saying?

Liquid9 / Samantha Levi
Liquid9 / Samantha Levi

You were also a scholarship athlete, but decided to pursue music instead. Was that a difficult decision to make and what was the deciding factor?

Nah, it definitely wasn’t a difficult choice. It’s like once I did it, I just knew. I can’t explain it, I was trying to earlier. It’s just when something feels good and you know it’s right for you, you know what I’m saying? So, I never looked back after I did that show. The show I did, it was actually with Tech [N9ne], the same day that Tech and Travis [O’Guin] formed Strange Music together and I was a high school kid at that show.

It was at the Fair Grounds in Missouri and I ended up doing it and it was just the feeling I got from performing for the people out there and it was the best feeling ever; it put me on a super high. And it was crazy ’cause I loved basketball. I just knew I was about to go and play, that’s everything it was, sports, sports, sports, sports. And I did music, I played piano and drums for my family and everything, I think at first it was a hobby, but when I did that, I realized this is my calling right here, you know what I mean? And I never looked back.

Speaking of the instruments, how does that play into your artistry? Do you make any of your beats or help out on the tracks?

I used to make a lot of them, but I ended up stopping making them a long time ago. This O.G. of mine told me, "You rap, you sing, you play the piano, you’re a jack of all trades, but what have you mastered?" So, when he told me that, I kind of laid back off of that to become great at one so I decided and started using people around me.

And then my boy Frizz that be on stage with me too, County Boy Frizz—he’s also a producer on the album—when me and him got together, I said, "You just concentrate on beats and I’ma concentrate on this," and that’s how it’s been. Now, it still plays into [my music]. I get a beat, I’ll arrange it how I want to, hi-hats out here, bass here, boom, boom, boom, and I’m still gonna grow into it. I got hella shit already orchestrated, but it’s a time for everything, you know what I’m saying?

Who were some of the dudes you looked up to on the production tip when you were making beats?

Man, I was in my own little world, man. I wasn’t really peeping. Matter of fact, I take that back, Timbaland. I was a big Timbaland fan. The way that he did his percussion and I used to be in marching band and shit like that, so, Timbaland was always someone that I wanted to fuck with. Pharrell with the Neptunes, I grew up to love them. Just Blaze, I was digging what he was doing. There’s so many producers out here, but I would say that Tim was the one that I was really feeling when I was young, you know what I’m saying?

That’s when he was doing, like, Missy and all them, but then he did Petey Pablo, Bubba Sparxx and ’em, that boy was coming with ’em. Now, he’s progressed, he’s doing pop and Justin Timberlake, Shakira. He done went up in stature, but he’s still genius and one of these days I’m gonna end up on a Tim beat. That’s one beat I would love to have: a Timbaland beat.

Your first record deal was with Ruthless Records. How did that situation come about and what were your experiences there?

I had a production deal in St. Louis. So, a dude name Mike Landau and then Ira DeWitt—Ira DeWitt is the wife of the owner of the Cardinals. They had this production company called Fly Moves. They signed me and I ended up doing music and there was this hip-hop and R&B showcase in Atlanta. Billboard magazine was doing it and they chose me as like R&B and hip-hop, so, I was one of the rappers they chose to come and do the showcase.

Went down there and did the showcase whatever, and you know how they be having the bags full of CDs. My CD was just one of the ones in the bag, my mixtape. Ira ended up running into Tamika Wright and Ira was like, "Who you feeling down there?" and she was like, “I’m feeling the guy Stevie Stone,” and Ira was like, “Whoa, that’s my artist" and that’s how it started. Ira had a birthday party a couple weeks later and invited Tamika, and she was like, “Is Stevie gonna perform?” So, she came down to the birthday party, but she really wanted to see me perform.

She seen me perform, and then she came up to me right after the performance. She ain’t drink or nothing. She came up there just for that and she came up to me and she was like, “I’m fucking with you. I want you to send me music. I wanna hear what you got.” It’s like Friday, Monday, we send her like 10 records. She hit me back like, “I love five of ’em. Send me some more." So I send her five more records and she’s like, "Aight, I’m flying in. I wanna see you write on the spot, record on the spot and do a show." So she flew in, did that, did the show at Blueberry Hill in St. Louis, and after that, she came up to me like, "You got a deal," you know what I’m saying?

It’s crazy because it was probably like six months before everything got done, so I’m like, damn, I don’t know if I’m gonna get the deal, but this my first time, I didn’t know what it was. When she was like, I’m about to get a deal, I thought I was about to be on next day, or maybe even next month, but there was a time where nobody talked to each other, that process time and everything, but it ended up getting done.

When you signed with Strange Music, how did you get in contact with Tech and Travis and how did that deal come together?

Well, I had met Tech [N9ne] and Travis [O’Guin] before that. They was fucking with me, but they just wasn’t signing anyone at the time, but when I signed [with Ruthless], they were super ecstatic, they were happy for me. Then I ended up doing my first album with her and I ended up clicking Tamika with Strange and I went and ended up doing a promo tour. So, my first tour I ever did was with Tech and me and them was already family anyway.

And when I was signed with Ruthless, we ended up doing 65 shows together to promote my album. My album came out and I went on tour with them, 55 shows, and it just never stopped after that. My contract [with Ruthless] ended up being up and I just moved on, but big shout out to Tamika and Ruthless, fo’ sho.

How would you describe your working relationship with the label and what it's like to be a part of the Strange Music brand?

It’s dope. I stay busy, I stay on the road. I staying doing something. That’s one thing about Strange, they keep you going a countless amount of shows, overseas, beating up the pavement, as many shows as possible. It’s all about content. So, I’m definitely looking forward to giving the people more and more music. It’s dope. It’s definitely a camaraderie, it’s family, everybody’s rooting for each other.

Everybody has different lanes at Strange so no artist the same. Everybody has a lane that they’re tackling. Everybody just owns their lane. But as far as all of us together, it’s love. They’re my brothers. It’s a camaraderie, we all promote each other, all of that stuff. Get in the music with each other, all of that stuff.

Your latest album, Level Up, just dropped. Does that title speak to the mentality you had coming into this year?

My last album, Malta Bend, was so serious and I didn’t wanna be serious on this album. I just wanted to come out having fun. So, I went out to L.A. and started working with Scott Storch, Mechanix, Dem Jointz, 808 Mafia, all of these different producers and I got 10 records in and the music named it Level Up, you know what I’m saying? I didn’t name it. I allowed the music to name it.

And after I came up with the name, I hollered at my boy Mark Breezy from L.A., who was my A&R for this album and he loved it; he felt the same way. My boy Frizz felt the same way, and then once it started trickling down to Tech and [Krizz] Kaliko and them listening to the music, like, “Hell yeah, you leveled up from where you were to now, as far as production and everything," I just let the music name itself.

What was the recording process for this album and how do you feel it differs from your previous releases?

I definitely did something different. I went to L.A., so, I literally got out of my comfort zone and started working with different producers and writers and stuff like that. It’s a couple of joints that didn’t even make it. Like Goldie is one of Chris Brown’s writers. I got the chance to work with her. The song didn’t make it, but just to see how they were writing, it was inspirational and it’s geniuses in the room, you just soak it up.

So, that process was way way different, you dig what I’m saying? I went up there and I was just going in, feeling the vibe, not worried about studio time. Not worried about anything, just making dope music and that was different, just going to L.A. Now I know every time I'm working, let me get to L.A., get into these different studios and bump shoulders with these other artists and get that inspiration. It takes a team to do things, you know what I’m saying? Before, I’d be in the room alone doing the whole album.

This last album, I had Breezy in the room, Frizz in the room, Scott Storch in the room. And even if it’s just opinions, like, "Yeah, that’s dope," all of that. So, it was just a whole different approach and I think we have a better product because of it. I think it’s super current, it’s not necessarily what the Strange Music fans are used to, but that’s me evolving as an artist and I’m excited about that.

You kept the collaborations on this album in-house. How did you pick and choose which of your label mates to put on which tracks, being that you have multiple rappers and singers?

The music. It’s the music. “All Yours,” I heard Tech on that. My dude Adrian Truth came and did the hook, Seven did the beat, I did my verse and shot it to Tech. Me and him, we always do those female-vision records and they eat it up, so, I knew it was gonna work. “Invitation,” Darrein [Saffron], that’s the homie and I knew I wanted to get something with him and I think that was the last feature that was in. He did that at the last minute, he got that.

“Wavelength,” I had the idea of “Wavelength” already. The poet on there, that’s my girl, so me and her had already been talking about “Wavelength” for a minute so we already knew that it was gonna do that and I brought Bre the 1st Lady in to sing and I had Kaliko do the hook. And I wanted to give it a old-school feel, but still current, and I wanted it to have that feel of the old school kinda R&B, that pure old-school type of feel and then me come and just do my thing on the verses. So, it was just something unique and different, you know what I’m saying?

Had Kaliko do that hook and I think he put a couple of bars at the beginning and I put my verse after his and kept it moving. He got with Seven and just presented that to me like, "Here you go.’ “Old School,” that’s my homie Fresco Kane, he’s St. Louis. I know he used to be signed with So So Def. I’m not sure if he’s still signed with them, but me and him just been long overdue. My boy Frizz did the beat and that’s just me talking about the old movies and old songs that and all the stuff that I grew up to; it’s just feel-good, you know what I’m saying?

One of the standout songs on the album is "Crushin'," which is produced by Scott Storch. How did the two of you connect?

Mark Breezy. Breezy just connected the dots. Steve Lobel and Travis [O’Guinn] got really tight and they just work with producers like that and see what would happen and was able to get out and make some beautiful music with those guys. I went to his house, I went to his crib. I went out to L.A. for like a week and just got it in. So, I was at Scott Storch crib for like two days, just working. Just recording at his crib, we was up in there. I’d go in another room, he’s still creating, I’m in the other room recording. Just working.

How would you describe your chemistry with Scott Storch?

Good, real good. The chemistry was good, smoke a little weed and do some music [laughs].

Who are some of the other producers you worked with on this album and what made you pull them in on this album?

Purps of 808 Mafia, he did "Options," the first single we released. Chris Knox, Seven, The Mekanix, Scott Storch, Dem Jointz, The CountyBoyz.

There's also a song called "Jacob's Ladder" on the album? What was the inspiration behind that song?

Every album, I gotta put something motivational. I’m always one to motivate for the people that need that ambition and motivation, that extra push and that’s every album I do. I have to give something like that. This is the first album I don’t got as many. Usually, I got more of those type of records, but like I said, this was like a fun record, but I still put “Jacob’s Ladder” in. And I just reflected, reflected on life and everything like that, what I done been through and the message is to keep pushing, you’ll find a way. Sometimes you gotta make it through the chapter, you gotta go through that, so that’s what that was about. Seven came with the beat and Adrian [Truth], they handed that one to me and I hopped right on it.

What was your most memorable moment while recording this album?

With Scott [Storch]. Being in Scott’s house and working with Goldie and D.B. Super, super dope.

What are three songs from this album you feel will really resonate and stick with listeners and why?

The Christian record. I never did [one] before, so that’s something new and fresh. I love “Options,” “Paradise” is big, a super big record. I think that’s one that’s really gonna resonate because of how big it is and I’m talking about the industry it can be paradise to some, but it can be somebody’s hell too if you get caught up in the hype, if you get lured in, it can go bad for you as well as good. A lot of people think the music and touring is all glitz and glamour, but it really ain’t. You gotta stay focused, you gotta stay grounded, keep the right people around you. “Wavelength,” I love that. That’s a tough question.

The first bar on the album, you rap, "I'm back now, I think I'm underrated." With that said, what was your mission statement or what do you want fans to take away from this project?

Just leveling up. Come enjoy this ride, we gonna evolve and we gonna go to the next tier and we gonna keep on going up. But what I meant when I said that I feel I'm underrated is that I don't think that they listen, or in the past, people would see one record and try to put me in that category, like, "He just a club rapper," but you haven’t really heard or digested my remedies, my legacies and motivation. There’s more to Stevie Stone than just club.

You ain’t heard the Strangeulation Cyphers, my "Eat" cyphers, where I’m biting heads off and trying to be lyrical on this. And here’s the thing, sometimes I just wanna make a great record, sometimes I may wanna chew your head off, sometimes I may wanna motivate to help someone out, as well as ourselves. It’s therapy. Music is therapy, so when you speaking from the heart and talking about personal experiences, your story could help somebody out there.

What would you say you'd have to accomplish by the end of this year to truly say that you leveled up?

How about this, I’m in here talking to you in the XXL office. It’s already happening. I’m going through it right now and it’s gonna continue to grow. I definitely wanna go overseas some more. Canada is coming up, probably Australia and New Zealand again. I’m hearing things about Europe. Who knows, you know what I mean? It’s about continuing to grow, continuing to get better and staying focused. Everything else is gonna come.

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