Written by Adam E. Smith (@theadamesmith)
From coming up on the front lines of the Eastern Kansas’ battle rap scene, to joining the competitive ranks of Mello Music Group, Topeka’s John Westbrook, Jr. is making a habit of popping thought bubbles filled with the sentiment that hip-hop is dead. The 29 year old emcee, known by his rap alias Stik Figa, has an uncanny affinity for attracting both peers and critics to his laid back delivery and witty lyrical flow from the very first listen. If you don’t believe me, just ask his label-mate Oddisee. In an era of questionable over-saturation, the Midwest spitter employs an unorthodox musical approach to seemingly foreign subject matters and refreshingly eclectic beats.
The end result circles around loosely tied tales of life, love, dreams and the beauty that can be found in harsh realities. With his newest release, As Himself, Stik’s penmanship teamed up with producer Michael “Seven” Summers, and has figuratively scrawled his name on the list of up-and-comers to pay some mind to now, and moving forward. On the heels of the second visual release from As Himself, just over a month after the record dropped, Stik took a minute to chop it up with us about his history, writing process, producers, Kansas hip-hop, and how he is excited about the upcoming birth of his daughter.
You were a battle rapper during your high school years. What was the local hip-hop/battle scene like in Topeka, and Kansas in general, while you were growing up?
When I was coming up, the battle scene was more or less limited to the cafeteria, just ranking on each other in front of other students. Sometimes we would get together after school and battle each other. It wasn’t until after high school when I started entering organized events that were put together in Lawrence, KS at The Pool Room and another spot called The Bottleneck.
Who were the major players in that scene? Did you win most of the time?
Mac Lethal, Approach, and CES Cru were the big players back then, real stiff competition. I would always make it to either the final or semi-final rounds man, sometimes I felt like I was getting robbed, but what can you do?
Did you always write and record tracks outside of battling, or was there a point where you made that transition from battle rapper to a serious emcee?
I had always written raps, but I didn’t have access to a legit studio. When I was 19 I recorded my first song with Miles Bonny in his dorm room at KU. It was called “Tom Foolery”, which was my old rap moniker. There is a definite difference between coming off the fly with lyrics [at battles], and getting across your thoughts and ideas in song form. I’ve fallen in love with that aspect of songwriting as result.
Who were some of the other local emcees you rhymed with early on? Were there any stand out characters in the Topeka scene that everyone there knows about, but people outside might not have heard of?
When I first started rhyming I had my crew of friends, who just rhymed because we lived in the same neighborhood, and it was just something we had in common. We called ourselves Theonlyones, because we felt we were the only ones in the town doing it the way we were. It was myself, Dialek, Sonny Liston and Graham Cracker. I would rhyme with my buddy Tiwanne, RIP, and a few others. As far as Topeka talent there is wealth of it. You have Reggie B who is doing really great work, DVS Mindz, Evil Loc, Pain, Burnablocc, Bizzy, Young Mane, Brail. A whole lot of guys.
Would you be open to working with other Kansas-based rappers like XV and Tech N9ne? Do you have a relationship or stories involving them or other native emcees?
Absolutely, I actually have recorded a song with XV called “The Pie.” It was going to go on As Himself, but didn’t make the cut. It’s a dope song too, so I might need to go ahead and release that. We have played a few shows together in Kansas City. I would love to work Tech N9ne as well. I mean that man is an icon in the area.
What is the story behind you joining Mello Music Group? How did you first team up with them, and was it a series of connections type of process, or did they approach you after hearing your records circulating?
It’s a great story actually. Oddisee was surfing Myspace one day, found my music, and I guess he was impressed by it. He sent me a DM and said he wanted to collaborate with me. I checked out his page and was blown away, like, he was super legit. I sent him a DM back saying ‘man I would love to, but I don’t think I could afford you’ [laughs]. He wrote me back and said he wanted to work with me, so not to trip. He flies me out to D.C., and we work on what is now the From the Top EP in a single weekend. The rest is history as they say.
Have you had a chance to mix it up with any of the Mello Music Group artists? Who have you worked with, and who would you like to collaborate with out of that camp?
I honestly haven’t. Apollo Brown did a remix of a song me and my bro D/Will did called “Seasons,” and Dunc and I just did that “What You Know” for the Self Sacrifice compilation. I would really like to work with Has-Lo. He is a dope songwriter, I really dig what he does.
On “Absitively” you make a Velvet Underground reference. Can you describe your taste in music. More specifically, who are you listening to in hip-hop these days? What sonic trends are you feeling right now?
Glad you caught that! I am into a lot of music, soul music mostly, Marvin Gaye, Bobby Womack etc. As far as current trends, I dig the whole TDE camp, especially Ab-Soul. A$AP Rocky is dope to me. Danny Brown is tough. And honestly my people locally, D/Will, Les IZMORE, Heart of Darkness, Greg Enemy, Ron Ron. That’s all stuff that I listen too.
In reference to the track “Medicine” off As Himself, you manage to put a positive twist on the trials and tribulations of life. Now translate that to the genre, is there anything you are not digging in hip-hop at present, and if so, what do you observe as being the cure to mitigate that?
On “Medicine” I was speaking directly to societal ills. Hip-hop has always been good at holding up a mirror to things that are happening in our communities, and showing the world what is going on. “The Message” is just as important as “The Chronic” in that regard. If I was to say something I don’t dig in hip-hop is this trend of not caring, apathy. But, that is youth culture at large it appears, and again it goes back to what I was saying in the song. What is the cure? What makes people apathetic, unafraid to die, unafraid of consequence? Where did we fail our youth? These are all questions I don’t have the answer for yet, unfortunately.
Hip-hop artists have a knack for translating their surroundings into their song craft. What do you look to as a muse for your creative process other than music itself?
Conversation is my main source of inspiration. Interaction with people. Observing people, life, the news, watching my son grow up – things like that are my muse. My actual day to day life.
You lived in Tampa for a while. Tell us about that, and did you have any hip-hop related experiences there?
Yes, I loved Tampa. Shout out to West Tampa, North Boulevard Homes. But I didn’t do much hip-hop related except go to the club in Ybor and kick it. I wrote a lot of raps though. Then lost all of them, I was devastated. But yea, I was just in Tampa being in Tampa because I wanted a change of scenery.
For me, my first memory of hip-hop was convincing an older kid on the playground to let me listen to Vanilla Ice on his Walkman. What was your first memory of hip-hop?
My earliest memory is watching Krush Groove in Germany with my dad. The scene when LL Cool J bust in and performs “Radio” for Russell Simmons is very much cemented in my brain. The other would have to be getting a copy of Liquid Swordz from my buddy Tiwanne during recess in middle-school. That was a definite transformative moment.
How did you team up with Michael “Seven” Summers for As Himself? You have done it before, but what makes/made you decide to go with one producer on what can be argued to be a landmark project for you?
Because Seven is an incredible artist all to his own. What happened is an artist around here named Approach was working on a mixtape of his called The Nu, and apparently was in the same studio as Seven while he was working on a project with Tech N9ne. Approach has a line on there, and Seven heard it, and asked who he was talking about. He called me and said he wanted to work with me. He then sent me the beat for “Cornerstore,” and it was on from there. I made the decision that I wanted it to be one producer because I believe the best albums are made that way. Not just in hip-hop, but in general. It’s just best to get a consistent sound, theme, and concept. It’s easier for that vision to come alive with just one producer.
I always say that horns make everything better, and Summers seems to use them all over his beats. Are you a big fan of brass and woodwind horns on your instrumentals? Does this stem from a personal affinity for genres like funk?
Absolutely, you have to remember I am a Southerner as well. So that big sound you get from horns, and just the funk, it’s so very necessary. So I agree with your statement, organs and horns are something I never get tired of hearing in music.
Could you see the use of distinct keyboard tones and horns in your instrumentals as a gateway to using a live band for your performances?
I would like to do that in the future. I know it would make the live performance element a lot more fun and engaging. But for now I keep it one MC and one DJ with my man D/Will. But who knows, maybe in the someday we’ll make that happen.
When you’re creating new songs or hashing out concepts for a track, what is the process like for you? Do you typically start with a beat first, or do you write bars and then go back and match them with a beat that fits the cadence of the rhyme?
I never like to go to the studio without having everything figured out, because the studio cost money. Aside from that, I always start with the beat, come up with patterns and cadences by freestyling sounds, trying to figure out what will add to the production. From there I come up with the concept and the rhymes.
What is your dream collaboration, either another producer or rapper?
Right now I am going to say Devin The Dude. That guy is a personal hero of mine, and as far as producers, I am going to go with Droop-E! That young man has some slappers, I am impressed with his work. His catalog is pretty much flawless.
Any new projects, tours, releases or non-musical endeavors coming up that we should know about?
I am having a baby girl in the next couple days, which is a blessing, and all I can think about. I am very excited about it. Other than that, I hope to have completed a full-length with Oddisee that will be ready for everyone this coming winter.