Architects of the Underground: An Interview With Stik Figa & L’Orange [Exclusive]

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Stik Figa & L'Orange

Written by Adam E. Smith (@theadamesmith)

In the last half decade, or maybe more depending on who you ask, Mike Tolle’s Mello Music Group has become a think tank-like operation responsible for producing some of the most consistent and thought provoking hip-hop related projects of the modern era. How a roster with such rigid talent stays on track is assumed to take immense vision and dedication to both the art and the artists. Two particularly esteemed members of MMG pairing would likely seem a fantasy-like matchup, only existing in the ether of dope rapper/producer lineups you could dream about. Yet, it has happened and there is sonic proof. Stik Figa translates as a lyrically playful, overly talented and often underrated emcee from the unassuming hip-hop city of Topeka, Kansas. L’Orange stands out as a producing purveyor of the good old school, and by that I mean the really old school time periods dominated by big band swing and jazz, that has found a way to integrate classic accents into pristine rap back tracks. Separate they are noteworthy in their own right. Together they built a priceless project worth more than any bank notes.

The juxtaposition of these artists placed on the same sound waves was destined to incite a rare outcome: perfection. A strong word for a strong emotional response derived from contagious spins of The City Under The City. Overt comfort zones were demolished, sonic motifs were stacked on top of lyrical conceptualizations, and the end result was a soundscape of 15 tracks that will set the bar high for future Mello Music Group releases. The project dropped today, with high expectations, but getting inside the heads of these two audible architects puts the whole thing into a necessary perspective. Read on…

Let’s start with you L’Orange. You have collaborated with other Mello Music Group label mates before, but for any avid follower of the label this particular matchup is surreal pairing. What turn of events landed you in a position to do a full collaborative project with Stik Figa?

L’Orange: I’ve worked with Mello Music Group artists before, namely yU. After I released The Mad Writer, Stik approached me to work on a collaborative album with him. I’ve been a fan of his work for a while, so I thought it would be a good blend.

L’Orange, given you have typically leaned towards instrumental projects with vocals added when necessary or appropriate, why this jump into a fully rap-laced project now?

L’Orange: It’s been one of my goals to create an album with an emcee. I think of myself as much as a writer or director as a producer, and the opportunity to craft a project with another artist was a next step for me. I wanted to show my diversity and embrace the challenge.

Stik, this is a step outside of your comfort zone in many ways. How did you cast away any hesitation and decide this was the right next move? What did you say to yourself from the jump to get in the needed headspace to take this challenge on?

Stik: To be honest, I wasn’t really sure it was the right decision at all. I kind of am in a position, where I don’t have much to lose career-wise, because I don’t have much as far as accolades and visibility if I were being honest. So I was just kind of thinking, “Why not?” what could it hurt to experiment a little with a sound that isn’t completely unfamiliar but unique in its own way when it came to L’Orange. Plus he is dope, and confident as well, so that definitely made it easier for me.

Once you made the decision to go forward with the project, what was the actual creative process like? Were you in the studio together at the same time?

Stik: Sadly we weren’t in the studio together, but, if we work together again I hope we are. But we were on the phone constantly bouncing ideas back and forth, making things happen from the beginning.

L’Orange: I had been working on a series of beats for my next project. I had an idea for a concept I wanted to move forward with, but I wasn’t sure about the direction. When Stik and I started working, I started sending him these beats to see if he liked the direction. After we had gotten to know each other’s strengths, I started refining the instrumentals and crafting the concept. The most important thing to me when approaching this project was to play to Stik’s strengths. I was taking him out of his element for this album, so I wanted to make sure he was in a position to succeed.

For you L’Orange, what were the key sonic components that you wanted to encapsulate within the overall sound and feel of this album? Mostly in terms of what you wanted this project to represent now and in 10 years.

L’Orange: For me personally, this is my first hip-hop album. My music has traditionally fallen, lovingly, in between the cracks of genre. I also decided to take a step forward in era from jazz to swing.

Continuing on that L’Orange, the album’s title “The City Under The City” evokes this sense of an underground community with its own set of rules and way of doing things. The song title hints like “Monochrome” seem to start building a narrative as well. Tell me about the story behind the title and, how it fits into the conceptualization of the whole work from your perspective.

L’Orange: Anyone that knows my work knows that I over-conceptualize everything I do. This has a very specific and detailed story of a man, trapped in monotony, smoke and grey, venturing out to find a vivid world of color and humanity underground. Initially, I intended this to be a metaphor for Stik Figa and myself. I’m most comfortable falling into the depths of melancholy and jazz, while Stik is clever, fun and outgoing. I wanted to make sure that the concept that was crafted represented us well. I don’t want to hide from our differences as artists, I wanted to create an opportunity for both of us to do what we do best.

Both of you come from thriving, yet somehow under archived hip-hop scenes. Yet, this doesn’t seem to hold you back from accomplishing what you set out to do as artists, and seems to actually keep you grounded in the stimuli that inspire you. What can you say about being widely respected artists that still are in touch with your roots directly.

Stik: If I am widely respected, that is dope, I wouldn’t know cause I live in Topeka and don’t travel much, so, maybe that will change with this record. But, I don’t ever feel entitled to anything because of where I am located, I know every little accomplishment comes from the work I have put in, and how people have supported me at home, so, I never forget that. It keeps me hungry, there is so much more that I hope to accomplish, that has nothing to do with what comes from music, but with a sense of community that I get from fellow artist in my area, and it means a lot to me.

L’Orange: I wrote one of my favorite poems on a napkin. Then I lost the napkin and forgot the words. I still think it was a great poem though.

These cuts are different in that they could be challenging to translate to the live setting. Despite that, is there any short or long term talk of you teaming up to give it a shot?

Stik: I dont think we can perform much of it live, but, L’Orange disagrees with me [laughs]. I really want to play in Europe or something, that seems to be where much of the love comes from, but, maybe I am wrong, I want to know what L’Orange thinks, it would definitely be dope to try out.

L’Orange: We’ve talked about it, but I know that we have some reservations about how the album would translate to a live environment. I’ll think on it.

I know both of you stay busy. What is next for you both individually?

Stik: Gettin’ back with my kinfolk D/Will for a project called JOBB, not sure when it will drop but, its dope and I can’t wait to share it. Working with my guys in KC, after that, I am honestly not sure what I am gonna do. Might work on a passion project that no one gets to hear but me. You’ll just have to see.

L’Orange: I have an instrumental interpretation of The City Under The City coming out in February. I would like to keep working.

And finally, Stik and L’Orange, from a fan and industry observer perspective, being held down by Mello Music Group seems like a dream-like situation. Care to shed any light on the inner workings of what makes that label attract progressive talent that seem to feed off of each other? Who or what force is responsible for the MMG magic?

Stik: Mike Tolle’s genuine love for the projects he releases, and the integrity he has allowed his brand to carry. It’s a cool position to be in.

L’Orange: Mello Music Group is an ideal place to work. They allow us the creative freedom and trust to do what we do well. They care about their product, and release what they believe in. The label owner, Michael Tolle, is a brilliant man with a clear vision of trajectory, momentum, and artist’s needs.

Follow Stik Figa at @StikFiga785 and L’Orange at @LOrangeMusic. Shout out to Mike Tolle and @MelloMusicGroup, and be sure to check their deep archive of albums here

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