Rap has always been about braggadocio. That’s not to say that a lot of rappers aren’t (or weren’t) very tough dudes, but during the era of millennial rap, when video after video was shot with different people standing in front of the same rented Lamborghinis, it wasn’t hard to see the industry as having fewer dimensions than a hologram Tupac.
Now, with rap having taken advantage of the Internet perhaps more than any other genre, the industry doesn’t even matter. Anyone can put anything they produce out there to distribute for free, giving way to a one-dimensionality all its own: a never-ending stream of one-hit wonders whipping up a batch of viral secret sauce for just one track.
But hip-hop is still powered by a strong, soulful undercurrent. Consider F.Stokes. Née Rodney Lucas, he’s a rapper from Chicago’s South Side who was uprooted to Madison, Wisconsin as a kid with his mom and siblings. He’s got the kind of painful history worthy of the documentary currently being made about him: his father and younger brother are in jail for murder, his best friend was killed, and he’s lived in shelters much of his life. That history has fueled incredibly truthful music that borders on the spoken word that he’s showcased during years of perpetual touring throughout the U.S. and Europe that’s seen him do upwards of 100 shows a year.
He’s in New York this week to release a new EP with a show at Santos Party House on Thursday, and met up with me in Brooklyn to chat about Twitter beef, making it big, and not giving a shit about the Internet.
I look at all these rappers on Twitter… Like Juicy J, he just tweets “mimosa time” or “get money” and all this wild-ass shit. Do you think that type of rap, not hip-hop, but rap, translates to Twitter really well?
Well, people want to be a part of the artist’s life on a day-to-day basis. A lot of times the artists have painted this fancy picture — even though a lot of times it cannot be reality — about their lives. So they have to live up to it. When it’s “mimosa time,” it’s mimosa time. Or “I just got a new Bentley,” he posts a picture and boom! He’s showing off that image.
All that bullshit, people feed into it because people are broke, and they want to be closely, intimately associated with something that is “winning,” that shows success. If you live in the projects, you can have a Twitter account, you can follow Joe Blow from Atlanta — that’s the shit rapper right now — and you can feel like you’re part of his life. You can see his personal pics of his Bentleys and shit, and his chain, and it makes you feel like you’re connected. Know what I’m saying?
It feels attainable.
Exactly. I want to challenge rappers to be real on Twitter. Like, “I just cried.” (Laughs) “I just saw Titanic for the seventh time and I cried, for the seventh time.”
Sometimes it hurts because you feel like you’re just going in the cycle. It’s like I’m touching souls, and that’s great, but I’m still struggling to pay the rent. But you can’t let those times define your success. You have to use that as energy.
But, I mean, I still follow Rick Ross. He’s like “Fuck it, I got Maybachs and shit” and you’re like “Damn, this fool’s doing it.” Coming from Madison, how do all of these people on Twitter affect you?
Well, it makes it more competitive, but it also leaves room for honesty. For every Bentley that someone sees, there’s going to be some other fans that want to see reality, emotionality.
My story is interesting because shit is so painful and so deep sometimes man. I perform over 100 times a year, and I essentially have to relive these moments every time I perform them. I have to go back into that spot and relive the moment so I can really get it across and get my message through. If you don’t relive it, people don’t get it. I can rap it, but I have to take myself back there spiritually and mentally and then amplify it for it to effectively come across.
It’s difficult. It’s difficult when you’re on stage and you give your all, you give so much. Then you step off stage and still feel empty. It’s a very vulnerable situation. I’m a no-secrets guy when it comes to my life. People love it and people hate it sometimes. But a random person’s not going to be able to tell you about Rodney because I already told you in my raps.
Between the shows and the rootlessness, you’re a hard-working individual. That’s something that people have always had to do in music, but I feel that now some guys can just get one huge hit single on YouTube, like Soulja Boy or some dumb shit, and then you turn it into a career. Do you think that it’s harder for someone to be emotionally involved when it’s on the Internet?
I mean, it’s harder to win instantly, but over time the Smokey Robinsons, the Marvin Gayes, the Tupac Shakurs of the world, that music lives on because that music is so honest. If it’s music that’s based on materialism, the life of that song is only as long as the brand that it’s talking about.
One day, Bentleys aren’t going to be as cool. Moet is not going to be the wine of choice. It won’t be as cool to have a Jacob watch. But if you make music that’s timeless, it’s going be emotional, it’s going to be real. That’s generational. I was in Denmark, man, and those kids in the ghettos… There are some very tough kids in Copenhagen. And you got two choices: to do something with your hands, like physically build things, or be a boxer. A friend of mine brought me out to her class and I was talking with these kids. Almost all of the boys wanted to be professional boxers, and it reminded me of being in Chicago.
You go to a classroom and all the boys want to be rappers or basketball players. When you talk about these kids coming from broken homes and not having a positive male influence in the house, that shit will always translate better than me talking about the girl I fucked last night, or the fancy hotel I was in, or my new chain. Forever. That’s where I get my rocks off man, those moments. I may not ever make some serious money at this shit, but people won’t forget me. I’ll touch a few souls.
I may not ever make some serious money at this shit, but people won’t forget me. I’ll touch a few souls.
With everybody posting tracks, do you worry that the web is diluting rap?
Dude, I’m on YouTube and I’m like “How does this motherfucker have more hits than me? Seriously, these dudes?” I started a Kickstarter to make a video and this kid shot something in his garage on a camcorder and got 300,000 views. (Laughs)
That’s something I still don’t understand. How do you win the internet?
You can’t fight it man. You can’t fight it. My victory is knowing that I put in a great show, and knowing that I’m going to perform my songs for the rest of my life. I want to be able to travel, hop on the stage, and convince minds and ultimately make brothers and sisters all over the world. That’s where I find my comfort, not in a million hits. Sometimes it hurts because you feel like you’re just going in the cycle. It’s like I’m touching souls, and that’s great, but I’m still struggling to pay the rent. But you can’t let those times define your success. You have to use that as energy.
When has it been worst for you? Have you ever been on the road just wondering “What the hell am I doing?”
My man, I’m from the ghetto. My father’s in prison for murder, my mother had me when she was like 17, 18 years old. My little brother’s in prison for murder, my best friend was murdered. I’ve had friends get kidnapped. I’ve been through the worst already, I’m conditioned for this shit. My biggest heartbreak came when my father left me. So a fan not liking my music, it’s all good man. I been through that shit. The fact that I’m even able to display this in front of you is great, it’s a victory for me. And I’m way too vain to put out something unpolished, so I know it’s not that bad, you know hat I"m saying? Man, I’m just a rapper. I’m just a vehicle for this message. This thing is way bigger than me and you. We’re just instruments in this whole bit. I been at my lowest point. When I was living in that shelter with my mother, that was a low point.
When you first got to Madison, right?
Yeah. I’ve been living in shelters ever since. I’ve been living in hostels overseas by myself. I’ve slept on park benches up in Harlem. I don’t know man, I’m just so grateful. You gotta count your blessings. There’s guys right now that will give anything to be in my position, so I gotta embrace this man. I can’t sit back and cry about it. Just embrace it, dude.
Follow Derek Mead on Twitter: @drderekmead