With the present day abundance of major label artists that are having mercurial careers , the barrage of talent in the indie galaxy is slowly becoming today’s most secure investment in the music business’ current economic climate. Take such a fact into account and sprinkle into the mix that (thanks to attention spiked mainly by “Mr. West” and his G.O.O.D Music battalion) the giant Hubble-like telescope built by Hip-Hop heads turned bloggers is focusing its lens on the Midwest for the first time since a Nelly album could go diamond, and gems are bound to be found in the rough of places like South-side Chicago. Spawned from a pool of disadvantages, there’s a lyrically potent, risk taking, humble storyteller on the mic who goes by the name F. Stokes. His trials and tribulations have taken him from being without a home to opening for The Clipse for the rap loving hommes et femmes of Paris, France. Having been compared to fellow Chicagoan Common, Stokes can take one from the tales of a slum village to dancing to the beat of your own ambitions. Check out his interview as he touches on many points including his tumultuous upbringing, artistic inspirations, the definitive ways of the windy city, and his forthcoming EP with The Clubhouse titled “Fearless Beauty”.
JGM: “F. Stokes, is that an abbreviation of your actual name?”
FS: “It’s a name that I adopted from a guy in my old neighborhood in Chicago. His name was Flukey Stokes. When I first took the name I was 16 yrs old trying to be tough. I wanted a name that would represent that and stamp that. Only, his family wasn’t too keen to the idea of some guy just jacking their grandfather and uncles name. So I made some adjustments and made it F. Stokes. I love the name because I love the South-side of Chicago. Flukey Stokes, in my opinion was the epitome of what my neighborhood stood for. He was somewhat of a Robin Hood character and I’ve always admired that about him. Granted there were a few negative and unfortunate pieces to his life. But it’s all good.”
JGM: “At what age did you start dabbling in hip-hop and when did you begin to take it seriously?”
FS: “I was about 9 or 10 years old when I first got a hardcore love for music. My uncles would just play all types of music in the house, Phil Collins, The Temptations, a soul group called The spinners and of course N.W.A. and Ice Cube. Music became somewhat of a safe zone for me. Growing up on the South-side of Chicago, being a young kid and the oldest of six, there weren’t many places I could go and feel completely safe and free. Music created that. It was therapy. I would listen to Ice Cube and almost be in somewhat of a matrix. Oddly enough that would help me forget about the fucked up shit that was around me.”
JGM: “Do you feel that since Chicago is in the middle of the country it’s easier to draw influences from all sides, west, east, etc.?”
FS: “Of course. The whole Midwest is ultimately an oasis. When you’re on tour you gotta’ cross it. We would get the N.W.A.’s, the Wu-Tang’s and so many different types of music. Chicago is an interesting type of city because we’re very proud of our hometown artists. I always listened to guys like Crucial Conflict, Twista and Common way before they became known on a national level. I would say those guys probably had a bit more of an influence on my early music pieces than the artists that were more appealing to the demographic in New York.”
JGM: “What are you influenced by these days?”
FS: “Probably traveling. I try to stay on the road as much as possible. The people influence me more than the artists. I listen to rap obviously but there’s not many guys that do it for me. Of course Kanye, Common and Andre 3000, those guys are on a whole ‘nother plateau. But for the most part it’s me getting out there experiencing life and interacting with people of different races and elasticities. These are my people. When I’m on the road I eat with these people, I have sex with these people, I live with these people, I laugh and I cry with these people. That’s where the influence comes from and I think as artists we have to continue to put ourselves in different environments, to travel and to treat the Earth as if it’s one big city. It just adds so much to what we’re doing musically.”
JGM: “What do you think is transparent about Chicago and the Midwest experience in your music?
FS: “You know how in New York you have kids on the corner and on the train selling their mixtape? That happens back home as well. But that kid looks at that mixtape in his hand as his only fuckin’ ticket out because rappers and basketball players is that kid’s only example of success. In New York that same kid’s on the corner with his mixtape, but his friend may have an uncle who’s an A&R at Motown or a cousin who does fashion for Sean John. You know what I’m sayin’? And that’s how I attack my music, with that same intensity. Like, this is my only ticket, there’s no plan B. When you go back home you see that in those kids’ eyes. Not just the guy with his mixtape but the guy who runs a mechanic shop and the guy who runs Brown Sugar Soul Food, who’s been running it with his family for the past 30 years. This is all we have, one shot, one deal. And if you look at my music, listen to me and see me as a person, see me on stage, you see the passion, the conviction of a guy that’s in that factory with that dream. I never lost it and I will never lose it, knock on wood.”
JGM: “How did you end up opening for The Clipse?”
FS: “I get to Paris, I rocked two shows with Young Blood Brass Band from my hometown Madison, WI and the promoter Yannick loved the show and put me on seven dates afterwords. I went to Paris with no plan, just having two shows booked, not even a place to stay initially. I go out there from that bottom level and I was able to get in Elysee Montmartre. He [Yannick] had The Clipse coming out. Gave me like 45 minutes to rock, of course I took it. One thousand people out there, I was in heaven! Playing at Elysee Montmartre is like playing Madison Square Garden in New York. When I got there I felt a bit of a division between me and the crowd with the space. So I went in the back and I took this step ladder and I put the latter in the absolute middle of the fuckin’ crowd. I got up on it and I start rappin’ right in the middle of the sea of people. It was just phenomenal energy.”
JGM: “Your lyrics contain very real, enlightening content. What are you trying to accomplish with your words?”
FS: “Overall I’m trying to provoke thought, enhance creative’s, enhance the mind. If I’m going to make music and use the beat, the internet and these blogs as part of my palette, I’m going to try and draw the most vivid, provocative picture ever. If I do this shit and I’m regular and normal with it, you might as well talk to somebody else. If I’m not being innovative and edgy then why the fuck am I here? There’s too many artists, especially in rap music that are simply afraid. I just can’t live like that.”
JGM: “You had some rough experiences growing up. How important do you feel it is to inject that into your musical formula in order for others to feed off of that?”
FS: “It’s important to explain it. There’s no glorification in having to see your uncle strung on dope, going to school with holes in your shoes, watching your father walk out the house, hiding your money in your underwear cause your aunts and uncles were cracked out and would rob you in your sleep at the age of 7. I’m not a product of my environment as much as a lot of these other guys are. Those situations don’t define me at all. What defines me is that I’m always trying to grow as a person and working on my craft. What defines me is when I’m watching 7 hours of Prince footage so I can improve my stage show. Watching Jimmy Hendrix shut down Woodstock, that’s what defines me. And the fact I’m willing to go homeless and dead broke to make that impression on those people from that stage. I write about it Frankly, I was fortunate to go through those situations. You see a lot of rappers now who get older and get arrested left and right, I’ve already been through that. There’s no way I want to be a 28 yr old man facing reckless charges. Stupidity!”
JGM: “Can you give some insight into your past projects Death of a Handsome Bride and Baked Goods?
FS: “Before Baked Goods” was “Death of a Handsome Bride” which is an EP I made with Lazerbeak [from Minneapolis]. That was the first piece of music that I put out that got me press. I needed that music because I would have shows and have nothing to sell after my performance. I couldn’t afford it initially and I had to convince some friends to put up a couple dollars and I would wait tables and pass out napkins in bathrooms. Ultimately I put together enough money to print out 1,000 copies. Then came the “BG” (Baked Goods) project which includes a song called “From Paris with Love”. BG is basically a hybrid of material that I had sittin’ around over the past year and a half. BG happened after I had traveled to about eight or nine countries, so it’s a lot brighter me. It’s a new chapter.”
JGM: “Out of your catalog of songs thus far what are the ones people have embraced the most?’
FS: “This song called “Pretty Shit” from Death of a Handsome Bride, it’s gotten the most feedback positive and negative because it’s such a provocative song. It talks about domestic violence. And I’m not being fashionable or sensitive with it. I’m being raw like, she hit me and I hit her back. Domestic violence happens on many levels. There’s so many different dimensions of it that are not talked about. I wrote this song after a relationship I had with a young woman. There’s a lot of things I did I’m ashamed about and she is as well. But we grow as people and we move on. That song was the remnants of that relationship. And now we’re good, we just fuck [Laughs].”
JGM: “Being that you’re a student of the independent grind, what do you feel are some of the advantages and disadvantages to pulling all of your own weight?”
FS: “As an indie artist you learn the game. I’ve been my own publicist, manufacturer, even my own manager [in past years]. I’ve had to wear a lot of hats. I recall having a couple of girls sitting on the floor of my momma’s kitchen doing the inserts for my first mixtape, How the Midwest Was Won. It taught me about the music industry on a very grass roots level. Every dollar is accounted for as an indie artist and that’s one of the positives. Of course it’s all of our goals to get our music heard on the largest platform and because record labels have millions of dollars behind them, they’re able to put you on that big stage. But, if you’re an artist and want to make a living doing this thing, you can probably make a living doing it consistently and well, without a record label. But let’s be clear I still want to be a fuckin’ star. I need to be able to touch people in Africa and the small pockets of Asia. And the only way to do that is to have those big dollars behind you.”
JGM: “What’s the story behind your upcoming EP with The Clubhouse, Fearless Beauty?
FS: “I was staying with a good friend in San Francisco. I was on some spiritual cleansing shit, walking around barefoot in the city and all that. A friend of mine was able to get some beats from The Clubhouse and I was just so captivated by the music. It would be nice as fuck outside and I’d be stuck in this room for hours writing to The Clubhouse tracks. I finally sent these guys an email. Once I got back to New York I was homeless so I stayed on their couch which was in the studio. I stayed with them for 2 weeks while we created Fearless Beauty. It’s probably my most experimental work. Sonically it doesn’t sound like it should be coming through the speakers! But when you hear it just really grabs you. I’m so proud of that project and those brothers Matt and Andrew [of The Clubhouse].
JGM: “Do you have any aspirations outside of music?”
FS: “I’m actually working on a book. It’s about couch surfing and I won’t go any further than that. But there’s a documentary on me being shot by a guy named Garth Donavon from Boston. He just had a movie at SXSW that won an award there for best performance piece. Garth’s been filming me for probably the past year. He has hundreds of hours of footage. It’s about me and my story. My father’s in prison right now for murder and Garth was granted access to the prison so he interviewed my father. I haven’t talked to my father in about twelve years. Garth had a very deep conversation with him and made him a part of this documentary. He’s been to my old hood in South-side Chicago, to Madison and he’s been on those couches in Brooklyn. He was with me when I was homeless.”
JGM: “Did it take some convincing for your father to participate in the documentary?
FS: “A little bit. He did the doc cause he wanted his boy be successful. He saw it was something that could help me. My father‘s a gangsta. My father doesn’t give a fuck about a conversation in front of a camera. He’s a very charismatic, cunning person but ultimately he did this for me and I’ve yet to thank him or even communicate with him throughout this whole process. It’s kind of odd that he’s been next to guys that I’ve worked with for years and heard lots about me but I’ve yet to accept that phone call or write back.”
JGM: “Maybe at some point that’ll be the result of the whole thing.”
FS: “It’d be a beautiful story. But you know, this is life man. Everything doesn’t have to have a happy ending.”
Interview By: Nate Santos
Photography by Brittany “BLiZY” Young