You remember Stagga Lee. Songs have been written about him. Legend surrounds his memory. Like John Henry, he is more myth than man, a long-ago doer of superhuman deeds …
Of course, it's a different era now. The time is right for a new Stagga Lee -- someone who knows the streets, who takes risks in his music and his life, who's about to shake things up on the power of his rhythm and rhyme.
This Stagga Lee isn't a legend … not yet. Give the man time, though; with his debut album on ARTISTdirect Records, Game of Breath, he's already on his way.
"I got my name from that old song," he says; his voice is husky, his accent blunt and tough, the cadence of his speech swings even in repose; it sounds like the way a bat looks in the hands of Barry Bonds in repose, when he's not about to use it to smash the hell out of some sucker's pitch.
"We were drivin'," he continues. "I forget where we were going. This guy put on a tape and said, 'Yo, you have to hear this song.' And he played this song about this guy who gambled with another guy, cheated him, and then let it slide. But later on he went back and killed that guy."
The record, of course, was "Stagger Lee" by Lloyd Price, a number one hit in '57. The subject was old even then, but to this kid cruising around New York a few generations later, it was fresh and fine.
"We used to listen to a lot of oldies anyway," he shrugs, "so I was like, 'Yo, man, that's like me.' And I loved the name, so I took it."
That's the background. The two Staggas have a lot in common: a flair for style, an appreciation for the ladies, a survivor's ingenuity. None of this is unusual among hip-hop artists … which is why, at a certain point, the name can be a little misleading.
For this Stagga Lee is less about image and more about substance. You can hear it throughout Game of Breath: Where too many rappers try only to pose as hard cases, Stagga offers a fuller, more truthful self-portrait. The diversity of his tracks creates a broader view of an artist who can present himself with confidence on one track, and show a more tender side on another.
Check out, for example, "Sorry," a rumination based on how hard it can be to simply apologize when you're wrong. Or "Game Over," which takes shape as a monolog spoken into a girlfriend's answering machine, admitting his mistakes and asking for forgiveness. Or "Who Am I," whose self-exploration touches levels of honesty and candor that few artists are willing to explore. "Everybody feels that way sometimes, even the tough-guy rappers," Stagga says. "Somewhere along the way, in this culture, we got lost into thinking that you had to be tough to rap, but I never really felt like that."
Here's how his co-producer, Robert Clivilles, puts it: "Stagga Lee can hang out with anybody around the block, but he's not someone who gets in your face. If there's a fight, he wouldn't run away from it; if he has to defend himself, he will. But he would also be the first one to try to smooth it down. That's why I call him the gentleman of rap."
This quality is evident in Stagga's lyrics. For all the aggression and edginess of his delivery, he keeps his language clean. "It's not like I'm trying to be G-rated," he explains. "But I love words. In that space where I might be throwing a curse, I could be using a word that says it better."
As an example, he points to the song "Go Bang." "At first I was saying 'forget the bullshit, I'll put heavenly soul in it.' But then I said to myself, 'Wait a minute. I'm actually talking toward somebody in this song,' so I decided to call him 'kid' and change it to 'forget the bull, kid, I'll put heavenly soul in it.' It's more polite, but my stuff will still get respect from hard-core listeners."
Stagga always saw music as a way to reach people; the idea of respecting the audience was there from the start. "It's always been a big part of my life," he says. "My first exposure was my mom, because she was big into Motown. But I listened to everything. Even back then I felt it was wrong to label music, like, 'What kind of music do you like? Rap? Metal? Country? Marvin Gaye? Johnny Mathis?' It was all good. If I liked it, I liked it."
Inevitably, Stagga gravitated toward the music of his time and place. "I had an older brother who exposed me to that subway graffiti culture," he says. "I got caught up in rap through that. Something about the beats made me feel like nothing else did."
Inspired by Kool G Rap, Nas, and other hip-hop innovators, Stagga created some demos on a four-track recorder owned by a friend named Scratch, and then he started rapping in public when he was around sixteen. "In the beginning, I kept it to myself because I didn't really have the confidence," he admits. "But pretty soon, every time someone was having a party, it became like, 'Let Stag rock it!'"
For a couple of years Stagga put his career on hold after dropping out of high school to serve a stretch with the Army in Georgia and South Carolina. ("I did it because I didn't want to get caught up in the streets, like every other kid," he admits.) After coming back to New York, he started chasing down opportunities to perform. For a while he sought out battles as a way of sharpening his skills. "You'd just spit at each other," he remembers. "I'd rhyme for a while, saying derogatory things about him and his boys. Then he'd come back and try to diss me. It was all about who could make everybody scream the loudest."
These duels built his chops, but Stagga sensed they were distracting him from what he really wanted to do. "It wasn't helping me write," he points out. "It was sending me in the direction of rapping toward an individual, and I wanted to write for a broader audience than just diss one kid. I wanted to write things that the whole world could share."
With income trickling in as he worked "every shit job you could imagine," Stagga financed his own writing and recording efforts. After meeting producer Max Perez, he was introduced to Clivilles, with whom Perez works at C & C Music Factory Entertainment, the New York-based production house responsible for album sales in excess of 70-million world wide, and whose clients have included C & C Music Factory, Mariah Carey, James Brown, Whitney Houston, Natalie Cole, Luther Vandross, and Busta Rhymes’ original group Leaders of the New School. Stagga showed up with some demos, which prompted an unexpected response.
"Rob said they sounded like shit," he laughs.
Clivilles elaborates: "They didn't show who he was. They were very producer-directed, trying to make him into something he isn't. I realized that there's a lot more to him that what I'd heard on those demos. I wanted to show the other side to him … the real side."
Today, with the video for his first single, "Roll Wit M.V.P.," established in the regular rotation on BET's UnCut and drawing comment on hip-hop discussion boards across the Net, Stagga can look out across his neighborhood -- he still lives in the house where he grew up -- and imagine better times just around the corner. "I'm still dead broke," he says. "My dad passed away in 2000, and my mom left when I was eighteen. But I feel good about where I'm heading. All I ask is that you close your eyes and listen to what I'm doing. I think that each person's life has a soundtrack, and I just want to add to that.
"That's what life is: Whether you're spitting rhyme or talking business, it's all a Game of Breath."