A lifelong advocate for educational enrichment, community activism, and student of hip-hop since the early 80's, Stan "Substantial" Robinson's life story and the twist and turns that have shaped it add texture to his storied career.
To date, he has dedicated three decades of his life to activism, educational enrichment, and industry insight.
Photo by Marvelous Jones, 2021
Where's the foundation for all of this come from?
I guess for me, there was never a time or point in my life I can remember where music wasn't around. A time where it wasn't playing on the radio, riding in the car with my mom, my sisters, my brother. The same goes for in the house, or just the neighborhood.
Some of my earliest memories when I think of music... I think of Video Jukebox, watching that, hoping someone would request videos that I wanted to see. My mom wasn't hearin' that, you know what I mean? [laughs]
I think I got the chance to do that one time, ever.
It was dope to have a place where I could see all the artists I admired, to see the culture.
The shows and movies of the 80's as well. From Breakin' to Flashdance with that brief b-boying scene in the movie. That was huge for me, because before I knew I wanted to rap, I just loved hip-hop culture in general. I wanted to dance.
I used to dance far more than I went around quoting my favorite rap lyrics. It was difficult to pinpoint a specific moment of when I fell in love with it [hip-hop]. Around the age of 10 is when I first wrote my first actual rap.
It took a few years, though, before I decided that's what I was going to do.
The dancing you mentioned, give me some years. Was the influence coming from b-boy culture or?
I didn't know what "b-boying" was personally. I wasn't in a major city like LA; I was in Prince George's County, Maryland. Specifically, a small city called Landover.
So, at that particular time, I didn't really see who really called themselves a "b-boy" or "b-girl" because of where I was at.
I'd see it on the television, and there were people in the neighborhood that'd play around with some moves, but they weren't serious about breaking [breakdancing]. This was the early 80's, I was infatuated. When school plays would end they'd bring up a few kids up on the stage, throw on some music, and let us dance.
I remember trying to do a headspin, all types of... man, look, I was all-in. You couldn't tell me nothin'. [laughs]
I want to say as b-boying and breakdancing fell off a bit in the area I was in, videos moved away from showing you breaking in them, and more so these choreographed routines, less freestyle.
Watching people like Big Daddy Kane with Scoob and Scrap, and then MC Lyte, who had the 'leg 1, leg 2...'–Heavy D and the Boyz who had their own dance, Stezo as well. Rest in peace, he passed not too long ago, rest in peace to Heavy D as well.
These videos that were coming out–late 80's, early 90's with these intricate dance routines... for the longest, that's what I wanted for me. I wanted some part of hip-hop, and dancing probably was my first true love of the elements.
Followed by graff [graffiti] art, followed by music in the double digits [his 20's].
Your logotype for the 'Substantial' brand is a tag.
Yeah, that's a tag I did in Jun's [Nujabes] studio.
It was a tag I was already using, but refined it in the studio.
We took a quick break and spoke on the tag, which you see across much of his previous work's labels. A quick detour into some Nujabes chats, and then we got onto the topic of hip-hop itself.
What does it mean to different people?
What exactly is it–a culture, an art form, a lifestyle, or a mix of all of that?
Is there even a point in trying to squeeze it into a label or a box?
On the flip side, if you let its definition take on a life of its own, does that do more harm than good when it comes to preservation of hip-hop?
Some say hip-hop is a culture, others say an art form, or perhaps a lifestyle. What's your take on that discussion of what hip-hop is? Does it have to fit in a box?
Yeah, man. [acknowledgement]
It's one of those things very hard to fit into a box.
It started out as a culture, right? [takes a second to gather thoughts]
People from a specific community... things they did on a regular basis ultimately became a norm throughout so many communities and states around the world.
Something which originated in the project houses, the block parties, and such things where people had never seen or experienced firsthand. The way the music, the art, the dancing flowed. What is now the norm, was at one time, very unique to a small community. That's how cultures become cultures.
When you look at what it is today–and shout out to the Universal Hip-Hop Museum, I am so excited–
I saw the post with Nas and Fat Joe meeting Slick Rick.
I've reached out to them [the museum] and have been speaking with some of the folks involved. I'm very dedicated in the preservation of hip-hop; we can see how easy it is for roots to be lost, and what ignorance can result in.
Sometimes people get offended when you point out certain things, when you're giving them truth. They take it as being racist, or exclude a certain people.
That's not it at all; it's just important to know where things started, before it became everybody's. It belonged to a very small group of people, and we should acknowledge those folks.
Hip-hop is much larger than a culture or a subculture today. This thing we love has employed God knows how many people, right? How many people have been able to raise themselves out of poverty because of this 'thing' that came out of the South Bronx?
How many people have inspired other people because of this? Cities, places they've never been, that's become global.
All because of this 'thing' that started in the South Bronx.
Man... I think all of the great things in the world which go on and touch and inspire so many people, it starts with a small group of people and goes global.
Then, it takes a life of its own and you can't control it.
In a very real way, it is saving lives. Those who didn't commit self-harm because they heard a song, or, you know... how many ex-gangbangers are hip-hop artists?
People forget some who are very socially-conscious came from that cloth. Common was a gangbanger, you know what I'm sayin'?
It's definitely a culture for me; it's changed my life, and how it influences my day-to-day. I'd tend to agree that it's much larger than that now.
Stan is a genuine preservationist, one of a handful, who actively make moves to keep hip-hop bound to its roots. It's clear that hip-hop has had and been a lifelong influence. He's also had run-ins with some of the OGs of the art.
Many in the past have expressed similar sentiment–the fact that you need to live it to fully understand it.
We took a step back and dove back into his debut, and what led up to that project coming together.
Your debut was in '01. What are you doing between the early 90's and the drop of To This Union A Sun Was Born? Acclimation to the underground battle scene?
By the time I was in high school, this is '93 or '94, I really started to rap for real. Everyone talks about being in the cafeteria, at the lunch tables, beating on the tables [freestyling]. My high school was near Washington D.C., and the indigenous music of that area is go-go music.
A popular aspect of the genre is covering songs. We'd be at the lunch tables rapping, doing covers of our favorite songs. At some point in time, my signature sound–not just my production, but my voice–my homies kept coming to me saying I started sounding better than the rappers I was rapping.
I wasn't saying that, but they were, so it built confidence. One of my close homies came to me and said exactly that, and said he'd go home and write a rap and for me to do the same, my man Tijuan.
I can blame him for all these songs. I'll be sure to share this with him, we still keep in touch.
So I went home, I wrote something, he wrote something. Tijuan is really talented, and he said 'yeah, bro, you should just go and do that' you know what I'm sayin'?
I just kept trying to refine my skill and by that summer I recorded my first demo. Alongside my man Kaji, who now goes by Flip One. I recorded it with him, and DJ Ruckus. Flip One later did a track off my Sacrificial Lambs project called I Own You.
I literally met Kaji–the day I met Kaji, I stayed the night at his house, I was 14 or 15 at the time. Called my mom, she talked to his folks, trusted him, so I spent the night recording my demo. I risked it all back then, could've gotten snatched up!
That was the start of it. As soon as that happened, I was in talks–as soon as I had that demo, things began to move. This was '94.
I met this guy around the way who claimed to have ties at Columbia [Records], he put me in touch with some folks who were playing my stuff. A&R's at the time, had talks about me and my boys Cash and Jamal. The company at the time was only interested in me, and I refused to part ways as a group.
I passed up on doing more work with those folks and tried to develop my craft even further.
Ended up moving from Landover to Suitland, right behind the high school I was attending. The reason for the move was there was a shooting which occurred, where I was almost shot during an altercation that transpired.
I was already cool with Acem from the rap group Gods'illa, T.Lucas, Bird and Chris AKA Warchild by now I was 15, and was producing my own beats.
My mom and I would barter; we'd barter and meet half-way. That was me and mom's relationship through middle school and high school. As long as I did what I had to do in school, she'd work with me (to buy recording equipment).
A local indie label approached the group I was in, and expressed interest, affiliated with Mercury Records. After realizing there was only interest in two of the guys, T-Lucas and Warchild, in retrospect, it was the first moment I was really shitted on.
Unbeknownst to many, this is commonplace within the music industry.
Situations like this make you wonder–who else went through a similar situation, but decided to quit instead of continue forth like Stan?
How many great musicians are out there, who were shot down by a record label, only to lose their passion or interest in the craft?
Oh no. [laughs]
I say it like that because they gave me–and yo, I've been reading contracts since I was 15, and at this time I was 16 now–so the contract basically said I couldn't rap first, last, or be featured on a song with just myself and one other member of the group.
Due to the label having a production team, I wasn't able to create beats either, and keep in mind I was the group's producer.
Very limiting. Restraining.
At this point I'm battling in freestyles every day, and it was a shock. My writing clearly wasn't what it could have been at that time, if I took more time with it. Needless to say, I rejected the contract, and the other two guys signed.
Fast-forward to high school, I make a reputation within my peer group for music, I start attending battles locally. I'm a young kid, so no high profile stuff yet. Hip-hop wasn't as popular as go-go music in these days, at least local hip-hop.
There's a song where I said, 'back when this shit wasn't cool to do,' and it was the truth, man. Back when I'd rap, they'd think it was corny unless it was over go-go music. Unless it was over gangsta rap shit, because where we were, it was the hood.
There's a song where I said, 'back when this shit wasn't cool to do,' and it was the truth, man.
Back when I'd rap, some would think it was corny unless it was over go-go music. Or unless it was gangsta rap shit because where we were, it was the hood.
I was a product of the same environment but I went a different route.
I was trying to find that balance and battle rap was an easy thing for me to really fall in love with; we [peer group] would crack jokes all the time on each other. It was almost an extension of that, with music.
Looking towards college in '97, I was applying to hip-hop meccas. I wanted to be wherever the dope shit is. Philly, New York, I wanted to be where hip-hop was.
Eventually I was accepted into Pratt Institute, and by the end of my freshman year in '98, linked up with PackFM. Throughout that year, got into the open mic scene and made a name for myself. From there, met up with Mr. Mecc as well.
Don't remember how long he went undefeated for, but PackFM was one of the best battle emcess out of NYC at the time; and this was the dude I was runnin' with. We joined forces, so to speak.
Over time we started rubbing elbows with more people in the battle scene, people like PH AKA Pumpkinhead, rest in peace.
Eventually we became part of a crew called The Plague, which included PH, GMS, Wildchild (not to be confused with West Coast Wild Child of Lootpack), LR Blitzkrieg, PackFM, Mr. Mecc, Session, Tonedeff, DP One, Kameel-yen, and Jean Grae at the time. Also, shout out to Jin who was also down with us for a minute.
DJ DP One, Hydra, shout out to Hydra, Blitzkrieg, Wildchild (not to be confused with West Coast Wild Child), Session... Jin the MC, which he was called back then, was down with us for a minute.
These stories are an important part of hip-hop. Each artist has a different story and different paths which they took throughout their careers.
Although rarely discussed in-depth or in biographical form, these sort of anecdotes and reflections play a very important part of the culture when you scope out and look at the bigger picture.
Speak on Jin and how that came together.
It was crazy when I met Jin; I had heard about 'this Asian dude' in the battle scene.
Was this right at the turn of the millenium, like '99 or '00?
Yes. Right before or right after I linked with Jun [Nujabes]. This was pre-Ruff Ryders stuff with Jin, hadn't been on 106 & Park yet, none of that. He had just moved into the area, and I had heard his name come up several times within the battle scene.
I hosted a battle, as I ran this hip-hop organization at Pratt Institute called 4 Corners, and Jin came through for an emcee battle. At the time there was a mixtape I was on, called 24-Hour MC, shout out to John Frasier, my man Chew Fu, and all these brothers that came through.
When I used to work up there with PackFM, I had a freestyle on that joint, just a blackout verse. Talk my shit and that's it. This dude Jin got a hold of that mixtape, so when I met him, and hosted that battle, he was a fan. He was quotin' my verse, bar for bar!
Again, at that time, we were underground, underground. I hadn't even had a record out yet. When we had those moments–me, PackFM, and Mr. Mecc, we'd go to these local places and do events without records out yet; we'd go to certain places, and when we used to host events, people knew us and our songs. Just off our live performances, averaging around 2 gigs a week.
Jin showed mad love, we hit it off instantly. Outside of amazingly talented and skilled, he was a genuinely good guy. Good people; it didn't take much for us to hit it off. Even after he got with Ruff Ryders, we kept in touch. Dude was really heavy into the battle scene.
Funny enough, I was and still am good friends with DJ Enuff's cousin. He heard me spit in '98, and wanted to introduce me to his cousin, and I was thinking 'here we go,' you know–
Been there before.
Exactly. So he said 'oh, you don't believe me?' and hit him up right then and there. I heard DJ Enuff's voice, and it was crazy. I spit a verse for him over the phone, he was still A&R over at Def Jam, and he wanted me to send him some work.
At this point in my life, like many folks who want to be professional, I can't give him the shit I did like a year ago. I'm a better rapper now, the verse I spit on the phone was a week old, and I'm about to give him something 2 years old?
I start recording a demo, I get it to my man Jaemin, Jaemin gets it to his cousin [DJ Enuff], and Enuff goes 'yo, you took too long, dog'–
That was a blow.
It was a bit disappointing because I knew he was really into my stuff. Here I was with this demo, and I get hit up by Nujabes, but I didn't know who he was. Internet was not what it is now.
This random dude [at the time] hittin' me up, and if it was not for the fact he said Tomo's name, I would've hung up, thinking it was a practical joke.
I was a college student; being hit up by a dude I had never heard of before, from a foreign country saying he made beats and wanting to fly me over... yeah, I mean... I'm just happy that I'm an adventurous guy and I took him up for it.
Life became very different.
That call from Jun, the
dude from a foreign country–Japan–who Stan had never even come into contact with prior, was a large turning point in his career.
Almost comedic how unlikely this exchange was, even if it were to be depicted in a movie, this set the tone for the next few years leading into the early 00's and beyond, for that matter.
Stan and Jun have an unreleased album. The title for that album? Stan said he can't recall right away, but it was one of the beat names on Bullshit As Usual by the legendary Pase Rock. One of those beats was supposed to be Stan's, but it never played out.
I wanted to learn more about that shift Stan mentioned in his life.
He mentions his father passing several times throughout his music:
"...on my grown man steez since my papa died... in '89,"
—Another Day In The Life
"10 when my pops passed"
—Ain't No Happy Endings
Going off that point about life taking a large shift–speak on that if you're comfortable with it.
I'm actually named after my father.
We had different middle names, so that's why I'm not a "Jr."–let's just say he wasn't the most loving person.
Perhaps in the eyes of people today, they'd call him abusive. I didn't know what abuse was at that time. All I knew was if you did something wrong, your ass got whooped.
Let's back up for a sec. [pauses and takes a deep breath in]
So my mom and dad had me in '79, and were together for a bit. They had a huge fight, maybe I was 5 or 6.
Prior to that, I remember my mom getting me up in the middle of the night and taking me out of the house and leaving my dad. Might have been 4 or so, I remember I was very young. Maybe a year or so later, they got back together.
My father was a scary dude; very explosive temper.
If I got in trouble and he wasn't around, I'd pray it'd get resolved before he came home, you know what I mean?
Very, and when my mom split after that big fight–and it was really bad, I remember a knife coming out, my father's hand bleeding, me and mom barricading the door.
When they went their separate ways he was living in Queens as a chef, I remember him bragging about LL Cool J coming into the restaurant he worked at. Little things like that.
When he came back the final time when he was sick, he was losing weight but still pretty large. Yo, I just remember people in my neighborhood was so scared of my dad. So scared.
As the story goes, someone touched my sister inappropriately, and my father–broad daylight–starts shooting at the dude, middle of everything, broad daylight.
So when my dad returned, friends of mine would not knock on my front door, when they knew; they'd come knock on my window.
I remember the first time a friend came and knocked on the window it scared the shit out of me and I asked him why he was doing that and he said "yo, your father is scary as shit,"–but everyone loved my mom.
My father got back together with my mom, got married; I think a lot of that was getting back together with what little time he had to legally make the transition of property easier to help set up and provide help to my mom. I don't know the reasoning for sure, but I take circumstances into consideration. He lived for around 4 more months.
When I processed all the information I had access to as I grew older, I came to the conclusion he wanted to use his last few months to spend time with family before he passed away.
How'd all of this affect your music?
So, I didn't write my first rhyme until I was hanging out with my friend in Palmer Park named Tony, who goes by Black Bandit now.
More than anything, he [father] affected my art in general. The reason I say that is, a lot of people don't know I'm a visual artist as well. I went to Pratt for graphic design, etc., and the only thing I liked more than dancing when I was young was drawing.
My older brother is an amazing artist in his own right. When I was applying to Pratt, I mentioned how my dad used to tell me straight up, "boy, you can't draw, your brother–he can draw–you, you can't draw, though"–who the hell says that to a 9-year-old, bro?
How cold are you?
It shakes you up. Shakes you to the core.
Yeah, man, absolutely.
Me as an educator now, I know that there are so many better ways to go about expressing that; not lying to someone about their ability, but informing them with support and constructive criticism.
Let me see if there is some potential to be tapped into.
If it was me, talking to my daughter, since I don't have a son–if I'm going to make comparison between my daughters, I don't want to inject any animosity to drive those two apart. It creates unhealthy competition, spite, and all these other things.
I reflect on that a lot–what I would have said in that situation.
In parallel as well, to the way that the record label treated Stan. Never believing in him, giving him a shot, or letting him even have a chance at proving ability. It was all inference, all assumption.
Stan wanted to change that in any way he could, and it started with his family. How could he support his kids' dreams? In what ways could he push their ideals forward?
It wasn't some complex approach. Simply kindness, and genuine encouragement.
Always support them.
Right, very important.
So, I look at my kids, and who I ended up becoming. It's tricky, man. Due to not struggling like I was when I was younger, such things are optional–my daughters can do these things if they want to, but they shouldn't feel the need to prove something to anyone. Which is both a gift and a curse; because of what my father said to me, I had a very big chip on my shoulder.
It made me a better artist, because still to this day, I feel as if I'm still trying to prove my dad wrong, even in my music.
That contract they [the label] gave me way back then. That shitty ass contract, when I read that contract...
Yo, I felt like I was reading that in my father's voice. You know what I mean? It's like... and by that time, he'd of been passed 6 years prior.
For anyone who sees this [piece]–I'm not sure how far they'll get into it. We know I'm not the biggest artist in the world, and I'm still alive, so there's that. Right?
Fact of the matter is, I look at what I've accomplished in spite of lack of support in certain circumstances from certain people... my dad didn't, but my mom was ride or die. She always supported anything I did, even if she didn't understand it.
"If your grades aren't what they should be, maybe college ain't for you, there's always the military,"
You know? Like, shit, the military? I'ma make this work now!
[laughs and pauses]
I always managed to find "it" somewhere else. What I couldn't get in one place, I could never quit easily, and would always find support in other places.
In many ways your story acts as a parallel to a core idea of the pursuance of hip-hop as a career, never phased by obstacles. By any means necessary.
For sure, man. Making something out of nothing. That's what my line is about in Black of All Trades; a tribute to hip-hop itself.
[recites the verse below]
"I can paint a picture with words or just brushes
Make something out of nothing ain't nothing to make something
Cutting up samples while keeping the bass pumping
Nothing we can't handle I will have this place jumping"
That's what hip-hop is.
All these kids became amazing funk artists, jazz artists, R&B, hip-hop... these careers, this lifestyle... a lot of the programming I teach now relates.
There weren't DJ school, b-boy classes, no rapping. I've dedicated more than two decades of my life to create these programs in communities which they never existed in.
Regardless of what you don't have, there's always a way.
Around the house, Stan had over 100 jazz records. It made a profound impact on his early digging habits, and served as a foundation to how he approached music. Vibes, grooves, specific tones, and catching a certain atmosphere in the air.
It'd be a disservice to the OG himself, Naphta "Funky DL" Newman, if we mentioned
funk and didn't tap him in.
A jazz and hip-hop preservationist of two decades himself, DL is well-respect old guard of the UK hip-hop scene. I wanted to know what he thought of his long-time friend, and what sort of impact he sees:
Stan has always demonstrated a high level of diversity in his music, delivering lyricism with effortless finesse over an assortment of styles across his releases.
What has impressed me the most is the thought-provoking subject matter he conveys, dealing with issues from socio-economic to race and family. His impact in hip-hop is unquestionable and he serves as a supremely competent rapper, embodying the purity of what it truly is to be an MC.
The importance of community is evidently prominent in Stan's messaging and this is not only exemplified in his art, but equally is the case as an educator, where he invests and contributes positivity into the lives of the younger generation.
Stan's contribution to hip-hop is unequivocally immeasurable.
I swung back and wanted to find out how Extended Famm came together. At this point in life, Stan was traveling all over the place and making a name for himself as a wicked emcee to be feared on the mic.
He was hungry to push his own boundaries, but he needed a spark.
That takes us to around '02, '03... shed some light on how E-Famm (Extended Famm) came together.
It was definitely before '01; me and PackFM linked up with Tonedeff and went out to his place, which is where we met Session (Jose Singh) for the first time. We recorded the opening track from our album, Happy Fuck You Songs, and at the time we recorded that track we weren't E-Famm yet, just emcees in a studio.
We were happy how it turned out and started discussion about how we all were like extended family. Different crews, rep different spots, but we had good chemistry. We had our core fam, and expanding at this point, so we just took that and ran with it. Had a lot of fun, man.
The idea of taking this and seeing how far we could push it each time. That opening track [The Evil Pens That Do] is probably the only shit-talk track on the album. Outside of that, when we rapped on a track together, we wanted to push the boundaries, like using the telephone game as a concept on Celly.
I think the album had 75 tracks or something crazy when we were making it.
Yeah, and if you look at any of my solo releases which feature E-Famm, we could have just gone back and relied on our typical battle rap shit, but you'll find that we explored very complex concepts and attempted to again, push boundaries of our own creativity.
Every time we did it, take Sign Language off of Sacrifice. Very intricate track.
At this point in your life, the early 00's, how are you studying and learning about hip-hop? Is it a conscious effort?
Absolutely, at this time I'm very much so living it.
When Rock Steady Weekends happen during the summer, we're there. That evolved into us actually participating, then being featured, then having our own showcase–the QN5 Megashows, during the weekends.
Fans would come from around the world, to New York, for Rock Steady. Our hardcore fans could check out the showcase, showing all the artists on QN5 [label] at the time and affiliates.
Bumping into legends all the time. When we put out the album with E-Famm, rest in peace to Black Rob, we used to have Fuck You, I Rhyme Better t-shirts, and Black Rob saw us with them on at SOB's and bought one off us.
Matter fact, when people listen to my Substantial Evidence mixtape, you'll hear Black Rob doin' the drop on the project as Ain't No Happy Endings comes onto the mixtape; that's him on the chorus before it drops.
Grand Puba was on there as well.
Yo, like, being in New York, it was like being in a movie.
Was this in '03 or so?
Yeah. I dropped Substantial Evidence in '03. I was working with Jun [Nujabes] and at this time, not many knew who he was. It was difficult to find an average hip-hop fan that knew; Samurai Champloo didn't exist yet, so folks just didn't know him.
Outside of the rapping, I was meeting legendary beatboxers as well. When I wasn't rapping, I'd love to beatbox. So I'm out there in New York meeting people like Kenny Muhammad, while I'm in Harlem.
Is this on the fly? Walking around?
Just out, bro.
Just out and about living life. [laughs]
This was the funny thing, though. You didn't have to actively seek out "hip-hop" in New York. It just presented itself. You'd be walking down the street and notice "Oh, shit, the Gang Starr video was shot here!," something like that.
Take when Jun first contacted me in '99, the apartment I was living in at that time was right next door to the building Biggie [Smalls] lived in, grew up in. This is after he passed, of course, but I lived on the same street.
I moved up there toward the end of the year that he passed, and then about a year and a half later–I was living in the building next door.
A lot of history took place there, the stories you hear of him, the Juicy video where the backdrop is a little strip with convenient stores and whatnot, and That was my neighborhood for real.
Near St. James?
Yes, near St. James, that whole Clinton Hill area.
We have a lot of classic hip-hop albums dropping in this time period. Your sound is distinctively different from any of those, though. Were you against mimicking these albums or?
It had a lot to do with the music I grew up on. It wasn't so much that I was trying to distance myself from those artists; a lot of them are from a different place than I'm from, geographically. I'm from PG [Prince George's] County, so the outskirts of DC.
A lot of people around me were listening to artists such as Scarface; the truth in his lyrics, he's telling a story people can relate heavily to. I'm not even going to pretend; I had homies you couldn't tell them shit. Scarface was God, you know? [laughs]
I've grown to appreciate it [the messages] more as I've grown. That sound was around me all the time, and the type of hip-hop I kept spinning all day long were artists like A Tribe Called Quest, or Common, or Pharcyde. Redman as well, since he was a battle emcee. Those are some of my favorite artists. At the same time, though, I love Ice Cube as well.
Artists who were street, and artists sampling soulful jazzy stuff. A balance. Even when you listen to Scarface–almost a blues-ier hip-hop. That stuff was around me all the time.
When the chance came to make my own stuff, to do some demos, I'm sampling a lot of old jazz records I had. When I connected with Jun, his sound was more throwback than what I was doing myself.
Homies would say similar things when they heard my sound; I don't want to say it ostracized me, but I knew full well that it would make it an uphill battle in the current landscape.
Sometimes good, sometimes bad.
A lot of people don't know, but I DJ'd as well at one point, and I had a struggle thinking about how it would fit. When I played my stuff with other stuff, it didn't fit in. It was a different path to take, and it was going to be challenging.
Just happy the way it turned out.
I hit up the other half of Bop Alloy and close friend of Stan, Marcus "Marcus D" Marino–you may remember the immense help he provided in shaping the Seba Jun piece–, and he had this to say about Stan's navigation within the hip-hop game, along with what kind of person he is behind the mic.
To say Stan's contributions to the art, culture, and various hip-hop scenes that have been lucky enough to have him are noteworthy, would be an understatement.
Stan is one of, if not the hardest working dude I've ever met, and not just when it comes to rhyming. He works hard for his family, his friends, his community, and he's always trying to increase the quality of life for those around him. I don't know anybody else like that.
I think a lot of people love to facilitate a public image like they're always grinding yada yada, but it's just an act. Stan's actually putting in the legwork all the time, and usually pulling more than his own weight. He's somebody you can rely on, and that's getting rarer and rarer.
How'd you link with Marcus D?
In 2007, Marcus was still in high school, maybe 16 or 17? He was still a kid when he hit me up. He reaches out on MySpace, tells me he's working on a project–his debut–I ended up doing a couple tracks for it. Enjoy Yourself is one of those tracks.
When I heard his stuff, there was something about it which reminded me of Nujabes, but his drums and production–Marcus had harder hitting drums, it was a good middle ground where it's familiar to me, but still has these beautiful samples over them.
I played it for an agent of mine who was focused more so on Japan movement, and told him if we got this kid on board, something special could happen. Me and Marcus ended up doing a whole project together.
Yes, the birth of Bop Alloy!
Anyone who knows me on the business side of things, they'll know that I have named quite a few groups. Shout out to Fresh Daily if he sees this!
Tell me about how that came about. Fresh Daily.
He's the guy that shoots up the block party in the Poetic Justice video.
He used to go by Ill Tarzan, and was runnin' with my crew UV. Most of the crew was from Maryland, some from New York. When he ran with us he started to buzz heavier, got some magazine features.
Out of nowhere he gets a cease and desist from the family who owns the rights to Tarzan [Disney].
Came in with the sad face into the crib. Told us the story, and I clowned him. He was pissed–Fresh if you read this, you know I love you.
I told him they were doing him a favor; and more importantly, he had a story. Right?
First, he came up with an alternative name–Fresh All Day–and I told him I didn't think that was it. It was a play on his fashion sense, he was always fresh.
I used to work at JP Morgan Chase, and my supervisor's last name was Daly. She came in, while I was writing notes jotting down what to do with it, and I was trying different stuff.
"Nah, this ain't it. That ain't it, either."
Then, I hear someone say "Ms. Daly!"–that was it, Fresh Daily.
I write the shit down, tell him, and he was hesitant at first. The moment he went with Fresh Daily, he started poppin'.
Hella moves. The right name can create a lot of opportunities for you.
Another quick example is Gods'Illa, inspired by a Talib Kweli line I heard:
"Thinkin you fly, signin contracts with the devil, but God's iller.
We flatten your town like Godzilla"
The rest is history.
I want to move up a bit. So after your second release on QN5 with Dub MD, it's around 2011.
Now between 2012 and 2017 you have three albums release... I tend to group them together as they come off as a maturation of self.
I want to ask you–would you agree with that, and if so, could you break those three down a bit? They seem linked.
That's a great observation.
At the time I'm writing the first Bop Alloy album, I had just become a father. I'm still "in it" and navigating my way through it [the hip-hop scene and life itself]. Part of me is resistant to change, I'm touring like crazy around the world at this point with CunninLynguists, this is before 2012.
On the road for a month, three different times a year. I'm still not fully into fatherhood mode yet, but by the time 2012 comes, I have a 4-year-old daughter. My album Home Is Where The Art Is dropped right before my daughter turned 4. There's a lot more references to her and being a father and my world view. It was different. Shit that was different a few years prior, I could really [not] give a fuck about at this point.
You have to raise a kid, sure.
I was blessed enough that I feel like the relationship between my wife and I had just gotten better. You have to find yourself, and who you are together; how you both can continue to grow, while not growing apart. At the same time, not sacrificing who you are, what your goals are, there's a lot of stuff and a lot changed by that point in time.
I had a fallout with Tonedeff and QN5, which has since been worked out so no issues speaking on it–that's my brother–but at the time, we had a falling out. I decided I wasn't going to put the record out with QN5.
Shout out to Kno from CunnunLynguists, I was on tour with him and remember exactly where we were when he gave me the idea for the album. We were in Bern, Switzerland, writing the Bop Alloy record. I was on tour with them, promoting their album and mine, which was Sacrifice at the time, all of this simultaneously.
The album Home Is Where The Art Is was originally going to be called Mr. Robinson's Neighborhood, based on Mr. Roger's Neighborhood but with an Eddie Murphy spin on it, you know?
Kno suggested himself to help with my upcoming album; he also suggested Oddisee. Like I said, the topics are largely inspired by my family life.
Gordon Parks, a name often associated with photography, serves as a large inspiration to you when it comes to the way you look at the world and otherwise.
Yes. Gordon Parks was a photographer, a journalist, he wrote symphonies, the first black director. He directed The Learning Tree which was based on a book he wrote; he was an author.
He directed Shaft, a lot of people forget!
When you look at his photography, this dude... you think of all the shit he done, and when you see The Learning Tree he scored all of that, too.
So, I'm reading his book The Smile In Autumn, and on Bop Alloy's second album, we have a song called Autumn Leaves inspired by that book."
The reason that book hit me so hard is that he dives into his early 30's in the book; he talks about how from that point of time in his life, and then another generation–the "autumn years" of his life–and what he did in that period of time. Not necessarily in the "winter years" of his life just yet.
The autumn years may be the years when people tend to fall off. I was scared as fuck to turn 30; I thought my rap career was burnt. In those years, my 30's, I found my voice and I really became super comfortable in my skin. My level of "I don't give a fuck-ness" was higher than it had ever been.
Put that in quotes.
I stopped playing the game others told me how it should be played. Being an underground artist, you're already somewhat of an outcast. What about the outcasts of the outcasts?
I'm cool with everyone at the lunch table, though. I know legends, I could call Kool Herc right now, you know?
I have all these connections, but I don't have to exist in the places they've already... I don't need to ride in their lane. I've learned enough to build my own lane and exist within and sustain it.
Me and Tone started talking again, and he wanted me to play with the EP. This was at a time where people started to drop EPs more. The Past, Always and Present were born.
It was a victory, albeit a quiet one, for Stan and Marcus to crowdfund the 2nd Bop Alloy album. Mello Music didn't follow-up, they had parted ways with QN5, and this was proof that fans cared about the music.
More importantly for Stan, this re-affirmed that his rap career could continue forward, without worry of stability. Nearing the age of 40, he was what many would consider an
old man in a
young man's game.
Quite the contrary, right? Given the insight and knowledge Stan has provided thus far about being intelligent and navigating the game with informed but clever moves.
After that, you have what I think is your best work, and a strong example of the maturation I mentioned earlier.
You're an older, more wise artist on The Past Is Always Present In The Future and have a storied career at this point.
Over two decades. Talk to me about that and what it means, the record itself and otherwise.
Hands down the record I'm most proud of. If you were to go through all my shit and ask me, at this moment... because I'm cookin' some good shit... [laughs] but if you were to ask me what is the best representation of who I am as an artist, that's the one.
That's the one where I figured it [life] out. I've been producing since I was 15.
You work with all these legends and dope ass artists, they're all sick producers. Makes you hesitant to throw your shit out there, you know?
[artist wasnt available for album cover shot; stan ends up doing it himself, powerful imagery of his daughter, nod to his debut]
What's The Garden about? Tell me about the cover and approach.
I wanted to try my hand at an instrumental project, dip my toes into the water, see how the fans took it.
I had some pictures leftover from a trip to the New York Botanical Garden located in the Bronx.
They took it very well, I have a mini project called Seeds from 2017, and when I saw how that was being consumed, I knew I had to make something larger. It was a seed I planted, hence the title.
I knew the tracks they liked, I knew The Garden had stuff on there which was even better and it was the direction I wanted to try out.
You've been extremely involved with education enrichment for young kids, as well as activism within the black community.
It would not be an understatement to say you've dedicated your entire life to that, outside of music and family.
Tell me about where it all started, and what drives the passion to help others.
Even before I met Jun in '99, I had been doing youth work.
Helping people in the community, and what have you. It was kind of something... not necessarily I knew was going to be exactly the way it turned out, but I went back and read my letter I wrote to Pratt, and one of the things I mentioned in there was that I wanted to always give back to my community and be involved.
Be a person my community could look to, not just inspiration but for help or service.
A flashback, sort of. Damn, you know? My sister just happened to have paperwork on hand and I found the letter.
The dopest part about doing all of it is that subconsciously, I always knew that I would be doing something relative. I didn't know exactly how it'd look, but I knew it'd be something like what I'm doing.
The way it came about was in high school, when I had to do my volunteer hours–you could volunteer recruitment efforts for the art department, and so I'd go to school at 7:00AM, I had 10 classes because I was in a performing arts program, so I'd be out of school at 4:00PM, then still be at school until 7:00-8:00PM giving tours to kids that wanted to check out the art department.
This evolved into me visiting middle schools, speaking to kids about how an opportunity like an art department could genuinely change their lives.
Shout out to Suitland High School, that shit literally saved my life.
It was dumb luck how you got into the arts program as well, right? Speak on that.
I was staying at a friend's house overnight, he was applying for the arts program that weekend. I was in the waiting room, drawing in my notebook to the side. The woman who was there was so impressed, she asked if I was there to take the test.
I said no, and she was intrigued enough to want me to take the test; she called my mom up. I had no portfolio, nothing, and they tested me on the spot after verbal permission from my mom.
That summer, I got into this high school which had a strong focus on art programs, and the irony of it all is, my boy didn't.
A shot in the dark.
We were just texting the other day, this been my man since kindergarten. My man Jamal, who I mentioned earlier.
My success in anything that I do... [pauses]
Without that school, I don't get into Pratt.
I wouldn't know art schools existed without that high school, so I would never have made it to Brooklyn, or Pratt.
I wouldn't know Tomo, which means I don't meet Nujabes.
Which means I don't meet Tone, it goes on and on. That school has connections to everything. That's where I started rhyming, that's where I started getting competitive.
It laid foundation for me to be creative and made me realize the importance of speaking to kids about it. Poetry workshops, rap workshops, how to rap, how to enter the art scene.
What it was doing for me, I knew it could do for others.
Shout out to my friends at the Brooklyn Tea Party and my friend Micah–he's a great visual artist and sick poet as well. Although he praised me for my battle raps, he always pushed me to go deeper and embrace more personal raps.
Now, when you go anywhere to perform, where it's classified as a socially conscious venue, there is always, 100% a teacher in the crowd. Always.
Stan took a step back to speak on how black student organizations at Pratt were around, but lacking direction or emphasis on innovation. He wanted to change that, and did with a student-led group called Origination.
Then he jumped back to the funny fact that teachers were always in the crowd at stand-up comedy gigs, hip-hop gigs, any type of conscious venue whatsoever.
He was right; I thought about it for a sec... and it's true.
That's right, that's right. [laughing]
A fuckload, always in the crowd, you know what I'm sayin'? [laughing]
So, when I started performing both in Japan as well as stateside, when teachers would see me perform, they would request me to speak to their students.
Again, this is before people knew "Nujabes" so I'd be introduced as–"Substantial, fresh from Japan!," you know?
The importance of what an independent artist means, as well as my subject matter. The teachers wanted to tell the kids that there are other types of hip-hop.
I'm not a huge artist, I get that, but I'm making a living off it and I toured the world several times.
So, I did it a few times, I spoke to kids at schools. One really rough school I spoke at, the teachers came up afterwards and pitched the idea of working with kids more permanently, more in-depth.
I wasn't sure what they meant, and the teachers said that I kept the kids engaged better than most adults they seen who done it most of their life.
Sure enough, this is a common sentiment I get multiple times after going to a few places. They wanted the kids to know hip-hop, graffiti art, how to rhyme, things like this.
I was heavily involved with activism as well; we were fighting the Rockefeller Drug Laws. I had to host a performance that was in Albany, New York, and then before the event we were speaking with different people in the government and informing people about what it was.
I can't pretend about going harder than some of the members in the activism group–some of them really lived that shit day in, day out, all the time–but I was fortunate enough to be one of the individuals with a talent for speaking. I had a voice, and when I can lend my voice to something I believe in, I'll always use it.
Even budget cuts to education in New York, education is always on the chopping block. It's just something... you know, Q-Tip said it before–hip-hop is always political.
The trouble that the Bronx had with the gangs, and how ultimately it took a bunch of teenagers to come together and how to resolve their own problems.
I had a debate the other day about this with a friend, where they mentioned the problem lies within media and just the idea of having to explain the different sectors of hip-hop.
The real problem is that a group of people saw that a certain image could be projected to a certain degree, and they ended up taking it 'this' way instead of 'that' way.
Gangsta rap was what? A decade after Rappers' Delight. Prior to that movement, hip-hop was not often associated with hard shit, thug shit, you know?
That's not to say hip-hop wasn't street. It was. For the most part, everyone was having fun. Peace, love, and unity.
They may have looked hard, been from the hood, whatever, but at the end of the day, they were still having fun.
You go to any under-served or poor community, problems like hunger, poverty, crime exists.
No matter where you go in the world.
That's not uniquely black shit, it usually is related to green more than anything else.
Sometimes you need to let them know you're there, as well.
Absolutely. I'm a person who is true to hip-hop. I know the culture, I know the history.
When you care about people going through the struggle, from where you're from, you reach back. Sometimes you even go back, to let them know you're there.
To be black is not a monolith. In many ways, I show them–not to be corny and shit–but I'm from the mud.
I'm from one of the worst neighborhoods this area has had, so when kids think their life is going to go a certain way automatically, I act as the voice to let them know they can make it.
Me talking to you, us doing this right now, me being here. It's a miracle, an absolute miracle to me. I thought for sure I was going to be out by my early 20's. I wasn't even out here like my folks–out here doing wild shit–I was present for some of it. I know how much horrible shit came my way, and I was outta the way.
You were on the sidelines still being hit.
Right, and there really was no way you could not get hit. It was everywhere.
I just didn't see any of that, because I knew people who were less involved than me, who...
Yeah, I just never saw myself being this old man. I always wanted a wife and kids, but there was always a part of me that believed it would never happen. You hope like a motherfucker, you know? If I had caught a slug or some shit, I would have been out. I would have been the last person to be surprised.
Surprises you when you make it past that. You're in your 20's, you meet your wife, suddenly you're a father. Before you know it, you're in your own autumn years.
That's exactly why I embrace all of this. I'm not trying to fit into what people think hip-hop should be. I'm not caught up in that.
I'm embracing this moment.
I didn't think I would have this moment, so I'm fully invested in it, loving it, and doing everything I can to immortalize this shit with as many records as I can, so they know there's other stuff out there.
I'm less popular now, than I perhaps was in one point in time. Yet, I make exponentially more money than when I was on MTV and elsewhere.
You need to know how to navigate the game, and what works for you.
Navigating the game is a skill that many hip-hop OGs will talk about, but never really elaborate on.
Whether its essence is apocryphal or it's something that needs to be learned firsthand over time and nothing else, it's what many swear by when asked about why they lasted so long in the game.
When you're long gone, and people look back...
Who is Substantial? Who is Stan Robinson? What's the legacy?
My legacy, more than anything?
Family. Community. Art.
Recognizing this thing, hip-hop, often times doesn't get viewed as true art. I dedicated my career to showing people the beautiful things which exist in this culture, and always tried to hold that up.
Even in the ugliness there is beauty. Talib had that joint The Beautiful Struggle, right?
This was the path I had to go. I'm proud of it.
Dedication is an aspect which Stan employs in everything he does, and it's evident.
With a bit of luck, I managed to swing a rare contribution from the legend himself, Shingo "Shing02" Annen, who had this to say about Stan's impact within the hip-hop landscape:
Stan is the quintessential MC, he is THE mic controller, an educator of the highest level, a role model, and an overall inspiration.
He is the embodiment of consistency, I am honored to have shared the same stage with him.
We took a quick break and spoke about his journey thus far. How far he had come.
What was he up to now, though?
Tell me about some current plays you're making in music, I know you've been diving more so into the video game world. You're a big fan of anime, video games, multimedia, we share that passion. What's going on with that?
The most unique thing I'm working on is that I've been invested in a lot more video game music over the last few years. Shout out to the homie Mason Lieberman, an amazing musician in his own right and a senior composer and audio coordinator at Tencent [Games].
He gave me about 24 stems worth to work off of, and I was able to contribute to a game called Renaine. I remixed the track he gave me for that game, shout out to my man DJ AAROCK, who helped with that cut.
That was the beginning in 2017 going into 2018... fast forward, and this year alone I've been nominated for a Hollywood Music and Media Award along with other artists, such as Jaden Smith and others.
Thank you! So that song I did [for Renaine], and then also one for Arknights, a recently-released video for Mobile Legends Bang Bang, and that track has millions of views. It's been crazy, I also did something for PUBG MOBILE, called Growth.
Shout out to Hexany Studios for the help.
I think when people think of me, they don't necessarily think about video game music, but it's definitely the thing now.
Also have a new project, sort of a compilation and mixtape, where it contains my songs about fatherhood. Also, a children's book that I wrote based on my song 'My Daughter's Eyes'.
This new ground which Stan has uncovered within the gaming industry, as a collaborator of some of the largest games for mobile, has resulted in unexpected reach.
Combined, these easily dwarf any amount of streams Stan has received through Spotify or otherwise, with the closest being 9 million.
This begs the question, should artists be looking towards new media through which they can express and contribute at a wider scale, before considering traditional techniques? Case by case, is the consensus.
To send it off, I inquired about what Stan's thoughts were when it came to hip-hop itself. Was the art form stronger than ever, or was the voice of the people being lost?
Was the culture being adopted in ways that hindered parts, or was it all noise when it came to the bigger picture?
Depending on who you ask and where they're from, you'll get different answers. I tend to side with Stan's views, though.
The voice of hip-hop itself as an artform. How do you view it?
Stronger than ever. Hip-hop is extremely vast. It's not a monolith.
All of us, when you say hip-hop, envision a different thing. If I asked 20 people what hip-hop means to them, I may get 20 different answers.
What I've seen is a trend where people take something from hip-hop, or of hip-hop likeness, and attempt to separate it due to negative connotation of hip-hop.
We're not hip-hop, we're lo-fi. We're not this, we're that.
It's vast, it's all hip-hop. When these things come, we need to understand it's a collective voice. All part of it.
We say hip-hop all the time, but we usually mean the hip-hop music–rap. Hip-hop is more than rapping, it's many elements.
One of the elements we don't talk enough about is knowledge. The fact that in 2021, they're breaking ground for a museum in the Bronx to preserve the history of hip-hop, is incredible.
When I hear the younger artists shit on the older artists, or vice versa... when I hear the young ones do it, I get it. You're not old, yet.
God-willing you live to be older, you'll be trading places with those old heads. You're going to be mad the next generation talks about you, you know?
It's not always a perfect harmony. We might not always have the same view.
That's what makes hip-hop beautiful. It's more beautiful than it's ever been.
I'll always fly this flag.