For as often as former Madison and current New York City MC F. Stokes swings through the isthmus, he could still be mistaken for a resident. After all, both his live stage banter and 2009’s Death Of A Handsome Bride (a collaboration with Doomtree’s producer Lazerbeak) are filled with that classic Midwest self-deprecation that many Wisconsinites have come to embrace. Whether he’s jabbing at himself for wearing a deep V-neck T-shirt while opening for Ghostface Killah, or trying to find his place in the scope of modern hip-hop in “Sparse Parts,” Stokes gives off the scent of an underdog. However, the MC’s bits of rugged street reporting that soak into Handsome Bride, and the powerful snippets of slam poetry that are dispersed throughout his live show, showcase hints of a seasoned veteran. With an Oct. 15 stop at the Majestic Theatre alongside local powerhouses Stink Tank and IceMantis on the way, Stokes took some time to chat with The A.V. Club to discuss an upcoming EP, gush over Ice Cube and Kanye West, and tell us about donating pity-pork to middle-aged women.
The A.V. Club: It seems like you’ve been keeping yourself busy with touring lately. What have you been up to these last few months?
F. Stokes: I’ve been quite busy, actually. I was in Europe for about a month and did nine shows in Paris. Since I’ve gotten back, things started progressively moving faster in terms of the New York media and I. I’m trying to keep it moving, man.
AVC: Do you have any plans for a proper album in the near future?
FS: I’ve got a new EP called Fearless Beauty coming out in a couple months with a crew of musicians called The Clubhouse. It’s a bit more organic, musical, and sonically universal.
AVC: You seem to split a lot of your time between New York City and Madison. Where did you end up recording Fearless Beauty?
FS: We did the album in Brooklyn at their home studio in the attic of this Victorian Mansion. I was at their studio for two weeks, and every morning we’d get up at eight or nine in the morning and make music. It was pretty awesome. It was almost like a job in terms of the timetable, but being able to wake up and make music with a live band was just incredible.
AVC: A lot of your tunes, particularly “The GO,” discuss the struggles of growing up on the South Side of Chicago. How long did you live there, and when did you end up in Madison?
FS: I left Chicago when I was about 12, and my mother moved us up to Madison. I’m the oldest of six kids. That move was the classic story of “independent, strong, black woman moves her kids out of the fucking ghetto.” It was by far the bravest move I’ve ever seen anyone make. You don’t just move a family out of South Chicago into a mostly white neighborhood. In the end, the move really was genius because it set me up to be in positions like the one I’m in now, as opposed to some of the unfortunate circumstances my friends and family have faced.
AVC: When did you start getting into hip-hop?
FS: I started off writing poetry when I was 9 or 10 years old—that’s when I really decided to start putting words together. I wasn’t necessarily rapping at the time, but it was just me trying to get my thoughts out. I wasn’t trying to be fashionable or make sense of it. I was just trying to release this energy that I had. A couple years, later I became fascinated with Ice Cube and NWA. It was incredible to hear a brother that had went through what I was going through and was explaining it to me as if I was there next to him. I loved how vivid and provocative the imagery was. That’s why I fell in love with hip-hop—it was that picture Ice Cube was painting. Also, Common is pretty much my biggest influence. He’s from my neighborhood; he’s faced some of the same obstacles I’ve faced, and that brother inspired me beyond words. He’s one of those artists that can influence entire generations with his words.
AVC: Speaking of influences, what exactly propelled you to write the ego-stroking “Mr. Kanye West”?
FS: The one you guys killed? [Laughs.] Honestly, I think Kanye is one of the few African Americans that understands his value as a person and takes no less than that. He made it cool to be fashionable—to wear skinny jeans and colorful sneakers, Louis Vuitton. I think Kanye is also helping bring down some of those stereotypes and barriers that get between hip-hop and homosexual communities. I think he has caught a lot of shit for this, so to make himself stronger, he had to create this obnoxious alter ego to deal with it. He created this almost Incredible Hulk-like personality. He doesn’t always come across as politically correct for the things he says, but at the end of the day he makes brilliant music. Dozens of years from now, I’ll be telling my grandkids about him.
AVC: Your music seems to walk the tightrope between backpacker hip-hop and street rap, and you’ve done shows with rappers ranging from punk-infused MCs like P.O.S. to the swag-rappers of Clipse. Do you see a major variance in crowd response between the two extremes?
FS: I tell my story with conviction, so whether you’re a white kid with a backpack from Minneapolis, or freshly released ex-con from South Chicago that came to Madison to visit his baby’s mama—you’re gonna feel it. I’ll get on stage and talk about how my father’s in prison for murder, or how I helped my mama raise six kids, or how my brother’s in prison—these insane stories, you know? But prior to getting on stage, I probably remind people of that guy they went to basketball camp with. I’ve never been too nervous or unsure about a crowd accepting me. I do a good enough job of rehearsing and understanding people as a whole—beyond race, that being onstage has never made me second-guess what I’m doing. I’m onstage giving my all. If a guy gives his all, you might not agree with what he’s saying, but you’ll respect it. The P.O.S. tour was probably the most racially and economically diverse tour I’ve been on, in terms of the demographics of people that came to see us. Ultimately I feel that the issues I rap about are universal; domestic violence, being insecure, being ashamed, hurting, seeking love—all of those are global. Rich or poor, black or white, it doesn’t matter.
AVC: So it never gets too awkward?
FS: Well, one night, Mac Lethal and I were playing at a spot in Illinois, and it was an all-white, Midwest, farmer-type crowd. Like, if you took a black neighborhood in South Chicago and inverted it to Sioux City, Iowa, it was that kind of crowd. Anyways, I spat this one line from a new song that’s like, “I have a bag full of sex books about middle-aged white women who fuck black bellhops that carry mops / Excited that they jungle fever zebra cherry popped.” Complete silence. I thought, “Holy shit, I’m gonna be hanging from an apple tree in a couple hours.” Luckily I was able to charm the crowd back to my side. But honestly, those lines came from a real place. [Laughs.] I’ve worked in the restaurant industry for the last eight years, and I’ve had sex with these older white women, from Seattle or wherever, who just want to fuck a black dude. I’ve been in that hotel room fuckin’ some 47-year-old white woman from Seattle, Washington. Anyways, Mac Lethal and I are gonna hit the Midwest, West Coast, and Canada in November and December.
AVC: For an underground rapper that’s based out of New York City, it seems like you play in Madison pretty consistently. How do you manage to pull it off?
FS: I’ve been fortunate in that most of my tours have crossed the Midwest, so I’ve been able to stop in Madison and see family and friends. I also love Madison like it was my firstborn—it’s always in my soul. There’s no way that I could play Chicago or Minneapolis and not swing through Madison. I mean, I used to live in a Salvation Army shelter when I was young. I’d go to school and feel ashamed in the lunchroom because I couldn’t afford the popular clothes or go to the skating rink. It’s amazing that I’ve been able to make it as far as I have. In my youth, I probably harbored a lot of hatred, so to grow out of that and see Madison supporting a kid that didn’t have the most glamorous rollout is amazing and overwhelming. My journey didn’t start by some promoter being like “I’m gonna give this kid a shot.” I had to grind, I had to make music, I had to work.
AVC: Does Madison DJ Vinnie Toma typically join you on tour?
FS: Vinnie Toma does not. He has traveled with me in the past and does most of my shows back in Wisconsin, but he has a job and a life with other responsibilities. I do love Vinnie, though. That’s my man. He’s my DJ Jazzy Jeff.
AVC: What’s next for F. Stokes?
FS: Just continue to do shows, particularly in Europe. We’re in the fourth quarter of signing a European distribution deal, which would ultimately put me in Europe for at least three months of every year for the next several years of my life.