Interview with Stro Elliot

Stro Elliot, formerly of The Procussions, the LA based hip-hop group, says his creativity remains a mystery to his family. No one in his family is musical. Or overly creative. His father is in the military and his mother worked various jobs, and his grandparents owned a restaurant. So instead of following in these footsteps, Stro Elliot veered a little to the side, taking his own detour to produce the sounds that DJs crave.

“I kind of popped out of nowhere to the point that I don’t think my parents even knew what to do with me,” said Elliot who was in Melbourne to promote his new LP. “They were like ok, he seems to like music, so we’ll just play him more music.”

But it had actually started much earlier on when he was a infant. In an attempt to comfort him when he was a baby, his father would put headphones on him. “My dad told me that I would listen to Donald Bird records, old jazz records and fall asleep to it and he said that it worked for me every time. I’d be crying, he’d come put headphones on me, I’d be quiet, stare at the ceiling, fall asleep. So it started there.”

Although his parents didn’t have a large record collection, they carried the seminal records by seminal artists who had the ability to influence. His parents had a single Beatles record, a Carole King, one Joni Mitchell, and then everything soul and jazz like Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye. This was enough for Elliot to look at and explore these artists and their repertoires further. This opened him up to the sonic possibilities in the world of music, even before he started branching out to spend time with other musicians and like-minded people.

It wasn’t until he got to high school that he started running into more kids that were like him – that liked music and played – and he joined a band, played trumpet for four years, and started to branch out even more. Being around other likeminded musicians (of which there weren’t that many anyway) wasn’t enough. The place that Elliot found himself, Colorado, as his father was stationed there, wasn’t conducive to making music. There was nothing there and every time something relevant popped up, it was torn down. Nevertheless, Elliot joined a group and would open for all the groups that toured Colorado. But the message remained clear: he had to leave Colorado. “Every group told us the same thing: you guys have to leave this place,” he said. “[They’d say] you guys are good, but it will just be a hobby for you guys if you stay here. There’s no industry here, there’s nothing here.”

In 2002, The Processions made the move to Los Angeles and hit the ground running. As soon as he Mr J. Medeiros and Rez got there, the groundwork that had happened in Colorado proved to be of value when musicians they had opened for in Colorado started connecting them with the right people.

In 2003, they released their debut As Iron Sharpens Iron, followed with 2004’s Up All Night. In 2006, they released their final album as a group, 5 Sparrows for Two Cents. The more music they released, the more they toured, opening for names like The Roots and Talib Kweli and also catching the eye of Ali Shaheed Muhammad from Tribe. The Procussions played in excess of 50 cities in 6 months. While their music as a group was leaving its mark on the hip-hop scene, they felt it was time to take that all too familiar break, which later down the track saw The Procussions ultimately disband to pursue solo careers.

As a new solo artist, Elliot explained that it gives him a certain amount of freedom. He sees it as a second run, starting from level one and working things out. He’s been through it before with a group where there were things that were great, and things that were not so great. And now here is this opportunity to go back and avoid some of those mistakes. “It’s being able to do things in the way that with it just being me now, doing things in a way that I wouldn’t have done it if I had the only say before,” he said. “But also cultivating new relationships that I find valuable instead … when you’re just signed with a label, they kind of decide what relationships are worth having for you, they’ll keep you in contact with certain people without branching out to the people that you want to reach, the people that are like-minded and creative that I vibe with more than people who are just concerned about the money.”

It’s very different being in a group and being just Stro Elliot. When in a group, everything that is done is catered towards what that group needs and wants. Although, for instance, Elliot was a vocalist in The Procussions, for the most part, he would listen to what the other vocalists really wanted. He could make a ton of music, but if they felt like they could write to only one, that was all that got used. But now, there is a newfound freedom and control. If he makes something and likes it, that’s what is going to be used and released.

“I find that there’s a freedom that I didn’t have before, which is almost overwhelming sometimes because it’s like it’s the idea of having too many options as opposed to having this one road to go down and I know that’s where I’m supposed to go,” he said. “So I find that I happens a lot, I’m making music and I’m doing a lot more maybe second and third guessing as opposed to having an instant yes or sort of knowing what’s going to work or what people like before I get out of the gate.”

It’s maybe with this newfound freedom where the adventure of creating music that may or may not make it is a propellant for creativity. He doesn’t know what composition might make a hit beat but that’s half of the adventure of it he explained. “Some things are pre-planned that I know kind of work, but every once in a while I come across something that’s kind of oh I’ll try this, see what that’s like together, maybe I’ll throw in a little keyboard part, eh it’s ok…I’ll move on. To me that’s the closest to being to what I feel like the great DJs do,” he said.

“When I watch the Jeffs and all these people around the world that are incredible DJs, I watch them experiment on the fly. They have their set things just as I do but they always play their succession of songs, but every once in a while they’ll throw in some routine that they don’t do, and you see them read the crowd a little bit, and if it doesn’t work, ok they’ll move on and find something else. So it’s kind of that for me when I’m in the mode.”

Experimentation and ollaboration and is key to Elliot’s output, a prime example working on the project for Glenn Lewis. Part of Jazzy Jeff’s playlist sessions at Jeff’s studio outside of Philadelphia, the session saw Elliot, Daniel Crawford, Kaidi Tathum – the A Team – pumping out beats for a track that was completed in just seven days. He’s collaborated with an eclectic mix of artists from Oozay Moore to Jazzy Jeff, and there are a lot of new artists that he’s interested in. “But everyone wants to with Kendrick, everyone wants to work with Anderson Paak – there’s a lot of artists that everyone wants to work with and that I want to work with as well,” he says. But he also looks away from the major limelight to artists like GoldLink and other artists who are pushing things forward because to him that’s the most exciting thing about music – the inception of the new idea that can then later become something for everyone.

Without question, the relationship between Jazzy Jeff and Elliot is a major influence for Elliot. The two crossed paths when Elliot was touring with The Procussions over 12 years ago, opening for Jeff. But it wasn’t a few years later when Jeff managed to contact Elliot – through a Twitter call out.

The legend has it that Jeff was DJing with one of the Beat Junkies, J Rock, and he was touring with Skillz, Amir, Questlove and others when J Rock ended up playing one of Elliot’s tracks, Soul II Stro. Instantly, as Elliot recounted, everyone wanted to know what the track was and who was behind it. Skillz, who was Jeff’s MC at the time, took to Twitter asking if anyone knew who had produced this track. It seemed that the connections that Elliot had made back in LA, were also on Twitter when a mutual friend replied to Skillz and pointed him in Elliot’s direction. Twenty minutes later, Skillz was on the phone to Elliot.

“He told me the whole story. He was like send me whatever you have,” said Elliot. “At the same time there was a DJ in LA, DJ Day was doing an event with Jeff and he played that track and he was like I just heard this track who is this? So Day gave him the music, the Beat Junkies gave him the music, he kind of got bombarded from three different areas and eventually he just reached out to me and was like you know, I’ve been playing music, I’m a big fan of what you do … eventually he was like, I got this event that I’m playing called Playlist Retreat. It was initially just supposed to be DJs but I’d like to bring some of the producers in as well, can you come?”

Needless to say, he accepted and the friendship between Elliot and Jeff has only grown stronger. “Ever since then it’s been a really family environment, and every time he’s in LA, I go and see him and every time I’m out East, whether I’ve been invited by him or not, anytime that we’re anywhere together, we talk music and nerd out and just kind of hang,” he said.

“He’s easily to me become kind of like the ambassador for pushing things forward, especially anything that feels like good music because being a DJ I’ve always looked at DJs being that way, they’re the last of the official tastemakers and people who push the culture forward. They’re still the first people you go to and bring music and if a DJ will like it, he’ll play it. That doesn’t apply to other people in the industry.”

Elliot speaks fondly of Jeff, explaining that while some DJs may hoard music and keep it to themselves, Jazzy Jeff will play it himself first, but then send it on to other DJs to play. His relationship with Jeff, explained Elliot, stemmed not only from his love of good music, but also his willingness to share it and spread it out.

Fast forward to December 2016 and Elliot has released his solo debut The Summer Love Song. And Elliot is feeling good about. “It’s been great. The fact that people even get their hands on something I think was a big deal for a lot of people, but it’s been interesting for me because I didn’t necessarily know the numbers in terms of how many people would actually [get it],” he says. He has a strong digital presence, his music being available on sites like SoundCloud and social media where he is able to track his followers, but to actually see people engaging with his music was another thing. He recalls the release date party in LA that he says was phenomenal, but also the reaction around the world. “Because I’ve grown in military, I’ve lived all over the world so I was really curious to see how far out it spread and into what areas of the world, so it’s been great to see that and it’s been very exciting to do stuff like this, to get to come to the places where people are supporting the music and I’m interested in seeing what it looks like live,” he said.

With the advancements in technology having made music so easily accessible, both for listeners and creators, it means that things can be done that much faster for someone like Elliot, and DJs and producers alike. But there’s a caveat here: it’s not always just about the tools. Elliot recalls a conversation that he had with Jeff asking him, as someone who uses and is still fond of old school equipment, what he sees to be some of the advantages of new things. “Jeff used serato as a perfect example,” he said. “[Jeff said] serato is a great thing for people who didn’t want to lug around records anymore, you have more and more music that you download on your hard drive, but he’s like, having serato doesn’t make you a better DJ. It depends on the person using the equipment. I took that and said sure I can use these things that would make me faster, but as long as I don’t lose the ability to create and put my imprint on what I’m doing, that’s always going to be the thing that’s most important to me. I find that with new technology and stuff that I’m able to do, it makes things faster but also allows me to be more creative because if I’m faster it leaves more time for me to be more innovative and creative in other areas.”

With his finger on the pulse of innovation, and his mind clear to focus on the beats, Stro Elliot is now taking his music around the world, currently in Australia, to show the official tastemakers, how it’s done.

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