What happens in rap’s flyover country? Hip-hop, both mainstream and underground, typically takes place in the streets of New York City or Los Angeles, or in parts of the South, or Midwestern cities like Chicago and Detroit. But the rapper Stik Figa hails from Topeka, Kansas, a city known more for the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education ruling, which led to desegregation, than any hip-hop icons. But Stik Figa is no also-ran. The rapper, born John Westbrook, Jr., has collaborated with two of Mello Music Group’s biggest names: an EP with Oddisee, called From The Top in 2010, and the critically-acclaimed The City Under The City with producer L’Orange in 2013. On his latest solo album, Central Standard Time, he introduces listeners to his hometown, a place where rappers like The Jacka and C-bo hold more weight than 2Pac, where shows are hard to come by, and racism is an everyday experience.
Was one of your goals for this record to put Topeka, Kansas on the hip-hop map?
I wanted to let people know where I’m from, because maybe it would bring eyes over here. I wanted to find ways to tell my story, while telling everybody else’s story that’s from here. It’s a population of like 120,000, but we don’t have [rap on the] radio. We’re 20 miles outside of Kan City so we share everything: Chiefs fans, Royals fans, they’ve got the Speedway out there. None of it is Topeka. So when it came time to start making music, it was kind of important that I said I was from Topeka, so no one got it mixed up.
You said you didn’t have radio. How does an artist come up in an environment like that?
It’s entirely grassroots. Everything was sharing tapes, burning CDs, guys having house parties. I was still in the mind like, ‘I have to make a tape, send a demo, play my talent show.’ You would go to Kansas City and get in battles, go to Wichita or somewhere else to try to peddle your music into people’s hands. It was good in the sense that it made me obsessed with having the better tape, or having the better CD, or having the better live show—because that was all that we had to get heard. We were just trying to impress each other… until you realize there’s no market, so you can’t get paid that way [laughs].
The first serious show I ever played was when I opened up for Blackalicious in a college town nearby. I was oblivious to how becoming a rapper works. Then, I found out about Lawrence, Kansas; they had a college scene where those kind of acts would show up. That was the first time I figured out that type of music and that type of audience. Previous to that, I didn’t think there was room for the type of artist I was.
Where did you get the confidence to make music that reflected who you were, instead of simply mimicking music you were already hearing?
That didn’t come until I started hearing different types of music—when I opened myself up, and stopped being so self conscious about what I was making and started playing shows with like-minded people in Kansas City. Guys were getting small deals. There’s Mac Lethal from Kansas City, he signed to Rhymesayers. I wasn’t even familiar with Rhymesayers, but when I saw guys like him getting an opportunity, it made me more confident. Like, ‘OK, this is a whole infrastructure that exists for these types of artists.’ It makes it more real for you.
I got real confident when Oddisee hit me on MySpace like, ‘Yo, you’re dope!’ His records had lush production, but it was also still street to me, because he still sounded like one of the homies. He wanted to do a record [with me], and since then, I hit the ground running. I’m like, ‘If Oddisee, cold as he is, thinks I’m dope, then I’m onto something.’ That was a cool experience, because O was actually interested in my Topeka story. He was the one who put that in my head, like, ‘Drive that point home. Don’t hide that, don’t shy from it.’
What do Topeka rappers sound like?
That’s my favorite thing to talk about! [laughs] We have a huge Bay influence in this part of the country. I’m not a historian, but I can only attribute it to the fact that when Bay rap was getting big in the mid ’90s, they weren’t quite as popular on the East Coast. So when they were touring, they would come here. They’d come to Oklahoma, they’d come to Topeka, Kan City, Iowa, Minnesota.
A lot of guys used to sound like Brotha Lynch Hung. Too $hort has always been big out here. E-40 is one of my personal favorite rappers. The biggest street rapper from here, he’s not from Topeka but from Kan City, is Rich The Factor. People think I’m joking when I say this, but people were more hurt when The Jacka and Mac Dre died than when 2Pac died. The underground reigns supreme out here. I used to get in arguments in middle school, like, ‘I think Jay Z is going to be one of the best,’ when Vol. 1 was out. They were like, ‘He aight, but he ain’t fuckin’ with C-Bo!’ Texas was a big influence on us; Lil Flip, Screwed Up Click. Messy Marv was big out here. Big swaths of guys here sound like they’re from the Bay, but they’ve never even been to California. That’s how you have me putting Rappin’ 4-Tay on a track. Rappin’ 4-Tay was one of my childhood heroes.
A lot of people, when they think of Topeka, Kan., they think of Brown vs. Board of Education. How much does that inform everyday life out there, both when you were growing up and now?
One of the things that stands out to me is that back then, the black population in Topeka was like five percent. Now, it’s like 12, maybe. It’s kind of wild to think in a town that small, that you were still trying to separate yourself from maybe 1,000 black people.
It’s still a segregated environment. You’re very aware that you’re black, and everything that comes with that. My folks in Memphis, that’s 60 or 70 percent black. Your mailman is black, the bus driver is black, everyone is black. Out here, you’re still fighting that battle from Brown vs. Board. You’re still trying to get into these spaces, to get on at jobs that don’t generally hire black people, you’re still filing suits. You can grow up in a mixed community, but the white folks in that community are still feel like they should be afraid of you, even as your neighbor. That’s the residue of Brown Vs. Board. You have some white friends, but there’s an air of otherness. They still talk about what side of town you’re supposed to be on or not supposed to be on. I’ve never been pulled over on any side of town except the North Side, and the North Side is predominantly white. Where I’m from is Central.
While you spoke about race on these songs, they weren’t songs entirely dedicated to the issues; they just sound like part of your general experience. Did racism feel like a casual, normalized sort of thing, or did it seem traumatic as it was going on?
That’s ill that you say that, because a friend just spoke about this, and he said the word ‘trauma.’ I hadn’t said that myself. On “Old Town 96” I say, ‘I been black longer than I’ve been my first name, called nigger before a nigga ever learned names.’ That lyric comes from a culmination of feelings I’ve had since the first time that ever happened.
I was in a small town, visiting some friends of mine. We were walking in these kids’ yard. There was a little kid, and I was little too, probably like 8. I’ll never forget it, because the kid’s face was beet red. He was just like, ‘You niggers get out of my yard!’ I had never heard it that way. You hear it around your family members, but it doesn’t have that sting, because you’re with your peoples, and it’s not said with malice in any way. That was the first time I saw the expression on this kid’s face. I got home, I was like, ‘This kid called us niggers.’ My mama said, ‘Boy, there are going to be some people in this world who don’t know you, know nothing about you, and they’ll hate you for that.’ Think ever since that day, it’s like, you’re black before they get to know you. At best, you’re black. At worst, you’re a nigger. I mean, at worst, you’re dead. It wasn’t to normalize it, but it was more of a liberating thing for me to be able to say these things out loud, because I’ve always internalized those types of emotion.
On “Holding Back Tears,” I talk about how I used to hate this. Being in environments where you try to befriend people, only to find out that they still view you this way. Thinking you’ve befriended this person, and this person is seeing you as, ‘Hide your silverware, he can’t come over no more’ type shit. My intention with writing it was to personalize it, and leave it at the feet of the audience for them to determine what to do with that information, or maybe even reflect on how they’re dealing with it. This isn’t even stuff I say on the day to day. It’s just things that I think. ‘Crackers shooting up churches, but they targeting me.’ When I was recording it, the person said, ‘Do you gotta say cracker?’ I said, ‘Yeah, because that’s how it feels! That’s how the homies are saying it.’ Pulling me over, but you’ve got Dylann Roof shooting up churches full of praying black people.
I talk about that record a lot, because it’s my favorite. That’s kind of like my Ice Cube record. I think Ice Cube was one of those guys who just said it, he didn’t try to dress it up and make it pretty for anybody.
What rappers did you look up to for the way that they talk about those issues?
Ice Cube. Speech from Arrested Development is slept on. He’s from Milwaukee—Midwest shout out there. Of course, Chuck D. When Mos Def did “Mr. Nigga,” I was in my senior year of high school and I thought, ‘Man, this is the realest song I’ve heard in regards to this.’ That’s the kind of spirit I wanted to approach it with. This is real, we aren’t making this stuff up. This is the kind of stuff that’s happening. We’ve been experiencing this since we were children, in ways that are sometimes hard to communicate. So yeah: Ice Cube’s anger, Speech’s eloquence, and Mos Def’s storytelling about those things.
The intro for the album is what you perform before all of your shows right?
Yeah, that’s a verse I wrote to prove that I could rap while I was visiting some family in Memphis. Every time I do that at a show, I come out and do this there where I’m like, ‘Does this thing work?’ Especially when I’m an opening act, everybody wants to leave and get a drink or talk to a girl during the opening act. I have to try to figure out a way to impress upon the crowd that they should be paying attention in this moment. This is my first official Stik Figa record on Mello Music, so I wanted to get the crowd’s attention, so to speak.
What else do you want people to know about you and about Topeka after hearing this?
Always keep your eye on the dark horse. Don’t be so quick to overlook something that looks a little weird to you. Just take two seconds and check it out. As far as Topeka, I want them to know that black people do live here. I know when you hear Kansas, you think corn fields and stage coaches. Those things are false. In fact, I don’t think they even grow corn in this part of the country. But also, talent can come from anywhere. I wanted to be inspiration for guys from other weird spots. If you’re from Roanoke, Virginia, if you’re from Lexington, Kentucky, if you’re from Omaha, Nebraska, if you’re from any of these spots people don’t think it can happen, don’t undervalue yourself and don’t let others undervalue you just because of your zip code. A guy from Kansas can rap, you can put that in the headline.
—William E. Ketchum III