Stik Figa: Ritual

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Photo courtesy of Sean Patrick

Midwest emcee Stik Figa teamed up with Irish producer The Expert to give us one of 2023’s best albums. “Ritual” is a thought-provoking project that touches the mind, body, and soul without forsaking lyrical or musical deftness.

Ritual is produced entirely by The Expert and features appearances by Blu, Daniel Luke, Solemn Brigham, Defcee, Sleep Sinatra, and Tanya Morgan. 13-track album comes to us courtesy of Rucksack Records.

The Real Hip-Hop spoke to Stik Figa about his faith, conquering fears of being forgotten, working with The Expert, and their new album, Ritual.

TRHH: Why’d you call the new album Ritual?

Stik Figa: Ah, man, jumping right in, jumping right in [laughs]! The album is called Ritual because I felt like that title matched the energy of the themes on the record. Primarily, a ritual is something that you maybe sometimes do it out of tradition or sometimes the meaning of the ritual can get lost, and I think about that a lot with Hip-Hop, even just with myself personally. I’ve been making music for a long time, writing rhymes, putting music out and I was just kind of searching for the meaning in the words, the meaning in the process, and where I fell in the tradition of the genre.

A lot of the themes on the record deal with some of the things that happen in our communities that we might be doing ritually, that we’re not necessarily investigating why we do them, or the source of how we got to that place, or if we should continue. I just thought that that word “ritual” had a lot of different ways that they could be interpreted and different meaning that you could get from it. I thought it was a good choice that represented the whole of the record.

TRHH: How did you hook up with The Expert to decide to do an album?

Stik Figa: Aw, man, me and The Expert go back a long ways in that we hadn’t worked on a record, but he had wanted to work on a record for some time, and we never got around to it. I think I recorded a song for him back in 2012. Then him and another artist and a friend of mine that goes by Anwar HighSign now, used to go by Has-Lo, I believe they were working on a record and he sent me a record to feature on. I don’t know what happened with their record, I know they still have a good relationship, but in the midst of me working on those songs with Anwar HighSign, formerly known as Has-Lo, me and Expert reconnected and it just kind of happened from there. I was in the middle of working on another record with my buddy DJ Sean P and then in the midst of that I just was like, “I could throw some rhymes on that.”

He had ideas for songs and it just kind of fell into place that way, because I wasn’t really planning on making another record after the one that I was already working on with Sean P. So, it just kind of happened that way. We had people in common, and he had this interest in making a record. He’s from Ireland, so that kind of piqued my interest, too. I was like, “hey, I haven’t really worked with anybody outside of the country yet, so that would be pretty smooth.” It worked out. I think it’s a great project, too, all things considered. We just stayed in contact using WhatsApp, and Instagram, and all of the social media and just bounced ideas from there. I think the final result is something people are going to enjoy, if they’re a fan of this type of music.

TRHH: The single “Uknowhut?” features Blu; how did that collaboration come about?

Stik Figa: Blu’s been one of my sources of inspiration for a long time. One of my first shows that I ever performed at in Kansas City was opening for Blu. I performed opening for Blu in Kansas City when he released Below the Heavens, when he was on tour for that record. I actually funny enough met my good friends Conductor Williams and Les Izmore that same night. Blu frequented Kansas City just touring and collaborating with other producers from there. We had mutual people, he had worked with L’Orange before. I always reached out to him but we never could get it to work. It just so happened this time around when I was working on the “Uknowwhut?” song I was like, “Man, it would be a really great feature on this because it has all the beat switches. On the back end I think Blu would be dope for it.”

I didn’t think that I could get him because, I mean it’s just like I admire the guy. Expert was like, “Man, I’ll reach out to him and see what we can make happen.” He sent it back to us right away. Very quickly. I sent it to him, I let him hear our verses just to kind of get an idea of what we were rhyming about, and he sent it back to me in like a week or two. Like right away. It was super dope. Great brother, man. I really appreciate him for that, so shout out to Blu. I listened to Below the Heavens so much when I had my first kid. “Blu Colla Workers” was just one of them songs I really related to and it got me through a lot. So, that’s a special record for me to get that collaboration. So, shout out to Blu, man. I really appreciate that.

TRHH: On the intro song “BlacAmerica” you say, “How you kill a guy, and the guy who died gets vilified/The victim is somehow the guy that’s still alive.” I feel like when racists start bringing up the faults of black people who were unjustly murdered it helps them to justify it in their minds so they can sleep better at night. What do you think the reasoning is for blaming people who are murdered for their own murder?

Stik Figa: I have my theories. I think my theories are based on not only lived experience, but documented data that supports this idea. So, when it comes to black Americans in specific there has been a centuries long marketing of the danger that we supposedly present to the rest of society. It’s a very comfortable place that they’ve been able to position black people, so anytime that you hear about a murder or homicide at the hands of the state it becomes very easy to pivot from, “well this person in position of authority was doing a greater good for the rest of society by neutralizing the threat.” We’ve been working for our entire lives in this particular civilization to establish humanity, dignity, and to be seen as people. That fight continues because people trust oppressive systems more than they trust its citizens.

It doesn’t just affect the majority, it affects the oppressed as well because you could hear that same rhetoric coming from people who look just like us who say, “well what did he do?” A lot of that is survival mechanism too. People are afraid that their chance is coming up to be on that chopping block. To be next in line when the state makes its decisions. Beyond the obvious racial discrimination and oppression, and that’s not up for debate, but aside from that, people have a really deep fear that their turn is coming. I can’t remember which comedian it was, but he said, “when you’re listening to the people at the higher-class making jokes about people and it just might not be your people group, but your train is coming!” [Laughs] That train is never late and forgive the language, but it’s usually the nigga train. The train is always coming. I know that’s a long-winded answer, but I know that the way they propagandized black people has always worked. It’s like a magic bullet when you want to scare white folks.

We just had something happen in Kansas City where the young man just rang the doorbell and thought he was at the wrong house, and I know that area very well, it’s easy to mix 115 from 115th Cove out there in the suburbs. I know we’re talking about the sick nature of his assault, but what’s not ever going to be discussed is what is it in the mind of a person that as soon as he saw black he thought shoot? What is in the psyche of a person that says I saw a black, I shot. He went to the police and probably told that same story the same way. “It’s 10:00 o’clock at night, man. I saw a black, I fired. They likely said, “Yeah, I get it, man.” He knocked on the doors of everybody in that neighborhood and no one opened the door to help him. I could immediately say to myself if someone lighter complected was in that situation he wouldn’t have shot. Maybe that’s presumptuous, but my lived experience tells me that that is likely the case. The long way to answer that question is just that there are things that people fear and there are machines in place that work very well, they’re well-oiled, they’re maintained, and they get results. Our deaths are often the results. That’s just how I see it.

TRHH: You’re right, it’s definitely an ugly pattern. You can mention George Floyd, you could mention Trayvon Martin , it’s the same thing. “What did they do?” “Oh, this guy was on drugs,” “Oh, this guy had a fake $20,” Does it justify death? Any of this?

Stik Figa: Or it’s the deflection when it’s like, “Well, y’all shooting each other up all the time.” There’s reasons for that, too.

TRHH: And here’s the reality of that, most times when there’s a black-on black murder that person goes to jail. What we’re talking about is people skating. Most of the time when it’s a renegade white guy or a cop that kills a black person they do not go to jail. We saw the Rodney King beating 30 years ago on tape — the cops walked. It was on tape. So, it’s not the same discussion. They put black folks in jail.

Stik Figa: They lock you up for that for a very long time.

TRHH: And I’m okay with that. If there’s a murder, I’m okay with locking a murderer up. 

Stik Figa: The funny thing about that song is I’d been writing that song since I was in high school. I just changed the names and changed the circumstances, but so much of it hadn’t changed. I never found the music for it. I could never find the music for this rhyme I wrote. I started doing it at shows acapella, but I just could never find the music. and When I first wrote it the name in there was Trayvon. Something different would happen and I’d find a new way to rhyme the name and that’s when it got even more sobering. And then this happened with this brother. I’m gonna leave it alone, it’s already recorded, but I have been writing that particular rhyme for a long time and just couldn’t find music. I’m just thinking to myself, “Dang, ten some years, the circumstance ain’t changed. This rhyme is still evergreen so I gotta kick it over something.

TRHH: Do you always write without music?

Stik Figa: Generally, I don’t. I have ideas that I put in my phone or I just jot down for subjects or just finding words that rhyme. If there was like an interesting word I learned or a thought I have and I’m like, “Oh, that rhymes with this,” and I might just write it down. But then once I get music I start kind of formulating an idea of what I want the song to sound like and how I want the words to bounce against the beat. So, that was another interesting thing about that song, as soon as I heard the horns on it the horns sounded mournful. Usually horns are like try a triumphant kind of instrument, so I was like, “Yo, I gotta do it. I gotta finally do it on this one.” Now the choice for it to be song one was Expert’s. I always think about having songs like that be somewhere towards the end in a more traditional fashion. But I think what ended up being real cool about it being first and then Uknowhut? being second works because it’s like, man, that’s intense [laughs]. But then it kind of like goes back up and uplifts a little.

TRHH: Did you have discussions about rearranging the sequence?

Stik Figa: Oh yeah, we talked about that a lot. We talked about the sequence a lot. That was probably the thing we actually talked about most. He actually would swap out beats too. Some of the songs had different beats and he did remixes to them. “Lonely Planet” is one of those. I wrote that to a different beat and then he did a new beat that was super-dope. Normally I fight those things. The only other time I haven’t fought it was when I had a song called “Holding Back Tears” and it was Apollo Brown. I wrote that to a Skyzoo beat that I didn’t know Skyzoo was gonna get [laughs].

So, I wrote it, recorded it, and everything and Mike from Mello Music was like, “Oh, man that’s Skyzoo’s. You can’t use it.” It just felt so perfect! He says, “Nah, man. I’ll tell you what, Apollo’s gonna remix it.” I got a little queasy about it because the song was really personal. I was worried that it wouldn’t match. But Apollo Brown really pulled one on that. He hooked it up and Holding Back Tears is like my most played song on the internet, or streaming, or whatever. It’s crazy though because I didn’t write it to that beat. So, sometimes it just works out that way.

TRHH: On the song “Yah’s Shorthand” you speak about your faith. How would you explain what God has done for you, to a person who doesn’t believe in a creator?

Stik Figa: Man, that’s a good question! Man, that’s a good question. What I try to get across in that record is my faith is just that, it’s mine. I can’t necessarily, because I’ve been on the other side of that trying to intellectualize it for myself and others. That’s a lot of what that record means to me is that I have basically hit a wall with the desire to try to explain it to people. And the best that I could come up with is that what God has done for me is giving me the eyes I’ve needed, and the confidence I’ve needed when I didn’t have it to navigate this world. This is going to sound kind of wild, but your parents are like your first God, right. Your parents, if you’re fortunate enough to have them, they lay out instruction for you, they do the best that they can to protect you, and they’re flesh, so they have limitations. So, when it comes to God though, when my folks aren’t there my folks don’t have those answers, and all the intelligent people that I trust don’t have those answers, I find great solace in speaking with the creator.

Like I said, having that instinct that he gives me and the eyes to navigate and deal with this, as my mom always said, system of things. This world. It’s already on a social level not made for me as a black man. And then on a spiritual level, the world is devoid of that. It’s not really too concerned with where my spirit is. So, you know the creator gives me guidance, I feel a sense of protection, and I know that if I didn’t have that faith there’s a lot of dark holes I could have fell in and not made my way out of. And again, like I said at the beginning, it’s mine. You can’t give faith transfusions really. You can only live it and hope to be an example of it in a way that doesn’t bring dishonor on his name. That’s the big thing now I notice with the younger people, they rightfully are skeptical. They rightfully question those things because of how people have lived their faith. I try to live mine with knowledge that I’m imperfect and do my best, and ask for that spirit to do what I need to do, and bring honor, primarily. That’s what it’s all about.

TRHH: “The Forgotten” is my favorite song on the album…

Stik Figa: Really?

TRHH: Yes.

Stik Figa: Wow, that’s surprising.

TRHH: Why?

Stik Figa: Just because. You’re not the only one, the label owner loves it, too. The guy from Rucksack, Danny. Because it’s so short is one thing. I was really iffy on that song. I thought we might take it off, honestly. It’s a fully realized song, but it’s not a traditional verse/hook/chorus/pre-chorus kind of record. It’s just kind of me emoting, which that’s something that happens on Lonely Planet, too, where it’s kind of like these streams of thoughts. So, it surprises me that you like that record. I would think that it’s just kind of like an end cap or like an interlude type sounding thing. You and Danny agree like, “I like that one! That’s the one!”

TRHH: On the chorus you say, “Just enjoy the journey and don’t forget the purpose.” Were you always able to live in the moment and keep your focus on the end goal, and if not, how were you able to get to that point?

Stik Figa: I was not, that’s why I wrote it. Because I was in this space where as an artist you just kind of start feeling like you’re just shouting into the void, especially now, rap is so saturated. Everybody can rhyme, everyone can make a beat, and that could be positive. But for me, it’s like who is listening to this? Sometimes I be needing that validation like, who is listening to this? Who likes this? I’m not getting maybe some perceived feedback that I think in my mind, and I’m aging as an artist. I started when I was in my 20s now I’m 40, I don’t have the stuff that I thought I would when I when I was eighteen wanting to be a rapper and chasing the Jay-Z dream [laughs]. It’s just kind of like being a careerist a little bit.

I had reached that point because with the The Forgotten, even the title and the idea is we will all eventually be forgotten, depending on how long this whole life thing lasts, right? I got kids and they’ll tell their kids, but who knows how long the memory of me is going to be around. And then I think, well I’m making these records, how long will that be? But then I think to myself from a from a rap fans perspective, how many people have already forgotten Grandmaster Flash and the Furious 5? I know who they are, you know who they are, but if I were to put on “Superrappin’” you’re gonna look at me like, what is this? This doesn’t even resemble what people call rap now. I put on my favorite records — I put on my Outkast records, my Wu-Tang records, my Sean P records, my Mac Dre records, Too $hort, and that’s happening again.

So, it’s like I created so much anxiety around the idea of being forgotten that I ain’t wanna do it. I was like, “If I can’t be mega-recognized as much as Nas, what’s the point? Why even try?” That kind of thing. That’s kind of what “The Forgotten” was about. All of this anxiety, and all of these feelings of being forgotten, and at the end of it I just want to say now that I’m at this older age and space I’m just glad I could be of service. If the 100 people, 50 people, 25 people, it meant something to them, then that counts for something. It’s not an easy resolve to get to as an artist sometimes, because you kind of want the other stuff [laughs]. You want the shiny stuff.

I think what made me even write this song was in my hometown people used to make these lists, and I’m not from a major market — I’m from Topeka, KS/Kansas City area, so people would make these lists, it felt like every six months on Facebook. Somebody would be like, “Who are the best rappers in Topeka? Who were the best rappers in Lawrence? In Kansas City? Who was the best in the region?” And I would act like I didn’t care. I’d scroll through and not see my name. It would be digging into my little ego like, “How they ain’t gon’ say me? I’m the one who did this and that!” I’m missing the point, man. I’ve already got people who listen to my music and it means something to them, and it doesn’t have to be 100,000 people, it doesn’t have to be the whole world. I just had to get to that place where I was like, just enjoy the journey, be glad you could have been of service, make sure you’re having fun, and have your own personal success.

TRHH: Who is the Ritual album made for?

Stik Figa: My knee-jerk reaction was, well I made it for myself. I felt like I needed to hear those songs. That’s where I start, but now that it’s done, it’s completed and it’s out for people, I think The Ritual is made for anybody who’s in a place in their life where they’re making tough decisions and they’re finding resolve in who they are as people, because that’s what it is for me. If you’re not digging that deep for a record, it’s for anybody who kind of misses music with a message. That’s something I used to actually get insecure about, especially in the last five years. I had gotten really insecure about making quote unquote “conscious” or “preachy” music, because so much of what’s in the underground right now is not necessarily substance heavy. It’s not necessarily message driven, it’s not a lot of stories. A lot of it is rap for rap’s sake — I’m the best rapper — and I love that kind of stuff. It’s actually my primary favorite brand of rap [laughs]. Brag rap — I love it — there’s a place for that.

But anybody who’s kind of like, “Man, where’s the message? What am I supposed to get from this? What am I supposed to learn about this person from it?” I made that for that person — for that particular Hip-Hop fan. I hope that comes across and I hope people enjoy it however they do. I also think anyone who likes banging beats and diversity in production because Expert went super crazy on every beat, in my opinion. And there’s even some like super left of field stuff, like the song “Service” with a Defcee. I’ve been wanting to do a record like that for a while, just kind of in that Aesop Rock chamber and show that side of what I do [laughs].  But, yeah, man, just genuine Hip-Hop fans. Genuine, looking for sincere rap music, is what I could say, if there is room for that in your music selection.

Purchase: Stik Figa x The Expert – Ritual

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About Sherron Shabazz

Sherron Shabazz is a freelance writer with an intense passion for Hip-Hop culture. Sherron is your quintessential Hip-Hop snob, seeking to advance the future of the culture while fondly remembering its past.
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