.Raps to Riches

J. Stalin, Livewire Records CEO, talks about his new album, reflects on his 20-year rap career and fatherhood

On an uncharacteristically frigid Saturday evening in Jack London Square at Plank, I’m pleasantly surprised to see I’m not the only one who chose not to stay inside. While much has been said about the gentrification and shrinking Black population in Oakland, tonight the family-friendly venue is filled with dozens of small groups of Black families enjoying a meal, bowling or having a cocktail.

As I venture to the outdoor patio, I see an unpredictable assortment of people heading to the bar, not to buy a drink, but to pay homage. As I get closer, I observe West Oakland’s own, rapper J. Stalin, the Livewire CEO, holding court. 

Born in 1987, the year before Vice President George H. W. Bush considered former California Gov. George Deukmejian as a running mate during his pursuit of the 41st presidency, and two years before 42 of the 62 casualties of the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake passed away due to the Cypress freeway collapse, J. Stalin, born Jovan Smith, is a product and representation of Oakland history. 

When listening to J. Stalin’s music, one can hear soul samples, often requested by him directly, ranging from Freddie Jackson to The Stylistics. What some may not know about him is that he’s a huge Prince fan. Before getting started with this interview, he proudly shows a tattoo on his arm of Prince’s “Love Symbol.” However, after releasing more than 50 projects since his 2006 debut album, On Behalf of the Streets, I was curious to know how he maintains his output in a way that’s sustainable as a father, and businessperson.

“I love rap music. But to keep motion, it’s a never ending working process. I’m a single father, so I do Monday to Friday with my kids, and I drop them off with their mom on the weekends,” he shared. 

I was first introduced to J. Stalin’s music in 2007, when he received a solo feature on the collaborative album Da Bidness, by San Quinn, Keak Da Sneak and P.S.D. J. Stalin has made a habit of keeping his head down, grinding hard for what he wants and pouncing on an opportunity that provides him with the chance to show his talents on a large stage. 

In 2004, he got his first big break by being featured on three songs on Richie Rich’s album Nixon Pryor Roundtree. The pivotal moment was a result of the heads down approach J. Stalin has taken to progressing in the rap game. Prior to meeting Richie Rich at 18, he had spent a year going to the recording studio with DJ Daryl, who was in the late 1980s Oakland group 415 with Richie Rich.

In retrospect, J. Stalin is appreciative of the mindset he had at the time. He could have been discouraged by not having the opportunity to record early on.

“I wasn’t recording, but I still went every day just to be in the studio environment. What if I would have said, forget this, y’all ain’t letting me record, I’m not coming back. Then Rich never would have found me. That just let me know to stay down and keep doing what I was doing,” he said.

It was his contributions to Nixon Pryor Roundtree that laid the foundation for where J. Stalin is today. In 2006, his debut album, On Behalf of the Streets, made him a standout artist among underground Bay Area hip-hop fans. That same year, he and producer DJ Fresh released the collaborative album, The Real World: West Oakland. This would be the first of a long list of collaborative projects between the two, a partnership that still exists today. In 2022, they released the sixth installment of their Real World series. 

Today, however, it’s time to talk about the release of his most recent album, Prenuptial Agreement 2, the follow up to his 2010 classic album, Prenuptial Agreement.

In 2010, Bay Area rap music was at a crossroads, having seen the buzz around the Hyphy movement settle. While J. Stalin came up during the Hyphy frenzy, his style fit more of the mob music aesthetic. He was able to collaborate with key figures of that era, like Mistah Fab and producer Traxxamillion. But when the first Prenuptial Agreement was released, he was on a mission to bring mob music back to the forefront. 

“It took me from just doing shows in the Bay Area to doing shows all over the world,” he shared.

J. Stalin has become known to release sequels to some of his albums. In addition to the The Real World series, he has released follow ups to On Behalf of the Streets, Gas Nation and Tears of Joy, among others. However, he didn’t initially have plans to release a follow up to Prenuptial Agreement.

“For 13 years, my fans have been asking me for a Prenup 2. I finally decided to give them what they want because the customer’s always right in any business you’re doing,” said J. Stalin.

On the 17-track album, J. Stalin enlists some of his go-to producers, like The Mekanix, Clayton Williams, Mike Made The 808s and Juneonnabeat. 

“It’s all about the vibes on this album. After I did the first four or five songs, I was like, ooh, this sounds like a Prenup album,” he reflected. 

On Prenuptial Agreement 2, J. Stalin still raps about the brutal realities of growing up in West Oakland over mob beats. But in talking to the man, one can hear a mind focused on expansion. In 2020, part due to the COVID pandemic, he ventured into entrepreneurship. 

“I couldn’t make no money traveling doing shows, so I opened a clothing store in Fresno,” he said.

In Fresno, he has also opened a barbershop and recording studio. This year, he has plans to start a podcast. 

Looking back on a career that now spans nearly 20 years, J. Stalin shares that it’s his lyrics that have changed the most. 

“I talk more about my kids. I barely talk about shooting and killing,” the proud father of two reflects.  

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