Chuck Strangers Says Forget The Money, It’s Time To Get Your Skill Up
Chuck Strangers is one of the most prominent members of the Pro Era collective, made most of the original beats for Joey Bada$$’s breakout mixtape 1999 and is currently working hard on his own soon-to-be-released debut project. He also taught me how to smoke a bong. I turned 24 last week, and I had never smoked a bong in my life. The 23-year-old producer came over to my apartment with a black carrying case, seemingly more fit to carry a piece of athletic equipment than weed paraphernalia. He bought it in San Diego, he said, while telling me a story.
“An Uber driver asked me what this was, and I didn’t feel like talking to him about it, so I made up some shit. I said, ‘It’s an African Camboya drum!’ This dude straight up said to me, ‘Oh really? my friend plays one of those’ I was like, oh my God, this guy isn’t going to leave me alone.”
After halfway clearing my first bong rip (“Thanks for not judging me,” I attempted, while violently coughing), we agreed that neither of us like talking to Uber drivers.
“Like I just want to fucking sit and chill during my cab ride,” I lamented.
“I know! Me too. And one time this guy started talking to me about the rating I have. I was like, ‘Why are you telling me this?’ But sometimes I fuck around with them too. Like Uber drivers will ask me, ‘What do you do?’ and instead of saying that I make beats, or that I’m a producer, I say, ‘I work at Popeyes’…or sometimes I say, ‘I don’t do shit. My dad pays for everything of mine.’’
“You say that? I would be way too self conscious to ever say something like that.”
“Really?” He was surprised. Chuck Strangers will speak candidly about what he’s insecure about, but his career is not a part of that. I asked him why music wasn’t a point of insecurity for him.
“Music was the only thing I’ve ever felt I was actually good at. The first time my music was played for anybody was when I was 13 years old. I started making beats when I was about 12 or 13, and one of my friends played like, 20 seconds of my song in class, and then everybody just started laughing—”
“Did you cry? I would have started bawling.”
“No, I actually didn’t even think to cry!” He told me. “I just remember thinking, ‘okay, now here’s 20 people I have to shit on.’”
We sat in my storage room with a towel placed under the door, so the smell wouldn’t get out. We were hanging out like 14 year olds.
I had initially approached him for an interview after meeting him one night in New York. I’d been drunk that night. Somehow though, during the course of the evening, Chuck had managed to inspire and include the entire group of people at the party in a conversation about music. It’s rare to be at a social gathering and to see drunk people so engaged in a substantial conversation. The subject in question was whether or not hip-hop is “dead.” One self-proclaimed purist, Danny, kept repeating that the music “is just not what it used to be.” I told him he sounded like an old man.
Chuck is an important person to consider in this conversation—as a member of Pro Era, the hip-hop collective has become largely identifiable by the influence that the ’90s era has on their sound and aesthetic. It would make sense for him to rant about the golden days of hip-hop. He didn’t.
“Music has been good and bad in every era, people just forget about the bad music,” he said. Later, when I interviewed him, we spoke a little bit about the public opinion that Pro Era produces primarily revivalist music.
“People just don’t understand that I make the kind of music I like. And although I’ve started to sample a bit less, I do use samples a lot. That’s not ’90s revivalist, it’s just about what I like to do. But I kind of do live under a rock,” he admitted.
“How do you find new music then?”
“To be honest, I like to just come up on new music from personal experience. I don’t enjoy combing through music blogs just to find something new. I’d rather find something through a friend, or at a record shop. I like to really find my music.”
I asked him if living under a rock affects his social life.
“Everyone’s interests aren’t the same as mine. So I just hang out with people who have the same interests as me. I hate, hate, hate to hear people talk about shit for money. We all want money, I want money, but man, do that shit because it’s what you want to do, bro. I hate people talking like, ‘after this, we’re going to get this money, we’re going to get paid,’ I’m just like…what about getting your skill up?”
“Do you think it’s a privilege to do something you love, though?”
“Well, no, because I’ve been homeless. There’s been months where I literally lived on my boy’s couch. When I was doing beats on [the Joey Bada$$ mixtape] 1999, I would do the beats and then go sleep on the couch. Like I had nowhere to go, and no money, but while I was doing that—the other day, I was realizing that I’d never thought about, that every day I was doing music every day. That’s why I was happy. I used to borrow like 3 or 4 bucks from my friend, and just get like an Arizona and a bagel, and just chill and make music all day.”
I ashed my cigarette and told him he was lucky to have such a good friend.
“Yeah, he’s an amazing friend. I love him to death for that. There were crazy times during that period. He was always just such a good friend. We’ve helped each other become good people, but I don’t even know if I could be a good friend like that.”
Chuck is a big fan of the new Kendrick Lamar album. I admitted to him that I’d been one of the haters that was doubtful that Kendrick would ever come back from good kid m.A.A.d city. I told him I hated Kendrick’s song, “i” from last summer.
“At first I hated that song too,” he said. “But then you know something? I was in a really negative place for a while. I was going through a lot of shit where I was feeling really bad about myself. It was really hard. But for some reason, I heard that song by accident, and I just started to think about how I needed to put things in perspective, and see that I could actually feel positive about myself. Like I finally let that shit go. So that song really took me out of a place. And I don’t feel like that at all anymore.”
When he told me that, I freaked out. Then I wondered if I was freaking out because I was high or because what he said was so profound to me; the song could actually propel his thought process and allow him to make real changes to his perspective. “Maybe that’s living in Los Angeles too, though,” I said. “Like maybe the sunshine is affecting your creative process.”
“It definitely is,” he told me. “When I was in New York, I would set my machine to 92 bpm. Now I live out here, I set my machine to 84. Things are slower here, you can’t be doing all that. The single I made, I made the beat in New York, and I couldn’t have made that out here. Cause it’s all like, sounding like a Mobb Deep song and shit. Since I’ve been out here, I’ve made a lot of beats people wouldn’t think I would make.”
“Are people surprised by the work you’re doing now?”
“Oh, they like it. I’ve been sampling for 11 years, you know? And I haven’t been sampling. I haven’t been sampling, for like a month.”
“Like the Lorde song, that’s on your Soundcloud, that’s a sample. When did you make that?”
“That’s old, I made that a month or so ago. That beat is super simple. I didn’t add nothing to it, I just looped the sample. I just heard it and I really liked it. I was going around in my kitchen, which I use as a studio, and I was thinking, that Lorde shit would probably sound okay, like different on here. I don’t like the whole chorus. People ask me, ‘why didn’t you use the whole song? But I don’t like the whole thing.”
“What’s good about what you did, I think, is that you make people want to listen to the Lorde song more than they actually want to hear the song.” I was ready for another bong rip. “You picked the best part.”
“Right, and that’s definitely influenced by living out here. Anyway, I just didn’t like the chorus part. I like it how it is, short like that. And that’s really just how I make music, and that’s what my new album will be like. I just want to make music that sounds like me, and what I like.”
Keep an eye out for Chuck Stranger’s debut album, out Summer 2015