A Lunchbox of CDs Inspired Local Hip-Hop Producer and 'Old Head' M. Stacks

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Cleveland hip-hop producer M.Stacks turned 29 earlier this year and, for the first time, started feeling old.

“People in the studio started calling me O.G., old head," he says one recent afternoon from Bulkley Creative House. "It bothered me at first, but now I’m okay with it. When I was a little kid, I never wanted to be young and dumb; I wanted to be one of the wise older guys.”

In a city whose hip-hop core has been ephemeral or non-existent, a kid who graduated high school ten years ago can become a veteran just by learning the craft, putting in work, and sticking around.

But don’t get confused — Stacks didn’t just slide into this role by default. His musicality runs deep and his grind has been years in the works.

Born Miguel Brown Jr. in Hawaii, Stacks and his family moved to Atlanta in 1993 as the city was beginning to form its unique hip-hop identity; Outkast, Laface Records and the Freaknik Festival were beginning to flourishing and the city’s hip-hop was getting national attention for the first time. At home, Brown’s father drenched him in the era’s choicest sounds from around the country — Tribe Called Quest, Mobb Deep, Wu Tang, 2Pac, 2 Live Crew — and gifted him a lunchbox full of CDs that became Stacks’ life soundtrack.

But it wasn’t until he began getting in trouble at school that he got serious about music. After moving to Shaker Heights, Stacks was expelled from the seventh grade following a few fights. His father basically told him to get his shit together, urging him to find an outlet while simultaneously expressing his support.

Stacks replied that he wanted to make music — hip-hop, specifically. With saved up Christmas money and some help from his parents, he went to Sam Ash and picked up the basics — an 8-track recorder, a microphone, a drum machine. With effectively an entire year of “alternative school” (read: chilling at home) just to work on his music, Stacks fell in love. By the next school year, he’d turned his act around.

“I think I got ‘Most Improved Student’ or something,” he acknowledges, “It worked, so shout out to my dad. He wasn’t judgmental, never tried to shoot my dreams down — he was always thinking outside the box.”

He started developing a signature sound: M. Stacks beats are an appealing brand of bass-heavy, kush-clouded, sample-driven concoctions. With sweeping strings and mellow horns layered on computerized drum kits, the result is a sort of lethargic, hazy summer sound that can knock out of car speakers.

“Naledge from Kidz In The Hall told me I make ‘soulful stripper music,’” he says, laughing, “Slowed down, chopped-up soul samples, heavy bass, and heavy 808s.”

By high school, his mixing skills and broad musical knowledge got him DJ gigs around the city — biker bars on the west side, sports bars in Brook Park. In a lucky happenstance his senior year, he was prominently featured in a lengthy GQ essay by Shaker native and current GQ Editorial Director Devin Friedman as he returned to his alma mater; Friedman took a significant slice of the essay to dive into Stacks’ story, highlighting him as a talented, promising artist.

“That GQ article really put a battery in my back and it felt solidified in my mind — I wasn’t gonna go to college,” Stacks asserts, “But then I got scared. What the fuck kind of job was I gonna get? I didn’t have any skills. I DJ’ed all through high school, so I went to college to give it a try.”

But after two semesters — one at CSU, another at Tri-C — he dropped out. He was spending far more time working on music, and in his first year out of high school, he’d produced a whole album for Ray Cash, a local artist coming off a record deal with Sony.

“Even if I had gotten my degree, who was I going to show it to? Ray Cash didn’t ask to see my degree,” Stacks shrugs.

During this time, he was brought into the fold of Dreamlife Entertainment, Lebron James and Rich Paul’s fledgling record label that served as an umbrella for Cleveland’s Cap Rap era — namely Al Fatz and Chip tha Ripper, with both of whom Stacks collaborated frequently. But he quickly discovered that working as an in-house producer wasn’t for him — there wasn’t enough flexibility, and he would get big bro’d by the label. Stacks specifically recalls a time when he was told he “wasn’t ready” to meet Kid Cudi and play him some beats.

Stacks split — his work with Ray Cash was enough of a foot in the door, and a beat of his got picked up by Bun-B, a heavy hitter from Houston with mainstream success and critical acclaim. Stacks began making frequent trips to Chicago to work with artists based in the Windy City. He nabbed placements with Vic Mensa, Kidz In The Hall, GLC, flipping one gig into another like any savvy, millennial creative type worth his salt would.

Back in Cleveland, he’d maneuvered into the house DJ role at Peabody’s, the now-defunct Flats club that served up metal, hip-hop, or Top 40 depending on the night. Stacks used his role to gain access to some of hip-hop’s biggest names early on — it’s where he met Rittz, the 30-something quick-spitting Georgian who was opening for a fellow white southern rapper, Yelawolf, with just an aux cord plugged into his phone.

This chance encounter proved fruitful — the two kept up a steady collaborative dialogue, exchanging beats and verses until Rittz ended up rapping over a Stacks beat for what became “Like I Am.” The lush, drawling, blues-influenced track became a single off of Rittz’ debut album on Tech N9ne’s Strange Music label, and has since racked up millions of spins across streaming platforms and YouTube.

These types of organic encounters have propelled Stacks’ career — right place, right time, and real recognizing real. A few years ago while Stacks was DJing a few showcases at SXSW, he ran into Detroit rapper Boldy James, one of hip-hop’s most known unknowns for whom he’d produced before. Boldy hasn’t cracked into the mainstream, but he’s a perennial underground star — your favorite rapper’s favorite rapper who has entire albums produced by legenderary producer the Alchemist, a record deal with Nas’s Mass Appeal Records and a penchant for lyricism.

Boldy had parted ways with his DJ following a tour with Mobb Deep, and asked Stacks to back him up down in Austin. The pair clicked, and Boldy asked him to DJ for him on a 50-city tour opening for Royce Da 5’9” and DJ Premier, two godfathers of hip-hop. Stacks, of course, accepted, and spent months picking the brain of one of the most influential producers in hip-hop history.

“I was trying not to fan out,” he says, laughing, describing the list of legends he met while on the tour: Slaughterhouse, Gangstarr, The Roots, Nas.

Like Joey Bada$$ or Chuck Inglish, Stacks is an almost anachronistic torchbearer of a sound that some may argue is on its way out. He stands by his soul samples and has to be one of the youngest DJs who started out digging through yard sale record crates and spinning on vinyl, not Serato, the DJing software the became ubiquitous by the mid-to-late 00s.

“People used to shit on me because I was sampling, saying that’s all I knew how to do," he says. "And maybe so, but I’ve perfected it.”

Even his introduction to the A-list of the hip-hop world on the Royce/Premier tour puts him in an old-school camp; Royce’s fellow Slaughterhouse group member, Joe Budden, is currently making waves as Complex’s stubborn old guard hip-hop purist, yelling at teenagers and confronting hitmakers. While he’s not flipping out at younger rappers, Stacks keeps an old school flair, namedropping classic blogs illRoots and NahRight the way his SoundCloud rap contemporaries might rep a Fader write-up.

He’s comfortable with and accepting of his role as a young old head, as long as it’s on his own terms.

“I’m aware of the rules and the foundation that this shit was founded on… but I’m not stuck in my ways,” he notes.

This strategy seems to be working, and he’s put himself in a good position; Stacks got in early with artists he respected and made himself valued. He could eat for years off his royalty checks from Rittz alone, which facilitates his creative freedom and financial stability.

“What is success? Making a living doing what I love — producing and DJing. I’ve achieved it,” Stacks says, and it’s hard to disagree with his assessment.

While his next chapter as a musician is yet to be determined, it won’t be rushed, or filtered through trend or commercial necessity.

“I’m not pressed, man,” says Stacks, shrugging, tempered, “I’m not pressed.”

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