Stephen the Levite Explains How ‘Still Hungry’ Collab Album with DJ Official Came About [INTERVIEW]
Stephen the Levite has been a staple for Christian Hip-Hop for the better part of 20 years. From the beginning with MuzeOne in Redeemed Thought to dropping the classic album To Die Is Gain, to his stint with Lamp Mode and The Collective, even having commercial success with The Last Missionary, he’s been a top-of-mind emcee in CHH for a long while. This year he paired up with the legendary producer, DJ Official for his newest album, Still Hungry. We just recently were able to link up to talk about the album.
Still Hungry is really dope, and it’s a posthumous collaboration album with DJ Official. How did all this come together?
I started working on this album before Fish (DJ Official) passed away in 2016. That’s how long it took me to finish it. My original plan was that I was going to put out three quick EPs with like 7 songs on them each. This was before Kanye went on that run of EPs with a bunch of different artists that had only like 7 tracks. I started working on it, but then I moved to Brooklyn.
Once I hit the ground there I was super busy and wasn’t finding much time to write. I had just left Lamp Mode, then Fish passed away just after that, so I was in a transitional state and wasn’t getting much momentum going on anything. I became very critical of what I was making. Especially with the thought that this could be the last that people hear from Fish. I wanted this project to be dope. There was also that thought in my head that people could see me as an opportunist or someone who was trying to take advantage of the fact that I had Fish’s beats. I didn’t want people to think of it like I didn’t respect or value what I had.
So the plan was for it all to be centered around food?
I started writing for the album and I think some of the concepts I was coming up with were similar to what I was talking about in the song GMOs. Hip-hop is like a diet of sorts. Certain artists are more like candy canes, you know what I’m saying? Or popcorn, or gum, you know what I’m saying? Some artists are like McDonald’s, some are a plate of soul food.
What type of food do you view yourself as?
I view myself as healthy soul food. It’s good for you and it tastes good. The food is organic. I try to bring classic soulful healthy food like I’d say fruit with seeds in it. I try to give you the fruit of the spirit but also the seed of the Gospel.
In the song “Carnivores,” you talk about “theological carnivores” and you go crazy with a few bars, saying, ‘Before I went to Bible college I was like you/A coward looking for a fight, proof I was prideful/Not seeking to find truth, just seeking the right proof/to prove I was right, not righteous through divine fruit’ – some deep concepts here. Talk about what this means to you.
There are misconceptions about meat in the Bible. We see the passages about, “how young Christians want milk, but because we’ve grown Christians we want meat.” When we read about meat in the Bible, especially in KJV it’s usually talking about any kind of solid food. Like fruit, an apple could have meat in it. That’s the first thing. Secondly, when Jesus is talking about meat, He’s not talking about consuming God’s Word, He’s talking about doing God’s will.
There’s this concept out there that goes, “If I’m reading or studying the more intellectual or complex things of the Bible then I’m chewing meat.” I’d say that’s wrong because that’s not how Jesus talks about it. My meat has to do with doing the will of the Father. When people focus on the type of meat they think they’re eating they lose out on the actual meat of doing God’s will. They’re so focused on the information and the studying. The mental gymnastics that people use to excuse certain ideas because they’re so smart cause them to miss out on the simplicity of just obeying what the word of God says. For instance, the idea of “love your neighbor,” but then you have 10,000 explanations why you won’t do that. Let’s think about this for a second, bro… just love your neighbor.
When it comes to taste in music and even how I categorize my hip-hop I find myself similar to you. Like in your song “Locally Grown,” I too find myself referring to hip-hop from certain regions. You point out how there’s a monotonous sound in hip-hop overall where everyone seems to be bleeding together.
It’s globalization, you know? Like now an artist from Australia like Iggy Azalea can come out and rap with a southern accent over trap beats. Drake can try on a few different accents and no one thinks anything of it. It really hit me the most when I moved to New York and all I heard was trap. I was like, “What?! Nahhh I want to hear some East Coast Hip-Hop!” It’s definitely not what I thought it’d be when I was dreaming of moving to the East Coast.
The thing is though, I have to say I’m from California. I’m not supposed to sound like I’m East Coast anyway. I grew up being so engulfed in East Coast hip-hop that I learned my language from the music, and even how I dressed, people thought I was from the east coast anyway. I think the point I’m trying to make there is not that you can’t push boundaries for what your sound could be, it’s just the idea of respecting the fact that each region had its own DNA at some point. That’s what made hip-hop special.
It’s crazy for me to think that you’ve been writing this for years because listening to these concepts I feel like this album was meant to drop this year. What you’re talking about seems like it’s set in 2020. There are these interesting shifts in the hip-hop culture that are happening, but then in speaking on American culture at large you have your song “Strange Fruit.” This is a song that covers racism, classism, and white supremacy. All of these things are laid out on the table.
Yeah, yeah, when I got that beat it was originally titled “Ferguson,” so I already knew what Fish wanted the song to be about. It really took me a minute to write because I didn’t know what to say at first. I knew what I’d heard some other people say in their songs, but I knew I needed to go through the scriptures. We’re not taught to think about these things from a scriptural perspective. We’re given one narrative from evangelical Christianity and we’re not taught to look through scriptures for ourselves and find these ideas. I read through my Bible every year, and the last two laps I’ve been looking for anything related to justice. It’s caused me to think through things and meditate on stuff. Looking at the culture now (through the lens of) the Bible, this is what I see.
I called this song “Strange Fruit,” pointing back to the Nina Simone song. That was the version I heard, while I think the original was Billie Holiday. I knew the album was going to be about fruit, but I flipped the idea to be about the type of fruit you’re seeing on Christians. What kind of fruit is that when your love for your neighbor doesn’t seem to be appetizing?
This song points back to the martyrdom of Christians. The black Church might be the most persecuted church in the U.S. but we don’t talk about that. The black Church is secularized but not talked about. You don’t think about Frederick Douglas as a Christian, you don’t think about W.E.B. Dubois as a Christian, or Sojourner Truth, or Harriet Tubman. You think of them as Civil Rights Leaders, but not Christians first. This song was an opportunity for me to hash out all of this, and all my thoughts about it in the best way I thought I could.
So you finish the project with “The Recipe,” can you talk about the significance of the story of Jacob and Edom to you?
I always have a Bible story on my albums. I like the Old Testament because it has a lot of stories, and I think people sleep on the Old Testament. The last time I read through this story, I was like, “yo.. the times that he betrayed his father and his brother, he did it over a plate of food.” It was an excuse for me to tell this story. I thought it was cool how there are two plates of food involved. I tried to spin it and bring it to a conclusion and this is what I came up with – add the red stew with the goat, you’re gonna get beef but if you add the lamb you’ll get peace.
When I think of the idea of food, there’s something communal about gathering around food. Is there a correlation between that and how you’re talking about communities, relationships, and society throughout this project?
I was inspired by Wells, The Tonic from Cross Movement. He always has food metaphors in his songs. I don’t know if you pay attention to it, but if you go back and listen it’s there.
I’m thinking of his song “The Shock.”
Yes, exactly! Fish told me that Tonic does that because everyone can relate to food. Because everybody’s got to eat. It inspired the idea, and I ran with it. Everybody can relate to this. Even to the extent where the verses of the month I’ve been doing, those are based on food too in order to set up the album. It was my way of saying “stay hungry because something’s coming.” I feel like if you can get people hungry it makes people want to be involved.
So what’s the significance of the name Still Hungry for you?
The reason I called it that was because Fish was sick when I was writing this, and at the time he wanted to prove he didn’t have to tour to be productive. He could still go into the studio and make dope beats, he was still hungry. I also think of this line from De La Soul, “It’s not that we not hungry, we just picky about what we eat.” We always talk about the young and hungry artists, and when you get older it doesn’t mean you’re not hungry, it means you’re more particular about what you want to eat. It’s not that I’m not hungry, it’s not that I’m not grinding, I’m just more mature. I’m an old head and I’m comfortable with my old head-ness, but I’m still hungry. I’m still gonna put some bars on the table.
Any last thoughts?
Yeah…Be looking on my socials for a freestyle challenge over a DJ Official beat in the coming months. Also, there are 10 days left on the crowdfunded vinyl version of Still Hungry at qrates.com. I’m also writing a book, a 31-day devotional that’s being edited right now! So be on the lookout for that. Oh! AND me and my wife’s 13 year anniversary is December 21st.
What’d you think of this conversation? Have you heard Still Hungry by Stephen the Levite? Listen below.