J-Stalin knows how to make an entrance.
The first time we meet, in November 2004 at the Mekanix's recording studio in East Oakland, he enters nonchalantly, sporting an embroidered eye mask as though it were everyday wear. He walks up to me and shakes my hand. "I'm J-Stalin. I write and record two songs a day," he says with boyish pride.
I had a hard time retaining the notion the rapper wasn't a boy, for though he'd recently turned 21, his five-foot frame and preternatural baby face gave the impression of a raspy-voiced, blunt-puffing, Henny-swilling 14-year-old.
Yet he already had a storied past. A teen crack dealer, or "d-boy," from West Oakland's Cypress Village, Stalin was busted at age 17, spending the next 11 months on parole with weekends in juvenile hall. During this period, to both stave off boredom and possibly escape the multigenerational cycle of dope-dealing in his family, the young Jovan Smith began writing raps, finding out about the other Stalin in 11th-grade history class, and soaking up game at the Grill in Emeryville, where family friend DJ Daryl had a recording studio.
After letting him watch for a year, Daryl put Stalin on a track — the result so impressed Daryl's frequent collaborator, Bay Area legend Richie Rich, he immediately commissioned a hook. Stalin would end up on three cuts on Rich's Nixon Pryor Roundtree (Ten-Six, 2002) and on two as a member of the Replacement Killers, a group that included Rich and Crestside Vallejo's PSD. Several more songs from this period had just surfaced on Rich's 2004 compilation, Snatches, Grabs, and Takes (Ten-Six), though Stalin had since defected to the Mekanix's production company, Zoo Entertainment. By the time we met, the highly productive crew had recorded most of Stalin's upcoming debut, On Behalf of Tha Streets.
During the next 18 months, J-Stalin would generate no small amount of buzz, thanks in part to high-profile guest shots on projects like the Jacka's The Jack Artist (Artist, 2005) and the Delinquents' Have Money Have Heart (Dank or Die, 2005). Three advance tracks from On Behalf — "Party Jumpin’," featuring Jacka; a clean version of "Fuck You"; and an homage to the classic drum machine, "My 808" — have accumulated spins on KMEL, while the video for "My 808" has more than 20,000 plays on Youtube.com. Too $hort says he's "next," E-40's dubbed him "the future," and major labels like Capitol and Universal are checking him hard.