Home to many of the greatest albums that Hip-Hop has ever seen, the West Coast tradition is one of longstanding glory and pride. But as the years have worn on, the greats have transitioned into in the elder statesmen of the music, paving the way for the next generation.
In 2003, the octet of Strong Arm Steady was eager to take on the role of torchbearers. Originally formed as a response to the Gangsta Rap of the 90s, the group was soon reduced to four members, with Xzibit serving as the front man. Employing affiliations to both the Golden Age and the New Age of West Coast Hip-Hop, SAS garnered a loyal, underground following and established themselves with a series of premier mixtapes until Xzibit’s departure in 2007.
Since then, they’ve independently released Deep Hearted, and the critically acclaimed In Search Of Stoney Jackson, marking the exodus from the pure mixtape circuit. It wasn’t long before the path led SAS’s three remaining members, Krondon, Mitchy Slick, and Phil Da Agony to the home of frequent collaborator Talib Kweli, Blacksmith Records, and their Warner Brothers’ debut Arms & Hammers.
What follows next is the upholding of tradition, unrelenting of values, and ultimate dedication to craft.
TSS: What is the significance behind the title Arms & Hammers?
Krondon: Yo, first of all, I frequent the site daily man. I’m a real fan of what you guys are doing over there. Keep it up. When we first started this album, it kind of started with the title, before we even recorded any music. Because it really deals with the concept of how we think as men, and where we’re coming from with the perspective of our music. Like everybody kind of has a stigma of what West Coast artists talk about and think about, with the images and things like that. And I think that with Strong Arm Steady being one of the first to kind of twist and change that and kind of make you look at us differently here out west. You know what I mean? With that being said, Arms & Hammers from a street perspective can be interpreted a certain way. Of course those that spend are all day in the trap and those that spend all day on the street corner, like we do, and do the 1-2-3-4 in the streets and hustling can take what Arms & Hammers means for their own.
And as we grew as men coming from immaturity to maturity, still being young in age but old in spirit, we understand that every person, for instance you, my brother, Raj, with your tape recorder and computer, you are utilizing first your arms and whatever tool you have can be figuratively considered as your Hammer. Likewise a construction worker literally used his arm and a hammer to build the foundation of where we live and breathe. So for the west coast, Arms & Hammers the LP is completely a breakdown of the tools from A all the way to Z that we have to use mentally, physically, and spiritually to just get by on a day to day basis all over the West Coast. North to south, you name it, we represent it.
Phil Da Agony: Yeah, yeah exactly, we named our album after baking soda. That means our shit is crack. They used to say shit is dope, this is the new dope. Our shit is crack. Arms & Hammers.
TSS: The West Coast has seen many transitions from 2Pac, Dr. Dre, Snoop and everything to now like Nipsey Hussle, Game, Jay Rock. So that leads to my next question: which is how has rap over time shaped this project, and since Strong Arm Steady has been around for a long time, how have you guys developed over all these years?
Mitchy Slick: This is to me what separates us from your conventional, or even the new artists that we got out right now. The older sound and the older ideals that they have on the West Coast, we got a little bit of that in us, but we also got a little bit of the new stuff too. But at the same time, a lot of the new cats, they don’t got no old in ‘em, and a lot of the older cats don’t got no new in ‘em. Some of these new cats seem like they totally forgot what built the West. With Strong Arm Steady, you know where we come from, even though you also know that we come from the best elements of this West Coast shit, because we really care about the music.
It ain’t just about the fights, or the beef, or the tattoos or all that shit. We love all that shit, but that ain’t what our music is about. Our music is about crackin’ ass music. And over time, we’re just trying to be competitive and trying to stay relevant with everybody, but not trying to change. Because we ain’t changed, we ain’t got no songs about how to do no dances or no shit like that. I’m not knocking that; that’s cool if that’s what you do but we don’t do that. We keep it street, and we keep it grown up. We keeping it real, hardcore Hip-Hop.
So you hear the sound, and you know what’s going on. Man, we follow Dre, we follow all the new shit and even from an executive standpoint; we got all this shit tied together. Because in the end, it’s about more than just making a song, we out here trying to make a brand with this Strong Arm Steady shit and it’s most definitely a West Coast thing though. The music’s being influenced by all that pop shit. We worked with Xzibit; he was getting shit directly from Dre. Krondon and DJ Khalil are working directly with that new Dre stuff now.
Even in our beginning days, we worked with Game, we fuck with everybody. Bro you from the Bay, I’m on the phone everyday with Beeda Weeda, with Keak, even homies in Pittsburg, and cats like The Jacka. So that’s what you’re getting from Strong Arm Steady. We ain’t just on one corner. We reppin’ this shit on an intercontinental level, on an international level. But no matter what, it’s all a West Coast influence, because we’re trying to bring the whole coast back. We’re excited about it, and in the end, it’s all West Coast.
TSS: Did you guys record this thing in West Coast studios too?
Krondon: Actually we had the opportunity to create over 120 songs for this record, and we worked with every producer that you can probably imagine for us to want to work with. Like my brother said, we take the game so seriously and we have been doing, like you said, a long time and we are men of good humility, so we’ve been able to garner some really good relationships and nurture them musically. And we really, really expressed it on this album. Like I said we worked with everyone, production-wise, and we were even able to bring back some old traditions, like my brother said. Because for us youngsters, Mitchy Slick, Phil Da Agony, and myself to come into this business and start the way we started from an underground level to come all the way to doing records with people like Too $hort, and Marsha from Floetry.
That’s a real blessing man. That’s a real graduation for us! So for a fan that’s been with us either individually or as Strong Arm Steady, they have to look at this as a culmination of effort. Because we put together all of our hopes and dreams and aspirations, musically and we put them into this one source that is Arms & Hammers. So who knows what we’ll go and do from here as a group or individuals.
TSS: So specifically, how have the West Coast legends influenced this album?
Krondon: We understand the lineage of greatness. The lineage of greatness on the West Coast set the bar long before we decided to be artists. And representing the same territory, we got to match that bar. You understand? Kobe Bryant ain’t gonna come and play for the Lakers and not try to be better than Magic, and Kareem, and Worthy and all them niggas, and get more rings. So that’s kind of like when you got an Ice Cube who puts out an Amerikkka’s Most Wanted, and a Death Certificate. You got a Dre that puts out a Chronic, a Chronic 2001, coming now with a Detox. He’s put out The Documentary, he’s put out The Marshall Mathers LP. So from there, you have now, an Arms & Hammers, that can go inside of that lineage of a great West Coast sound. But like my brother said, it has a new twist, approach, look, sound, and everything.
And let me go back and add Cypress Hill’s first two albums to that list as well because them niggas is my brothers and we pull from them. Because when I say influence, I’m sincerely complimenting them because influence in the biggest form of flatter. Not imitation. Imitation is biting.
TSS: Yeah I really feel you on that. It feels like one issue with Hip-Hop today is that a lot of these cats that come out think that they are the ones setting the bar, and that leads to a sense of entitlement.
Mitchy Slick: Yeah, get the fuck outta here!!!
TSS: It’s like their mixtape and singles are popping and then when it comes time for the major release, it’s all the same stuff everybody’s heard before and then they tank, and they’re back to square one. So, how is this album different from your mixtapes and older material?
Krondon: I think for one, during the mixtapes, we were still growing. We were kind of still learning, figuring things out and we were just showing off. We knew that the skill we had was above average, and a lot of energy and braggadocio. And even though Mitchy and Phil had put out independent albums, the mixtapes were more of a way for us to show our skill level and our work ethic that was unmatched at the time. Now everybody’s giving away music for free and all that shit, but back then nobody was really doing it from an artist perspective.
So with Arms & Hammers, you’re getting an album that really, like I said earlier, tries to meet the bars set before. And I don’t mean that to be biased to just a West Coast thing, but we just want to make good music that can be appreciated across the board. But also at the same time, we want it to give a close satellite view of what’s going on in our neighborhood in any given moment. The process was just taking a little more strategic approach, we basically treated the project like our child and we were the collective fathers, whereas we was just fucking before [Laughs].
TSS: [Laughs] Cool, and which of these up-and-coming cats do you guys think has the most potential to follow the lineage?
Phil Da Agony: Man, we like them all. A lot of these cats aren’t even up and coming anymore, they done came up already. So like Nipsey, to Kendrick Lamar, and Dom Kennedy to U-N-I. Basically we got an allegiance to the hotness as Kron will tell you, so you know if there’s something hot that’s popping off in our city, then most likely we dealt with it in some form or faction. If it might be just direct support, or collabin’ with this artists. We pride ourselves on being ahead of the game, and ahead of the curve, and knowing what’s popping. But I know Kron always keeps his ear to streets when it comes to new artists as well.
Krondon: There’s a serious progression of thinkers coming out now. Like Phil said, Kendrick Lamar, he’s one of my favorites right now. And of course Dom Kennedy, I like what he’s doing. I give him a hard time as an artist, but I think in time he’s gonna grow. I think there’s a new young collective, kind of like Strong Arm Steady, but they’re a little wilder. They remind me a lot of us when we were younger. We grew out of it, and I think they’ll grow out of it too. It’s refreshing and it’s fucking fresh. It’s more than just the music. What they represent for my city, man, I really like that. Even me, as a musician, I’ve never seen anybody represent the city like that. Kinda just like being anti-everything. And I like another collective called Language Arts, that are more like Strong Arm Steady is now. They are what we are now, in our mature stage, but they’re just a little younger, and have less experience.
Phil Da Agony: Yo, I think the nicest lyricist that’s new dude coming out the West right now is probably Kendrick Lamar as well. He definitely got the nicest bars. We’re working on an album with Static Selektah, and on that album we bring out a lot of cats that you guys might not have heard before, especially on the West Coast, and push shit out.
TSS: What about you Mitchy?
Mitchy Slick: You know me man. With the style of music I’ve made from the beginning til now, with me personally, it’s kind of like the underdog type shit a little bit. We got a gangsta West Coast underground scene with these cats, but right now it isn’t a gangsta era so they’re not getting as much shine as they would have gotten a few years ago. Right now it’s friendly and cutesy and baller. If you’re not baller or cute and dancing, then you’re trying to be a rock star or some shit.
But there’s still dudes who’s keeping it street and trying to be original and trying to pay attention to all of the elements of what makes you an emcee. And that’s the dudes I’m looking out for, cuz gangsta shit don’t get that kind of shine anymore, except for a few. Like Gucci, Waka, and Rick Ross is just about as gangsta as you can be as far as I’m concerned.
TSS: Alright, alright. And how did the Blacksmith situation come about, and how’s it working out for your guys right now?
Krondon: It’s a cool thing man. Kweli and all them dudes believed in us from day one, even prior to signing us as a group. If you go through our mixtape history, Kweli’s been a part of all of them from day one, almost like we were his West Coast family, way longer before they had a label at Warner. So when they got the deal and came to us as a group, we were just honored and very much so respectful of that gesture. And there’s been ups and downs, don’t get me wrong, but the key is to complete the mission, and I think we’re definitely doing that.