In advance of their December 27 show at The Burdock, we had the opportunity to sit down and speak with Stretch, a spoken-word-artist-turned-rapper hailing from the underrepresented streets of Scarborough; and Abel Lulseged, producer on Stretch’s debut album and founder of SoundStock, a rising event promotion company. Together, they reflected on their musical origins, creative ambitions, and personal growth in the four years it took to complete and release The Ball Park Tape.
Below you’ll find an abridged transcription of our conversation, but for the very first time, you can also listen to the whole thing for yourself on Careful’s Soundcloud page — big thanks to Kevin Young of Innerspeak for organizing and handling the recording process.
Jamaal: Let’s get in to The Ball Park Tape. I know the first time we met, we spoke a lot about how you both wanted to expand the Toronto sound and show how diverse this city actually is. And in particular, focus on bringing a spotlight to Scarborough. There’s so many voices on this project. There’s a lot of features.
Ziyaad: A lot of friends.
J: A lot of friends. And the whole time I was listening to it, I was thinking, “Wow, this took you four years to make.” What happened in those 4 years?
Stretch: The process was very elaborate. We started as 18-year-old kids with really poignant expectations. We tried to go to as many showcases as we could, but a lot of the things we were seeing weren’t identifiable with us. So we have this vision, but do we have the resources? Can we pull it all together? Do we have the connections? A lot of the time, the answer to those questions was no. But we knew what we wanted, and we didn’t want to settle for anything lesser than that. The other thing is, I wrote most of these songs when I was 18. A lot of it became, how can I capture an 18-year-old’s sentiments when I’m 19, 20, 21, or 22?
Abel: It took a long time because we were chasing perfection. Eventually, we came to the realization that there’s no such thing. I feel like in this day and age, people don’t let artists grow in the public eye. We know the project isn’t exactly perfect. But we’re proud of it, and it’s what we love. When we dropped it, we knew the feedback and criticism we’d get. We analyzed the project so much ourselves that there wasn’t anything anyone could tell me that would really surprise me. So once we came to the realization that it wasn’t gonna be perfect, it was like, drop it, gauge the feedback, and grow in front of the public.
J: In that time, were there periods where you thought the project was done and then revisited it? Or was it always in flux?
S: Abel’s a very practical thinker, so unless there’s something tangible or material, we’re not going to say that anything’s done. For me, I was thinking more like, “We have the vocals. We have this. We have that. It’s not done, but I think it’s a lot closer than we realize.” There were definitely a few points where we got really close. If 100% is complete, in my head I got to 92%, 94%, and 96% a few times.
A: There were key moments where I was like, “This is coming together.” An example is the intro, where our friend Ro-Dawg — if you’re listening to this, what up Ro-Dawg — is talking his shit at the end. Those are album moments that I connected with right away, and based on the reaction, people connected with it as well
S: We had that song with a verse on it for a long time, and we were just going to chop off the end and make it however short it is. But something seemed incomplete. And one day Ro-Dawg was there and we told him go in and say whatever he was feeling.
A: “Just talk your shit.” That’s literally what we said. In one take, it just felt natural.
S: Everybody I know who’s listened to it is like, “Yo, this is crazy.” We think everybody in Toronto knows a Ro-Dawg, or somebody who expresses themselves in that way. I was like, “This is exactly what we’re trying to do.”
A: Sonically, I think it’s very different from what’s coming out. And it wasn’t like we compromised ourselves or anything. It came together in a perfect way.
Z: You talked about the timespan it took to make this project. How did your ideas manifest into The Ball Park Tape? Why “Ball Park”?
S: In the past 5 years, my passion for baseball increased immensely due to the fact that I became a historian on the Negro Leagues. There are guys who, when you read tales about them, they’re almost like mythological creatures. A lot of the stuff that they did are only documented by the people who were there — they didn’t have proper statisticians. One of my favourite guys to talk about is Josh Gibson. They called him the Black Babe Ruth, but everybody who saw him said Babe Ruth was the white him. They say he’d get fooled on pitches but still hit it out of the field with one hand. That stuff isn’t documented. All that’s there is your word.
Z: I think that makes so much sense. When Stretch came in, all he said was, “My name is Stretch, and I’m an artist.” Man of a few words, but when it comes down to the music, that’s where you hear the stories. That’s where it’s documented. And that’s what he’ll live through: the music.
J: And going back to the Negro Leagues motif, only the people who were there knew the stories, so it had to be them passing down the knowledge through their own communities. I think your music serves a similar function for Scarborough.
S: It’s wild that it’s coming together like that. I’m not getting too many, “Oh, your project’s dope fam.” People who are willing to reach out are saying some very meaningful things. We’ve kind of got to the point where statistics only mean so much. We’re shooting for a feeling.
A: It’s all about the interaction. Getting caught up in numbers is gonna make you lose at the end of the day. If you worry about how many plays you got on Soundcloud and Spotify — of course those things are great to have under your belt, but another reason why we were like, “Yo, let’s just drop it,” is because we needed to gauge the reaction. People aren’t just saying, “Its dope. Good job.” They’re giving in-depth analyses of it. We always challenge people whenever they say they liked it. We always follow up and ask why. I don’t want to hear that you thought it was a dope project. I wanna know why you think it’s dope.
J: Because of the amount of attention that’s on Toronto right now, there’s been a countermovement where some artists say, “No. Don’t brand me as a Toronto artist. Don’t box me in.” Because of your project’s relationship to Scarborough, there are going to be people who always introduce it as a Scarborough project. Does that bother you at all, or is that something you’re embracing?
S: No, that’s what I’m most proud of. I want the East to champion this. I’m grateful for all of the love. I wouldn’t have whatever little platform I do without them. And it’s not like I’m saying, “Fuck everybody else.” That’s not the case. I hope people can find parts of the project relatable to their own situations. I just want to wave the flag.
Z: You mention wanting to wave that flag, but I’d say it’s more like torch bearing. There’s so many people who can carry that torch, and I think this project does a good job of building that platform. There’s a lot of features, and of course we have Abel here as well — you’re co-conspirators on both your ventures. Who else is on this team?
S: I think the three people who were instrumental in bringing this together were me, Abel, and Nate Smith, who is the engineer and did production on pretty much the whole thing. He’s been brilliant. He wasn’t doing this when we met him. So for us to have met him at the time that we did, and for him to have been as open-minded as he was, it was critical. He literally came in and said, “Whatever you guys wanna do, let me make it happen.” In addition to him, there’s this band called Evolution (EVLTN).
A: Adding their live instrumentation to the project changed the whole feeling of it. Some of the most magical studio sessions were just them jamming out to beats we’d already made.
S: I think one of my best songs is “Could You Be” with M.I.BLUE. I brought her on during the process of making the beat, and after her contribution, I thought, “Oh wow, this might be it.” But the day we brought EVLTN in, it was Nate who asked, “Why don’t you get them to play on it?” And literally, Nate played the first second of it, and they brought everything to life. They played on every song except for the last two: “Ball Park Music” and “Can’t Sleep Alone.” I owe everything to Abel, Nate, and EVLTN.
A: I also want to give a shout-out to Mo. He’s our good friend, the backbone to a lot of the things that we do, whether it’s designing a flyer or figuring out marketing plans.
J: See, I love hearing these stories because I think our culture puts so much emphasis on the solitary genius archetype. But that’s not true to the way things work. Your family, your friends, your community — all of these things form a tapestry, and that’s where the project comes from.
A: You gotta show love where it needs to be shown. There’s stuff I didn’t agree with on certain songs, and there’s stuff that Stretch didn’t agree with on certain songs, but no one’s ego is more important than the song. If the majority thinks this is the way to go about it, then that’s the way it’s gonna be.
J: On the topic of collaborations, Stretch you have a show coming up through SoundStock.
Z: Let’s talk about it. Say there’s people who haven’t heard your project. Do you think they should listen to it before the show, or do you think they should experience it there?
S: It’s my first solo gig. I’ve been performing for a while — before starting music, I was making rounds in the city as a spoken word artist. But this is a re-introduction, so to speak. I’m working with Lewy— shout-out to Lewy, my DJ, who’s one of the best in the city — and EVLTN to try and put something together. We always talk about artists who don’t differentiate between recordings and live experiences, where it’s like, “I could just listen to this at home and picture it with my eyes closed.” So I think if you’ve listened before, that’s dope. But if you’re listening to it for the first time at the show, there’s gonna be something about it that makes you want to go straight home and listen again.
J: Funnily enough, I met someone last year who went to concerts, and then afterwards, they would never listen to that artist again. They’d listen to all this music, have the time of their life at the show, and that was it. They’d move on to the next chapter of their life.
S: It makes sense, because now there’s so much music to consume. I heard Mos Def on Hot 97 talking about it. He was like, “I can’t even keep up with this shit.” It seems like there’s 16 good albums dropping every day. That’s why I’m even more grateful — the fact that I’m in the midst of so many great projects. The reason why it’s encouraging for us is we’re meeting so many incredible, life-changing artists at their inception. We can’t sit on our laurels. We have to act.
Z: There’s so many great artists coming out of our city. Abel, you have quite a few shows under your belt now, but this is your first solo show. How have your other shows gone before, and how have you curated the talent in our city?
A: This is a new solo series, and like Simon said, before we even started making music, we were just in the events scene. When trap music started to take over, a lot of the bills in the city started reflecting that — very dark, gloomy, and ambient. Which is cool, but I wanted to see the diversity in our sound. I knew it existed, but it wasn’t prevalent on the scene. That’s what led to me creating SoundStock, a platform for these artists who don’t get to perform often. It’s been a blessing so far. The numbers at every show have been way more I could have asked for, so that just reflects the need for it in this city. People don’t always wanna go out and see the same show or the same artists or the same bill recycled over and over. There’s a subculture of artists who have a completely different sound than what’s prevalent.
Z: What can fans expect? It sounds very different from your Interlude and Element series.
A: What they can expect is growth. That’s the whole concept of the show. It took four years to make The Ball Park Tape, and Stretch was constantly performing in that time. People knew he was making music, and they were always asking when it would drop, but this is the night where we’re presenting the final product. You’ll see all the friends that helped create the project. It’s an intimate venue, and talent-wise, there’s gonna be a lot of people who are really dope coming out on stage.
J: As I understand it, one of the challenges facing upcoming Toronto artists is a lack of infrastructure to support them. Do you see this solo series as a potential solution?
A: That’s what I’m hoping. It’s super hard for certain artists to get booked or have a stage all to themselves, especially if you’re upcoming. Like Stretch said, we’re finding a lot of these artists at their inception. So if I get to a point where artists reach out to me and ask me to do this for them, that would be amazing. Hopefully I can develop an audience through SoundStock so there can be a really intimate moment for the artist as they celebrate a milestone in their career, whether it’s the release of a project (like Stretch) or any other pivotal moment. If I can create one night that encompasses all those different things, I think people are gonna start recognizing talent in this city regardless of how many plays they have on Soundcloud or followers they have on Instagram. That’s not what it’s about. Things start slow sometimes, but hopefully we can get to a point where we do these frequently. Maybe once every month or once every season.
J: I think it’s so important for artists to have a solo show where they’re crafting an experience from start to finish. Stretch, you had a background in spoken word poetry before transitioning to rap. Has that informed the way you’ve been constructing your performance?
S: Spoken word gave me the opportunity to make mistakes and then regain my footing. It opened my eyes. Like Faduma Mohamed and Ifrah Hussein — I’d be blown away by their performances, and then they’d tell me, “Yeah, I fucked up four times in there.” But you’d never know that. I think that’s what ties together the whole performing thing. That’s what’s shaped my growth. Fucking up isn’t the end of the world. I forget where I read this, but somebody once said, “Ease is a greater threat to hardship than mistakes.”
Z: You’ve talked a bit about spoken word poetry now. Tell us about RISE Edutainment.
S: When I graduated from high school, I didn’t know anything about the art scene. I hadn’t gone to any events. Someone told me to audition to RISE, and I was very fortunate to receive an opportunity to perform on that platform. That performance got the ball rolling.
A: It was one of the best performances he’s ever done. To this day.
S: Everything about that performance felt different. I started going to RISE periodically just to be in the community. A year after that, I got asked to host a one-off event, and then the following week, the person who was supposed to host didn’t show up. So they asked me again. Fast forward, and I’ve been doing this for a couple years now. A lot of our collaborators are friends we’ve meet through RISE. It’s such a dope space. You can get somebody who is a professional, established artist, and then you can get someone who’s never performed in their life — they both perform on the same stage.
J: Abel, you’ve been by Stretch’s side as he went from spoken word poet to rapper. What’s it been like to witness that growth over time?
A: For me, the most interesting thing was watching him evolve as a performer. Traditionally, spoken word is more stationary. There’s a lot of gesturing with your hands and playing with your vocal inflections. When you’re rapping, you have to move around. There has to be more energy. He has some of those spoken word habits ingrained in his performing style, so it’s been really cool to see him try and get out of his comfort zone. With the lyrical aspect, spoken word has a lot jammed into one line. It’s very wordy. So watching him translate that to a beat — it was a struggle at first. Music works on certain time signatures, so he had to shift the way he raps to make sure things can fit, and make sure he’s enunciating things properly.
Z: And Stretch, you’ve seen Abel transition from an artist empowerer to actually creating SoundStock. What’s that been like?
S: He’s always been very determined, and always trying to make things happen. For me, it’s not really like, “Oh wow, now you’re here.” Every time he brings something together, it makes sense just because of his character. And if not, he’s like, “Well what if we try it this way?” Everybody’s gonna make mistakes. We’ve learned a lot about what we can do better. But I think people start at a much lower level than Abel usually does. Others’ starting point will be like, “This isn’t quality, but that’s okay because it’s just the beginning.” He’s starting where a lot of people aspire to be, and it’ll only continue to grow. In 2018, all the events that SoundStock has going on — the more the city starts to recognize them, the more they’re gonna support it.
Stretch and Friends Live At The Burdock, Presented by SoundStock Inc. goes down December 27, 2017 at The Burdock. You can purchase tickets here.
Are you attending the concert? What other artists would you like to see a solo show from? Are there any other helpful organizations that artists should know about? Reply to the tweet below and start the conversation:
You can listen to The Ball Park Tape below:
Photos taken by Ziyaad Haniff.