Nearly three years into his self-made career, 18-year-old duPont Manual senior El Stephens recently began performing his music in local venues. Stephens, whose style is a blend of hip-hop and R&B, has two albums and 11 singles to his name — with more tracks dropping soon.
While he writes and produces most of his music from the comfort of his home studio, Stephens enjoys co-creating with many of his talented network of friends — most of whom are also Manual students. We recently caught up with Stephens to discuss his music, collaborations, Covid and post-graduation plans.
LEO: Who are your influences?
EL Stephens: Chris Brown, Jack Harlow, Lil Skies, Bryson Tiller, Drake, LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and my family and friends. Nostalgia is another big influence.
What do you mean when you talk about nostalgia?
It’s one of my favorite feelings. Navigating life, it changes very slowly. I am always taking pictures of everything and trying to capture good memories. I can look back on these moments and see the exact day and time I was doing something and remember what it felt like. That’s the vibe I try to associate with these songs. I’m looking forward to listening to my newest album next winter. A lot of the songs are written about what my friends and I were doing at the time. What if we are 10 states apart by then? The music and the photos will really bring it close to home.
One year ago, you felt called to write a song about the Black Lives Matter movement. The track, ‘Do You Hate Me?,’ depicts the struggles Black people face from systemic racism and oppression. What’s behind the lyrics?
I drew inspiration from everything I had learned and poured my feelings into the song. I’m biracial, and seeing how my mom and dad have different privileges because of their race really impacted me. I talk about myself in the song, but it’s not about me; it’s about ‘we’ as people in the movement. Toward the end [of the song] you can hear my voice crack. I was thinking ‘yeah I want the listeners to really hear and feel the raw emotion behind it.’
In what ways does the song still resonate, and have any of your sentiments changed?
The message is still the same — it still resonates.
Your music blends prolific prose with natural rhythm and flow. Describe how this creative process comes together.
I have been spending less time on lyrics and more time on getting the vibe right with the melodies and flows. I used to spend more time getting it ‘clever, quick and slick,’ but now I have a lot more fun with it. My songwriting style has changed significantly; now I record the whole thing and write the lyrics down later. It usually starts with one phrase, like my song, ‘Sum2Say.’ I just slide in and have fun. I wanted it to feel like summertime and good vibes.
As an independent artist, you have had many opportunities to co-create with friends (musicians, singers, artists, photographers, production artists), most of whom are fellow Manual students or band members. What’s it like to work with your peers?
Working with friends is really awesome. Because I am an independent artist, I have the freedom to do literally anything. It’s so open that the challenging part is making sure everything I produce is high quality. For example, my friend Mali (Manual student Malik Furqan; collaborations include “Champagne,” “Avenue” and “Slide 4 Me”) and I started making music at the same time. It’s like PB&J: We both get better at what we do — I get better at rapping and he gets better at singing.”
Can you name some of your additional collaborations?
I have several with my friends from Manual: Alyssa Goodman (“There4u pt. 2”), Aaron Moeller (“Aaron’s Interlude”) and Diego Gonzalez (“Hot Topic,” “What U Waiting 4). Plus, I have an unreleased song with Jayso Poetic, a couple of unreleased songs with Jordan Brooks and several collaborations with Russ Guapo (“Lipstick,” “Boog,” “Lost N Found,” “Let Me Know” and “Sum2Say.”) I also work with (Manual student owned) Belrok Production Company to produce videos for my YouTube channel.
How has COVID impacted your life?
I have been focusing on the positives that have come out of it. Being ‘locked’ inside the house has given me way more free time. I really leveled up in terms of my music and exploring new genres and styles. I experienced a creative surge where I was making new songs every day. It used to take me six months to make a song. Now, the entire creative process is easier.
Before COVID hit, I was planning on attending MTSU (Middle Tennessee State University; Stephens will now be attending UofL on scholarship as a business major). I realized during this time how much I want to be home near my family. That’s where I get most of my strength.
You recently started performing in local venues. What’s it like performing to a live audience?
I have mad nerves before the music starts. But once it’s on I’m ready to go. I’m still nervous through the first couple of songs, but then I look out into the audience and see my family and my friends really amped up, and I just go off the energy of my homies.
Talk about your newest release, ‘Whatever U Want.’
It’s the realest, most close-to-home I have been lately with regard to lyrics. I tried to have fun while creating something that is more relatable and truer to myself.
What’s next for you?
This year I have had to spend a lot of time prioritizing school and work. After graduation, I plan to apply a lot more pressure creatively. I will be doing a lot more photo shoots, videos, singles, networking and performing. Plus, I have a new project I will be releasing.
Can you offer a preview of your upcoming project?
I’m going to release four new tracks. This is me being more mature, more relatable. One will be very lit, confident and charismatic. Another will be more chill, reserved and calm. The third one is going to be more sad and interpersonal. I’m not sure about the last one yet.
How do you measure success?
My definition is to be happy and healthy where you are and in whatever it is you choose to do. •