It takes guts to name yourself after Stagger Lee, a man who shot someone for taking his hat in a poker game and went on to become one of the most celebrated outlaws in American myth and song. Dozens of artists, ranging from Mississippi bluesman John Hurt to punk rockers the Clash, have put versions of the story to song, all of which make clear that Stagger Lee — or Stagolee, or Stack-o-Lee, or Stagga Lee — was no one to be trifled with.
So when a new rapper comes out calling himself Stagga Lee, he knows he's laying it on the line. "Sure, there's a little outlaw in me," said Stagga, whose debut single, "Roll Wit M.V.P.," has been making waves on radio and getting heavy rotation on BET's "UnCut." "And I walk with a bit of a stagger, so it fits."
The New York-born MC began rapping when he was a kid, but didn't assume the name Stagga Lee until he heard Lloyd Price's 1957 hit version of the song on a mixtape a friend of his put together. "I loved the story and the name, so I took it," he said. "But really, what's in a name, you know?"
Plenty, when you're a white guy and the name aligns you with a serious badass best known from blues and R&B tunes. But this Stagga pays homage to the name's roots by opening the "Roll Wit M.V.P." video clip with a snippet of Price's hit. And, like any good outlaw, Stagga defies convention from the very first notes of "M.V.P.," which come not from well-worn sample sources like James Brown or George Clinton, but from ... Minnie Riperton?
"Yeah, that's the kind of thing you think would be totally wack, but it totally works," he said of the "la-la-la-la-las" off Riperton's 1974 hit "Lovin' You." "Rob (co-producer Robert Clivilles) came to me with that, and we wrote 'Roll Wit M.V.P.' in a real short time. It just all came together."
Stagga said he's pleasantly surprised at the song's immediate success, but that he's not going to rush to release his debut album, Game of Breath, even though all the tracks are done. "We're really disciplined in the studio, and we know exactly what we want," he said. "Everything's done, and the artwork should be all finished by St. Patrick's Day, but we're not going to rush it."
In the meantime, Stagga's also released a remix of "Roll Wit M.V.P." called "We Be Like (La La La)," that exchanges the Riperton sample for the hook from Barry White's "I'm Gonna Love You Just a Little More, Baby" and features a cameo from Benzino (a.k.a. Raymond Scott), the co-owner of The Source who made waves last year by calling Eminem "the rap Hitler" (see "Benzino Calls Eminem 'The Rap Hitler,' Says There's No Beef"). Does this mean that Stagga's coming out already having a beef with Em?
"No way. We did that previous to any beef," he said. "Ray and Dave (Mays, The Source's other owner) are good friends of mine, and he just wanted to show his support." Of course, the Benzino connection and the fact that Stagga's white like Eminem can't help but push even harder on the racial hot buttons that arise whenever a white rapper comes along.
But, like Eminem, Stagga said he came by his love of hip-hop honestly. "I grew up in a house where I was constantly exposed to a broad range of music, Motown, country, all of it," he said. "But my brother was really heavy into subway culture, into all the graffiti and early rap in New York, and I just submerged myself in it.
"Anybody who's gonna use my color to hate on me doesn't understand hip-hop culture, ‘cuz that's not the hip-hop world I know," he continued. "Afrika Bambaataa would be rollin' over in his grave, and he ain't even dead yet. It's like he said, 'Hip-hop is a culture, not a color.' "
Stagga said he created Game of Breath to create a mood, and that with cuts like "Sorry" and "Game Over," he dug deep into his personal experience for his rhymes. "If you're an artist, you want to give a piece of yourself to the people," he said. "You don't want to cheat people out of an experience. Real recognizes real, and you've got to be real to what you believe."