By Theresa Rothmiller
He was about to put out just an album titled “Newark Illustrated”; instead, he made it into a movement.
“I had shirts with “Lil’ seven, album coming soon”,” James Stokes said. “Everywhere we went people would say, ‘There go them Newark Illustrated guys.’ In that moment, the lightbulb went off. I said if I was to put this album out, nobody would ever wear another [Newark Illustrated] T-shirt. I didn’t put the album out as that, and just ran with the movement.”
Oct. 12, James “Big Seven” Stokes, founder of Newark Illustrated Marketing and Promotions, sat down to discuss his 20 years of experience in the music business and his support for unsigned artists. In the beginning of his career, Stokes recalls becoming a New Jersey household name at a very young age.
“I was 13 and everybody that I was breakdancing with were 21 years old and up,” Stokes said. “It was unheard of for a 11, 12, 13-year-old to really be into hip-hop. My roots go very deep.”
Stokes reminisced on his travels as a kid, his quick gain of popularity, and how his friend wrote his lyrics until he was a freshman in high school.
According to Stokes, he needed a rap for school and his rap partner, Hassan 7-11, was sick. He said he put his mind to it and wrote a rap inspired by a teacher who doubted he would pass his class.
Stokes recalls that as the moment when his confidence as a writer began to grow.
By 12th grade, Stokes met his rap partner “Hahz the Rippa.” The two formed a hip-hop group called “Hard We’re,” and caught the eye of Jay-Z during the early 90’s.
After being offered a chance to be the first group on Roc-A-Fella Records, the group separated six months later, and Stokes states that his take-away message from that situation was that he needed to start his own label.
When he obtained his own label, “Nonstop Entertainment,” he realized his own daughter could be a star.
“One Christmas, I told my 10-year-old daughter [now Miss Nana] that I wanted her to say something on my voicemail,” Stokes said. He put together a brief rap for her to mimic. According to Stokes, people thought Miss Nana was a young boy, saying,“That little boy sounds dope.” Approximately three months later, people began telling Stokes that his daughter was the better rapper.
“Once I noticed how everybody took to her, I fell back to be a manager,” Stokes said. “There was no way I would have gotten behind Nana if there wasn’t anything there. This was a business decision. The fact that it was my daughter was a bonus.”
Through his recognition, Stokes connected with former radio personality and current television show host Wendy Williams. At that time, Williams was searching for artists to record promos. After Stokes submitted a few of his own promos, someone suggested Nana try one.
“I put together a rap [for Nana] to a Lil’ Bow Wow song and gave it to Wendy,” Stokes said.
According to Stokes, not only was Williams calling to make a deal to manage Nana, Bow Wow had an interest in her as well. After Bow Wow announced on BET’s 106 & Park that Nana would be joining him, Stokes accompanied his daughter on a 10 city tour, then a 20 city tour two years later.
From 2009 to 2013, Stokes and his Nana went on hiatus. Stokes said he realized while building Nana’s career, his dreams were put aside.
“I lost my identity,” Stokes explained. “My name was Nana’s father. I wasn’t even Little Seven anymore.”
Stokes described the experience both as a gift and a curse. Instead of sending hundreds of messages in first person (as Nana), he should have taken some credit, Stokes claimed.
Today, Stokes hosts his own live radio show “Time 2 Grind,” co-signed by hip-hop legend DJ Kay Slay. Airing every Monday and Wednesday at 8 p.m. EST., and found on Instagram, YouTube, Periscope, Facebook and more.
“It started as something to do while Nana was in college,” Stokes admitted. “Any arena I’m in, I try to dominate it hard. I named it ‘Time 2 Grind’ because of that.”
Stokes explained that it started from a show on another network. After working for different stations over the years, he realized his name and brand were more recognizable than theirs. He said he’d rather have his own show.
Similar to a blessing in disguise, he experienced with his album, approximately one year ago, fans suggested a great idea for Stokes show.
In the beginning, he hosted one show every sunday, “Big Seven and Friends.” Both unsigned and established artists were brought on the show. Meanwhile, 15 minutes were open for artists to call in to rap or sing live.
“Sundays became a bit stagnated, so I said I’m going to start a show called, ‘Hip hop 101,’” Stokes said. It consisted of unsigned artists having their album or mixtape reviewed live.
“For about a week, I had nothing to review, but had thousands of songs sent for the mixtape,” Stokes said. “It kind of came organically.”
He explained how listeners gave their feedback, and then someone asked to make a donation to have their song reviewed.
“The lightbulb went off and I said, ‘Okay, donate $20,’” Stokes recalled. “The artist paid. I played the record and gave my honest feedback.”
One artist after another began to donate, so he changed the entire show to that format. According to Stokes, the show has been very successful. He has thousands of listeners and viewers from Philadelphia, New York and Chicago, to Miami, Los Angeles, Minnesota, and more.
Next, Stokes is relaunching Time 2 Grind radio, adding a Gospel and women inspired segments. He said he wants people to understand that Time 2 Grind is a tv/radio show, and isn’t always hip hop related. As for NI-Marketing, they’re currently working on Miss Nana’s new project.
“My pride and joy is helping unsigned artists get from A to [not even Z] to N, and I’m satisfied,” Stokes said.
Contact Theresa Rothmiller at email@example.com. edu