In a region largely known for churning out bluegrass and folk music, Robert Stickney is doing his own thing.
The 32-year-old from Saranac Lake is attracting the attention of hip-hop fans across the North Country with smooth, mellow beats that draw from a wide variety of musical influences, including J. Dilla, A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul. Stickney lives in Paul Smiths with his wife, Adriane.
Stickney, who works as a caretaker at the state-owned Rollins Pond Campground, has been producing hip-hop music since 2004. His aspirations to be a musician, however, formed at a much younger age.
Robert Stickney, of Paul Smiths, holds his favorite instrument, a MPC2500 Beat Production Station, which he uses to craft hip-hop beats.
(Enterprise photo — Chris Morris)
"I started playing saxophone in fifth grade," Stickney said. "Basically, I played whatever the teacher wanted me to play: tenor, baritone, alto."
When Stickney moved to the Saranac Lake area and began attending Saranac Lake High School, he began exploring different instruments and styles of music at the behest of former band director Fred Baker, who has since died.
"Fred Baker taught me a lot," Stickney said. "Fred Baker was awesome.
VISIT: Go to http://soundcloud.com/stylesbobby to hear more than 40 tracks produced by Bob Stickney
CHOICE?CUTS: "(Smile) Nod Ya Head," "One for Whitney," "The Illest (For Dilla)," "Sour"
For first time hip-hop listeners, Stickney recommends: "Stakes is High," by De La Soul, "The World is Yours," by Nas, and "The Light," by Common
"He very much pushed my individuality. He was a person who was big on teaching how to play things the right way but letting me play what I wanted to. He didn't make me go to some of the band practices because he knew I'd been playing the theme song to 'Aladdin' since I was this big," Stickney added, holding his hand about 4 feet from the ground.
Stickney said Baker encouraged him to play as many instruments as he could get his hands on, but Baker also stressed that he learn technique and tuning.
"He would say, 'If I hear you playing that guitar and it's out of tune, I'm going to come in and make you tune it,'" Stickney recalled.
In high school and beyond, Stickney joined or formed numerous bands, playing a range of instruments and singing as well.
But the first real group Stickney got involved in was The Fetish, an eclectic band that fused hip-hop, funk and rock and featured many locals who've since gone on to pursue careers in music, including Colin DeHond and Ned Rauch, both of Frankenpine fame, and Chris Shacklett of Lucid.
It was with The Fetish that Stickney started exploring hip-hop production, blending turntables, samplers and keyboards with the band's funky rhythms. Sampling, Stickney said, is what gets a lot of blossoming producers into making hip-hop music.
If you've never heard of sampling, here's a quick primer: A producer takes some part of another song - a lyric, a guitar riff or a bass line, for example - and works it into a new song. Sometimes, the sample is immediately recognizable: "I'll Be Missing You" by Sean "Puff Daddy" Combs is almost identical in form to "Every Breath You Take" by the Police. "Izzo (H.O.V.A.)" by Jay-Z (produced by Kanye West) is a modern take on "I Want You Back" by the Jackon 5.
Stickney recognizes that some music fans view sampling skeptically because it's using another artist's work, but he said sampling has helped him and other fans connect with music they might not have heard otherwise.
"Maybe you weren't around to hear 'ABC' (by the Jackson 5) on the radio, so to be able to grab at that feeling and present it to an entirely new generation who might not have heard it before, I think it's great," he said. "And at the same time some people think you're just taking a song that's already classic, you're paying for the rights to it, and you're adding some drums behind it, and there you go.
"But nothing's new," Stickney added. "How many times have we made 'Batman,' 'Superman,' 'Spider-Man' movies? And everyone eats those up every time, and no one complains."
Sampling plays a role in Stickney's music, but it's just a small part of the creative process. In many cases, Stickney just comes up with a drum beat, which leads to a melody in his head. Then he'll play piano or guitar over the top of it.
And all of that music gets fed into Stickney's MPC2500 Beat Production Station, which he uses to add layers to his music.
Like most artists, a lot of what Stickney does comes from the heart and draws off personal experience. Nowhere is that more evident than one of his recent tracks, "(Smile) Nod Ya Head," which is dedicated to Stickney's closest friend, Shane Sheffield, who died in February.
"I hadn't played anything in like a week-and-a-half; I hadn't touched my machines or anything," Stickney said. "It was the day after his funeral, and everyone had left, and there wasn't any craziness going on. I sat down and had a few songs that I was digging through and was sampling.
"I just thought about him while I was doing it: his attitude and the nonchalant, relaxed way he had about him, how chill he was. And as I started building this breakbeat up, all I was doing was smiling, and I could feel him with me. It wasn't my intent to make him something. It just became a lot more by the time I was finished with it. A lot of people think you need to go out and make a tribute to someone when something like this happens. I wasn't making a song for him when I sat down. But by the time I was done with it, I felt like he was there, and it was for him."
Stickney shares his music with aspiring rappers and hopes it will catch the ears of producers in places like New York City. But he said those dreams will always be secondary to his love of music and the joy he gets from sharing it with others.