While admittedly leaning for most of these questions and answers, Starlito never lacked for words or charisma. He spoke like he raps: honest and effective. Sometimes clouded and complex, talking circular and not necessarily in succession of thought. We met in studios and a restaurant over the course of three days during A3C in Atlanta last October.
Cold Turkey is out now. It features guest spots from Kevin Gates, Freddie Gibbs, Devin the Dude. But it stars the Cashville native born Jermaine Shute and it deserves your money. When I met him, he expressed a lack of interest in the rap business. In the months since, he’s dropped multiple projects–clearly, it was just a passing frustration for one of the most powerful voices in Southern rap. As he describes himself, he is “perhaps the last of his kind. Structure,value, wordplay, charisma, accuracy, relevance, ingenuity, and this is just his music. — Will Johnsen
What part of Nashville did you grow up?
I grew up in East Nashville.
Was country music inescapable for you?
The scene, like you couldn’t miss it but it wasn’t forced on you. It had a presence. I can’t think who it was, one of the more famous country stars was on TV the other day, I didn’t know who they were by name, come to find out they were from Nashville. In that regard you still can’t miss it but if it’s not for you, it’s not for you. I see it there more than I do anywhere else in the world.
Lots of good clubs for playing live music?
Yeah, quite a few. It’s a booming music scene. Probably more because of country music than anything but I think any other genre of music stands to benefit from it. We got ASCAP offices, bunch of record labels have offices there. Studios galore. Like there is music road, music square, a whole neighborhood of studios. Three or four streets of just studios.
When did you first start recording?
2000, 2001. My junior year of high school. It was the first year I was playing ball, just kinda doing everything at the same time.
Were you recording in peoples houses?
There was a studio called the Switching Heart, it was like 25 dollars an hour. It was a legit studio but we didn’t know what the hell we were doing, we were just saving up money to go weekly or every two weeks. I was trying to make beats then, it was just something to do.
Were your parents musical?
Naw, just something I wanted to do. Almost felt kinda rebellious at the time cause I was just young and wanted to do it by myself without anybody’s permission, approval, guidance, support. By the time I was 19, wanting to drop out of school and pursue music it was still like a shock to family and people closest to me. It was just something I wanted to do versus it being a lineage thing or because I grew up around it. I saved up and bought a keyboard when I was about 15 and was going to the studio a few months later.
Did you have a job?
Naw, I had a job for like two and a half weeks. It was at a dry cleaners. It was just weird. I got fired for something stupid that had nothing to do with me and I saw then, like there was a coworker who told on me for something I didn’t do. It was just like two valuable life lessons, one was that people will throw you under the bus to advance themselves and also that I didn’t want to work for anyone in that sense like reporting to a boss, that check, my livelihood depends on somebody else’s mandates, the fact that they could just let me go like that. There wasn’t shit I could do. I don’t want a job like this. I walked across the street to basketball practice.
What high school did you go too?
I went to Humme-Fogg Academy.
Is that a public school or a private school?
It’s public but it’s a magnet school.
Was it big?
Naw, like less than 200 people in my graduating class.
It teach you anything?
How to get by. I graduated.
What was your GPA?
Did you play football in High School?
Naw. I played in little league, Cornerback.
Stuck with basketball after that?
It was the skipping a grade, I was a year younger than everyone in my grade, so I was a year behind.
What prompted the skipping of the grade?
I was super smart. They wanted me to skip a couple grades, my moms wasn’t really with that. The same thing on the social side, I’m gonna be smaller, I’m gonna be behind physically and maturity. More apt to get picked on, you’re already the smart one. Football was one of those things, I wasn’t grown enough to be playing high school football at twelve or thirteen.
What grade did you skip?
Were there classes you cared about?
I had an English teacher that was cool and I had never liked English classes, it was like my junior year. It was just cool, we talked a lot in class. It wasn’t just write about what you read, and because we would talk about it I could get by without reading stuff and because of that it made me want to try to read some of the stuff, like the conversations made me feel like some of this stuff isn’t so bad. It was kinda too late by then, I had already fucked up my GPA.
Do you read these days?
Sometimes, stuff I want to. I read a lot of periodicals.
I had really high test scores. Early in my career locally, especially in rap, you are going to have naysayers, detractors, but that was the main thing people were saying about me was “oh he’s a nerd” or “he went to a good school.” There was a false notion it was private school and it’s not, just has entrance exams. I just always kinda laughed at it cause I knew I was a slacker when I went there. I never was proud to say I went there, I was kinda at the bottom of the class. People there knew I was smart and I never hid that, I don’t think I hide that in my music. It’s a lot easier to play stupid than it is to play smart.
Are Red Dot and the rest of the Trash Bag Gang friends from High School?
Me and Red played basketball against each other in High School. We had some mutual friends. The rest of it was just in the streets, other stuff.
How did you and Burn connect?
It was through another producer, DJ, entrepreneur – Jay A. We were working on some things in 2008, 2009, and he just passed it along like “I met this guy, DJ Burn One, he likes your stuff, he wants to shop some beats to you, he produces too.” I really didn’t know he produced, I just knew him as his mixtape brand, the stuff he did with Gucci, among other artists. He sent some beats and it was real UGKish. Real different from what people were shopping to me. Number 1, I kinda tip my hat to a producer recommending another producer’s work and then at the time I was just really into trying to put out mixtapes, increase the value of my own line. Quantity and quality.
I thought his brand was worthwhile, so I corresponded. But past that, I liked a lot of the first beats he sent me, probably like five and I liked three or four, which is rare, for my ear in music especially. From there I knocked out the songs, sent em to him to check em, I was just working, freelance, just recording a lot of stuff and he liked it, sent some more stuff, I sent some songs back he sent more beats, not really sending songs like this is for a mixtape of mine.
One of the first conversations we had I was like “would you mind hosting a tape for me” – I had the Love series in 2009, the war series in 2011, 2012. He hosted the I Still Love You tape, and he actually didn’t have any production on there, which is the weird thing and the strength of our bond as rapper/producer as much as rapper/DJ. He just got a really evolved sound, rooted in the South, one side of the dirty South genre, it’s really really grounded in that, but it’s evolved in the sense that it’s not just programmed, basics, it’s got a lot of soul to it but in a live way, not just sampling soul. That was kinda cool.
And it kinda matched where I was evolving too. We both kinda been around the block with our own careers, he was touring with Bubba Sparxxx around 2000, I was touring and working with a bunch of different camps. You know, just one of those things where because of that it makes it easier to relate amongst the differences people may see on the surface. Similar journeys, similar work ethics and goals in a sense. Trying to keep it real, preserve some of what we came up on.
Were the songs from that first batch of beats stuff that went on to Renaissance Gangster?
Oh yeah. Gotta finish the story. Probably three sets of beats in I had the idea, I recorded a song called “Renaissance Gangster.” I was working on Starlito’s Way 3 by then, an independent album that I put out in 2010. I was like that song sounded kinda similar to the “Alright” song, which I knew I was gonna use and “Alright” stood out so much I didn’t want another song that sounded like it. But I really liked the other song and didn’t want it to waste away like 100s of other songs on other hard drives and record label vaults – songs that just never saw the light of day.
I’m thinking I really like your stuff but I don’t want 10 of your beats on my album, that would kinda be a discredit to other producers who helped me come up to this point. So I thought I got so many of your songs we should just make a tape out of it. And I title it after that song that didn’t really fit elsewhere and it became the title track to that project. From there we just never stopped working. That was an accidental project, just sending music, never met each other.
Have you guys got into the lab together now?
Oh yeah, plenty. “Like Mike” off At War With Myself, we were in the studio together. I was actually drunk, just left the Hawks/Heat game so basketball was on my mind, the sample he chose sent me in that direction. “Grape Swishers.” I wanna say there was another on Mental Warfare. It’s about 50/50 now cause I’m here a lot. Every time I’m in town I make a point to get in the lab, burn one as his name says, two or three, just try to make something happen.
Have you ever rocked with Burn’s band?
Performance wise? I’m kinda bummed out about tonight. I would have tried to tonight. I was planning for it to be a Stepbrothers show but Trip isn’t going to be able to make it. I would have tried to do a more live show or incorporate the band cause they are kinda hosting it, the house band for the entire set but I’m sure that requires some kind of practice.
They probably know your stuff.
I mean it’s a showcase and I wouldn’t want to mess up. I don’t want to stumble around. I’m really torn about it all together. It’s just he way I am. I’m not super excited about much of anything these days.
Why do you think that is?
I’m at a crossroads with everything right now. I just want to do what I want to do, the way I want to do it, when I want to do it. Sometimes that’s little to nothing. I don’t know. It’s easier working with other people because then you don’t have to do all the work. But just the energy of it, watching somebody else, will inspire, perk me up. I was kinda at the same point when I met Trip. And when we started working actively, he parlayed a song into a video, into a deal. Just seeing how hard he is working with that. If that is not inspiring I don’t want to know what is. I’m just one of those people that want to see him do good. And this business is full of people that will pretend to have your back to get there cut and leach off what you have going. Now I just want to do this shit my way. There is a hard part of figuring out what that is. That’s probably too honest.
I just wanna say based on the numbers that are tangible it’s just weird, I don’t have a staff. I don’t have a label, a manager, It’s just me. I wake up and go to sleep and not talk to anybody. There are a lot of artists who have full on machines behind them or pockets or resources. I’m getting the same response, or a bigger response or a more genuine response. Some of it I’m just basing it off what I see. I don’t know what anybody is making. I haven’t generated an audience off controversy or tabloids, I haven’t placed myself on some viral platform. Like all the stupid stuff I’ve done has kinda been in the dark, I just paid for it in other ways, I didn’t get no acclaim or deal from it.
At this point, it’s kinda scary because involving anybody else might just mess it up. I tend to be kinda temperamental because there is the human element to it, because the decisions are made by me and not some business or corporate interest. Sometimes I just do shit that is not always the right thing. But that’s kinda what makes it raw. That’s what makes it appealing to some people. Of course I struggle. The structure, the order that is necessary to move, setup tours, schedule shit, getting your stuff everywhere at the same time. It’s just like when I started, I’m still in the same position, not really working for anybody, cause I did compromise that for awhile.
You handle all every step of your music yourself?
Everything. I don’t brag about it cause I be exhausted. If I brag about it I feel like it will expose the chinks in my armour. When shit don’t go right, people will know because I literally fucked up. From the outside looking in “Ah shit he go hard, something ain’t right.” But it’s been me, I’ve been doing everything since like 2010, Starlito’s Way 3. I was building up, nobody had no input. That album was an independent album.
Are you content?
Naw. Cause I still gotta work for everything I get. The object of the game is the same in that regard. I have created a whole lot of residuals for myself. A lot of times if I’m going to sign up to have a better chance at a residual, what am I gonna get if I keep chopping into it. I’m gonna get 10 people telling me what to do off a split check. But I mean what else am I gonna do?
At this point I’m not content, but I’m happy that people are with me cause I think the general audience doesn’t care about the points of your deal or how they get your music, where it comes from, is it out, what’s new, we like it enough, what else do you have going on? You asked about the video mixtape, I was looking at it like it’s just funny to me, like I think that would be cool if my favorite rapper had videos that was like a mini movie. It doesn’t really have to have a plot, cause a lot of videos don’t, but just like we can make it flow together, like a day in the life. Video logs are boring. You’d rather hear the music. Why not do both at the same time. So I’m pretty sure I can hold peoples attention for 20 minutes and it’s like one of the biggest videos I’ve ever put out on the internet.
Is rap still fun for you?
Sometimes. It used to be real fun.
When was that?
I had fun doing Post Traumatic Stress. I had a lot of fun. Mental Warfare. I was like I’m going to have fun, the whole castle thing. I’m going to make this fun, like a field trip. Outside of sitting at my spot, cause it’s work, deadlines and all that shit make it work. And that’s why I’m so creative with mine cause when I make it like a goal instead of a deadline, or I know subconsciously that I’m doing this because of this, like Ultimate Warrior came out the day NBA 2K came out, I’m not saying that formally cause 2K sports isn’t paying me to, but I play the game and I know a lot of people who listen to my music do. So click download, go out and buy the game.
Maybe if you associate the two close enough you start playing this music when you start playing the game, you’ll keep doing it and this will be one of your favorite CDs. When I do stuff like that I gotta get this done by this day — that’s a lot better than someone saying get me this by this day and do it like this.
I’m curious about the stories you tell, are they a mix of life and embellishment or does it all come from something specific?
I think with most art, embellishment is a part of it — especially if it’s enhancing and not just satirizing. For the most part, the things I embellish in my music aren’t to make me look better, it’s for effect. I tell you it may be equal parts. If it’s embellished I just need you to hear it, imagine it so it can be real to you. Sometimes it’s the only way to get people’s attention. More times than not it’s equal parts, it’s just how it is. Those stories, it’d be easier to ask you what song?
I was gonna say, that was sticking out in my head. Some of the stories, they’re not personal accounts, it’s just story telling because that’s the world we live in. And the embellishment is to make it hit close to home in those cases. It’s just, kind of a place of being young, underprivileged, there are a lot of factors that led to their place in that song but I’ve probably been just close enough to feeling a certain way, especially at the beginning of the song I’m like “You out here lost” it’s like from a male perspective. That song is really just about the human condition. The trickle down can affect everyone. It wasn’t an autobiographical, I wasn’t talking about anyone in particular in any of those cases, it was just a real ass picture to paint.
Are you still terrified of GPS?
Yeah. That was real. The notion of we’re all losing our sense of privacy. I heard Andre 3000 rapping about it on Rick Ross CD. He was so elaborate, same way we was just talking about “Nortriptyline” – he made the same point as I did in eight bars, rather than just like a punchline. You could just take what I said light-hearted, it’s just a high song, but it’s the truth.
I can press a button and my phone tells me exactly where I am, to within a few feet. Who is responsible for that? Who is monitoring that? That’s just the way I feel. Cause anything that can be done can be undone. It’s just like, there is an extra sense of terror behind it when you are doing something wrong, or you don’t want your whereabouts to be known cause it could cause the undoing of whatever you are doing. I think a lot of people, even if you aren’t doing something wrong would feel that line, pick up on it. You can buy something for twenty dollars that will keep me from getting lost, but what else?
You classify yourself as an artist, and I think there is a certain amount of consideration to that title, over calling oneself a rapper. Was there a moment where you decided you were more an artist than just someone who spits bars?
It would probably have been somewhere around the time when I was making and releasing Starlito’s Way 2. Because at that time I had already realized the power of my words. And what I had accumulated, accomplished at that point, a lot of the negative bullshit that came with it, some of it was a direct result of things I said in my raps. I had to embrace the good and bad. Making that CD, I was pushing the envelope past saying the shit that was on my mind at that time.
There was a lot of music that I made in that time period that never saw the light of day. I did an entire project with a producer named Nyce and that shit was cold. Some of the coldest shit ever. I was singing some of the hooks, playing with melodies. He’s just a really creative producer. I did an entire project with Young Buck, not the Starbucks CD, all original production like Stepbrothers. We did one of those, like 2007. I was writing songs for people, it was just a really creative time. And a really fucked up time just in my personal life.
I’ve said it before, not necessarily in interviews, but there was a time with all of that that I wasn’t sure I would be alive. Shit going on that I just felt like I had no control over. I don’t know if that was creating a better version of music, but I definitely felt like that was artistry and not just rapping. It wasn’t just someone rapping to come up, or rapping to get out the hood. At that time rapping was all I had. I had equipment, I taught myself how to record. I was doing exactly what the fuck I wanted to do when I wanted to do it with my music. At that time I was like I can do whatever with this shit. Like a talented artist with a paintbrush, I was just more into proving that to myself. I get what you are saying as far as the distinction, but I can battle rap, or rap about some money, think on my feet and freestyle. I’m no less than what I started as it’s just turning into something else. Growth.
Did you have a lot of beats you were considering using for Post Traumatic Stress?
I had a playlist that got up to 15, 16 songs, but I didn’t want to do, I set out to do like 9. It ended up being 11, but made it 10 tracks, put the two Wacka Flocka Flame beats on the same track. I just thought it was interesting that I jacked two beats off the same album.
Was it a desire of feeling you could do it better?
Naw, naw, it wasn’t a competitive thing. I’m more like silly, I think I’m more silly than diabolical. Trip calls me a sociopath on a regular basis. I do things for the amusement, the fuck of it, to unnerve people. It’s not personal. If anything I think he’s got a good ear for beats. He’s got a good thing, it sounds cool, it works and he does it. It would be a petition to those producers to work with them. Not like “I did better than him” just like hey I can rap good and I like your kinda beats, cause it’s work.
Have you and K.R.I.T. talked?
Naw, we were on a show together but there was some bad business with the promoters and I think we were both dealing with it individually and probably prevented us from chopping it up. But some of the other producers with from Post Traumatic Stress, one of them I was in the studio with yesterday, Cy Fyre. He did, I think it’s called “Negro Leagues” on my tape. He showed mad love after I put the tape out, appreciated that I credited him even though I was jacking the beat. That meant something to me, my attention to detail not going unnoticed to the people that deserve it. He made a dope beat and I’m rapping on it more for the beat than for the original song so that’s even more reason why they deserve credit. It was cool. It was tight. And now we are working, I got a batch of beats from him yesterday. I guess it’s more so just doing it because it spoke to me, a lot of time it was everything.
How long have you and Don Trip known each other?
Since 2009. Just a small world, one of my best friends, business partners in my record label brought me a CD saying “check this out, dude goes hard, kinda like you in your ’02, ’03 days.” Which was high praise from somebody who had been beside me every step of the way. I was listening to it and he was going in and I was thinking he just needs some production. I think he goes hard, I’m listening because you’re telling me too, I wouldn’t just listen to a CD that was a certain quality, you know it just is harder to take artists seriously.
I listened to more, he gave me another CD. Then I was around Yo Gotti and he said he was thinking about signing this guy from down here, his names Don Trip have you heard of him. I was like yeah I have heard of him. Gotti was saying the same things, and it was weird to have two people close to me saying the same things about him. I met him through Gotti and we just chopped it up and from there we did a few songs, threw him on one of my tapes. I put his “Letter to My Son” on one of my tapes and I thought he was gonna sign with Gotti, but more so because I thought the song was so good. And the CD was called Love Letters so it just kinda fit. I just felt like that’s what the game was lacking, just that raw honesty. Emotion. Of course the response was, “who is that, who is that?” And the song is blowing up at the same time. The rest is history.
Did you guys pick the beats together?
Yeah mostly. There were a few where one of us was like I got something to this, I like this, so it’d be him picking the beat or vice versa but for the most part we were going through beats together and bother were like yeah I like this one. It was a cool process. No pressure. It was rare
How long did it take you to finish it?
Three studio sessions. He came to Nashville once to my spot and we knocked out like four songs. Then we went to his spot in Memphis. It was a long session, it may have been two days, it just felt like one. We knocked out the majority of it and cleaned up a song or two from the first session. Then we went to LA to mix what we had done and in that process we got two or three more done. We mixed it and finished everything while we were out there. It wasn’t until we were in LA that we realized how close we were to finishing it because we were just making music.
When did you start smoking weed?
When I was like 11.
Are you a fan of Molly?
The drug? Naw. It’s just interesting to watch new drugs surface and get popular. When I’d watch things about crack, I was alive, I was a little child during the era when it boomed. I grew up and people were doing crack or selling crack everywhere around and still, but it’s difficult to imagine something just popping up and just moving, you know, a hardcore drug, it’s kinda hard to conceive that. I was alive, I couldn’t of just been aware of it then, but I’ve watched documentaries and it’s like how the fuck does that happen. And then you watch it with something else, ah no I’m not a fan of that shit, it’s crazy.
I don’t see how it’s any different than anything else. The context of that song, it wasn’t suppose to make sense, it’s supposed to make you think. Anybody who does that shit would probably disagree with the notion of doing it to go to sleep. I could see how someone could hear the song, know little about it and be like “Lito be on the molly.” Or what’s worse I hate for someone to be like I’mma go pop one cause he said pop one and go to sleep. It’s mental warfare.
Were you writing things with this concept of Mental Warfare in mind?
I work kinda randomly and just throw shit together but that project was one that I was like, I’m gonna do this, it’s gonna be called this, it’s gonna sound like this. It wasn’t a long period of time, but yeah I kinda knew. I can’t remember where exactly, the breakdown of it. But that was kinda the reason for doing For My Foes was to, at the time I’d done so much partying, I was like I need to get back to rapping. I had so many shows and birthday parties in December, it was like jack some beats, aight get back to work.
Was rap a vision of making it out? Was that a goal?
Hell yeah. It still is. And that’s why I gotta make it fun. The alternatives they dark. That’s why my music be so dark sometimes. The Starlito/Carlito thing, this shit was fun and then at the time I realized this could be my job, my ticket. That’s the name of the game. I’m just true to form, true to my environment. I still just paint that dark picture. Even if I make it out via this, that don’t say much for the guy sitting next to me. Yeah I can look out for em, take care of em, but I can’t look out for everybody to the point where I’m right back out here. That’s just how it is.