An Interview With Starlito

Justin Ivey speaks to the Nashville artist about the balancing act of being a rapper and a father, his six-year hiatus from music, how working with Don Trip forces himself to a challenge and more.
By    April 29, 2024

Image via Starlito/Instagram

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Listening to Lingua Ignota gives Justin Ivey just says no to the Oxford comma.

Starlito’s Way is not only a clever title for a mixtape, but also a motto for the man’s career. Nashville’s Jermaine Shute carved out a lane for himself without chasing hits or trends, becoming an integral part of Tennessee’s post-2000 rap scene along with Yo Gotti and the late Young Dolph.

Shute’s rap journey began as All $tar Cashville Prince, a moniker that evolved once he created a mixtape series playing off the film Carlito’s Way. He landed a deal with Cash Money Records during a time when Lil Wayne was the lone star left from the label’s glory days. Starlito was unable to break through at Cash Money yet still developed a following that recognized his prowess as a wordsmith.

“I wanted to be the best rapper in the world even though there’s no true metric for that,” Starlito recalled. “That was what I aspired to be and what I loved about rap was the infinite range of creativity and how artists pushed the envelope … it was about your words and I just feel like a lot of that is gone. It was a cream rises to the top kind of thing.”

Hip-hop history is filled with countless rappers who were never heard from again after a brush with the major label system. But Starlito pushed forward, finding his greatest success as an independent artist in the late 2000s and 2010s. His rise coincided with the blog era, which allowed many rappers to cultivate fanbases without placating powerful record executives.

Starlito was hardly the blog poster boy. When writers and podcasters mythologize those days, they typically focus on artists elevated by the New Music Cartel (2DopeBoyz, NahRight, etc.). Starlito was often cornered off in the southern rap-centric corners of the blogosphere where the likes of Dirty Glove Bastard and DJ Burn One operated. He managed to flourish in this Wild West-esque period with a relentless work ethic, feeding fans with multiple projects per year. He connected with an audience who appreciated his mix of acerbic and poignant lyrics delivered in a laid back fashion.

Like so many creatives, Starlito eventually hit a wall with his passion. He started questioning his years of devotion to his craft. Fatherhood and rap’s ever-evolving ecosystem ultimately led to him going on hiatus.

“I began to feel like the things that are prevailing or most prominent or most programmable even, it’s different,” he said. “The underground has kind of lost its luster. And I’m like, man I don’t really like the way it is anymore. What is the bright side to being the quote-on-quote best in this space or being the best means something very different now.”

Starlito stepped away for a few years before resurfacing with his Love Drug album in December 2023. Fans owe Don Trip a huge debt of gratitude for inspiring his fellow Step Brothers member’s return.

“The fun thing is that our relationship outside of the booth has grown so much into a brotherhood that we can bounce ideas off each other freely and get honest advice or insight from another seasoned artist,” Starlito said regarding Don. “And it’s free of the typical kind of BS that might come with artist interactions. Sometimes, this space is so competitive that people rob themselves of creative energies or whatever the overlap is. People don’t want other people to get the one up on them. It’s like, ‘I don’t want to share much, I’m not going to tell you or show you what works for me because I don’t want you to use it and pass me.’ We don’t have that. It’s something genuine. He keeps me on my toes as an artist and forces me to come with it. And we can just communicate freely and talk about life as much as actually creating.”

Starlito admitted he wasn’t thinking ahead to what’s next in his career, but fans shouldn’t worry about him fading away again. The Step Brothers 4 album with Don is a “very high” priority as they seek to remind listeners why they’re one the best duos of the past 20 years. A simplified version of Southern rap’s history may overlook their contributions in the same way they may do a legend such as Lil Keke. But the full story cannot be told without Starlito (or his Step Brothers cohort).

I spoke to Starlito to learn more about his hiatus from rap, his comeback, fatherhood and much more.

You just returned with the Love Drug album. How does it feel to be back now?

Starlito: It feels pretty good. It’s a weird space because I’ve never taken this much time away from it all. It is a newness to it, kind of a refreshed feeling. Overall, it’s pretty good.

You were on a hiatus. I know you had the Cheap Phones & Turkey Bags project, but solo-wise, we haven’t heard from you in a few years. Why did you need this time off and why did you come back?

Starlito: The time off was more personal. A lot had happened even prior to my last solo release Paternity Leave, which was in 2020. Around the time of Step Brothers Three was the spring of 2017. I went on a nationwide tour, came off tour and immediately got back to work and was working with my head down, project after project. A mixtape here and there, then the Hot Chicken album, which was trying to bring light to the Nashville scene or sound if you will. I worked with a lot of Nashville-based producers and collaborated with a lot of artists. Then not long after that I got into some trouble. I kind of just hit a wall then. Dealing with all of that in real-time, I never really took any time for myself and I realized that. Obviously, a lot of that took priority but at that time I realized I spent pretty much my entire adult life chasing this dream. The first half of that year, I saw as much commercial success, as much of a return on what I’ve done as any phase of my career. But there was almost no joy to it. Like I said, the six-month run that was very plentiful and lucrative was followed up by—I felt like I had taken two steps forward and then 20 steps back. Because I had a couple issues that compounded with whatever psychologically comes with all of that. It made all the work I was putting in feel almost kind of fruitless. So conversely, six months after that, I was expecting a child.

So, 2018 the legal thing was ongoing, and I dealt with that for maybe a couple of years. It kind of overlapped with the birth of my child. Still, making the music was kind of a refuge or therapeutic as much as just a habit. I was just working my way through it. I think at that time maybe in 2018, it kind of was like, I don’t think I was just phoning it in or just going through emotions, but it wasn’t as routine as anything now. With that, there were still some highlights. I featured on a Lil Baby album and think it ended up going platinum. I dropped a solo project At WAR With Myself Too. I was proud of that work. I felt like it was inspiring and that project was solid. I even collaborated with an artist on my label, Trapperman Dale, on Trapstar, and I think that was super solid work and helped to fortify what we were trying to build with him and solidify him as like hey he’s here, he had arrived. But again, it was just kind of like immensely—I kind of felt like I was running in place if you will. So coming out of that it was alright what to do next? I wasn’t as inspired. And maybe right after Trapstar dropped was when my daughter was born. So passed that it was like, okay what to do now? I didn’t drop another solo project until Paternity Leave.

And even with that—obviously, the inspiration is in the subject matter. And a lot of that if you heard the project or if you tapped into it some of it is kind of self-explanatory. Coming out of the pandemic, I realized it had been a routine thing to go to the studio to create just music. Now, what I do and who I am kind of overlapped because I’ve been doing this since I was a teenager. At this point, I am in my 30s. The pandemic slowed everything down and it made you appreciate those routines because they were no longer there. As soon as or even prior to things opening back up, we were bending the rules. This is a music city, there are a hundred studios in Nashville but all of them were closed because of social distancing and stuff like that. So, we would rent Airbnbs and I would hire an engineer to record us, me and other artists on my label that were local to here. I would rent an Airbnb for a week and just retain an engineer and just get in and just record. I would bring my own equipment to the Airbnb and create a studio atmosphere. Because of course, I had my family at home and that was what I was doing more than creating: preparing meals and attending to a toddler and infant. So, to be able to get out of the house was a luxury at this point. It was no longer a routine and there came some of that music for Paternity Leave. It was a breath of fresh air, literally, to get out of the house for a minute to record music. I dropped one music video at launch for Paternity Leave. I dropped a video for the intro, but past that, there were no more visuals.

The week after the album dropped, I had treatments for two or three other records, strong treatments. I was really excited about the music. But I had a really really severe case of Covid at the end of June, the 4th of July weekend, so maybe a week after the album dropped. I was down, I was under the weather at that point. I was just happy to regain good health. Again, the music became an afterthought for that moment. It was an uphill thing to get back to that point of being excited about it all. The pandemic and that unintentional pause or that forced break from it all that was enough to push me towards it. I was just living and even considering that a lot of chaos on a personal level was so tethered to this life that you create as a rap artist. Some of that excitement just dulled down. Also, I was just trying to live. I didn’t want to make every album about parenthood even though that was my new journey and that was what my day-to-day was. I felt like I touched on it. I gave some insight into what my psyche and what my mind said and what my life looks like here and now with a toddler. I needed to just experience what it looks and feels like now to have more things to rap about even. That’s where the break kind of stemmed from. I dropped “Paternity Leave” even by name intentionally to go on a bit of a hiatus. I didn’t have a time frame in mind, but I honestly didn’t anticipate it would be three and a half years without me doing a solo.

My next project you mentioned, Cheap Phones & Turkey Bags with my bro Troy Money from Kentucky, it was something we had set out working on in 2013 nearly 10 years earlier. It may have had a different title at that time, but he had to go on a bit of a vacation. It was just my word that was important to me, what we had set out to do before. And once he got out and got reacclimated, rather than putting out the old music, because we probably had a ton of it, it was like let’s update and see what us collaborating sounds like here and now. My word was important enough to propel that project for that. I guess it kept me rapping, but for my diehard hardcore fans, it wasn’t a Starlito album. I’m sure someone somewhere appreciated it. It was what it was and I mentioned it in a few other places. A lot of other things just happened which kind of made me think differently about it.

During this hiatus, what would you say that you learned about yourself? How did you survive without that routine, like you said, of just going to the studio? How have you adapted to it?

Starlito: I mean I have got more structure now than I probably ever had in my professional career. Maybe short of when I was a college student because you had a schedule there. With parenthood, my schedule is tethered to my child between school and her extracurriculars. I’m a soccer dad. There are some things that occupy my time, if you will. I will say that one of the adjustments is as an artist and just personally the freedom of expression that comes with being a hip-hop artist. I’m a writer by nature and I think there is a high or joy to sharing your work as much as creating. I got the tools to create and be creative even within my own home. But there’s something else to it for it to be received and I think that’s one of those things that I have found that I have missed. But there were elements of it all that I didn’t miss or that I grew less fond of. As the culture shifts and things change and things happen. Life, death, even your perspective just shifts. My day-to-day just looks so vastly different that once upon a time, I woke up on the wrong side of the bed and just jetted off somewhere for work or play or whatever.

Typically, I even used to laugh with people close to me telling me that I will find a way to work on a vacation. Because more times than not, I know someone somewhere or I will go somewhere for fun and then try to find a studio. Or discover that someone I know is there nearby and I’m driving to where they are and collaborate or something like that. Or obviously, we were always able to work via email or otherwise. Sometimes, I’m even on the beach and that may open my mind to write some stuff and before you know it, I’m on a writer’s retreat kind of thing rather than just truly freeing my mind. Yeah, that’s different. I’ve got to be more of a planner. I’ve got to be more intentional about my time because I got drop-off, pick-up duties and etc. I’m embracing the changes. There are things that begin to look different, but it was all welcome.

You’ve given us a little glimpse into fatherhood on some songs and you get into it here on this new album again with “Wanna Be There.” How has this journey been for you so far? What does being a father mean to you?

Starlito: It means everything. It teaches me so much about myself in real-time. You have to be a teacher and a student simultaneously. It’s overwhelming, it’s difficult to talk about. I just read a—I don’t know if it’s clickbait or it’s probably a quote, but I saw something from an article about an artist not being big on fatherhood or something of that nature.

Yeah, it was NBA YoungBoy. I saw that story.

Starlito: I thought it was interesting. I mean different strokes for different folks. For one it’s the biggest thing to me. It’s something that I’ve found is bigger than me. My daughter at five – this is super personal and super recent and real – she saw me on the television. I was on local network TV, a morning talk show. It was a 30-minute talk show, sit-down interview. And I was sharing it with her because I knew the content was kid-friendly and clean. And I figure she would think it’s cool like dad’s on TV. A few moments in, they introduced me and she was excited and into it. She just looked closer a few minutes in and she looked at me and she’s like “Why does she keep calling you that? Why does she keep calling you Lito?” It kind of dawned on me that she has no frame of reference for my stage name. She knows Jermaine, but she doesn’t know Lito, she doesn’t know Starlito. I’m trying to explain it to her. One of my convictions, a standard I wanna have for myself, is that I always want to be honest with my child. So, I’m trying to explain it to her as best as I can. She’s actually been to one concert, so she’s seen me in action. She was maybe two years old. But even then, her perspective is daddy is up there singing and dancing. I don’t know what connections she has to the music itself, especially at that time. I don’t think she understands it as a career path or that that’s my job, this is what I do to provide for us. So, she’s super puzzled watching me have a conversation with someone on TV no less. “Why does she keep calling you Lito?” And I explained to her, “You know people who know my music know me by my stage name Starlito.” A day later she’s telling one of her grandparents, “Starlito, that’s the name of my dad’s stage.” But I’m also seeing her real-time trying to make sense of it.

Because for five-plus years, it’s just not as important as so many other things that there is to teach her and show her. If anything, I’m almost kind of intentionally shielding her from it as best as I can. Because, like I said, I just feel the biggest thing for me is the grand scheme of things and having a moral compass and otherwise. I don’t want her to feel more or less important or significant than anyone because of what I do for a living. That’s very secondary to everything else. I don’t think that we should view anybody any differently because of how they look or what they do for a living etc. etc. There’s right and wrong, there’s good and evil, etc. But that’s my plight and I for sure hold myself to maybe an even unreasonable standard in times how I got to go about it all.

I’m guessing that it’s got to be a difficult balancing act where you want to shield her in some ways but also be very open and honest. It will probably get easier as she gets older. But right now, you’re kind of playing that balancing act of what should she know, how should I expose her to this kind of stuff?

Starlito: Yeah, because it’s still my first child and it’s still pretty new to me. Sometimes I struggle with just knowing that I’m not the first person to rap that had a kid. A lot of people had children already when they got into all of this. Even my best friend rapping got a football team worth of kids. I could kind of lean on him or I could talk to people that had dealt with some of this, but I think to each his own. Same thing when I was referencing that quote. Who am I to judge or condemn anybody for their worldview or how they approach things? I’m just in a space of wanting to nurture and support whatever it is that she is into. Be that music or performing arts or she wants to be a scientist or whatever. If I had a son, I’m not going to push him into basketball because I’m a basketball fan kind of thing. That’s not fair. It’s a challenge and balancing it is, you know. I’m a little bit neurotic, I’ll say I’m a worrier, so I think very deeply about certain things so that makes it more challenging I think sometimes. And I question if it will get easier because the access to information is so plentiful.

My challenge would be do I tell her about something so she hears it from me first or do I let her run into these things. And now I’m tasked with overcorrecting to what the truth of it is or explain something that she may have been exposed to elsewhere. I think for most parents that’s probably something that we deal with on some level. This may be unique to someone that casts themselves out as a public figure or that’s popular in whatever space. Maybe because I was a little older when I had my first child, maybe it won’t happen in such an intense fashion. It may have been a different phase in life for me. I’m just thinking about how active I once was. It’s hard to gauge if I’m more or less popular than I once was. I guess metrics could tell some of that story. I know what I’m consumed with and that’s my real life. Once upon a time, I woke up and went to sleep and ate, breathed and otherwise rapped and was making music. That whole lifestyle of it all. The fact that I don’t is just kind of like I will cross those bridges when I get to them.

On this new album, you fittingly have a song called “iH8RAP.” I’m curious: did you feel any irony of rapping on a song where you’re talking about how much you hate rap?

Starlito: Yeah, it’s ironic. It kind of spoke to that headspace I entered during that hiatus time. It is overtly ironic because I’m rapping, but I think it’s duality and the love-hate dynamic. I’ve mentioned in songs: I believe that love and hate are like almost mirrors or they are one in the same. There’s an overlap, a thin line as they say, but I think they’re rooted in the same emotional context. I think it’s very easy for people to jump that fence from one or the other. People that love you one day can hate you the next or vice versa. I’ll admit it I’ve been consumed by it. I’ve been consumed by rap, this notion of being a rapper has consumed me times. It has almost become me. From a kid that wanted to be a rapper for whatever reasons then fast forward five years from there and I’m defining and embodying all of the token or niche things of the rap lifestyle. Only to find out how unfulfilling a lot of that stuff is. When I look up, I watch rap bring people fortune and fame and status and maybe everything that one could wish for to get out of this and also swallow them whole or consume them in worse ways. I’ve watched peers of mine, I’ve watched people that I admire, people that I like their music and like what they seem to stand for lose their lives just by virtue of existing in the environments that they came from and from the places that propped them up. That will turn you sour on this whole thing. Because I lose that aspirational spirit because I don’t want to get any bigger or climb any higher just to come to a great fall if you will. It was a combination of all those feelings and otherwise. The narration on the song from Charleston White, he’s a very polarizing figure.

[Laughs] That’s kind!

Starlito: I mean that’s the word that I choose. But people straddle that line of the love dynamic, so I thought him to be an appropriate voiceover for the track. I met him a couple times last year. Bumped into him in Nashville a couple times. I have held a few phone conversations with him. When I got to meet him, the first time he actually shared some really kind words. Which was interesting to me because he had strong opinions on rap and rappers by large. But I think if you get past the surface level of a lot of what he says, there is a lot of harsh truth and something to take from it. So, I was like yeah this makes sense when I tapped into him about featuring on my album. It was kind of weird the dynamic of what I had worked out, but it worked out and it was definitely a stamp of approval. But it was also going the contrarian route. Brutal honesty because part of my sentiment is when I loved rap, when I was most in love with it, it was the art form.

[But now] being the best is how you can best convince me that you will go kill somebody or are you the best dressed. There was always some violence and undertones in rap. There was always some flamboyant stuff going on but those were pockets. But now it’s almost everything. There’s very little contrarian energy, there’s very little balance if you will. When I started seeing some of my favorite rappers at the time trying to almost keep up with the youngins or keep up with the times and morph their styles into what was winning, I’m like aw man what’s going on here. For me, it’s almost like aw man I don’t know about this, I don’t like it. And I’m not a hater by nature for anybody. I’m like do your thing, get your money. I ain’t got to indulge in it. So even with that record, the raps were very much speaking my peace without being the preachy old head but still telling my truth where the disconnect exists for me. It wasn’t really condemning anything or anybody specifically. I think or feel differently than some of what is pervasive if that’s the right word.

Yeah, I think you make a good point. Let’s say 15 years ago, there was always a big debate with your friends and with people you’ve met at some show about who’s the best rapper. You would get into those kinds of arguments and you would be citing their lyrics and some bars and songwriting skills. But now somebody would just be pointing to sales and Billboard charts. That’s not what we’re talking about, we’re talking about artistry.

Starlito: Those combos still exist in certain pockets, but they’re so narrow. And no knock to the artists that always get mentioned in those conversations, but it almost feels programmed by design. Especially when the internet became a phenomenon. Even prior to that because I used to go to record stores. We always had a range of access to things. I think the internet just made that range the span of it like oh my goddess, I did not know that they were rapping like that in the United Kingdom! So for it to always be the same names is frustrating. I don’t want to get into naming those because I don’t want it to come across the wrong way because some of those people that would be named, I’m fans of. I don’t think it starts and ends there. I say that on the song the song “I wasn’t born with the internet I hate how it divide and destroy niggas’ intellect.” And I do think hip-hop by nature has grown so divisive. I guess this verse is this, that happens. But like you said, that goes to the age-old who’s the best and people are going to have different opinions of it. But we manage to marginalize and categorize artists as opposed to taking it in as a whole.

My playlist is going to consist of artists that probably wouldn’t be deemed compatible or similar at all. I think that’s okay because there is a melting pot of things to choose from. But like you said, whenever we go to say this is top tier, it’s kind of like it should look or sound like this. I don’t know, some of it may just be me growing out of certain things and certain trends. There are things about my old way of being or my old music that are cringy to me or are difficult for me to listen to. That’s not saying this in favor of just myself or doesn’t even really directly even correlate to my own music. The genre, the culture at large, is okay to grow apart from things in its own way. I haven’t disowned it and I know hate is a strong word. But like I said I was madly in love with it at times. Equal opposites exist sometimes.

Last year, before your latest album, we heard you a few times on Don Trip’s projects. He was releasing stuff at a crazy pace. Tell me a little about your working relationship with Don. What’s been most fun about working with him over the years as part of the Step Brothers?

Starlito: The most fun thing about working with Don Trip over the years is it forces me to challenge myself. Working with him puts me closer to the space that I explained of wanting to be the best or whatever spirit that came with it. And it’s not that we exist so much in a competitive space. It’s just that I know he’s going to deliver. First things first, you got to understand that he is completely sober. He is almost like a rapping robot in that regard. I mean he’s human and exists within a realm of emotions, but you know what you’re going to get in terms of precision and delivery. He embodies a lot of the main elements of what I feel makes for a great rapper. He’s got a distinct voice, breath control. He’s going to be talking about something, he’s got the wit, the punchlines, the bars. I know collaborating with him, I got to bring it. And more times than not, admittedly, I feel he’s gotten the best of me on tracks if it was a competitive space to view things through the lens of. The good thing is we’re on the same team, so I don’t lose anything if that happens. If anything, it is something to gain in terms of improving a record. That’s the most fun thing. My biggest worry is I got to come with it and deliver. That’s refreshing because you don’t get that working with everybody. I don’t want to overstate it because there have been records that never saw the light of day or there have been records that weren’t my favorites that we put together or didn’t get completed for whatever reason.

But especially with that run from last year, he dropped a project every month for an entire year. So when he was calling me like, “Hey, I’m working on a July release and I got to turn it in by this day,” it’s kind of like oh shit. By the end, I was more worked out of my hiatus because somewhere in the middle of the year, I became very very, very inspired by it. Even tapped in with him and consulted almost. Like what are you tapping into to be able to keep doing this? Because I may have released five, six, seven projects in a year before, but it wasn’t intentional. It wasn’t by design. I just worked with my head down and I looked up and I got a body of work done or I got a bunch of songs and I don’t want to sit on them. Or I may have had a couple planned and while I was working on Step Brothers Two and Cold Turkey got done. And while I was working on that I jacked a few beats, so I’ma put out a jacked a few beats tape and once Cold Turkey was successful and chartered, it’s like I’m about to do Fried Turkey and drop it on Thanksgiving.

The plan worked itself as opposed to me planning the work. With him, it’s so intentional, so deliberate. And I also knew every month he was going in from scratch. It wasn’t like he had a big pool of songs and was just pulling from those and adding to it to make a project. March 1st, he didn’t have anything for the album that was released in March. April 1st, he didn’t have anything for the one in April. That was as impressive as anything because working against a deadline and delivering over and over and over. And it was almost like the quality, the standard was scaling upwards. I was like, “What are you tapping into?” He gave me, maybe this is A and B second part to the answer, he gave me some advice when we did have this conversation and I asked him that. This may be the best part. Our relationship has only improved over the decade plus we’ve been working. We have only grown closer. His advice was to stop thinking so hard.

We are all our own biggest critics and I was more of a critic of myself than even he was of himself and he’s admittedly a huge critic of himself. What I’m hyper-critical of may be to the point where someone else would take it, run away with it and love it. I probably played some records and some music for him and I’m like, “Yeah I don’t know that’s not finished.” And he’s like, “What’s not finished about it? It’s perfect.” To me, it’s unfinished and it’s all the way imperfect and an incomplete thought and a sketch if you will. To him, it’s like, “I’d play that over and over and over in the car. So stop thinking yourself into a corner. That stuff you already played for me is golden and run with that and go into the next one.” And from that came my intro to the album. He was like, “Man if you made a song about having writer’s block, someone somewhere will appreciate it. People just want to hear you rap. When you talk about what you’re going through on whatever level, the appeal is in what you say more than how you say it or you’re thinking too much about the nuance.” Ironically with that, I was like, “I can do it like this I can do it like…” That conversation led to the nuance of the record. But again, it was directly inspired just from a conversation.

As your relationship has grown over the years, fans have probably nagged you and asked you about Step Brothers 4. Is that still something that you guys want to make or do you want to do something completely different if y’all collaborate again?

Starlito: Yeah, I think that that’s something that we want to make. I think that we got so much equity into the branding of it that it makes sense there. I have thought about it. As they say, would a rose by any other name still smell as sweet or however that quote goes? How would the project be received if it was titled something else? But for sure, on whatever side of that, our intention is to continue collaborating and I think we are yet to miss on a collaborative project. Some of what we spoke about in the beginning of the conversation, I spoke about my own life’s journey. I started at Step Brothers Three on that timeline of things. Conversely, on the other side of that – and this is not my story to tell for him even if I may know some of the details – it was oppositely as turbulent on bro’s behalf on the life level. A lot of this music stuff was pushed to the back burner priority-wise. We’re close enough to know that, see that, perceive that. We understood. That’s really been the only thing that created this time distance between the last project. There were two years between the first project and the second project. It was four years between the second and the third and now were a little over six years.

Following patterns, we maybe should have dropped last year. But I think we got the most prolific and most productive year out of Don Trip and then we got me out of the shadows of the rap realm. That splits the difference and I think we’re prime to hit the scene together. For sure, our intention is to put something out there and make it happen. It’s tentatively titled Step Brothers 4 Life. Since we did the third one, that was always the working title for a follow-up. I think it makes as much sense as anything to call it that. One because it is the fourth installment and then for life because that’s what we consider our bond or our brotherhood. It also plays off NWO 4 Life as wrestling fans since kids. I had the Ultimate Warrior mixtape, he had the Randy Savage mixtape. There’s a nuance connected to it all and things like that. As best I know, that will be the title to it. I’m not gonna provide a date. It’s something I really hope comes sooner than later. I’m in a fan space with that too. I’m anxious and interested to see what we come with.

In addition to Don, something I really enjoy is the roster you have built at Grind Hard. You mentioned Dale earlier but one guy that really impressed me was Tha Landlord. I had not been that familiar with him before he joined Grind Hard. Then I heard that Far From Perfect album and it was one of my favorites of 2021. And he just dropped one last year too. Can you tell me a little bit about just what goes into your process of bringing an artist into Grind Hard. What do you look for and what makes someone right for the team?

Starlito: That’s a great question. Tha Landlord had been putting it down for a while. I was looking at a real documented… He’s been rapping for about as long as I have and we’re close to the same age. We met and linked a little over 10 years ago. With all the artists that I’m working with or partner with, I’m from the heart as much as from the hand kind of person. It’s difficult. I’ve mentioned how consumed with all this I’ve been in different phases. So, in order for me to rock out with you and work with you, I have to almost vibe or connect with you on maybe the most practical levels. I think character is as important as your talent. Because at a point whatever role I’m supposed to be playing or the company I started is playing, there’s got to be some trust factor and certain core values got to align, work ethic and all that included. Obviously, the talent part like we mentioned with Landlord, I think he’s a great artist and we just as well developed a rapport. At one time I just frequented Las Vegas. Eventually, I moved out there for a short amount of time. I was working on an album and staying there. On a life level, I don’t want to make it something it’s not, like street level and otherwise, we just ended up in each other’s company more often. And by me becoming local almost to the scene if you will and him being an ambassador there and embracing that. When I’m out that way, I’m linking with bro. When he’s closer to my way, we always tap in just working on stuff. Because it was also like, “Your dope, you go hard kind of thing.”

The same way I was saying with Trip is like steel sharpens steel. You should place yourself around people that push you and inspire you and otherwise. Our workflow is always kind of seamless. And again, I didn’t ever see any value in hiding any knowledge I may have had or resources or otherwise. For him specifically and most of the artists on a label, them being self-sufficient is the biggest asset. I’m here to support whatever it is they want to do or trying to do in whatever way I can. If anything, I’ve felt like I’ve been selling the team short by playing in the cut and being in the shadows in more recent years. Because I’m smart enough to know that the work that I put in, the work I continue to put in, will help pace what others do as much as anything. It’s interesting how much those guys have inspired me at times. Mobsquad Nard was out of Jacksonville. I met through one of my buddies in Dallas, Texas. He wasn’t there. Strangely, we collaborated because I’ve done songs with people without meeting them or knowing them and that was through a third party thing. Someone recruited me for a feature and when I got the record, it had the chorus on it and it was a vocalist. So, I just did the verse honestly as a favor for the third party. And it ended up on a Mobsquad Nard album. This is before I’ve actually met him or heard his music. I never heard the song again after I did it. Then a couple years later, I’m in the studios in Dallas. One of those working vacations. I went down there to go to a Cowboys game and ended up in the studio two straight nights. While I’m checking out some guy’s music that I’m working with there, they play a video and the second guy on the song is going crazy. And I’m honest with myself I’m like, “Hold on, run that back. What did he say?” It was one of those moments. The fan in me is like, “Nah he’s going crazy.” I literally left there wanting to hear that song again and from there it kind of went down a rabbit hole like, “Who is this Mobsquad Nard kid?” For me, if you like something or appreciate something, I feel like you’re almost a hater if you don’t acknowledge it. So from there, I kind of went out of my way to reach out because it wasn’t every day that I found something and I’m like, “Damn, this is cold.”

The internet makes the world really small and it doesn’t take very long to tap in with him. From there, we were collaborating working on a record via FaceTime. It was almost like we were in the studio together. It was as close as we were going to get right there immediately. I featured him on my Manifest Destiny album. I did a feature for his upcoming project, Step Brothers Three was coming out. We had a tour run and had a stop in Jacksonville and we actually linked. From there, he hopped on the tour a couple of days. The same thing, he was self-sufficient. I didn’t have to send for him. He was there with bells on with his own crew with his own crew and his own resources. We shoot videos and we continue to collaborate. Again, I was inspired by his artistry. This partnership and further collaboration makes all the sense in the world. Again, both of the guys I’ve mentioned Landlord and Nard are incredible fathers. They are family men, our core values align. They have never put me in harm’s way when I’m around their way. It’s a “my brother’s keeper” type of vibe. Things that are important to me on a life level, life journey. I can’t really place myself around deadbeat dads. Things I’m able to see with my own eyes from spending time in their world and their realm and vice versa. It’s very family-oriented and things that just make sense in terms of team building. Nard been rapping, he been doing this. Any support, advice or whatever direct indirect I can lend is only going to add to it.

That’s just a lot of how that came to building on a team. Me and Red Dot go way back, super personal. He’s a personal friend. I remember when he brought the idea of him rapping. It was friends till the end no matter what just because of some of the things we went through. Whatever you with, I’m with it kind of thing. His journey, the ups and downs of it all, even embracing that, making it a part of my whole brand and otherwise. People couldn’t even begin to realize at some of my lowest points, he was one of the few people there and around. There was no branding to be done because there was just darkness and bro as a friend or peer was one of the few bright spots. I almost felt indebted there. I think people took to the realness of that. When Bun B was yelling free Pimp C, everyone more or less knew who Pimp C was. When I was yelling free Red Dot maybe my most diehard fans knew because we had been rapping together the year prior, but it was kind of like what does this mean? To see he’s been moving forward, people still give him love as we move around, that’s a kind of a powerful thing. Again on a core value level or bond, it has never wavered. I had mentioned Troy Money and us going back a decade and through his situation. I feel like he kept it real and who would I be to not do the same. Everybody is their own bosses in their own regard. It’s easy to stand beside that. I never look at it as big me. I for sure don’t believe in belittling anybody.

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