More than 200 miles east of the Bluff City, Nashville, a place that many consider to be the nation’s “Music City,” continues to birth fresh talent.
Largely known for being the mecca of country music, the city also boasts an impressive hip-hop catalog. Such artists as Platinum-selling lyricist Young Buck, independent heavyweight Quanie Cash, and more so lately, a witty and charismatic artist by the name of Starlito (formerly known as All $tar), have taken “Cashville” by storm.
The latter of the three aforementioned Cashvillians, Starlito, began to make a significant impact in the underground rap realm with his 2005 single, “Grey Goose,” which featured Young Jeezy and Yo Gotti on its remix. The standout club heater, along with other bangers, would lead to him signing a deal with Memphis rap forerunner Yo Gotti’s record label, Inevitable Entertainment, and subsequently land him a spot on Cash Money Records.
However, after playing the background on the label for a couple years, and the shelving of his Cash Money debut, Streetball, Starlito declared his independence. Forming his own label, Grind Hard Records, he’s released a solid collection of mixtapes, along with a couple independent albums over the last few years. He also collaborated with Memphis artist and Interscope Records signee Don Trip for the duo's well-received mixtape, Step Brothers.
Starlito took time out to speak with me about his latest mixtape, Funerals & Court Dates, nearly giving up rap, some of his favorite artists to listen to, Step Brothers 2, his upcoming mini-movie, and a lot more.
Was music always what you wanted to do as a career?
It was probably sports at one point growing up—way more than music. But it got to a point where I realized the odds were way against me to make a living playing sports. With that, I gravitated toward taking music seriously. It was first a hobby that people always told me that I was good at, and I pursued it from there.
You released the mixtape Funerals & Court Dates in December 2012. Was there a message that you were trying to convey with the mixtape?
The message behind it is pretty clear and obvious if you listen to it, and it’s that we, and when I say we, I’m speaking to likeminded people, or people who experience similar things, or come from similar upbringing, we, as people of that demograph, don’t have much to look forward to. I narrowed it down to funerals and court dates. The message was, not just to glamorize the darkness of it, but to bring in the reality to the forefront. As an artist, I choose not to paint an inaccurate picture. I’m more familiar with the picture that I paint on Funerals & Court Dates more so than anything that I could have said with any message and purpose to it.
Judging by your catalog, it seems like you stay in the studio a lot. How often do you record?
I don’t record nearly as much as I used to a couple years ago. The end of 2009, all through 2010, I was in the studio four or five days a week for no less than ten hours a day. It was a job. I looked at it like I was being deficient if I wasn’t in the studio for forty hours a week, because I want this to pay. Since then, I’ve fallen in and out of love for making music, and music in general. So many things are bells and whistles these days, and I’m just really, really intent on being real and bringing the reality back to the culture. That’s pushed me to not recording as much honestly. I’ll get disconnected with the trends and how music is going so far in one direction. It’s like people forget to be themselves. So sometimes that will keep me out of the studio.
A large amount of your music is on original production but you release it for free. Do you worry about this affecting your sales?
That’s not my primary concern. The music business is different now. If I was still signed to a label, still an artist underneath a company’s guidance, I wouldn’t make money off the units sold. That’s just the nature of the game. That’s not how I would make my money. If you consider that, I guess it was never my concern. Understanding that I’m in a transitioning period, or understanding how virally my music moves, I’m willing to sacrifice one for the other, because if they meet in the middle then I see a benefit. If I was putting out a CD just to make money off of it, I would have to compromise my audience, or I would have to compromise my material, and I’m not willing to do either.
So how do you stay afloat financially with your career?
All of my releases are available on Bandcamp.com, where you have the option to donate whatever you want. I tour. I might have done 30, 40 shows last year. I’ve been charging between $5,000 to $15,000 a show for the last two years. The basis for that is the music. As a businessman, you sometimes make certain concessions for things in order to see a return elsewhere. My audience is definitely growing. And as a businessman, I’m constantly trying to evolve my ideas and my visions to how I can turn that audience into revenue, but I don’t ever want to lose myself in-between. That’s what keeps me going. Knowing that I’m being true to myself through it all. Whatever I make in-between is a plus, because I used to do this shit for free.
You had a stint with Cash Money Records. Do you ever regret leaving the label considering its success throughout the years?
I don’t deal so much with regret. I think it’s one of the unhealthy emotions. When I was growing up and music became interesting to me, before I became an artist, during my time there and after, I’ve always found a lot to learn from what [Cash Money has] had going on. I admire success. If you don’t, you almost fall into the hater realm. I’m happy with my independence. I’m satisfied with it, and I think there’s certain liberties of an artist that are necessary for you to be at your best. Not saying that you can’t have that in any other way than just being a complete independent [artist]. They’re cons just like they’re pros, but I'm satisfied with it. I try to appreciate things more than regret things.
Are you considering signing back to a major label?
I’m open to any lucrative business endeavors where I don’t have to lose myself in-between. At the same, I enjoy making my music on my terms and putting it out when I want to. Without being an independent, I’m not sure if that would be possible.
Do you feel underrated within the rap game?
I don’t look at myself as part of the rap game. I don’t see myself as playing the rap game like everybody else. I didn’t make Funerals & Court Dates for you to rate it against project X, Y and Z from artist one, two, three. Appeal and all that, I don’t go to sleep and wake up on that. I kinda feel love more than the fame. I hear and see people telling me that they love what I do everyday. There’s nothing to call underrated about that. That’s overwhelming. The fact that I have an audience is a blessing. I’m just pushing to make growth. I couldn’t live with myself bitching about being underrated, or ‘I’m not where I should be.’ I think I’m beyond where I ever dreamed I’d be.
A lot of people know you from being with Yo Gotti, but there’s been a lack of collaborations between you guys lately. What caused the change in the relationship?
I don’t really know.
Is there an issue between you guys?
Outside of Yo Gotti, you’ve collaborated with other Memphis rap artists such as Young Dolph and Don Trip, which you released the mixtape Step Brothers with. How did you develop a relationship with Don Trip?
[Don] Trip and I met on the road with Yo Gotti a couple years ago. They were trying to work something out, and I don’t think it worked out in terms or whatever. During that time period, we began doing some music together and kinda put the idea of the Step Brothers mixtape together. Right around the time I released At War with Myself, I was about to quit rapping. The only other thing I had on my agenda to do was the Step Brothers project with [Don Trip]. We probably had four songs at that time. We had two more studio sessions and the CD was done. It just happened like that. He got his deal some time in between that. We were able to push. We did hella shows together all over the country since it released. I think it’s just a blessing for each one of us just to be able to contribute to each one of our careers.
Is there a release date for Step Brothers 2?
Do you think it will have a larger impact than the first one?
We’re going to do a tour, and I think that will naturally make us reach a lot of audiences, and help us do more numbers. There’s the whole sophomore jinx thing, and I guess [Step Brothers 2] would fall under that. The good thing is we’re only competing with ourselves, and what expectations we created with that. At worse, we hope to match it. Expectations are subjective. What you’re expecting of it may be completely different than what we expect ourselves. The worse you’re going to get from it is our best.
I understand you went to Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU) but didn’t finish. What were you taking up when you were pursuing school?
I was doing music business the most recent time. The first time I went to school, I wasn’t taking up anything. I was just there. A year after being there, I was passing out CDs, selling CDs, and trying to come up, because it was 10,000 people there and the majority of them were in that rap demograph. About four or five years later, by the time that I was re-enrolling into college, I was rapping. I had a record deal and all that. I tried that for about a year, but my road schedule was really demanding. I was paying about $7,500 to miss classes all the time. That’s kinda silly. On top of that, I was leaving to go make money. It was kind of a no brainer to put school on pause. I put it in my music, because it’s a lot of people in those crossroads. I’ve got friends that graduated from college or got multiple degrees, and can’t get a job or are not doing anything they love. I’m on the other side of that. I didn’t finish, but I’m doing something. I’m working with what I’ve got.
You created the Grind Hard Scholarship, something that’s out of the norm for most rappers. How’d that come about?
I put the idea out there when Mental Warfare [ a digital album Starlito released in 2012] dropped. At the time, one of the reasons I was trying to sale Mental Warfare as an album was to generate money for the scholarships. Being a small business owner, it’s another one of those tax deductions. I would rather give the money to somebody going to school than to send it off in an envelope to Uncle Sam. I know the core of my listening audience is between 15 and 25, high school and college age. I was trying to peep the interest of those high school age people, because I know they’re hanging onto every word that you say. Even if they don’t apply for the scholarship, I just want them to be aware that they have options.
[Graduating high school seniors were given the opportunity to apply for the Grind Hard Scholarship in 2012. Two winners were selected. Each scholarship is $1,000. Starlito said he plans to provide two more scholarships to graduating seniors in 2013.]
Your style can’t be compared to any rap artists in particular, but I’m sure some had an influence on you. Who’s some of the artists that you can listen to forever?
I like Tupac a lot. I like Lupe Fiasco’s music. I wish Andre 3000 had more music to consume. I really like all of his old stuff. I think he’s a really, really creative artist. I’ve really been a fan of Jay-Z for a while. I like Lil’ Wayne. I’ve always liked Lil’ Wayne since I was in middle school, high school. Where he’s taken his career, man that shit is awe-inspiring. New artists, I like Kendrick Lamar, Future, Don Trip. Gucci Mane is one of my favorite artists. I think it’s something raw and pure about what he does. I like Snoop [Dogg]. Scarface. I listen to Scarface about as much as any rapper. UGK. 8ball & MJG. I listen to everything.
What’s up next for you?
I don’t have a title, but I have a mini-movie that’s coming out real soon. It’s going to be based real closely off a lot of my 2012 music. If you remember For My Foes, which was like a musical, mixtape stuff, it’s going to put you in the mindframe of that, but with original music. It’ll be like a mini-film. That’ll be something to look forward to. Other than that, the stuff with [Don] Trip is what’s in bold letters on my calendar.