On January 10th, Memphis rapper Yo Gotti witnessed the appearance of his major-label debut, Live From the Kitchen. Released by RCA, it's Gotti's first label-released album since 2006's Back 2 Da Basics for prominent national indie TVT.
You might think this would be a life-changing event for Gotti, who has ascended to the top of the Memphis rap scene in the years between official albums. But being on a major label is, for most artists, not what it used to be. For Gotti, Live From the Kitchen is just more music for his fans, not a significant change in a career of which he otherwise maintains full control.
In the spring of 2010, I covered a Gotti performance at the Dub Car Show in Memphis. At the time, Live From the Kitchen's listed release date was April 27, 2010. At the show, promotional posters were handed out listing a March release date. One fan walked through the crowd with a Gotti T-shirt promoting a September 2009 release date for the album. A few days later, Gotti told me he was expecting a June (again, 2010) release. And so it goes.
"I turned in the album maybe three times," Gotti says, explaining the rolling delays.
"The first set of songs I turned in leaked out, and that sent us back to the drawing board. I turned in a second set of songs. They leaked out. That sent me back to the drawing board again. But that's not a problem with me because I record so much. I have music. Swapping the songs out is not a thing to me."
Gotti wasn't exactly without product in the multi-year wait for Live From the Kitchen. He's released innumerable self-released "mixtape" collections — usually recorded in two-to-four-day sessions — including at least six in his ongoing "Cocaine Muzik" series. And he released several high-profile singles: "Five Star" (fall 2009), a Lil Wayne duet, "Women Lie, Men Lie" (spring 2010), "We Can Get It On" (summer 2011), and the current "Single."
"It's just more product out there to me," Gotti says of the Live From the Kitchen release. "My focus is CMG [Cocaine Muzik Group], because that's my situation, what we're doing. And we're just about getting good music to the people, however we need to go about that, whether it's an album or mixtape or single."
Even on Live From the Kitchen's life-story opener, "Testimony," Gotti — born Mario Mims — admits that he doesn't trust record labels.
"They put the album out without a lot of promotion, I think," Gotti says of RCA. "But from the perspective of the fans actually getting to get it, I'm good with that."
The album gives a pretty good sense of Gotti's range, from aggressive tracks like "Harder" (with Rick Ross) and "Cases" to more soulful material — singles where Gotti ably plays the roughneck Romeo. (Despite his so-called gangsta rapper reputation, Gotti estimates that 65 to 70 percent of the audience at his shows is women.)
One of these is the aforementioned single "We Can Get It On," the title implication ranging from a backseat lunch-break assignation to something more long-lasting: "I know the pain and all the shit you been through/I just want to see your dreams come true," Gotti raps.
Arguably the album's strongest track, the song's existence is almost accidental.
"I did that song at Young Avenue Sound with [Memphis-bred producer] Drumma Boy," Gotti remembers. "Drumma had a party in Memphis one day. He came into the studio. I laid a hook on three beats he did. I didn't finish none of the songs. When I went to New York to play some music for the label, I actually played that song by mistake. I thought it was another song. There were no verses on it, only the beat and the chorus. Once I realized it wasn't the right song, I cut it off. But they said, 'Play that back, play that again.' And I was like, 'Shit ain't finished. It's just a chorus.' I went and put the verses on it after the fact, after they thought it was something they could go with."
While the album release has led to some promotional opportunities — including a recent appearance on BET — it hasn't changed Gotti's day-to-day career arc, which, like most working musicians, is based around touring.
"I live on the road," Gotti says. "Touring and merchandising: That's one of the main resources of music. When labels ain't getting part of that from you, you see a difference in their effort. I'm one of them artists where I get everything. The label don't get none of that."
The night before we'd talked, Gotti had done a couple of shows in Nashville — one for a couple of thousand students at Tennessee State University, followed by a late-night show at the club Limelight — en route to a week of business in New York.
Tennessee State features prominently in Gotti's songs, envisioning a TSU woman on the Live From the Kitchen track "Cases" and the original "Five Star" single (the remix of "Five Star," which dates from fall 2009 and features a guest spot from a then largely unknown Nicki Minaj, concludes the album).
"I tried to go to TSU. They wouldn't let me in, though," Gotti reveals with a laugh.
After graduating from Trezevant High School, Gotti applied to TSU but wasn't initially accepted.
"I don't remember what I made on my ACT. Maybe the score was too low. They were telling me I had to go to a smaller college and then transfer, so I came back and went to Southwest [Tennessee Community College]," Gotti says. "That was my plan. To go there for a semester or whatever I had to do, then transfer back up to TSU. I ended up going to Southwest, but that was around the time I started touring and missed too many days. I had to pick."
But they'll let Gotti into TSU now to perform for their students.
"Yeah, most definitely," Gotti says. "And give me that check."