TWO SELF-PROCLAIMED OUTCASTS FIND A BOND YOU COULDN'T FAKE
In an industry that prizes individuality, Tennessee rappers Starlito and Don Trip have a rare mutual respect. Together they've released two cult-favorite projects that split the difference between funny and thoughtful and showcase the "hyper-creativity" they've found in collaboration. On the release day of their new joint album, Step Brothers 2, they stopped by FADER to talk about what makes rapping fun and the connections between Shakespeare and Paid In Full.
It's been two years since the first Step Brothers tape. Why now for the sequel? STARLITO: I think it's perfect timing. We released the first one on the three year anniversary of the movie's release [July 25, 2011]. The cool thing about that, just being real, was it made it easy to just use the movie's promos, artwork and everything, and just cut their heads off. The first Step Brothers was just a mixtape, it was very much free-spirited, free music. We're retailing this album—we actually just got a call that we're number four on the iTunes rap charts—so the whole idea was to do it right, make sure we had all our ducks in a row. DON TRIP: Quality over quantity. We just had to make sure we did it in the right space where we weren't rushing.
How did you guys decide to start working together in the first place? DON TRIP: We met in 2010, and I guess it was just a bond you couldn't fake. At first we didn't really know what to expect from each other as rappers, but as we spent more time together—we just get along, even outside of music. And that makes it easier to work together, because I feel like his time is just as valuable as my time. STARLITO: I'd I heard some of his music, before "Letter To My Son," and I thought it was dope. One of my friends gave me his CD when I was in Memphis and was like, "He reminds me of you." I was working with Yo Gotti at his record company at the time, and Gotti asked me, "Have you heard of this guy Don Trip? I was like,Yeah, he's probably the best rapper in the city. From there, we got put in the same room, almost like divine intervention. I remember it like it was yesterday, the first day we met, he told me he fucked with my music and it humbled me a little bit, because I've crossed paths with so many rappers that are full of themselves. So I was just like, I can deal with this guy, he's not stuck on himself. And the first songs we did were smashes, recorded in minutes. Like Trip was saying, we didn't know what to expect as artists, but I knew that he could rap and I couldn't take that from him.
Where did the Step Brothers concept come from? STARLITO: It started from the movie—just the concept of the camaraderie between two strangers that were so quirky in their own regard that they wouldn't gel with anybody else. I kind of looked at us as outcasts—not to be like a play on words—but we weren't traditional Southern artists, we didn't have traditional buzzes. So I was like, we're gonna do something different and just rap for the sake of rapping, and not try to make a hit that fits with the trends of the time, let's just rap our asses off. Honestly, before Step Brothers, I was ready to quit rap music. I'd just released a mixtape, @ War With Myself, in 2011, and I was done. I was just like, this shit isn't fun anymore, I don't like it, the game is fake, everybody in the industry is fake. The thing was, earlier that year, we had already started recording the project. I had told him we were gonna do it, and it just meant the world to me to keep my word. I was like, I don't wanna be one of those guys that made me hate rap, so fuck it, we're gonna do this project. And then we just had fun, and I was able to cast some of that other shit off, and Don snapped me out of it. I always remind myself of that. It rejuvenated my entire being almost. I mean we've got some records that are edgy, maybe sad, but for the most part, the bullshit of everyday life doesn't spill into it as much.
Has the work you've done together changed either of you as rappers? Has it impacted your solo stuff? DON TRIP: When we rap individually, the songs are more involved in our personal lives. When I'm with Lito, I get more into my sense of humor. I'm not a funny guy. But it's a different chemistry, that gives me the room to have more fun than I normally have. Not that I don't have fun recording music normally, but it's less on display. STARLITO: I don't think Trip has to go far out of his element to work with me, but there's just another dimension to the creativity. A lot of songs we're just going back and forth, almost line for line. I pride myself in being lyrical, but literally going off of his last word, that's different than writing lyrics. For "4 x 4 Relay" we just traded four bars, four bars, very steady. I freestyled the first four bars and before I was even done leaving the booth, he's crossing paths, ready to record his four. With that type of thing, I don't even have time to think it through the same way I would with a sixteen, I gotta think on my feet. And that's the thing that we bring to the table working together. It's almost like, hyper-creativity. And I have supreme confidence in what he's doing. Records like "Caesar and Brutus," I couldn't have made that song by myself. It wouldn't have been nearly as interesting. And we are those characters.
"We don’t have a problem taking a back seat from each other. If Star has a more creative idea, that’s what we’re gonna do." —DON TRIP
That song is all about betrayal between friends. On first listen, I was like, Oh no, are they still cool with each other? DON TRIP: That was just us being creative. Of course we live two different lives, but in our lives there's a lot of similarities. Really with that record, we didn't know which characters we wanted to be, because it could've been both ways. That was the whole point, where you couldn't tell who was the protagonist and who was the antagonist. They're both just people. And you can pick sides but you can't tell which is the right side, and it shows how things can get misconstrued due to lack of communication.
How did you arrive at that concept for the song? STARLITO: Well it starts with Shakespeare. In the beginning of the song I say, Are you Caesar or Brutus, are you Mitch or Rico? Because I understand that a lot of the hip-hop realm may not read Shakespeare like I do, but they may have seen Paid In Full. In the movie it wasn't about a girl, it was about money, power, profile, but the same guy that comes to your rescue in prison is the same guy that wants to cross you out—that's Caesar and Brutus, that's Brutus trying to influence the Romans to overthrow Caesar, brainwashing everybody like he's too powerful, he's wigging out, he's trippin. Paid In Full modernizes that, it's set in the '80s in New York, but we're from the South and it's 2013 and the same things happen. I've known dudes to kill their right-hand man over a girl. Guys who have really lucrative businesses, legal or illegal, and fall out over a woman, or a lack of communication. So we wanted to make a street record that's not just glorifying what's going on, cause the streets are really really cruel and fucked up. This and a few of the other songs on Step Brothers 2 just started with us having a conversation like this, wanting to push the envelope. "Pimp C 3000" is a roundabout tribute to the two two-man groups we grew up on, UGK and OutKast. We highlighted the dominant personality types in each group—not to take away from the other person in those groups, but I lean toward Andre 3000, I lean toward Pimp C—but part of our brand is making it so there's not a person to lean to.
How do you guys keep that balance in your relationship, so that no half of the duo is the dominant one? DON TRIP: The way we work, we don't have a problem taking a back seat from each other. If Star has a more creative idea, that's what we're gonna do, and vice versa. STARLITO: And just the same, we can talk each other down from things. The difference between this project and the last is that there were five songs that didn't make the cut. I don't mean they weren't good enough, but for some songs, it was just me on the chorus and it just sounded like a Starlito record. And in terms of our brand, we try to shy away from this sounds like a Don Trip song, this sounds like a Starlito song, but featuring the other artist. Because the difference between us and a UGK, with an 8Ball and MJG or OutKast, is that we didn't start out as a duo, and that's another reason we don't get hung up on the dominant personality type in the group. He was Don Trip before he met Starlito and I was Starlito before I met Don Trip.
You both bring a lot of your personal life into your solo work? How do the people in your life react to showing up in your songs? STARLITO: I've had times where I've had to talk to people and smooth it over for them, let them know why I did that. The "DNA" record on Step Brothers, that was a purge for me. When I walked out of the booth I felt better. I'm an artist, it made me feel better to put it in song form. And I'm probably not the only male that's experienced a female having an abortion without your approval. Even still, I felt compelled to reach out to that person before the song came out—Hey, I made this record, I didn't trash you. I don't even know if people take that as a real thing that happened when they listen to that song, but if she said she wasn't cool with it, I wasn't gonna put that song out. To your audience, something like "DNA" might just be like, Wow that's powerful, that's a cool song. But there are people who know these people, and that's their life too. I don't want to step on somebody's toes just for my art, not somebody that I care for. At the same time my music is my music, and it is personal.
Is there a difference in style between Memphis rap and Nashville rap? DON TRIP: There might be more lyrical content coming from Nashville, and more of the street stuff comes from Memphis. But if there's a difference, it's a good difference, and there are a lot of similarities. STARLITO: If anything, it's a cultural difference. Memphis is a way more urban city, it's more streetwise, and so the music that stands out from Memphis is more streetwise, it's true to the culture. Nashville is just a music city, they have almost perpetual access to studios, and there are so many experts in different fields, you can really just hone in on your craft, which leads to maybe more lyrical content. But I mean, Memphis has its own musical heritage too, with the blues and whatnot, and that influences it too. A lot of the Memphis music I grew up on was influenced by the blues, just like Dr. Dre was influenced by funk. Cats from Memphis and cats from Nashville end up in the same jails, it's all just Tennessee. So you can commit a crime in Nashville and end up locked up down here in Memphis, and there's always been a lot of conflict that comes from that, a lot of turmoil.
In the '90s, Memphis rap seemed much more regionally specific than it is now, really marked by the sound of Hypnotize Minds. Now there's a lot more overlap with the sound of the South in general. DON TRIP: I think it's actually a benefit to Memphis that people branched out from that. If you look at it, those sounds didn't work for nobody but the people that made them. Nobody that tried to sound like Three 6 came out in advantage, nobody that tried to sound like Ball & G came out in advantage. That was the hardest obstacle for Memphis music, to climb over that and sound like how you actually sound.
Ok—best duo ever? STARLITO: Jordan and Pippen. You didn't say rap music, that was just the first thing that came to mind. DON TRIP: M&Ms.