Yo Gotti Hustled A Number 1 Hit Out Of Thin Air By Having Fun
In a candid conversation and new documentary, premiering below, the North Memphis veteran explains his recent viral success, and what he values in spite of it.
With eight albums and 19 mixtapes on his resume, at this point Yo Gotti’s discography damn near reads like a short story. The bulk of that story details Gotti’s journey from a preteen slinging in North Memphis to his decision to leave that life behind and fully pursue music as a way out. In its most transparent moments, Gotti’s music covered losing family and friends to prison, being cheated on by women he loved, and the risks he took to further his career.
For all the knowledge of his life some listeners may have obtained by now, a number of listeners are now meeting him for the first time. In 2015, Gotti inserted himself into the universal language of social media with “Down In The DM,” a song you don’t have to sell dope or ball out of control to grasp.
In February, “Down In The DM” became Gotti’s first No. 1 on Billboard’s R&B/Hip-Hop airplay chart and climbed Billboard’s mainstream Hot 100 chart, where it now sits at 21. The song’s admission to be being hooked on Instagram may not give you insight on how many bricks Gotti had to bust down or what he spent on a new piece, but his acceptance of his inability to break away from social media’s flood of visual gifts is about as relatable as artists get in 2016. The night before he released the track’s remix—which, by a stroke of genius, features Nicki Minaj—I sat down with Yo Gotti to discuss his recent success, how his business model has changed over the years, and what he values as at this point of his career.
With a life that’s primarily spent on the road, where do you find happiness and ease?
I got kids so whenever I can, I fly them out to the cities I’m in. I may be actually in Memphis once or twice a month so, in between, I try to find a little time to myself. That escape from the streets and still being able to live the way I’m accustomed to living, being able to make the same money—or more money—that is my motivation and happiness. So the shit I’m sacrificing to me don’t feel like a real sacrifice because I know I could be in prison. All my closest partners that was with me, they ain’t here.
Thinking on those people you came up with and looking at where you are now, do you ever feel like, not only did you make the right decisions, but that you may be blessed or chosen somehow?
Of course I’m blessed. Super, super blessed. I also believe that you don’t get nothing that you don’t go for. Even with your blessings, you still gotta go do it. All the opportunities are there for you but you can’t think, “Ima just sit on my ass and it’s just gonna happen because it’s supposed to happen.” Nah. Shit don’t happen like that. I’m just a go-getter. I tell people all the time—I feel like I’m supposed to be successful, no matter what I’m doing. If I’m in the street, I’m gonna be a successful dope boy. Whether it’s negative or positive.
The general perception of you is one of a street rapper but your most successful singles over the past few years have been really fun. Is making songs like “Act Right” and “Down In The DM” how you get to express a side of you that people aren't familiar with, or wouldn’t expect?
We just having fun wit this shit now. When I dropped The Return mixtape [in September 2015], that’s how I approached it. We didn’t want the music to be dark or be too deep and serious. I want people to go turn up and have fun to it. That was around the same time I started painting all my cars Tiffany Blue. Everything I was doing in that era was more bright. The music I was making was faster, the tempo was brighter. Since then, we just been having fun.
“I started painting all my cars Tiffany Blue. We just been having fun.”
Are your big hits more in line with you thinking as a businessman, or do you genuinely like making those tracks?
I’m a hustler so I’m always gonna have a business model. But I’m still really having fun with it and I’m happy that I’m accomplishing new things. What makes it great is that the whole “Down In The DM” success is, one: I made a number 1 record with just me. No big feature. No big producer. It’s me doing what I naturally do. Two: I made my hottest record to date just having fun. No pressure.
What does that say to you?
Just do you. Everybody got opinions: “You need a big feature.” “You need a crossover record.” Anybody can say those words to you but they can’t show you how to do it. When an artist in a creative space in the studio, how do you start that process? I never tell my artists how to rap or how to approach a song. I let them do the song. Then I tell them after they’re done how the song could be better, if I hear it needs something.
Beyond those artists you take under your wing, have you witnessed your success trickle down in Memphis, where young artists across the city are starting careers with you as motivation?
Yeah and I appreciate it. Because if you’re a true hustler from my city and you see the king lay out the blueprint, if you don't follow it, you're hustling backwards. So of course they follow me, but I’m not mad at it. They should. If there was a blueprint for me to follow when I was coming up then I would have. It was artists before me, but the blueprint wasn’t visual. We just knew they were winning. We didn’t know who they were working with. The difference with me in the city is that you might be able to hire the person that worked with me to work with you. I don’t trip because that person could give them the game. I allow that to happen. That can breed more stars and make Memphis bigger. The more stars, the more business for me. In the streets, somebody had to help me get some money. So I’m gonna help.
At this point, you’re at elder statesman status in Memphis. What's been your proudest moment as a mentor?
My moments are like, when I see an artist like Snootie Wild at a wing shop and he tell me he just got out of prison, plays me a couple songs, and tells me how hard it is for him in the streets. So, I tell him I believe in the music he’s creating and Ima try to change his life. And eight months later, his life changed. He performed at the BET Awards, got songs in the top 10 for radio spins in the country, performing on 106 & Park. In eight months! That’s the shit that I enjoy.
When I pull up on a Blac Youngsta in South Memphis, he living in a shotgun house and telling me he had it hard his whole life. He been running with me for 90 days and his whole life changed. That’s just 90 days of work. We just getting started. They ain’t even seen the plans yet. Those the proud moments for me. Seeing what my mind, work ethic, and power can do for the next person.
An underlying theme of your new album is that you were raised by all strong, female hustlers.
See, I think with it being family—my momma and my aunties—I always had a certain level of respect for them. Then they talking to me like they niggas. It was no, “Oh, baby you gotta do this and that,” it was straight like we on the street. They looked me right in the eyes and told me what this shit is, up and down, so I had to respect it and move that way.
“You might have a rapper that’s getting money and they thinking about which car they gonna buy or what chain they gonna buy. I’m probably spending more money on property taxes.”
There’s an idea that women can have more listening skills, patience, and the ability to go off of intuition. It seems like those qualities have also driven your career as a mostly-independent artist. Has being raised by those kind of women had an effect on how you cater to female fans?
Yeah. I respect women on a different level. If you go find old statements I said, from “Five Star Chick” to “Rihanna,” those were about independent women and not about them physically. It was mentally: a woman who knows what she wants to do and what she’s trying to do. I think all that comes from being brought up around strong women. So, when I’m around a weak-minded woman, I don’t fuck with them because I wasn’t brought up around weak women.
On the intro of your Life album from 2003, a fake reporter asked how you were handling your rise to superstardom at that point. That was 13 years ago. How would you answer that now?
It’s on steroids now. It’s times 10, 20, 100 since back then. We just gotta deal with it, though. I ain’t never ran from nothing in life. Fake shit come in the game but we deal with it and keep pushing. If you know what means the most to you and how you’re trying to continue your hustle, you can’t let nothing get in the way.
Do you ever feel overlooked, even with success that you do have?
I think it’s some truth to that, maybe. But the reality of it is that, I really don’t give a fuck because I think I’m overpaid. I ask, “Who can grade your success?” On a record called “The Art of Hustle” on the album I say, You sold a million records, I made millions of dollars. Who really made it? You see what I’m saying? What’s your success level? You might have a platinum plaque but have no money. I might not have that plaque but I got lots of money. My momma living right, my brothers living right, my sister living right. So we achieved our success in our eyes.
What’s the most unexpected aspect of your new record, The Art of Hustle? Any left turns?
I come with something like [“My City” with K. Michelle] on track one just because I look at it like, when somebody pop in your album, they shouldn’t be able to predict how it’s finna sound. They shouldn’t feel like they’re popping in The Art of Hustle and it’s sounding like [2013’s] I Am. I hate listening to albums like that, so I don’t do them. “My City” is just a guitar. No drums. No kicks. It’s more like poetry than a rap. I’m talking about real shit that’s going on in our city because she’s from Memphis too.
With you being a business owner in Memphis now and it being an election year, how do you view where the city stands? How is the current Memphis different from the one you came up in?
I wouldn’t say it’s different but some of the things I’m dealing with is different. I’m dealing with property taxes and shit. Figuring out if I’m getting charged twice for county taxes and city taxes. That ain’t on these young guys’ plates yet. You might have a rapper from Memphis or any city that’s getting money and they thinking about which car they gonna buy or what chain they gonna buy. I’m probably spending more money on property taxes. That ain’t stunting material.