How Honorable C.N.O.T.E. turned personal tragedy into triumphant beats
The Atlanta-via-Michigan hitmaker on health, humble beginnings, and crafting moods for Migos, Travis Scott, Gucci Mane, and more.
Atlanta was already well on its way to becoming the center of the rap universe when Carlton Mays, better known as Honorable C.N.O.T.E., moved there in 2006. Mays is a transplant from Benton Harbor, Michigan, a small, economically depressed town on the south shore of Lake Michigan. Once a thriving manufacturing center, the city was hit hard by deindustrialization, and today it’s probably known best for extreme poverty, riots over police violence, and oddly, a golf course.
At 36, C.N.O.T.E. is a relative elder in the fraternity of Atlanta hitmakers, with a track record as long and illustrious as plenty of his higher-profile peers. He’s credited on everything from the Trap-A-Velli tapes, to Pluto, to Sremmlife, not to mention a huge volume of the more memorable deep cuts from the back half of Gucci Mane's catalog. Over the past two years, C.N.O.T.E. and his signature tag have become quietly ubiquitous, popping up on laundry list of high-profile projects, like Lil Uzi Vert’s Luv is Rage 2, and Migos’s latest Billboard-topper, Culture II.
C.N.O.T.E. is versatile, and a master of mood, just as adept at crafting orchestral bangers as he is at making bluesy, soul-bearing anthems. He’s also a generous storyteller. On the phone from L.A., in between sessions for Rae Sremmurd’s impending triple album blowout, he broke down his journey so far, where his sound is going next, and how he’s taking care of himself to make sure he’s around to enjoy his success.
Tell me a little about Benton Harbor.
Benton Harbor is poverty-stricken. Growing up there, you gotta have tough skin. But there’s also a lot of love there. A lot of homeboys I had real love for, I lost due to gang violence, drugs. My brother got shot five times. One of my best friends got killed when he was 16, I was 13. We went through some traumatizing shit. And then [you have to] deal with the police planting drugs on you and shit.
Growing up in a place where life is hard, it kinda makes you intimidated to leave. We have a saying: If you can make it in Benton Harbor, you can make it anywhere in the world. But it’s the letting go part that’s hard, when you’re accustomed to a certain way [of living].
How did you first start making music? What were you using?
Well after one of my close friends got killed, my mom moved us to this predominantly white neighborhood, Watervliet. She was doing the best that she could do, and for a year, she moved us out, and I went to an all-white school. It was boring as shit. It was like being in the middle of the desert.
But I met my homeboy Chris there. He would walk around school with a guitar. He had a 4-track, and he let me borrow it. At the same time, my momma had bought me and my brother a computer, because we were complaining that we had nothing to do when we would go home. The computer had like 2 gigabytes of fucking memory. We would always have to erase shit.
We’d play demos of games we’d find in this one magazine, and one day I found a demo for something called ReBirth. It only had three sounds. It had a synth, a piano, and some drums. So I used to have to tweak the sounds to make them sound different. I got good at it, so I hooked up my homeboy’s four-track to the computer through the speakers from my momma’s stereo system. I don’t know how the fuck I did it.
But eventually, I got into trouble at school in Watervliet. I started seeing racial slurs pop up on desks and shit, like, “we hate niggers,” stuff like that. I ended up catching this dude [doing it]. We got in a fight, and that fight started a lot of shit for me. After a while, I was unhappy. I walked back to Benton Harbor, I left home. My mom wouldn’t let me out of there, so I just walked to my grandma’s house. It was like 15 miles.
After I went back to Benton Harbor, I got heavier into music. I used to go to my homie DJ Camouflage’s house, and he had a Roland [Boss] DR-5. That Roland DR-5 had a lot of sounds. When I got my own, I just locked myself away and made beats every single day, just trying to figure it out. And I got good on it. Then I switched to the Yamaha QY-70, which is another pocket-size beat machine, and I made wonders with that shit. People would be like, “You made this beat off that little ass shit?” I was like, “Yeah, that’s all I got.” I used to drive around the projects making beats in my car with it, that’s how little it was.
[Eventually] I had to make some real decisions. Like, this QY-70 is not doing what Kanye West and them are doing. Kanye West came into the game around this time, around 2001, 2002. The Roc beats had those samples, and I was like, “I need a sampler.” Yamaha came out with the Yamaha Motif 6. I was like, “Yo, if I get this shit, I can make it.”
So I had to turn to the streets to get the $1500 to get it. I had some temporary jobs I got fired from, but I took the last few hundred dollars and I bought some dope. And that’s when my life changed, when I turned to streets to sell dope. Thankfully, I got out of it. That transition, and the things that that taught me, is what I bring to the music.
How did those experiences feed into what you were doing with the music?
When you grow up like that, they tell you, Don’t let nobody see you sweat. Don’t wear your emotions on your sleeve. Ain’t no love out there. So that’s how I move around. I might be angry at something, but I hold it in because of that advice. Instead of wearing my emotions on my sleeve, I put it in my music. That’s why my music is so aggressive. All that aggression is real, raw emotion. That’s how I let it out.
How did you end up making that transition and heading down to Atlanta?
A lot of things happened that made me feel like it was time to leave. My spirit had been telling me it was time to go, but it was hard for me. So I prayed about it. I actually heard God say, “Go.” But I still told myself I wasn’t gonna leave my grandma there. The next day I found my grandma on the floor. She had fallen asleep on the toilet and I found her on the floor with a plunger stuck in her back. I was like, Damn, that’s a fucked up sign.
Before that though, I had heard Gucci [Mane] rap over one of my beats. And that me feel like I could really do this shit.
I feel like a lot of the tracks people tend to ask you about are like, big bangers—like [A$AP Ferg's] “New Level” and [Travis Scott's] “Way Back.” But you also make some really soulful tracks too, a lot of guitar and keys. Do you work with a lot of live instruments?
I don’t work with a lot of instruments, but it’s me playing that. When I got the Motif 6, I really taught myself how to play the keys. I like instruments that bring out emotion. If I can find an instrument that gets me in my feelings, I know I got something.
“ Instead of wearing my emotions on my sleeve, I put it in my music.”
I remember you saying you had been getting into classical music too, right?
Yeah, I always like classical music. Like old, classical songs from composers. Songs that don’t even have names. [Mimicking Beethoven’s 5th] Dun-da-da-dunnnn. I always loved the aggression in that.
If you listen to Meek Mill's “Way Up,” you can hear the piano, [humming the melody], it’s dark. At the time, I was going through a depression with my weight thing. I was having heart problems and shit, I didn’t know if I was gonna die. After that, I started going vegan, and running and shit, I was starting to see the light. That was like, me coming out of that, I’m telling a story. That’s the reason I like classical music, because it tells a story without actually having to use words.
So when did all those lifestyle changes start to happen?
Like three years ago. The hardest thing for a street dude to do is to quit doing everything you’ve been doing. Quit selling dope. Deciding to say, I’ma just do music. I went from being in the streets every day to not having no money, and depending on beats.
It made me eat McDonald’s every day, or Taco Bell. I ate the worst. And after a while, when you start getting up in age, your body starts responding differently. You sleep all the time. My heart start making these noises. My body would do shit like, the left side would freeze up. Or pins and needles when I wake up.
One day, I saw Waka Flocka on Instagram, and he was skinny as hell. I called him like, “What are you doin’ man?” He put me on with his doctor, and they started to teach me stuff about health, about eating the right things. I started getting healthier. I run like 5 miles a day. I had never run 5 miles in my life. I do that now!
It kinda fucked me up. I was thinking, Man, you did all this shit to get to this point your my life, and then you just die, ‘cause your dumb ass was eating all the bullshit. [Laughs] I was like, I gotta find a way to reverse things, so I can enjoy this shit.
Is there a story behind the C.N.O.T.E. producer tag?
Man, that tag is so old. I had a song with DG Yola, back when he had that song, (sings) “I ain’t gon let up.” That’s an Atlanta classic. Just to let everybody know how long I’ve been in Atlanta, I did his follow up single. That might be the first time I used it.
My homegirl came in the studio and did it—she did a couple different takes, but as soon as she did “The Honorable,” I was like, I’m using that one. The first take she did was freaky, she was moaning, like, “Mmmmmm...the Honorable C.N.O.T.E.” I was like, that might be a little too much, so I cut the beginning.
Maybe you can pull the original out for a special occasion.
You know what? I might go back and use that, that’s a good idea. Mmmmm.