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Their eyes were watching for you the way they watch for Jesus Shuttlesworth and Malcolm X and Nipsey Hussle over on Slauson and Crenshaw They came in cars on planes by bus by grit They got there by foot They were in wheelchairs Their sandpaper palms gripped canes and walkers They were slouching Baby Boomers salt-and-pepper-haired Gen Xers tattoo-faced Millennials They be Beyoncé and Jimmy Kimmel and 7-feet ballers who crush the ground like jolly green giants They marched from all over with purple and yellow gold steamed to their chests they marched through the musty scents of Downtown Los Angeles the way 20th century Europeans marched from freedom ships to Ellis Island the way 21st century immigrants march from Mexico into the barbed-wire borders of the promised land the way chocolate-legged country dwellers marched from Mississippi to the salty beaches and sleepy ‘hoods of California a massive army of humanity hemmed up block after block looking for the Staples Center looking for that angel in America who got a city of billions ‘round the world saying your name, Kobe The lines of flesh speed text as police and arena workers shoo people to move like you moved on that basketball court a Black Mamba yes but also an African ballet dancer who broke a-loose the chains of plantations and copied and pasted Beethoven and basketball with Biggie and Beverly Hills as your body leaped and lunged into the open mouths of nameless ancestors who done seen some things and them ancestors blew Michael Jordan and Dr. J and your daddy and your momma and Philadelphia and Japan and Italy and the holy ghost of Dizzy and Coltrane into your veins just means the people marching to be like you, Kobe and they be White Black Latinx Asian Native American Pacific Islander Christian Jewish Muslim Atheist Agnostic This gender That gender No gender They be Kendrick’s cool hip-hop they be Sinatra’s cool jazz They be lakers matching jellybeans with Amy Winehouse and Marilyn Monroe as you Kobe and you Gianna wax poetic with John Lennon and Marvin Gaye about love love love They be a rainbow coalition of thousands marching over your mid-range jumpers and 360-degree dunks as they scrape field hollers and spirituals and your blues from their veins, Kobe Wearing number 8 Wearing number 24 Wearing Gianna’s number 2 Street hustlers selling tee shirts posters clipped and chipped memories of you putting an entire nation on your shoulders winning 5 championships teaching us the magic of the mamba mentality telling us to keep shooting even when the odds are slanted like that cloudy hillside in heaven you be heaven to us, Kobe ‘cuz you never gave up That’s why they come to you like you are a saint a king royalty yeah a political leader yeah a self-help guru yeah a storyteller yeah They come to you because you could chest-pass a basketball through the smashed windows of centuries of dreams denied They come to you because you crumbled in front of us and got back up and confessed and apologized and sculpted yourself into a husband a lover a father a girls’ dad Vanessa Bryant’s multi-lingual soulmate her tears her words the biblical permission we need to release your joyful angel’s wings into the healing arms of the Pacific Ocean Kobe forever forever forever
Monday, February 24, 2020 9:53 pm PT Los Angeles, California
© 2020 Kevin Powell
DJ Tira is running late. The early afternoon chill in Midtown Manhattan didn’t stop him from lingering outside for a few extra minutes. He opted for the train instead of a cab. There was no traffic; he just opted for an impromptu iPhone photo shoot in Times Square.
He stops to take a few more photos. This time, inside the building, with the view of the city behind him. He strikes a serious pose before his suave stance disrupted by a smile and a laugh. His eyes are wide and his smile is wider; there’s an excitement on his countenance that feels permanent.
It’s the end of 2019 and he’s a world away from South Africa, his home country, but New York is warming up to him; he performed in Brooklyn at his sold-out show, and stopped by Beats 1 Radio with Ebro Darden to play a mix showcasing some of South Africa's finest talent. He captioned a clip, “Time is Now South Africa! Asibangene!” which, in his native language, Zulu, means “let’s go in.”
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Its time to make dollars
The veteran DJ, record producer, and label owner is enjoying a 20-year anniversary in the music business, but feels he still has a long way to go. Despite his pioneer status, he finds himself at the threshold of a début, coming off the heels of his latest album release, Ikhenani. This is his first studio album in which he produced every track. After a long tenure in the industry, a collection of compilation projects, collaborative songs, features, and mixes, he finds himself in need of a reintroduction.
Born Mthokosizi Khathi in KwaHlabisa, KwaZulu-Natal, he moved to Durban in 1995 to study Human Resources. Instead, the move gave birth to another career entirely– music. Tira’s future was clear when he started djing at friends’ parties and campus events. He quickly became known on the local circuit, but his popularity was cemented in 1999 when he won the Smirnoff Club DJ competition. He’d win again the following year, and a prize trip to Ibiza secured his opportunity to go global early.
Together with DJ Sox he formed Durban’s Finest, the duo that would go on to change the face of Durban nightlife. Their performance formula was different; instead of simply playing at events, they would host them as well. Partygoers would fly in from Jo’burg, Cape Town and other cities and the duo’s high-end lifestyle would take off among young professionals in Durban and across South Africa.
Tira has found ways to maintain relevance through consistency and expansion. He forayed a DJ career into a full-scope entertainment career. He founded independent record label Afrotainment, where he’d introduce artists such as Big Nuz, DJ C'ndo, DJ Fisherman and Dladla Mshunqisi. He became a brand ambassador, aligning with brands like Distell, Rocka Headphones and Axe. He became a businessman, going on to own the Urban Zulu Cigar Lounge on the coveted Florida Road strip in Durban which he ended up selling to refocus on what got him going in the beginning: events. He became invested in promoting Durban as something of an entertainment hub for South Africa, and as a result, he has been a KwaZulu-Natal tourism ambassador, a symbol for his hometown.
He’s been a part of a slew of songs that mark the soundtrack of South African popular music’s booming success, like the 2018 “That’s For Me” with Vanessa Mdee featuring Distruction Boyz, “Pakisha” with Distruction Boyz and Dladla Mshunqisi, and the 2017 crossover tune “Midnight Starring” by DJ Maphorisa, featuring DJ Tira, Busiswa & Moonchild Sanelly.
His album’s single “Thank You Mr DJ” is doing well in South Africa, but now he’s vying for an American remix or feature. “I’m gonna try all genres, all styles,” he says.
“People do know me, but you just have to find that one special song that's gonna open all the doors,” he says. “I'm making my presence felt.”
The artist is already planning his next album, 21 Years of DJ Tira, in celebration of his storied career in the entertainment industry. But for him, tenure doesn’t translate to comfort; Tira is more interested in a challenge.
#21YearsOfDjTira Loading..... album and concerts
— Thank You Mr DJ (@DJTira) January 15, 2020
It took Tira two years to craft Ikhenani. At 43, Tira is less concerned with being left behind, and more invested in joining the wave as music across the country, and the world, evolves.
On Ikhenani, he bundles a bevy of genres that you would never expect to find in an album by one artist— there’s afrohouse, amapiano, hip-hop, maskandi, gospel, and gqom. Though Tira has been at the forefront of South Africa's house scene for some time. The album sounds predominantly gqom, but moreso, Tira’s interpretation of gqom— he expands it, adding more jazzed up vocals and subtle experimentation. “I try to move with the times, be aware of what’s happening in my community,” he told Apple Music in an album liner interview.
Gqom has already gone global, but DJ Tira was one of its prominent supporters of the sound from the townships of Durban, South Africa that swept the world.
Distruction Boyz are credited with helping push gqom to popularity. Tira even makes a cameo in the music video for their hit “Omunye,” showing his role in advocating for the collision and collaboration of the older generation with the new.
As an elder statesman in South Africa’s music scene, he’s already gained legendary status back home. Now, he’s aiming to become a member of the collective of artists bringing gqom and South African dance music into more American listeners.
Gqom itself means “bang” or “drum” – pronounced with a Zulu tongue click at the beginning and a hushed “om” end. The gqom sound is undeniable and inescapable. Its stripped-down rhythms fuse the traditional with the modern; Zulu chants atop high-octane, looming, broken beats and sinister synths. It’s repetitive and hallowed, not empty but full of the unknown in an entrancing way.
Before gqom, there was kwaito— the sound that sprung from Johannesburg, South Africa in the late 1980s. It’s a distinctive variant of house music, hip-hop, dancehall, and South African sounds. Kwaito is an Isicamtho term from SA’s Gauteng townships that originated from the Afrikaans word kwaai, which is slang for hot. The word from the language of the oppressors was reclaimed and redefined by black youth, and kwaito became instrumental in leading post-Apartheid township subculture into South Africa’s mainstream.
During apartheid, musicians faced significant censorship and blockades; black artists were denied access to stages and employment in the arts, while artists critical of apartheid were threatened and reprimanded by the government. South African artists were stunted.
There was a generation of South Africans who pulled from that place of disenfranchisement and plight pre and post-apartheid and created something new to claim. The South African teens of the early 2010’s who extracted a new artform from another period of plight to create gqom did more of the same. This is where the elder statesman forges a connection; that feeling. Genres would emerge that helped mold the musical history of South Africa post-apartheid. Kwaito was one of them. Gqom continued in that legacy.
During the genre’s rise, artists would give their latest tracks to taxi drivers as a means of promotion. It became the literal sound of the South African streets. But gqom wasn’t widely accepted at first; it was too raw.
“Originally gqom wasn't the sound that you [could] play on radio,” Tira says. “It’s a sound that originates [from] what you would call the projects— made by the youngsters. They’ve got messed up equipment, they’re staying at the back of the bedroom at their house, but they make the sound that is so strange, that is wretched, that is hard, that is dark, but with the vocals, it comes alive.
Its origins resembled the reaction to hip-hop before it blew. City clubs didn’t welcome the poor youth-driven musical movement. Producers refused to mix and master gqom beats and radio didn’t play it out of fear that it’d burn their speakers. Though known primarily as a kwaito artist, as gqom gained popularity, Tira welcomed, embraced, and amplified it.
“We need to commercialize this,” he thought. To do so, he says, international collaboration is key.
While on the search for gqom collaborators, Pharrell was introduced to Black Coffee, the most popular South African DJ and producer. The Durban DJ with a jazz background is known for making and mixing house music and modern dance beats with more classical inflections. He took his signature “Afropolitian” style mainstream, becoming one of the world’s most recognized international DJs.
But Black Coffee doesn’t make gqom, so he turned to Tira for his Midas touch. In a video of that studio session posted to Coffee’s Instagram, Coffee mentions Tira’s involvement with the collaboration. It was DJ Tira who orchestrated the could-be-crossover hit that has yet to be released.
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Conversations with King @Pharrell
Tira lifts his phone and plays the cut of an infectious unreleased song with Pharrell rapping over a gqom beat.
“When Pharell was in South Africa for Global Citizen [festival], he heard this sound. Because this sound is exclusive in South Africa. He heard this sound like, ‘Aye, what’s this sound?!’ He was speaking to Black Coffee. This is not Black Coffee’s style. So Black Coffee’s like, ‘Okay, who am I gonna call? Who that I know represents the sound?’ So he calls me.
‘Gimme a beat. I’m with Pharrell and he’s going crazy. He wants to do something.’ I send him a beat. Then, same day, jump in the studio, Pharrell lays the vocals.
“The fact that an artist like Pharrell went crazy on gqom and actually recorded on gqom, that means there's something special about the sound. If Sho Madjozi is well-received like this, with the ‘John Cena’ song, that means there’s something there with the sound but it’s just a matter of how do we present it and how do we push it? How do we make it bigger and how do we get more of the US market coming to the shows, not just Africa?”
To Tira, connecting and growing his audience online is a pivotal step in that direction; embracing social media now more than ever. He boasts 1.4 million followers on Facebook and 1.4 million on Twitter. On Instagram, his following sits at 1.5 million, just behind DJ Black Coffee who tops him on with an extra million followers.
Tira handles all of his accounts and enjoys it. He uses Twitter and Instagram often — unlike many artists that reach a certain caliber — helming his accounts without a handler, using the platforms as a means to communicate directly with his fans and to help them. He gives away something that people on the continent across generations and genres and townships need.
“You know what I do on Twitter?” he laughs, his wide eyes fixated on his phone screen. “I buy airtime.”
In South Africa, most people don't have phone contracts and data can be expensive.
So, Tira usually buys 2000 rands worth of airtime, divides it up, and redistributes it to people in need. “I say, ‘at three o’ clock, I’m handing out airtime for free.’ I post the airtime sticker with the numbers. Whoever punches the numbers quickly on the phone to enter the airtime gets the airtime. I call it umalume airtime,” he laughs. Umalume is Zulu for ‘uncle’ and umalume airtime has become the hashtag of his makeshift contest, and the hashtag ends up trending almost every time. Brands would see this as an effective social media marketing campaign that organically grows a following while keeping them engaged. Fans may see it as philanthropy. Tira himself just sees it as one of the pleasant parts of social media: connecting.
“Twitter’s crazy. I'm not too dramatic... I’ve got a friend called AKA,” he laughs, referring to the South African rapper who stirred controversy on Twitter last September over a debate on South African xenophobia towards Nigerians.
His thoughts on the situation: “It worked for him.”
With the advent of social media, Tira has seen the roles of DJs change dramatically for South Africa in ways that resemble how the landscape has changed in America.
“I'm from the school of vinyls,” he says. When he learned how to DJ and when he won his first competition back in 1999, he worked with vinyls. But as things changed, he began working with Serato, laptops, and other more modern forms.
“It just became too much,” he says. Now, he sticks to two USBs. He prefers a Pioneer [CDJ] 2000 CD Player or 1000, just “nothing less than 850.” The bigger the number, the better, but Tira is a bit unconventional. “I hate the 2000— the biggest one with the mixer.”
“I think the most important thing is the right equipment,” he says. But adhering to the traditional skill-set required for using vinyl, he finds unnecessary.
“In South Africa, we no longer use vinyl,” he says. In recent years, South Africa experienced a vinyl revival, but as interest grew, factors like price became a deterrent for many collectors. There’s a lack of record pressing plants in Africa.
For DJs, it’s about access. “If you’ve got vinyl, that means you’re playing old music, classics,” Tira says. “New music is digital.”
The rise of the celebrity DJ and influencer DJs has sparked criticism for usurped opportunities and displacement of DJs by craft, and a larger conversation on the disruption and oversaturation of the market. Tira sees this happening in South Africa as well.
The industry has changed drastically since Tira first entered it. "It’s more about the likes. It’s not really about the music or the craft or the technique,” he says. “It’s more about how good you look in a flyer or how good you look when you’re up here. You need to represent. You need to come through and entertain. I think you get more props and you get more respect when you really [work].”
“There’s a lot of [people] that think, ‘press a button and be a DJ,’” he says.
As far as figures who come from different backgrounds and who bank more on a following and an image to jumpstart their DJ career and less on skills and talent, Tira says he hasn’t seen many DJs of that ilk grow to take the craft seriously. Tira acknowledges and amplifies the artists putting in the work.
“There's a female DJ that I know called DJ Zinhle, and she's from the school of vinyl as well.”
Zinhle rose to become one of the most prominent female DJs in South Africa and went on to counter the country’s male-dominated industry by launching FUSE DJing academy, empowering women and girls to pursue the craft. Her program birthed the careers of newer female DJ's like the popular Ms Cosmo.
But Tira notes how space in South Africa’s entertainment industry is still being given to those who don’t value DJing, and those who don’t fit the mold are gaining more access to insert themselves into it.
“What’s happening in South Africa is we're seeing a lot of beauty queens switching up to DJs because they've got a really dope following— when you want numbers and you want a person who’s gonna advertise for you, I guess people gotta do what they gotta do to get paid… It's their hustle and we shouldn't hate on them. We should just keep on doing our thing. It’s survival of the fittest.”
With new eyes and ears on African art and music, engaging US audiences has become a goal for acts across the continent. But much of the attention is aimed at Nigerian and Ghanian artists in particular.
“I think they've worked hard to make their presence felt in the US. They've managed to find the right sound— which is afrobeats —and it’s been well-received.”
South Africa, on the other hand, has been tasked with the double-duty of standing out and fitting in.
But Tira doesn’t feel pressure; he feels a responsibility. He tries to keep his ears to the streets and clubs of South Africa while trying to break into the US. He understands how his home market and audience demands are changing and how that differs from what the US audience is catching up to. It’s become something of a crossover balancing act.
“South Africa has got a lot of potential,” he says, "but it's been very hard to crack into the US market. There are people that are managing to find their foot here in the US— Black Coffee, Nasty Cl, and you see Sho Madjozi making her presence felt in the US,” he says on the popular gqom artist. “Funny enough, she’s coming in with a sound that is currently less appreciated at home because there’s a new genre— amapiano is actually dominating South Africa right now.”
Amapiano is a genre generated from Gauteng, South Africa around 2016. It blends elements of electronic dance music, low-tempo 90's South African house rhythms, jazz, kwaito basslines, and signature high pitched piano melodies. “But I’m a full-time member of gqom,” Tira affirms. “I still believe that gqom has a longer lifespan.”
But in order for gqom to retain and grow its appeal, he believes South African artists must continue reinventing it. “The bigger goal is to export our music and make it accepted here, which will open the world to us,” he says. “We are on our way. It’s just a matter of time.”
While he values new, international audiences, he never wants to neglect his home base. “I want to be remembered as a DJ from South Africa who managed to open doors for more South African artists to be heard in the US,” he says. “I represent South Africa.”
He rises from his seat and stares through the floor to ceiling window at a bustling Times Square.
“Moving to the US isn’t part of the plan right now,” he says grinning and gazing up. “I don’t wanna aim too high,” sunlight beams back at him, “not that I’m scared of heights.”
Let’s talk about longevity. It’s been over 20 years since the rapper born Mario Mimms dropped his first tape, Youngsta’s on a Come Up, in 1996. Back then he was a 15-year-old North Memphis MC with a dark, lo-fi, sample-heavy sound and a tongue-twisting flow. It sounded very Memphis--sinister, murderous, and packed with references to the Ridgecrest Apartments, his local stomping ground. At the time, he called himself Lil “Yo,” and 24 years later, he’s still in the game but he’s playing on a whole other level. And thanks to a consistent track record of dope boy street anthems and an ever-growing parade of hits, the world has come to know him by another name—Yo Gotti.
On January 31, Yo Gotti dropped his tenth solo album and fifth and final project under his deal with Epic Records, Untrapped. The album—which features the Lil Baby-assisted smash, “Put a Date on It,” the Whodini flip of a single, “H.O.E.,” as well as a stout collection of standout album cuts including “Dopechella” (featuring Rick Ross), “Weekend,” featuring Gotti’s breakout protege (and fellow Memphis native) Moneybagg Yo, and “Big Homie Rules,” which might be the best and only reinterpretation of Biggie’s “Ten Crack Commandments” concept that will stand the test of time on its own—is arguably the best and most cohesive project of Gotti’s career. The crazy thing is that the same thing could have been said of each of Gotti’s previous nine albums when they arrived.
Think about that for a minute. Can you name another major label artist with a 20-year track record and at least ten albums to his name who’s consistently leveled up with each new release? By my count there’s maybe only one, and that’s the guy behind the powerhouse management company Gotti partnered with in 2016—Jay-Z. But if Jay is the undisputed Mike Jordan of rap, Yo Gotti has been steadily building a John Salley, Derek Fisher or even Robert Horry-like career. He might not have Jay’s international brand, but when you check the stats and touchdown in the markets he’s touched you start to realize Gotti’s been putting in work for years. And the rings have been steadily adding up: Four consecutive top ten debuts on the Billboard 200 album chart, ten Hot 100 hits, four platinum-plus singles, two absolute smashes (“Down in the DM” and “Rake It Up,” with Mike Will Made It and featuring Nikki Minaj), “Put a Date on It,” featuring Lil Baby (the biggest North American video on VEVO last year of any genre), the Cocaine Muzik mixtape series (nine deep and... counting?), his CMG Music Group, which has launched the careers of two legitimate stars in Blac Youngsta and Moneybagg Yo (the latter of whom just inked his own management deal with Roc Nation and landed his second consecutive album in the Billboard 200’s top five, weeks before Gotti’s Untrapped release).
And that’s not to mention ownership. From his Memphis real estate holdings and restaurant/nightclub Prive, to his investment in the esports powerhouse FaZe Clan, to his recent power move—securing his masters and all of the rights to everything else associated with his music including his music videos, artwork, and more. Now firmly independent with a new label, Inevitable II, distributed by Sony, his CMG roster flourishing, and new opportunities in Hollywood taking shape, is it any wonder why Gotti switched up the name of his album from Trapped to Untrapped at the last minute?
In early February, Yo Gotti, fka Lil “Yo,” now also known as “Big” Gotti, stopped by the VIBE offices in midtown Manhattan to talk about everything he’s got his eye on present and future with maybe just a quick look back on the past. Longevity.
VIBE: You dropped your album, you're out of your deal, and you own your masters. Can you talk a bit about that transition and why now is the time to make those moves?
YO GOTTI: Well [Untrapped] was my last album. This was my fifth album in my contract, anyway… I've been in the process of trying to get my masters for—we've been going back and forth for about a year about it, and it just finalized in this month of January.
All 2019, that was my main focus outside of when artists I work with was releasing music. That was actually an every week, couple of times a week, conversation going back and forth, dealing with it the whole 2019. So that was a big burden I was dealing with ’cause I really wanted it. And there came points where I thought I wasn't going to get it. Points where I thought, okay, I am going to get it, then the movie changed again.
So that was a big thing to me. So like I said, I dropped the album, out the deal, and I own the masters all within the first month of 2020. This year gotta be different.
You’ve been on a few different labels over the years. In terms of getting your masters, did you have to corral all of those different companies together and do separate deals or was it all under one umbrella?
No that's all under one umbrella.
My last five, six years are Epic. I own everything. Every piece of artwork that was created, every video that was created, any music I released under that deal, I own. And all the assets that come along with it. So that was big for me as an executive, a mogul--the ownership. The assets that you actually own it all, and you can do whatever you want to do with it. And that's one of the biggest purchases of my life, yet. You're talking about—we can't speak on the number, because of the way the deal was struck, sh*t. But it's multi, multi [millions], like this is the biggest thing I ever purchased, ever.
With everything you’ve bought over the years, did you ever think that the biggest check you write would be for your music?
Nah. I never thought about it until the opportunity presented itself. And me being me, if I got an opportunity to buy it, I’ma do it. I'ma put it on the table.
Right. And you've famously bought yourself out of deals in the past.
Yeah, I've never been afraid to put my own money up on what I wanted and what I believed in or who I believed in. We work hard, we get money. I do pretty good with stacking money, too, so. But I spend money without thinking if it's something that I want.
In making that purchase, how do you envision it enriching you in the future? Or what do you hope to gain now? Obviously the ownership is a big deal...
Ownership itself is personal. It's a personal thing. But it's also, of course it'll make you richer because of the state of what hip hop industry and where it's going to grow. Again, it's an asset alone, to leave to your family or your kids. We talking about a lot of money here, like I really wish I could talk in depth with the numbers, but we talking about a lot of fucking money here. That's all my catalog that's getting produced on the 30-day turnaround. And when you break it down to monthly or quarterly or annually… what you talking about motherfuckers being straight? Hopefully forever.
Just that February check alone is gonna be nice and healthy, going straight to you.
Yeah, it's crazy. Like, come on, man. You know all them hits I've had?
Again, the hits. The “Down in the DM” to “Rake It Up” to videos, the artwork… everything is 100 percent me. If you want to sample it, if it’s going to be in a movie, whatever, you gotta call me.
I saw someone in your comments talking about how the credits for Untrapped list the label as Inevitable II and you were in there, like, Do your research. That’s me. And of course your first couple of albums were on Inevitable Entertainment…
Yeah my very first label I created was Inevitable, which we used to call I&E. That's before we even started saying CMG. So we never veered away from that, even when we created CMG we ran it up under Inevitable. So a lot of people, when they see that, they don't, that's when I come in like do your research. That's me.
So it would just make sense to do Inevitable II with this new structure, right? Like why switch it up?
Plus it means something to me. That’s really the true beginning. From the very beginning, that was the mindset. Like this— what we doing today? Way back then was bound to happen in my mind. And that's what inevitable means. Something that was bound to happen.
And what’s interesting, too, is that even though you’ve obviously had this all of this success with Epic and you've been with them for a minute, you’ve also always had what’s felt like a strong independent movement, even in your previous label deals.
I've been independent the whole time in my mindset. Because it's independence. I spent millions and millions and millions of dollars during the deal, during the partnership. You know, money that I didn't get back, that I didn't get reimbursed for because it was just sh*t that I wanted to do. They may have a budget or didn't think we should spend this much money on the video and I did, so I spent my own money. I only put my money in what I believe it should be. And I never been one of them artists just running around, “Oh dang, give me my money back” or bashing the label because they didn't believe in something I believed in. I just spent my own bread and kept it pushing.
Right. And to me it was almost like you like fertilized the soil for the situation on your own in a lot of ways so that when you get a record like “Down in the DM” it’s set up to pop the way it did.
Yeah. I understand the label's strength. So everybody have [their] strengths and weaknesses. My opinion is that on a scale of one to 10, it's my job to get [a project] from zero to five or six for the label to be even interested in it. So that's the biggest disconnect, I think, with the majors. I don't think no major ever going to break a new artist.
Artists have to break themselves, or you need companies like [CMG] that know how to break artists. If you can take it from zero to six [on your own] then the label can take it from six to 10. I think that's their strength. It’s the topping and sh*t. They don't know what to do with an artist at ground zero. None of the things they've been practicing for years is for zero. It's for: you already got a hit record, now let's put you on the late night show, now let's get you on the award show, now let's take it to crossover radio. But you have to be in that six or seven [level already] for them to implement those things.
If you look at how many artists on they roster that's in their zero to one phase still. They've been there for a minute and they're going to be there until they wake up and realize that, Man I got to get to five or six on my own, because these motherf**kers ain't gonna do it. Ain’t no artist development in these record labels no more. The sh*t don't exist. Ain't no real A&Rs in these labels no more. The sh*t don't exist. And nobody going to help you make a hit record. If you don't got this sh*t on your own, you're fucked up.
That’s real. And it makes me think about how I’ve seen you at various steps along the way over the years, from when we did your VIBE “Next” story in 2005 to you opening up for the Drake vs. Lil Wayne Tour in 2014 and going on so early you’re playing for a half empty room… Can you talk a bit about the grind it takes to keep building and building to get to where you are today?
You know I ain't never had no ego in this sh*t. You know artists sometimes be like, they want to be the last person to close the show. The headliner. I don't give a f**k about none of that. Put me on the stage first, second, third, fourth. Man, I’ma do my thing with the minutes I have. I guess I don't care about a lot of the personal sh*t that artists be worried about. The ego sh*t. I just come in and do me, and I think my music good, I feel my music good, my show good. You can let me do that sh*t at seven o'clock or ten o'clock. It's still going to be good. That sh*t don't matter to me.
How much do you teach that down to, how much do you put the little homies on to that?
I tell them that all the time. You got to start somewhere. It's your first tour, why you expecting that sh*t to be like a bigger artist tour where it's going to be 10,000 people in there. If it's 100 people in here, that's 100 people you win over as your fans. Next time if it's 500, next time it's 1,000. You got to build this sh*t up. You don't just roll out the bid and it's 100,000 people you're going to serve. Life don't work like that. You got to actually put in the work that it take to be great.
I try to tell my artists this too, don't just be focused on first week, be focused on week 52. Because if you got a good body of work, your sh*t still going to be selling a year later. All the albums I put out went gold and sh*t. You know and none of them had crazy first week numbers. They all, we all had around the same number, and it consistently sell, because the music, it lasts forever. In week 52, motherf**ker going to still be buying Untrapped. Another artist about to have two or three more albums out by the end of the year, and the lifespan of that sh*t that went up good the first week or two and then died.
I’ve heard you say, “Every time I come out with a hit record, people want to act like it's a f**king miracle or something.”
Yeah. [To me, it’s like] what the f**k you expect? Oh, you got another one? What, you thought I wasn’t? Is you crazy? You think it's this much luck? This sh*t going up 7… 15… 18 years. You must think I'm a lucky motherf**ker. No, man. I do this sh*t.
But that just shows you how quick a person wants to count you out. They want to say, like, I don't know... But I make hit records. I know how to build out hit records, I know how to write them out. I got the formula. Not saying every record I make gonna be a hit, but I know the components to make a hit record. So I have better shots at landing one.
Can you talk about that a bit? What have you learned over the years about how to craft a Gotti record that has a bigger shot at being a hit?
I guess it's two different things…. To me, 75 percent of that start with the track so it’s knowing how to pick the right beat. A lot of artists don't know how to pick the right music. The record got to be a hit with no words on it. You got to pick a beat to when you listen to the beat, you already heard this sh*t on the radio, you already hear this sh*t at the club, the bounce already right, the tempo right. So that's the biggest misconception artists make. They working themselves too hard because they trying to make an average beat a hit. Make a phenomenal beat, and then you make it less on yourself for making a hit. So picking the right beat is the first thing, and then figuring out what's the concept, or the lifestyle?
I try to make a lot of records that cause participation with people in the lifestyle; sh*t that they can say, sh*t they want to say. Using words and sh*t that you’re using in your everyday life, and put it in a song so like it ain't rocket science to you. You already use it and sh*t, you already living by this sh*t. Or you're already saying this sh*t, and it's like subconscious, it's almost like a sample. When you hear a sample in song, you may not know the song, but you know the song because your mama and them was playing this sh*t at card games or you heard it somewhere before already. So you like it before you even like it. So that's one way of putting records together.
The evolving of Untrapped and the message is just picking [the right beats and concepts]. Because I’m a writer. I’m a songwriter, actually. And when I say I'm a songwriter, I'm saying I can write songs for more than just myself. I done gave other people hit records before. I can't say what names, because I don't want nobody feeling like I'm trying to take credit for they sh*t. But I done gave away hit records before.
So I’m a songwriter as well. I know how to write records, whether it's for me or for other people. So with this album, it was just picking what it is I want to talk about. And moving forward, that's how I'm going to make my music. I already got five or six ideas in my head that I want to rap about. And it may just be a slogan or some sh*t I heard and would just write the note down and I'm like, I want to make a song about this perspective.
It’s been a little over three years since you first announced that you’d linked up with Roc Nation in 2016. How has that relationship treated you so far?
I'm getting everything I hoped to get out of it. It was a power move for me. I got the greatest big tools, the greatest partners there is in this music business. Between just the whole Roc Nation, Desiree, Jay, Ty Ty, Jay Brown, everybody over there. I feel like there's so much wisdom, and there's so much information to learn. They respect my vision, my hustle and what I'm trying to do, and they really help me open my eyes to different parts of this business that I didn't even know. And I know a lot of sh*t. I know a lot of sh*t and I realized once I got in the room, there was a lot of sh*t I didn't know. It's levels to this sh*t.
Yeah so it's levels and differences, man. When you're playing to different levels of the game. And I'm able to be in that room and anybody who know me knows I'm a sponge and I'm a hustler. I love to learn, I love to be educated on different levels. So it ain't been nothing but good experiences for me. I wish I could have done this sh*t earlier.
Has anything come to you as a result of the Roc Nation relationship that you didn’t expect to be doing but you’re now doing because you have that partnership in place?
That I didn’t think I would be doing? I don't know man. I been doing like, late night news interviews.
I saw that.
Stuff that like, I ain't imagined that. It's different platforms, different reaches that I think that they have a longer reach. I never want to let an artist and people who listen to me speak feel that I'm saying they can't have the opportunity to reach whatever they want to reach [on their own], but having a team that can fast forward [and] help you reach things you can't reach is always great to have and it's Roc Nation for me.
When Bagg was setting up Time Served recently, he was talking about his Roc Nation situation and how he hadn’t had the chance to meet Jay yet but he was hoping to soon. I saw you guys were all at the Roc Nation Brunch together over Grammy weekend.
I introduced him to Jay in the brunch.
Yeah, when I heard him talking about it, I was thinking that the Roc Nation Brunch might end up being when they got the chance to link up.
Even if it wasn't the brunch, I was going to introduce him to him. Bagg's has been running around a lot for that album. [But] I was going to get him and Jay together at some point.
What was it like for you to be able to put Bagg in that position?
I just want to see my little homie win. I'm the type of dude that like, if i have the information, I give it to somebody else. I pass it down. I know what Roc Nation is capable of. I know what they can do. I seen it with my own eyes. And Bagg… I feel like he going to be a super big artist. I feel like he going to be bigger than me. So I feel like these the type of people he need to be working with that can help him become that.
I’m sure you’ve heard this more than a few times, but few artists are able to do what you've done with CMG.
Yeah, we don't do no fake label sh*t. You know, we don't run around and play with people lives and sh*t. Like we really doing this. We really changing artists’ lives and turning hood dudes into millionaires. Like, quickly. And not only that, but guiding them as big bros to do the right thing, and then put the money up and invest the money right and really take this sh*t seriously. Be a real platform for yourself off this sh*t.
What do you look for in a CMG artist? If somebody comes to you, like Gotti, I want to get down, how do you know whether or not to press go?
Of course first is the music. We listen to the music first, because that's the most important thing. Other than that, I'm more looking for your drive and your hustle. Because my time too valuable to be fucking with motherfuckers who don't want to win on the highest level. If you ain't trying just to be an artist that’s around here for the next 10 years at the minimum, I ain’t got time to be f**king with you. You trying to get you a lick, one year, and then you'll be gone? I ain't saying not to do that--go get your money--but it don’t fit what I'm trying to do.
Yeah, so I'm looking for real hustlers, basically.
Can you just tell right off the bat? Or how long does it take you to be able to see if an artist is the right fit?
It takes different times. Different times. All of the artists I meet, nobody we jump right into one signing. We usually let them hang around us. Some people for months, five or six months, we just let them hang around or we bring them in. We do music with them, we do songs with them, then we'll put them out. Let them be around, whether it's me or another artist. Make sure they vibe with us, we vibe with them. And hey, if it don't work out, you can go your way. You still got free features from us, you picked up information. So you still leave with more than what you came with. And hopefully we just remain cool.
I see you’ve been in and out of Detroit recently, looking for artists. What are you excited about in terms of what’s next for CMG?
We signed 42 Dugg out of there, me and Lil Baby, we joined forces on that. He actually would be here today. I got him running around him with Lil Migo, another artist me and Blac Youngsta working with out of Memphis together. I just like the whole Detroit energy. Detroit always been one of my personal biggest markets because it's a dope boy city. They always supported me, always held me down, and when I got a chance to work with an artist from Detroit, I was excited about it. Dugg be talking his sh*t. I think 2020 going to really be his year.
How are you thinking about the CMG roster? Do you feel like you’re better as a tight team or are you trying to massively expand and sign like 300 artists?
I want to sign as many artists as I can believe in. But I want to really believe in the acts that I work with. I work with my artists just like I'm working on my own project. I be deep-dived into their sh*t. So I want to believe in the artists that I work with. Therefore, if we lose millions of dollars and it don't work, I can accept the loss easy because that was my belief. I really believed in it, it just didn't work. That's my angle. I don't look at artists as investments. Like we believe in these artists that we fucking with. So as many of them that we can run across, we can have. My focus in 2020 is to beef up my staff more though. To hire more people to help me. Because I also do think that the more artists you have, you need to have more manpower, so that everybody getting the attention they deserve, and the sh*t can run on clockwork without just me. I'm still one person.
How much time are you spending in the studio at this stage of your career?
Oh I'm in the studio more than any motherfucker, probably. I'm still in the studio four, five days out the week. It's just a practice. I learned that practice and I never stopped it. I make myself go to the studio. Every other day I'm in the studio recording four, five songs a day.
Are you in California full time now?
No, not full time. I'm moving around. I'm still in Memphis.
Do you feel like California has become more like home? You talk about it on the album and I see you posting more shots of your Cali life.
Yeah I like working in California because it takes me away from my distractions. For some reason, it's harder for me to work in Memphis when it come to the studio. I guess because I got so much connections it’s so much sh*t down there. And like I’m easily distracted. People coming in and out of the studio, say I got to run around the corner to do this, pull up here. When I’m in L.A., it’s kind of like I’m just so far away. I’m in the studio and there’s nothing that pulls me out the studio.
On the album you talk about how when you get a big hit, the hood turns its back on you.
Not necessarily the hood. I say you get too big and they forget about you.
This meaning like motherf**kers don't want you to change, right? But then you ain’t to the highest level yet. So how am I not going to change if I don’t get a certain type of record that take me to the higher level? That’s tricky for every artist I think. And then you get a big record and you become too commercial, and it’s, oh, you changed. Oh, you ain’t the same. And hell no, I ain’t the same. I’m more successful. I’m getting more money. That was the f**king goal, you didn't know that?
So then people be like, oh you ain’t [this or that], or whatever. We hearing this sh*t now. I'm cool with it, like, Untrapped, Gotti back on his old sh*t. Oh, you back to… whatever you want to call it, man. To me, it's all music and I know how to do this sh*t, and I know how to do different parts of the music, or however I want to do it. So I don't be trippin' but I’m only speaking on sh*t, because I want to address everything. I want to address every single thing that a person could be thinking about, that they saying when I'm not around. You know I know what the f**k y'all are saying, it's always something. I'm going to say this sh*t, and I want motherfuckers to be looking around like, Oh sh*t, somebody tell bro what I said? That's the approach on the sh*t.
So when I listened to the album and then seeing your Cali move, it had me wondering like, did something happen in Memphis that felt weird that you felt like you had to get some distance?
Nah, nah. I ain't never felt like I had to leave Memphis because of something that was happening in the city.
The truth is I actually feel more comfortable in Memphis than anywhere. Because I know the city like the back of my hands. If something was to happen to me in Memphis I know how to deal with it instantly because I know everybody. It’s a small city, and if I don’t know [what happened], I know somebody that’s connected to it [and] the information going to come to me in the snap of a finger. So I feel more comfortable in Memphis than anywhere. If something happened in New York or some sh*t, it’s a harder process to find out who that was and how that happened and why it happened. In Memphis, I’m going to know in seconds. If I don’t know in real time.
So I’m most comfortable actually in Memphis, and I still got all of my houses and everything. [But] I lived in Miami for four or five years. People didn't know that I lived in Atlanta. So I just move around to different places. I always keep my sh*t in Memphis, but I just move around because I like energy. It’s part of growing to me. I like to be in different places. [Right now] I’m focusing on doing a lot of sh*t in the film business, investing into the eSports business. A lot of this sh*t is out in California. So me being a hustler, I’m spending a lot of time out there because it’s part of what my focus is. But I’m still a North Memphis guy, man, to the heart.
How does making that California move reflect your interests and point to where you’re headed from here?
I think if I [wasn’t] spending a lot of time in California, I would have never invested into the FaZe Clan and the eSports scene. Because I bumped into someone, I just bumped into them being out there. That wouldn't have happened if I'd been in Memphis, would it? Like I was just at the Polo Lounge minding my business, when I bumped into them having a meeting about raising the money. I just bumped into the conversation, and one thing led to another one, and I put my paper in it.
That's dope. Congratulations. It's an obviously explosive business.
Yeah, we the biggest team in the eSports. FaZe Clan, don’t get that sh*t twisted.
And film and TV, you’re trying to go in that direction as well?
Yeah, I'm working on something major right now--a major film-slash-series, a thing that you're going to be seeing coming to life in 2022 about my family, my family history, my aunties, and growing up. It's sort of about my life but my life through my eyes and my family and sh*t like that.
There's been a lot of talk about how Untrapped is your 10th album. I think two of the things that I really admire about how you move: one, is your consistency; two, is that you talk about the future. You often talk about how you don't like to look back.
Yeah the past is the past, man. What are we doing tomorrow? It's my approach. Like what else we doing? We already done that. We already achieved this sh*t. What are we doing tomorrow that's better than that? That's my approach.
I hear that. And like I said, I really respect that and I feel like that’s a big part of your success because you’re always moving forward. But if we take a second to look back, what are you most proud of that you've already accomplished? If you were to think about that 10 album run, what's the thing that stands out?
I'm more proud of right now that I own my masters. Because we could name probably on one hand artists that own their masters. You talking about the Jay-Zs, and the, well Prince, maybe, and I don't even know too many other people. So to be in their category, I'm super proud about that. I'm also proud about the growth of the artists that I'm working with. You know, when I met these guys I'm telling you, we was meeting them at a burger joint in Memphis. And these guys was just trying to figure a way to get out of Memphis. And to see them traveling the world and being on Billboard charts, making a lot of money and enjoying themselves, having fun, doing what they love. All the stuff we worked on together, I'm super proud about that.
I'm [also] proud about my partnership with Roc Nation because I know that I learned a lot from it, and I know we haven't even seen the sh*t that we about to do yet. With my mentality, their mentality, I feel like the best sh*t and the biggest sh*t we haven't even seen it yet.
In January you teamed up with Jay-Z and Team Roc to sue the Mississippi Department of Corrections Commissioner and the Superintendent of the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman on behalf of 29 inmates for violating the inmates’ constitutional rights to humane treamentent under the Eighth Amendment. Can you talk a bit about why this case is so important to you?
I come from a family of hustlers, they've been in prison forever. And plus, just certain things, man, it's like I think it's just human responsibility for someone like me. Like when I see the pictures and the videos [coming out of Parchman], I feel like I could not do nothing about it. Being that close to my hometown, being that close to just, situations that I'm familiar with when it come to having family members that was prisoners or inmates at one point. I feel like I had to do something.
Have there been any major takeaways so far from your experience either working with Team Roc on this cause and stepping up and speaking out?
Well I know our prison system is fucked up. I've been through it. I got a big brother that was in prison. He used to tell me all his stories of days and nights in prison, and that sh*t was like nightmares. And I'm close to my big brother so him telling me that sh*t made me feel like I was there. Taking away from it, like I said, prison, and the way they treat prisoners is like animals, in most situations. So it's just a hard thing. I don't wish prison on nobody. I don't think it's no good place for nobody. But I understand they have to have prisons, for prisoners. But you got to treat everybody like humans, still.
I got so much respect for Team Roc and what they do just in their philanthropy department in general. I see them help so many people’s situations, like way before this prison reform thing and this Mississippi thing. Just being in the building, I see them helping so many different causes that people may know about and may not know about. You know they spend a lot of time and resources on helping people. So being in the room, their energy too, also make me want to help people more. So I probably took that away from them.
How involved are you in the lawsuit in terms of the day to day?
I'm super involved in it. I get updates every day from the lawyers and from Team Roc on what's happening. Every step. Like, if a new step happened, I get alerted right then, like this what happened, this is what we doing now. So I have all the information in real time.
How are you feeling about the case currently?
I mean, you know, they shut down Unit 29 which was, I guess we could say a step, but it don't fix the problem because you know, that means they just move the inmates to somewhere else in the prison. And how do we know what the conditions are?
We know that the judge granted our lawyers and some of our people to go inside the prison to take pictures and gauge the conditions for theyself and interview some of the inmates. Because we've been hearing that the guards and stuff been retaliating on the inmates that's part of our lawsuit. You know, trying to make it rough on them down there because they part of the lawsuit. We also know that they sent trucks in there to jam up phones, so no more pictures and videos can come out of the prison. Which is crazy right? Because you ain't seen no trucks in there to fix the electricity or the water or none of this sh*t to help the inmates. But you can send trucks in there to jam up a phone service. So what they tell us? You doing what you want to do, basically.