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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.
In February 1990, three R&B underdogs dropped a chart-topping debut single that would be more than just their signature hit—it would become a harbinger for a new style and approach as a new decade dawned. Bell Biv DeVoe may have been unlikely trailblazers, but Ricky Bell, Mike Bivins and Ronnie DeVoe’s classic first single charted a new course for R&B and set the stage for where the genre was heading in the 1990s.
Most R&B fans know the history: fresh off the heels of their bestselling album, New Edition’s members were looking to do other things. Former member Bobby Brown had become a solo superstar, and with the former teen act at a bit of a crossroads following the success of 1988’s Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis-produced Heart Break, lead singers Ralph Tresvant and Johnny Gill were eying their individual projects.
On the suggestion of Jam & Lewis, Bell, Bivins, and DeVoe decided to form a trio. If New Edition was going on hiatus for Tresvant to start his solo career in earnest (as Gill refocused on his own new album with former MCA head Jheryl Busby over at Motown), why not try to do their own thing? Bivins had been brimming with ideas and was eager to try them out in a new format.
Of course, no one was expecting much from the three former New Edition members who’d famously stayed in the background for much of that group’s tenure. Rapper/producer Kwame ghostwrote some of the raps in “Poison,” and he admitted that he wasn’t impressed with the idea of Bell Biv DeVoe as a group—or their soon-to-be-hit.
“The lyrics that ended up making the record were [Ronnie Devoe’s] rhyme,” Kwame would tell Hip-Hop Wired in 2015. “I was hanging out with Mike Bivins. It was me, Mike Bivins and Dana Dane, we were going to a club, somewhere. And [Bivins] put in a tape of the demo of ‘Poison.’ No disrespect, I love the record now, but when I heard the demo I swore it was the worst thing I ever heard in my life.”
“I was like, Y’all gonna put this out? He was like, Yeah man, me, Ronnie and Rick, we going to do a group called BBD. [I’m like], Who wanna see y’all three? I wanna see New Edition! All this breaking up, Bobby solo, Ralph doing his thing, now y’all…what happened to New Edition?!”
BBD’s sound and image was going for something harder than what New Edition or even Bobby Brown had done up to that point. Eschewing the tailored suits and dapper presentation of most 80s R&B, this act was going to set a new blueprint for R&B style with hip-hop swagger.
"The kind of style we were groomed into from our early days had this Temptations, Jacksons, Blue Magic kind of feel. That was what caught us, that whole kind of flavor,” Bell explained to the Baltimore Sun in 1990. But in teaming with producers like Dr. Freeze and hip-house duo Wolf & Epic, they guaranteed that their sound wouldn’t retread what had worked in new jack swing--it would be something unique. "We just figured we'd go in the studio and do what we've been wanting to do all along, the kind of music that we've been listening to," Bell shared. "When we'd go hang out at the clubs or whatever, that's what was happening. We were just into that.
“We wanted that hip-hop flavor, but we wanted to kind of smooth it out. We figured we'd put some harmonies, some melodies over and that would kind of smooth the whole thing out.”
Hitmakers like L.A. & Babyface, Teddy Riley and Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis had dominated the R&B charts during the late 1980s, as new jack swing took over airwaves and dance floors with an infectious blend of tuneful R&B and hip-hop beats. BBD’s manager Hiriam Hicks knew about an up-and-coming producer named Elliot Straite, who went by the name Dr. Freeze. Hicks tapped Freeze for the BBD project, which by then already featured big names like The Bomb Squad.
In a 2016 interview with Red Bull Academy, producer Dr. Freeze said the song’s lyrics were personal for him—even before he had a song to put the words to. “It wasn’t a song at first,” Freeze said. “It was a letter. When I wrote it as a song, I let a lot of my friends hear it, and they said it was weird.”
Freeze’s beat featured a sample of hardcore rhymer Kool G Rap’s hit “Poison” as the hook, and when paired with the group’s image, it helped reintroduce BBD as something more than just “the other guys” in New Edition. Almost immediately, the trio was rebranded as something fresh and exciting. And they had a name for their unique sound and look: “mental.”
"Our music is mentally hip-hop, smoothed out on the R&B tip, with a pop feel appeal to it,” Bell would continuously explain. “We want to be the first to express this kind of music. We knew what we wanted to do."
The group would work with hip-hop powerhouses like the aforementioned Bomb Squad and superproducer Marley Marl, setting the table for hip-hop producers to tackle R&B projects. With the notable exception of Teddy Riley, the idea that hip-hop producers crafting R&B tracks was still novel in 1990, but over the next ten years, hip-hop heavyweights from Jermaine Dupri to Kay Gee to Timbaland would produce some of the biggest R&B records of the decade.
"We listened to Public Enemy's stuff and we were just amazed," Bell said at the time. "We just thought, 'Damn! Imagine us doing something like that.' Because we always think 'Why not?' We always ask that question. A lot of artists don't. So we'll just do anything, just go with our feelings. And that's usually what works best for us."
Bell Biv DeVoe’s uniquely “Mental” approach would prove wildly influential. Even in the new jack swing era, R&B acts mostly marketed themselves in the sophisticated, urbane mold of Luther Vandross, Anita Baker, and Freddie Jackson. BBD’s former New Edition cohort Bobby Brown had done much to shift the image of the contemporary R&B singer to something much more brazen and aggressive, but even his smash 1988 album Don’t Be Cruel featured mostly slick, romantic R&B/pop. With “Poison”s thumping beat and “never trust a big butt and a smile” refrain, it announced a brash new approach to R&B that would come to define the genre in the 1990s. When one considers the hip-hop-drenched look and attitude of everyone from Jodeci to Usher, Bell Biv DeVoe and “Poison” represent a seismic shift.
“The engine for Bell Biv DeVoe was Michael Bivins,” Shocklee explained in 2015. “He had a vision for the group. New Edition was all about wearing suits and dressing upscale. Michael brought it back to the street realm. They really brought out the hip hop element by wearing Timberland boots and sagging pants. This is what gave the group their visual look.”
Thirty years later, it may be easy to take “Poison” and BBD for granted. It’s the kind of dance floor classic that becomes ubiquitous at family reunions and wedding receptions. But the last three decades have proven its staying power—and its lasting influence. Nobody may be calling it “mental” anymore, but it’s still pretty damn cool. In 1990, nobody would’ve predicted this song would be this influential. Or this timeless. It made stars out of a trio of backup singers. Not a bad look for “the other guys.”
How do you move forward when you’re already one of the greatest of all time? In rappers’ circles, a 20-year career has seen Royce Da 5’9” considered one of the best MCs on earth. His witty punchlines, versatile flows and irreverent sense of humor have seen him compete with the likes of Black Thought, Kendrick Lamar, his former Slaughterhouse groupmates, and his longtime friend Marshall Mathers. “Eminem himself will tell you I'm the only ni**a livin' that done ever spanked him on the same record with him,” he pointedly rapped once. In recent years, he’s added a personal tone to his music, using songs like “Cocaine” and “Boblo Boat” to grapple with his family history of substance abuse and incarceration while conquering his own alcoholism and infidelity.
Now, after introducing listeners to his lineage, Royce is using his new album The Allegory to continue his artistic progression. His first two singles are more sociopolitical, lines that he isn’t known for drawing in his music: “Field Negro” chastises uppity blacks for forgetting their roots, while “Black Savage” calls on T.I., CyHi Da Prynce, and Sy Ari Da Kid to unite for an anthem against white oppression. The latter was chosen for the Jay-Z-led Inspire Change initiative with the NFL. And the third single, “Overcome” with Westside Gunn, features a music video that tells a “fictional” version of the story of 6ix9ine’s gang affiliation and his infamous testifying on the stand. “I hate when rappers get a mic in front of them and somebody asks them about something that affects us socially, and they write it off,” Royce said while visiting VIBE’s office in Times Square. “... I think with as much emphasis as we put, there’s certain rules that you’re supposed to be tapped into the hood. Just as much as you go out of your way to be tapped into the hood, you need to be tapped into us.”
There’s also one other detail: after a career working with legends like DJ Premier, Bink! and The Alchemist, Royce has decided to make his own beats this time around. He even landed a production credits on Eminem’s new surprise album Music To Be Murdered By, to go along with his trio of guest verses. “I call it rabbit hole behavior – I just start practicing a whole lot, just like I do anything else if I’m interested,” Royce shared. “...I didn’t set out to produce the whole album, it just happened that way.”
In a conversation with VIBE, Royce Da 5’9” talks about the importance of keeping up with your community, a musical lesson from T.I., and why he doesn’t care if he makes a wack beat.
VIBE: On your last two solos, Layers and Book of Ryan, you shared more of your personal life than ever before. After sharing that much, where do you go next creatively?
Royce Da 5’9”: I’m definitely taking my time. I don’t always know what I want to do, but it’s pretty easy for me to look at what I don’t want to do, and rule that out. I just create and try not to think too much. The important thing for me was, when I did do the super personal thing, when it was about myself, to make sure that I really did it thoroughly. Did it in a way where people get it. And also, I’m presenting the people in my life in a respectful, positive way, but truthful, honest way. From there, it’s just taking in as much information as I can and just talking about the way that I see the world. Whatever inspires overrules.
You said that you ruled out what you didn’t want to do. What did you not want to do?
I don’t want to look like I’m an artist that’s doing this as some type of job. There’s nothing wrong with that; I just don’t want to do it. I’m not an employee of the people; I don’t make music for people. That’s not my job, that’s not what I’m here to do. I think some people can do that, but in my mind, that’s crazy. I express myself through the art as a coping mechanism most of the time. I look at it as putting paint on a canvas and hanging it up. You’re more than welcome to come by look at it, but if you don’t, that’s fine. And then when I’m leaving, I’m taking it home with me so I can look at it for memories. Whatever that feeling is, money won’t give me that feeling.
Between “Field Negro” and “Black Savage,” both songs have a more conscious, sociopolitical slant. People don’t associate that with you.
I like “conscious” better than political. I think we separate those a little bit. I’m very conscious. I’m not very politically-inclined, but a lot of things that people associate as political are important to me. I don’t care who the president is. I don’t care about that type of sh*t. But I do care about the way that some of the things that happen on a higher level of government affect us in our community. So I’m very conscious of our people, and I’m very conscious of artists having a platform and understanding how important that is and understanding how important it is to be connected to us and how we need to take care of each other first. Then we’ll be able to take care of everybody. I’m conscious of that. But I’m not trying to run for senator in ten years. I don’t have any aspirations of being president or a political activist. But as I get older, the things that I say begin to get more important.
A lot of artists have their feelings on issues like that, but they completely separate them from their music. What made you decide to integrate it into your music?
Everything I’ve made has always been a reflection to what I’m doing at the time, who I am at the time. As black men especially, our perspective changes so much. I don’t know exactly what did it, but I know I hate when rappers get a mic in front of them and somebody asks them about something that affects us socially, they condemn it, and they write it off. That’s a pet peeve of mine. They condemn the concept all the way together. They don’t want to answer it, and they condemn it. Most of the time I feel like it’s because they don’t know, they’re unaware of it. They don’t know enough about it to be able to speak on it. Or they just look down on being smart or being socially aware. I think with as much emphasis as we put, there’s certain rules that you’re supposed to be tapped into the hood. Just as much as you go out of your way to be tapped into the hood, you need to be tapped into us. That’s important. But it’s not going to become important to you until you start taking in information the proper way.
So how do you keep in touch with what’s going on?
I mostly read. I don’t watch a whole bunch of TV. I just read. I do research online like a crazy person. I just stay aware, I look at what everyone is talking about, constantly on my phone. When I used to get drunk, I’d see everybody talking about something, and I’d just go look at something else. I don’t do that no more; I need to know now.
It’s always interesting to me when I hear about your life pre-sobriety and post-sobriety. Because I realize how many things stem from that - getting your personal life in order, being more lucid with your family, being more aware of the world around you.
Well, that’s the problem. Drinking makes it to where you don’t care. Perfect: I’ll go cheat on my girl, I’ll become a ridiculous person. Nothing is connected into nothing until I started going to therapy, then I realized everything was for a reason. And then, I started learning about myself in a way that made me elevate, first my mind and then better as an artist. I’m like damn, I can keep learning about myself – how can I stop being better at everything? Most of us we come in, and if we want to get better at rapping, then we just figure we’ve got to keep up with the times, let me keep up with rap and I end up being a better rapper. That’s all you’re dialed into, all of that misinformation that’s being spread around. You’re doomed. There’s no way you’re gonna get better. No way. It’s impossible. If I’m keeping up with what’s current, but everything that’s current, there’s no future in none of it. I focus on me, getting myself better. I make a lot of music I don’t use. Every time I do something that I feel is cool, I let it go.
How old are your kids?
Twelve, 10, 5 and 3. And 21.
Do you have conscious conversations with them?
Only Roycee, my oldest son. We can go pretty deep. My daughters, they’re just having fun right now. I’m not going to lay too much on ‘em. [laughs] Just let them be kids. I’ll eat with Kino, his kids know how to order at a steakhouse. … Nah, none of that. They don’t watch rap videos. They aren’t tapped in yet. Just chillin’. That’s one of the only reasons I celebrate Christmas: I just want to see them open gifts and having fun. But there’s lots to tell, lots coming on the horizon.
On this new album, you made all of the beats. Did you make beats at all before then?
Nope. But I have made a beat here and there before in different situations. Sometimes in the studio 4 in the morning, and we’re all drinking, I just decide to start hitting piano keys. Make some terrible beat that we rap on at the moment. [laughs] But I never had equipment, this is my first time doing that. But I’m glad I did it that way. I learned Pro Tools first. I learned how to cut my own vocals first, just engineering. Denaun showed me how to make beats in Logic, and it was easy for me to catch onto because it was very similar to Pro Tools. I call it rabbit hole behavior – I just start practicing a whole lot, just like I do anything else if I’m interested. I just kept on practicing and came up with this song, came up with that song. If you do it enough, stuff comes out of it. I didn’t set out to produce the whole album, it just happened that way. That’s the fun part. Normally, we would tell ourselves, you can’t do nothing like that. I’m glad I didn’t even have expectations. I wasn’t even thinking. I just love practicing. If I make something and it’s terrible, it does not bother me, as long as I don’t have to play it for nobody else. [laughs]
Did anything spark that initial creativity to start making beats more?
It was boredom. But there wasn’t a starting point. One time we were working on a mixtape or something, and I decided I was going to do the beat. I’ll just have my engineer play something. I never applied myself and bought equipment like, “I’m going to make beats.” Little stuff in passing. But just drunk shit. This is my first time deciding to do it that way. I went to Guitar Center. I bought Ableton, bought the Maschine, it starts out like that – get a bunch of stuff, and see what sticks. Everything went back except the MPC. [laughs] I kept that, but I gave it to my friend. I just use Logic now.
What’s interesting about what you’re saying is that your raps are very meticulously crafted. I think if you were to write a rap that was wack, you’d be upset. But you’re saying that if you make a beat you don’t like, you don’t have an issue with it?
It goes both ways for me. But I do understand being that way about a rap. I was that way for a long time. I think we start out like that. I don’t know if it’s “upset” – it’s more of a fear. Most people won’t admit that, but it’s like a creative fear. You don’t want to come up with something that’s not good, or you don’t want to admit that it’s not good. If you don’t know no better, that’s synonymous with falling off. You never want to admit that. But the more honest you are with yourself, the better off everything is. So going out and working with Puff, and him making me rewrite the same verse 8,000 times, is what made me introduce the art of rewriting into my lexicon. I just started rewriting stuff to rewrite it. And then i developed this relationship with the verses in a song where it’s just, I don’t have no respect for it. I call it clay. I just lay a bunch of stuff, poke holes in it, fill a line in, take the bottom half out, fill that in, remove the top of it, put some back on top of it. [laughs] It’s like playing LEGOs or something. Take the best pieces, take it from there, and then just A&R it. There’s no such thing as a bad verse – I’m sorry, yes there is. But it can be great for different reasons. Just because it’s lyrical, that doesn’t make it great. “Ain’t Nuttin But A G Thang'' is a perfect verse. Add too many syllables, you f**k it up. I’m sure that if Dre knew Marshall back then, and Eminem hit him with a super technical verse, he’d probably be like, “that’s lyrical, but that ain’t it.” It’s almost like you’re A&Ring yourself. It’s so much going on, you don’t have to be so tight if it’s not the right one.
“Black Savage” is you, T.I., CyHi Da Prynce, Sy Ari Da Kid, and White Gold. How’d that song come together?
The producer me picked the people. I always knew I wanted to work with CyHi on something. Anytime I ever do anything that’s a little bit socially conscious, I always think of T.I. He’s very aggressive, I can tell he hit that point in life. I think we have spiritual awakenings, man. Us as black men, we just wake up one day like, “this is what I am,” and we have no idea where it came from. T.I. seems like he’s there with it. You get to a certain point and start seeing things for what they are. You don’t always like what you see. I think T.I. is at that place, so I always told myself if I was ever doing anything along the truthful line, to speak up for us, I would call Tip. We did some stuff before, but it ended up slipping through the cracks. Tip actually suggested Sy Ari to sing the hook. He said, “the hook we have is a little bit too direct,” and he asked me what I thought about somebody else taking a shot at it. I said, I’m more than open if you think you can make it happen. He reached out to Sy Ari, and he sent it right back. That’s one dope thing about collaborating. I learned that in Slaughterhouse: learn that with an open mind. A lot of guys would’ve taken it personal. I was cool with what we had, but when he sent Sy Ari’s hook, Sy Ari’s was better. But I still liked what we had, because the part that we had as the hook was White Gold’s part. So I was able to use both, and I moved them and made it more like a bridge. I had to change the music around a little bit, but it worked way better. But he was right – it was super direct. I’m a very blunt, direct person, and I heard what he meant. So it actually taught me something, so I’m glad we had that conversation.
That really sounds like Producer Royce, man. Not just beatmaker Royce, but producer Royce.
I could never be a beatmaker, because I’m around too many guys who make beats who have been doing it their whole life. You can’t catch up, it’s impossible to catch up to Bink!, Denaun, DJ Premier. I’m way behind. There’s never been a beatmaker Royce, but I’ve been producer Royce even before I was making tracks. I had to play that role in Slaughterhouse, I had to have that relationship with the music in Slaughterhouse. I was the guy that was more on the technical side, doing the drops and stuff like that. I just always had a knack for the sonic stuff. After us getting our own place, I think it was the logical next step. It just kind of happened spur of the moment, and I like for things to happen like that. Every time I ever planned to do beats, I didn’t end up seeing it through. But the one time I just thought of it real quick, I was at Guitar Center 30 minutes later. I came back and it didn’t just end up being a conversation – I saw it all the way through, because I wasn’t thinking about it.
How did you connect with the NFL for their campaign?
Kino was talking to Jason from Tidal, and he said they were looking for a song to launch the initiative. Everybody knows about the initiative. They were saying they were looking for something, and Kino was like, “I think I may have the perfect song for you.” It was just a shot in the dark. He sent it over to them, and they loved the song. Once he explained to me what the initiative was and all of that, I was 100 percent with it. After that, I found out that we needed to partner up with them and go do stuff, which was cool too. Anything Jay-Z related, man, I’m in. I’m not a real big football guy, but I’m willing to be for that cause.