Q&A: Starlito's New War

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Though rappers are more likely to flaunt the moments of extravagance, the rise to hip-hop stardom (and more often non-stardom) is a rocky one. Nashville's Starlito (formerly All $tar Cashville Prince) knows this as well as any artist. In less than a decade, he went from selling CDs out of a backpack to recording alongside Lil Wayne for a would-be Cash Money Records debut, only to be summarily abandoned by the label as the musical landscape shifted. But he wears this frustration well, as he does all pain, both on and off record. Where he once was a more traditionalist punchline rapper, he's evolved rapidly in the years since his exodus, rhyming in a slithering tone that's equal parts menace and regret. Hive recently sat down with Lito to talk about his latest mixtape @ War W/ Myself, and the bumpy road that took him there.

When did you start rapping?

I was about 16, and I wanted to make beats. I scraped my money up, bought a keyboard and got into making beats for a minute, but soon after, two things happened: One, I realized my beats sucked. And two, I would always write stuff to all the beats I made before I took them to other dudes in my school to rap to. Long story short, people started liking the shit. The guy that ran the studio I was recording at pressed CDs for $2.50 a pop and I would get a hundred CDs at a time. The first hundred I got I sold them all in the first day. I went to the projects where I used to hang, and I went to the campus and sold a hundred CDs at $5 a piece -- doubled my money. I figured that was pretty cool.

How did you go from there to the situation with Yo Gotti and Cash Money?

[Gotti heard] some guy from Memphis playing my music in a barbershop. He reached out and from there we did an independent deal, which stated that we'd go find distribution and become partners in business. And we did that -- we went and got the deal with Cash Money together. I thought it was a pretty good thing on the front end. [Laughs]

It didn't end up the way you planned ...?

I mean, it's spilled milk. I know it's probably noteworthy to talk about but at this point it's just lost time. I didn't release an album, I didn't shoot a video. I was featured on a couple of Cash Money releases -- [Birdman & Lil Wayne's] Like Father Like Son and one of those Birdman CDs [5* Stunna]. I turned in 80 or 90 songs. I did some writing for stuff that never came out ... but, you know, it was a launching pad and a learning experience for me. It taught me to tighten up my business, it taught me to go back to my independent roots. Now I'm probably way closer to that backpack full of CDs.

If you look at what Cash Money's putting out now, it's hard to imagine you being in with the likes of Drake and Nicki Minaj.

Yeah, I think when Wayne reached [a certain sales] plateau or whatever his music started changing. Over the time period that I was there he became the star of the label and they followed his lead. I could see how you'd say I wouldn't necessarily fit into that. I hadn't really thought about it as much like that because I spent the last year-and-a-half or two years either trying to get out of [the deal] or just excited that I was out of it.

Where they aware of the stuff you were putting out independently during that time?

They had to be aware of at least portions of it. I would get calls about certain things and not as much about other ones. They knew about whatever we were trying to work at radio. That was always my thing, to try to and at least start the fire on my own.

How has the internet changed the independent hustle for you?

I used to be way more hands on and I used to be more about physical products but now you'll spend the same amount of money or more on things that aren't tangible. You just send them file links and get money. But further than that it, helps me reach people in places that I would never even be able to go. When I put out my independent album [Starlito's Way 3] in December, some of the first sales were in Hawaii on military bases and in Finland and Germany and Japan, which is mindblowing to me coming from East

Nashville. I wouldn't think anybody over there even knows that I exist. That's definitely the upside to the Internet. Of course, the downside is there's somebody with a blogspot that's gonna put up a link for free. Even though I've been promo-ing it for like a year-and-a-half and I'm trying to retail this shit. But it's give and take. It's just a game to learn -- right now I'm studying up to make sure I'm on top of it. I've watched it change and now that I understand how much it's changed it's just about conforming and trying to capitalize.

Do you worry that charging for something might turn people off or get the project less attention from the blogs?

Yes and no. My most recent release @ War W/ Myself … I'm selling it like how [Radiohead] did that name-your-own-price thing. I was doing it as a personal mission -- it was for one of my best friends that was in my group [Trash Bag Gang]. But further than that, I tried to sell Starlito's Way 3 on the back end of me giving away ten mixtapes. I wouldn't say that I'm just aiming to sell stuff but at the end of the day, I've got bills. And I read messages from my fans every day that are aiming to support in whatever way they can. I see that there's a market for it but I agree that there's definitely a smaller market for it.

Tell me a little about your motives behind the new tape.

I did it almost in spite of myself. My [initial] goal was to not saturate the internet market because people are not gonna click on twenty different mixtape links but my partner, Red Dot, he was sentenced and jailed. He's got a 25 year sentence that started on the 28th of April. It hit me really hard personally and I went through the gamut of emotions you go through when losing a friend. In essence, seven-and-a-half years at the minimum on a sentence is like losing a friend. I don't know if I'll even be here in seven-and-a-half years. So the music is raw. It's some hard, heavy thoughts and emotions that I've been going through. I wanted to take all that internal shit and go about it creatively. I took what I felt like are my best songs right now and put 'em out. Over the last two years when I was the most down because of the Cash Money shit [Red Dot] was in my ear and in my corner. The Trash Bag Gang project was about fun, we were just gonna put the music out how we kick it on a day to day. So I decided it would only be right to go even harder in his honor. All the proceeds will go to him or his family. You got the option of putting in zero for the price and getting it for free and that's cool. But I feel like if people are really in tune with me and take the two minutes to read what I wrote that goes with it, maybe they'll understand the cause.

In your write up for the tape, you mentioned that you were thinking about retiring.

Yeah and that all factors into that thought process. I've been through a lot of BS on the career end and I'm just not sure if I want to leap into a new round of BS. But the feedback from the CD is offering me a new perspective. It's offered me a sense of hope. Maybe I'm winning the war.