Admit it. Just like the first time you heard of Juelz Santana and Jim Jones, you figured Teeyon "Vado" Winfree was nothing more than Cam'ron's latest weed carrier. Any rapper that got to co-star with Cam'ron on the well-received DJ Drama Boss Of All Bosses mixtape trilogy just 'cause Killa co-signed couldn't possibly be nice, right? But after dropping stellar verses on "Ric Flair" and "Speakin' Tongues," and showcasing his hilarious slang (to wit: "Slime," "Stop it five," and "Boings"), it's clear that the Uptown kid is one of New York's brightest new stars. So much so that many, including childhood friend Jae Millz, felt he should have been included on XXL's freshman cover. And for those wondering if he could stand on his own, last month Vado (which is actually an acronym for "violence and drugs only") dropped a video for his Big L-inspired "Large In The Streets"—a song whose third verse parallel's the late legend's classic "Ebonics." Busy working on his solo debut, Slime Flu, as well as the upcoming U.N. album, Gunz N' Butta, Vado checked in with Complex to discuss how he met Cam, what "Large In The Streets" meant for his career, and his role in the upcoming Diplomats reunion.
Interview by Toshitaka Kondo
Complex: How did "Large On The Streets" come about?
Vado: V Don brought me the beat with the sample; honestly, I was sittin' on it. He gave it to me in November and I didn't record it until January. We knew the sample was going to be hard to clear. That's why "Large On The Streets" has turned into a street record, 'cause we already changed the hook and everything.
Complex: You changed the hook from what's in the video?
Vado: It's a sample of one of my bars: "Niggas got no Morals, Values or Principles" [from "Ric Flair"]. The hook is now from "MVP," I'm still givin' a shout out to Big L. It's just like the sample with Big L sayin', "Large On The Streets." It's going to sound like that. It's still gonna be good money 'cause that's one of my popular quotes.
Complex: So you guys tried to clear it and couldn't?
Vado: Yeah, so it was a choice we had to do.
Complex: What was Sony asking for?
Vado: Shit, let's just put it like this: A mansion, a Phantom, and a jet flight. They asked for too much. So we had to change it up for BET and MTV.
Complex: What made you decide to re-do "Ebonics" on the third verse?
Vado: The sample. I wanted to show my respect 'cause "Ebonics" sounded crazy anyway. That was another '90s thing nobody ever did again so I felt that was something that would show my skills lyrically. A lot people were shaky on my lyrics and me being a new artist, a lot of people weren't tryin' to hear me at first. I just thought of something I could do different that other artists aren't doing. This is a new era and I should have done a whole song on it. Drake put the video on his blog. So that was definitely love. Shout out to Drake.
Complex: Has that record done a lot for you in terms of showing people your viability as a solo artist?
Vado: Yeah, that's why I had to go hard as far as putting out my solos. A lot of people were saying, "Oh, he's only getting that buzz 'cause he's with Cam and people want to hear how his new artist sound." You know they was in denial. [Laughs.] They wasn't tryin' to realize that I was nice. Then they start comparing me to Juelz. Why can't I just be nice? You gotta understand, I'm from Harlem too, so you can say I look like anybody or rap like anybody because I'm from the same borough. So if a nigga ask me who I look like, I say Harlem. If you come to Harlem, you see a thousand of us walkin' around lookin' like they rappers.
Complex: Has anyone ever told you that you look like Shyne?
Vado: Ah, man, if I were to get a dollar for that every time I heard it, I would be a millionaire. That was one of the first things people used to say.
Complex: You've said before your style is more '90s and the way you rap people can tell you still listen to Illmatic and It Was Written. What made you want to go in that direction?
Vado: I'm young with an old soul. I know music where every song is concepts. Every verse you have to talk about something. Paint some type of picture and make a person interested and if you not painting a picture, at least explain yourself. Like how you livin'? What you wear? What type of girls you like? What kind of cars you want to drive? That's from the '90s era. You know when Big, Cam, Pac and all those artist were spittin', they was always talking about something. So that's my style—and my clothing style is new, but it's different.
Complex: Yeah, I noticed you wear Polo a lot.
Vado: Yeah I was a boat head, like a Nautica head. Then I started fuckin' with Polo in 2000. My man put me on to the Rugby and I know a lot of people ain't know about that because there is only one store in New York. Rugby is a clothing line where you can make your own clothes. You pick up a shirt and they give you patches and you make it hot so I started runnin' with that and it stood out.
Complex: How old were you when you started to rap?
Vado: When I started to pick up the pen and take it serious, I was about 19. But I started rapping when I was 16.
Complex: When did it actually become something in your mind like "I'm going to try and do this?"
Vado: When I was doing this popular public access show in New York called Mad Ciphers. It only plays in Manhattan and the Bronx. I was about 18 and I just put some bars together and went up there with Jae Millz and I started grabbing attention. People started diggin' me, so that's when I started to take it serious. When I was taking it serious, Millz had got on in '03 to Warner Bros. so I started runnin' around with Millz.
Complex: Being close to Millz, was he the first one who said you can make it in rap?
Vado: Exactly. I spit something for him and the first thing he said was, "You ain't write that." I was like, "I wrote that." Millz said, "That shit is aight." It was about a year before he got signed and he said, "Yo, let's go on Mad Ciphers."
Complex: And before that he had no idea you spit?
Vado: Nah, we grew up together from like yay high. Bunk beds together, no homo. We grew up on the same block, literally together from the monkey bars. Millz was always spittin' since junior high. We used to play and be other rappers. He had a Playskool radio and a microphone and we used to record on the tape, but I didn't take it seriously. He always knew that was one of his talents. We were using our own rhymes. So once he got on, I was running with him, there were ups and downs. When he left SRC, I wasn't stepping up like "Yeah, I wanna be an artist, too." I was on a few mixtapes with him or did freestyles, but I really wasn't trying to take control of it. But when he went to Young Money, I knew that was the time I had to step up.
Complex: So during that time when you were jumping on records with him here and there, what was your role?
Vado: I was more like his hype man. When shit got shaky, I was back on the block. I was always on the block. I ain't never leave, but I just went harder with hustlin'. Then I got locked up. When I got locked up. I did eight months. Nothing crazy.
Complex: When did you get locked up?
Vado: I got locked up in 2005. I got caught with 10 bags of crack. That was my first offense, so they gave me probation; I violated probation when I got caught tryin' to bust a check, which led to eight months.
Complex: What year did you get out of jail?
Vado: 2006. Then I was like, "This is what I wanna do." I was gonna go home and go hard as far as working on myself and try to become a real artist and get on.
Complex: When Millz went to Young Money, there wasn't any talk of you going over there?
Vado: Yeah there was, but Millz never reached out to me and I never asked him. I didn't stress it. It was all love.
Complex: When Jae Millz said you should have been on the XXL cover, what did you think?
Vado: I make sure I tell people every chance I get, 'cause he's my brother. We're like how Cam and Mase was. I make sure I let people know off the bat. He was mad, I understand. We both was mad, but I wasn't mad enough for me to take away from the other artists. I didn't have beef with them. They made the cover because they earned it and worked for it. But him being my brother, he just wants to speak his mind.
Complex: Who from that cover are you a fan of?
Vado: J.Cole, Nipsey Hussle. Me and Donnis are very cool. I met him out in the A. It was so crazy 'cause I was listenin' to his music and I ain't even know it was him. I was listening to Sirius and they played "Gone" and then said it was Donnis and I was like, "Oh, this shit is fire!" So me and him started building. Started kickin' it and we got some shit in the works. So he's definitely one of my favorites. I respect J.Cole lyrically.
Complex: If Jae Millz was focused on rap from a young age but you weren't, what type of kid were you growing up?
Vado: Through high school I was one of those popular kids. One of those kids everyone knew from the block or knew from the 'hood and at the same time doing my thing as far as hustlin' goes. I was always one those kids that had a glow, that was special in some type of way and always had a presence wherever I went in Harlem. I was kind of the street person and Millz was the one who went to school, did art, and he was very talented. We like salt and pepper. I was just a cool dude who always wanted a big name in Harlem like the heads before me. I just didn't know it would go through music.
Complex: In previous interviews you mentioned seeing people come through Harlem like Jay-Z and Dame Dash.
Vado: All day. You know I'm from 142nd, so I seen them come through a lot. I've seen Cam'ron, Mase come through in the late '90s, that's how I grew up. I always had them big dreams. I was young, hustlin' on the block, and they would come through and show love to the big homies on the block. Probably the ones I was hustlin' for. [Laughs.] I always for some reason, not saying it was a good thing, idolized that lifestyle all day.
Complex: Being from Harlem, were you ever in contact with Max B?
Vado: Yeah, he reps 142nd, we from the same 'hood. That's why tradition, as far as talent, from my neighborhood goes on.
Complex: Were you guys cool before he went in?
Vado: Yeah, very.
Complex: Did you guys ever do records together?
Vado: Nah, we was cool though. It was more of him doing his thing and I'm not gonna be like, "Yo, son I need a track." I know he was charging an asshole full of cash to niggas. We was cool, so we just kept it like that and I know if he was home would have done something.