Starlito and Don Trip released the first Step Brothers mixtape in 2011 to small but passionate critical acclaim. Both artists had grown modest underground followings. The former was a longtime Nashville rapper who'd built regional buzz and had become involved, for a time, with Cash Money records. The latter had a viral story song that went viral, attracting the attention of Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine at Interscope.
Neither of these relationships would last. Despite receiving some high-profile attention from the press—'Lito, then known as All $tar, was written up in the New York Times, and Don Trip was put on XXL's Freshman cover in 2012—both have remained, by and large underground favorites.
Last week, Step Brothers 2 was released, and garnered more attention than their previous release. The album was bankrolled by an independent Step Brothers tour this past spring. "Probably 75% of the shows we put on ourselves," 'Lito explained. "Booked the venue, sold the tickets, promoted the show." Being independent isn't so much about an identity for the duo, as it is a financial reality of the era in which they work.
We spoke with Starlito and Don Trip about being the new face of the underground, independent hustle, the recording of Step Brothers 2, and what happened to Don's deal with Interscope.
As told to David Drake (@somanyshrimp)
Do you think the kind of music you make is undervalued right now, relative to how it used to be?
Starlito: Hell yeah. I think there's a wide open market for it.
Why do you think it's like that?
Don Trip: Because it’s honest music. And in order to make honest music, you have to the audacity to say, "Fuck you if you don’t like what I’m saying." Period. And a lot of people don’t really have that bone. That’s something you can’t grow, that’s something you’re born with. I think that goes everywhere, it’s not just music, it’s just how you are.
And two people I can speak on personally, Star and Kevin Gates. Those are two people that, no matter what, if he feels like saying it, he’s going to say it. And Gates is the same way. If he felt like saying it, he’s going to say it.
In that regard, I’m the same way. If I feel like saying it, it’s going to get said. And when it comes to the music, that’s pretty much how we take it. I can’t give you no other story than mine. Me giving you so and so’s story is watered down already, because it’s his story. I couldn’t tell it like he could tell it anyway.
Starlito: I think the lane is wide open, also, because so many people have achieved massive success doing the opposite. And I’m not taking away from no one else’s success story, but a lot of people have made names for themselves, established careers, made hits, made tons of money off lying, off giving half truths, off commercializing the whole hood experience, or giving some jaded perspective.
Everybody’s not rich. Everybody I know that had bricks, the majority of them are locked up. None of them are rapping. None of them are running around, fresh as hell, driving around foreign cars and shit. That’s not my reality.
That’s to say that some of that music isn't good, but when we pan across and show you the rest of the picture, I think it’s like, "Oh shit, what is this? What are they talking about?" You’re not going to get a “Leash on Life” from a whole host of other street rappers. You’re not going to get “Caesar and Brutus” from street rappers that talk about the same types of things.
I don’t think we talk about the drug trade nearly as much as a lot of rappers. But a song like “Caesar and Brutus” is about two dope boys—this is a dope boy song. The difference is we sprinkled that reality in, that’s about how a bitch that can undo that whole tie. Like everybody else’s song is, "I got this, I got this, we got this—"
We offer the ugly part of the picture. Because everything’s not cute. And we don’t have Lamborghinis, so I can’t—I hate to keep saying Lamborghinis, but the fact that I’m not rich in that regard and I don’t have all of this, I can’t speak about all of that. - Don Trip
Don Trip: We offer the ugly part of the picture. Because everything’s not cute. And we don’t have Lamborghinis, so I can’t—I hate to keep saying Lamborghinis, but the fact that I’m not rich in that regard and I don’t have all of this, I can’t speak about all of that. And really when it comes to music now, that’s pretty much how they approach it. They take the pretty element of what’s going on and give you that, but that’s not really what’s going on everywhere. That’s really not going on nowhere that I’ve ever been.
Starlito: The disconnect is finding the audience that would be the most receptive to it, so they gravitate toward what we’re doing. And I think the disconnect is that they’re not online. The people that our music would most closely appeal to aren’t searching for a download link, don't probably don’t have a clear understanding of how to get digital music.
So it’s a wide open lane, we just have to meet in the middle of that demand curve. We have to find that audience, because you have to filter through the noise that is just music everywhere. But we’re right there next to—our music is going to be right next to somebody who’s not making the same type of music or aesthetic.
Like Trip said, I don’t think we’re afraid to be ourselves, I don’t think our music cares at all for acceptance. I think our music will be accepted because of that. But we’re not seeking out a spin, we’re not seeking out a positive review, we’re not seeking out a certain type of fan. We’re not catering our music to just this demographic or that one.
Like we’re being ourselves and we’re already a part of this one particular demographic because of who we are or where we come from and we’re just trying to let the reality of that come to the surface. I think that is it’s own lane and it's underpopulated.
What was the process like for recording the new tape?
Don Trip: For this tape we took more of a thought-out approach. The first tape was done in three studio sessions. [This time] we didn’t want to go in and say "Hey, let’s do it in three sessions and call it an album." We wanted to work at our own pace, so to speak. Throughout the recording process, we’ve been on the road, together and separately.
So we were doing a lot. The traveling time had to weigh in, too. And for the most part, we booked the majority of our sessions to record this album out of town. When I say out of town, I mean out of Nashville, and out of Memphis. The first tape we recorded one session in Memphis, one in Nashville, and one in L.A.
Starlito: We finished the album and mastered it in L.A. It was just three sessions. This time, I say we started in April—this Spring we did an independent tour, Step Brothers Tour. Probably 75% of the shows we put on ourselves—booked the venue, sold the tickets, promoted the show. Don Trip and Starlito, not a staff. Literally an independent tour. That allowed us to finance the album. We scheduled sessions around our travel schedule. But the ultimate part of it was that we were traveling together.
It was super cool that we released Step Brothers on July 25th, 2011, and here we are this July, still performing songs from two years ago. It allowed us to really take in how much demand we have for a new project. For crowds of people to still be screaming word for word, the first one, it gave us the energy and put us in the right creative space to make a new one, because it’s tangible.
The people that our music would most closely appeal to aren’t searching for a download link, don't probably don’t have a clear understanding of how to get digital music. - Starlito
It’s one thing when people respond to it, it’s another thing to see it and actually feel it. That was the difference. The time before, we were just picking up on the good vibes we had working together. This time, it’s like okay we’re on to something, we need to do it right, we’re going to take our time, and also within taking our time we learned a lot from the business side of things, what you get from throwing your own tour, what you get from going to seven or eight different states together as friends.
A lot of these shows we were having to balance the books and throw a good show. Sometimes we were just getting booked and getting paid and pulling up. All of that just made for a better album. It made a more complete project, as Trip said: thought-out. We were able to outline where we were trying to go with the project, as opposed to just rapping, which is the easy part for us.
What do you guys see as the big hump for you to get to the next level?
Starlito: Awareness is the biggest hurdle. It feels worthwhile to be doing this interview, considering you got caught up to speed with my music from something similar, a sit-down interview [Ed. Note—he's referring to this article] where someone took the time to ask me some questions, get some insight into what I had going on. And that turns into a fan or someone that gravitates toward us. I had made 20 CDs before that interview. That CD was done, out and had been for a month. I sold thousands of copies of that CD that week. You know, hand to hand, from my website, just because there was an awareness for it.
Same way with this project—I released three CDs that year, but when this one came out, we had the three videos serviced, we had writeups from publications such as this, and before you know it it was like, ‘wow, who are these guys, what’s up with these guys?’ You are able to make the decision on whether or not you buy into it. I feel like our body of work will do the rest.