Inside the Snake Pit: The Rise of Young Thug’s Young Stoner Life Records

Young Thug’s Young Stoner Life Records doesn’t operate like any other label in the music industry. This is the full story behind the rise of YSL.

Young Thug's YSL label
Complex Original

Image via Complex Original

Young Thug's YSL label

Four years ago, Young Thug shared a major announcement. On November 15, 2016, he went on Snapchat and revealed that he was officially launching his own music imprint, Young Stoner Life Records, under 300 Entertainment. 

In the short video clip, Thug previewed his new office and unveiled the logo for YSL. As the camera panned around the workspace, Kevin Liles, co-founder and CEO of 300, gave a congratulatory speech. “The most important thing I could say to all of you guys is not whether it’s 300 or YSL,” Liles began, acknowledging a small crowd of label staff before turning his attention to Young Thug. “Look at the guy who committed to us every single day, always standing 300 with us. Him starting a new venture is going to take us to a different mindset. He’s not just an artist in this particular case.” 

A lot has changed since then. Instagram Stories has replaced Snapchat as the place to drop ephemeral content, hip-hop has become the most popular genre for the first time in music history, and YSL has signed over a dozen artists and released over 50 projects, eight of which have charted on the Billboard 200. But through all those changes, two things have remained constant: Young Thug is by no means just an artist, and YSL isn’t an ordinary label. YSL’s influence on the sound of modern rap is indisputable, but the label’s real superpower comes from its close-knit relationships. From its inception, YSL has operated as a family, with Thug recruiting his siblings and longtime friends to make up the roster of the label.

The past two years have been especially pivotal to YSL’s success, with Thug becoming more commercially successful than ever before, and artists like Gunna and Lil Keed forging paths for themselves as breakout stars. But a cloud of mystery still looms over the imprint. Who is on the roster? What’s 300’s involvement? To what extent is Young Thug really a part of the day-to-day responsibilities of the label? Basic details about the inner workings of YSL have surfaced on rare occasions, but many of those questions remained unanswered. Until now. For the first time, executives and artists in the YSL camp are ready to share the full story behind one of hip-hop’s most successful new labels.

“There’s no crew that works as hard as they work, and we have the studio bills to show it.” - Kevin Liles

To understand the YSL story, you need to go back to the early stages of Young Thug’s career. Back in 2012 and 2013, he was just transitioning from a local hero to a national sensation. According to some key players, the time and energy that Thug put into his solo career during that period played a major role in how he would approach building his YSL empire years later.

“It was a struggle,” remembers Thug’s sister Dora, a YSL signee who performs under the name HiDoraah. “I just remember all of the hard work and dedication that it took, seeing him go 24 hours in the studio. At first, it was one foot in, one foot out. But with the support from me and Dolly and our other brothers and sisters and mom and dad, we stayed on him so he would understand he could do something. But it wasn't an easy thing for him.” 

Dolly White, Thug’s other sister, remembers what life was like the year before things fell into place. “My mom and dad didn’t have a lot. So we never had a lot of space in all of our places. I will never forget how we struggled so bad. Like, we never had air,” she recalls. “2013 was the most struggling year. Oh my God, it makes you thank the Lord, and just be thankful for life.” 

A year later, on the heels of mainstream releases like the 2014 singles “Stoner,” "Danny Glover," and “Lifestyle,” Thug’s hard work paid off. In June 2014, Kevin Liles confirmed the rapper had signed to 300 Entertainment. 

Liles remembers the enthusiasm that Thug immediately brought to the label. “I'm an energy person, and when you meet somebody, they give off a certain kind of energy,” he explains. “Thug’s energy was always that he comes from a creative place, from a place where you can't pigeonhole him or put parameters up. So I honestly felt energized to say that. We can do anything, we can say anything, we have no real way to do it. Just imagine the freedom there is when there's no glass ceiling. There's no bars or box that you have to live in. I felt that we not only could change the perception of hip-hop coming from Atlanta, but we also could push the envelope on what it is to be creative. And that right there is a feeling that I think the whole company shared with Young Thug.”

YSL Young Thug

Thug had a vision beyond being a solo artist, though. And after settling into his new label home, he started floating business ideas around to 300 executives. “The first time I met Thug was at 106 & Park. He was performing with Rich Gang, and his question to me was, ‘Yeah, you work on my team, but how many people have you made a millionaire?’” says Rayna Bass, head of marketing at 300 and an early witness of YSL.

When Thug met with label executives and formally communicated his hopes of starting a new venture, Liles admits signing off on the idea was a risk for 300. “If you know the music business, everything is a gamble. Everything,” he says. “But it was just something about him. And you have to remember, this is before he had a No. 1 album. Our company is based on risk-taking, so this was not a guaranteed risk. It was a risk on energy that we felt we could build something special around.” 

300 took the gamble, and the YSL experiment was officially underway. Perhaps the most accurate way to describe YSL in its early stages was “unpredictable.” Bass explains, “It definitely was a very fun but unpredictable time. And it’s a big reason why it’s so dope to see what Thug is doing with YSL, because you’ve seen the growth from [when Thug signed to 300] in 2014 to now.” 

In 2016, the music industry was in a state of rapid change, and Thug didn’t have a clear blueprint for what he wanted to build. “You have to imagine, at that time, people were unsure about what the music business would be. We were not the No. 1 music in the world at the time. All we were, were people who believed in helping other people,” Liles says. “It’s two words that Thug [and I] always say. Mine was ‘strategy’ and his was ‘timing.’ And I told him, ‘Yo, it can’t be timing without strategy.’ He said, ‘It can’t be strategy without timing.’” 

The main plan of action Thug had as a new label boss was to create a platform where he could put his friends and family on. “It was not just, ‘I want to put my people on,’” clarifies YSL A&R Geoff Ogunlesi, recalling Thug’s early vision. “It was, ‘How do I put my people on so they can put people on?’ It was about changing lives.”

“Everybody knows Thug does a lot of sh*t first. We start a lot of trends over here, for sure. We trendsetters.”

Lil Duke and Gunna were the label’s first signees. As the story goes, Gunna was reportedly being courted by Gucci Mane’s 1017 Brick Squad Records at the same time, but he was eventually swayed to accept YSL’s offer. Thug’s sisters Dora and Dolly White soon followed suit. Now, the label also employs other rising stars like Lil Keed, Strick, T-Shyne, Yak Gotti, Karlae, Yung Kayo, and more. 

While Thug was the mastermind behind signing Duke and Gunna, Ogunlesi says the process for recruiting subsequent artists has been more of a “collaborative effort.” He explains, “It’s a mutual back-and-forth. We send each other artists. Sometimes it’s me bringing something to him and seeing what he thinks. And sometimes it’s him bringing something to me. What’s most important to me is that Thug signs off and believes in the artists. Every artist that is signed is someone who Thug personally sees something in and has stamped.” 

Most of the artists on YSL’s roster have known Young Thug for at least five years. And apart from his sisters, Lil Duke has the longest-standing relationship with him. The two grew up in Atlanta's Sylvan Hills neighborhood, and in the early days, Duke played a major part in introducing Thug to new talent. “We actually grew up together, same street, and we just been together since,” Duke recalls. “We did a song in 2008, 2009, and it went crazy in Atlanta. And then we just linked back up like that.”

Duke helped bring Gunna into the mix. In a 2019 interview with Elliott Wilson, Thug revealed he wasn’t even aware of Gunna’s rap skills early in their relationship. “My first two years around [Gunna], I didn’t know he rapped. He never played a song,” he recalled. “Duke was like, ‘You know this nigga rap, right?’” 

Yak Gotti, whose relationship with Thug “goes back over two decades,” says he also became acquainted with the YSL label head through Lil Duke. “I was with Duke every day, and Slime just welcomed us with open arms,” Yak Gotti says. “He said, ‘We just need to do a label.’ And when he felt like he got to where he needed to be, he held that rope out for us.” 

Strick and T-Shyne joined the label around the same time, and they were the first signees who weren’t originally from the Atlanta area. Strick migrated further south from North Carolina, while T-Shyne came from New York. Both artists met Thug on their own a few times, but they eventually received a formal invitation through 808 Mafia’s TM88. They began working with Thug between 2012 and 2013, and finally signed with the label after helping backstage on Thug and TM88’s 2016 tour.

Lil Keed

In just a few years, YSL has already become one of the closest-knit collectives in the industry. Everyone on the label defines YSL as a “family” rather than just a record company. Thug’s sisters say that mentality was instilled in him early on, and it naturally rolled over to his business. 

“We have always been family-oriented, because we grew up in a household where it's 11 of us. We grew up very poor, and all we had was each other,” Dolly explains. “So even with him being as successful as he is, it's just in our nature, because this is what we was raised off of.” 

Dora chimes in, “I believe, from him being already family-oriented, it automatically attached to his business. It’s a stereotype in the industry that it strictly has to be business. And he's one of the only people I’ve ever run across that doesn’t have that mindset. He really wants to run his business as a family.”

Gunna has seen this firsthand. “There’s no crew tighter than this,” he points out. “We’re tight for real. We’re locked in for real. We’re ourselves, but we really kick it like we’re family, too. We don’t try to do the extracurricular stuff, because it’s already locked in with us. We’ve already got what we need. We feed off of that.”

Young Thug has set up many of his YSL artists in homes spread out through Los Angeles and Malibu. And many of the houses include studios where the artists can record freely. Yung Kayo notes that Thug and other YSL signees will often swing by one of the YSL houses or studios just to kick it or play video games like Grand Theft Auto, 2K, and Call of Duty. 

A YSL group chat is their primary way of staying connected. It’s a place for the artists to trade jokes and stories, but T-Shyne reveals it’s also a space where they share music updates with each other. “We have a group chat that not only has all of YSL in it, it also has a lot of influential artists in the industry. But they are still an extension of our family,” he reveals, not disclosing specific names. “It’s collaborative. We’re all sharing music and helping each other repost single drops or video links.” 

“YSL is not just a label to us. For lack of a better term, it’s blood.” - Kevin Liles

The YSL Compound, affectionately referred to as the Snake Pit, is the main hub where the family gathers to work and play. It’s a massive studio setup in California that includes several booths for individual or group sessions. “It’s an environment that Thug has done a great job in fostering, because it doesn’t feel like a business [setting],” Ogunlesi says. “This is really a family, and we build each other up.”  

T-Shyne notes that anyone from the YSL camp has an open invitation to join any studio session or just listen in. “If I need Duke on a song, or if I need Strick or Thug on a song, Wheezy on the beat, everybody is there, posted up,” he says. “You can just say, ‘Yo, bro, come on out to this joint I got here.’ If they like it, they can get on it. It’s just that—we’re always involved.”

Some nights at the Snake Pit have turned into learning opportunities for YSL’s newer artists. Karlae, one of the First Ladies of YSL, remembers getting tips from Thug, Gunna, and Lil Keed during her initial studio sessions. “When I first decided to share with everybody, I got a lot of support,” she says. “And if something wasn’t good, they’d be like, ‘Yo, do it over.’ Sometimes you go into a deal like it’s every man for himself, but I would say we all scratch each other’s backs.”

The Snake Pit is equipped with living areas, so many of the artists spend full days recording and chopping it up with their labelmates. Liles insists, “There’s no crew that works as hard as they work, and we have the studio bills to show it.” But the members also take breaks to have some fun. Yung Kayo notes that anything goes when artists are in the Snake Pit, but they usually spend their free time playing video games (and hanging out with the pets that live there). 

“We do anything in the studio. It's just vibes,” Yung Kayo says. “We'll be outside, hooping, playing video games and hooping and recording all day. It’s lit. We play with the snakes, and with the cats, too. We are going crazy.” 

“It be like a real movie,” Lil Duke adds. 

As the head of the family, Thug has assumed an integral role in his artists’ lives and careers, and his guidance begins the moment they become part of his inner circle. “Thug is one of the most amazing leaders that I’ve seen, and I learn from him every day,” Ogunlesi says. “One of the things that Thug provides to these artists is access.” The A&R recalls an instance in which Thug invited Gunna to the U.K. while he was on tour with Drake. “Gunna wasn’t necessarily performing; he was just there,” he continues. “Thug’s reason for doing that is letting them see everything and learn from their own viewing. Thug not only provides access to different experiences, but also different people.”

Ogunlesi notes that Thug is hands-on, but he “lets his artists breathe and figure it out for themselves.” Thug will often drop by the studio and offer constructive criticism on an artist’s album or music videos, telling them “add something here” or “you should say this.” He isn't a micromanager, but Strick suggests Thug is always willing to step in and give more guidance when needed. 

“He’s extremely involved,” Strick says. “He’s technically executive producing my album. In that regard, he hears all of my music. He usually pulls up to the house and listens to stuff here, or we go to the studio. It’s really a collaborative effort and a learning experience when it comes to Thug being involved with the music.” 

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Outside of business, Young Thug plays a big-brother-type mentorship role with his artists, giving them advice about personal matters. Lil Keed and T-Shyne say Thug has helped them financially, not only putting them in a position to change their circumstances, but also advising them on how to manage their assets. “He tells me, ‘Save your money. Don’t just be trippin’ with the money. It’s going to be times when you buy shit you really don’t need, but just slow down on that.’” Lil Keed also recalls conversations about personal finances he’s had with Thug. “He said that’s what he used to do all the time. He’s telling me, ‘Don’t be doing all that shit. That shit don’t really be meaning nothing, for real.’ So I stack my money up and save it for later on.” 

The advice Gunna soaked up is a little more personal. “He’s given me pointers on women before,” he admits. “I had this situation with this girl one time and she was trying to play me. He brought it to my attention and told me what to tell her. I ended up on the better side of the situation because I followed his advice. He's always going to put me down on some game.”

The family dynamic of the label extends to 300 Entertainment. YSL is technically a subsidiary of 300, but the parent company doesn’t take responsibility for the label’s success. Instead, Liles and Bass suggest 300 acts as extended family. “Our belief and our energy is to serve a vision, which sometimes might not be clear at the beginning, but you believe in the prophet so much that you humble yourself to say, ‘I might not know where we're going, but you know where you're going, so we're willing to follow,’” Liles says. “In my career, I've never been one to feel that we make artists or make labels. No, we believe in the people. We believe in their vision. We help finance their dreams. We’re true partners.” 

The YSL team has full creative freedom, but Liles says Thug always keeps his partners at 300 in the loop on major updates. “I’ve got a special phone that's a rare phone,” he reveals. “So I know if he's calling that number, something exciting is about to happen. When you get a call, ‘Kevin, guess what? Are you sitting down?’ It's that kind of thing that keeps us alive as 300.”

As a result of 300 and YSL’s strong partnership, Bass says the team is able to produce some of the most creative rollouts and campaigns in the industry. In 2018, YSL famously sent snakes to media companies to promote the label’s first compilation album, Slime Language. “Because this is Young Thug, because this is YSL, we’re so free. Thug inspires everyone who works for him to think outside the box and realize there’s no limit,” Bass says. “He gives everybody that works on YSL the confidence to think freely, think bigger, and think independently.” 

Young Thug’s impact, of course, extends much further than just the label. You can’t turn on the radio without hearing Thugger’s influence on artists’ tone, delivery, and style. Perhaps T.I. said it best when he recently told Complex, “Thug is probably one of the most influential artists of this generation. The things that he’s gone out on a limb and tried, nobody else would’ve done it that way but him. I think that puts you in the boss seat, because anybody can go by the status quo. For the new generation, he’s definitely one of the front-runners for creating a wave.” 

Everyone on YSL agrees that Thug has changed the landscape of rap forever, and a lot of what dominates the charts is a product of what’s happening inside the Pit. “Slime done originated a lot of shit, but he isn’t going to say it,” Lil Keed says. “But everybody knows Thug does a lot of shit first. We start a lot of trends over here, for sure. We trendsetters.”  

One clear example of YSL’s dominance on culture is the use of their lingo in mainstream singles. In particular, T-Shyne and Strick suggest the word “slatt” was borrowed from YSL’s vocabulary. “The biggest record that sold this year was Roddy Ricch’s ‘The Box,’” T-Shyne points out. In the song, Roddy sings, “Told ’em wipe a nigga nose, say slatt, slatt.” T-Shyne exclaims, “Come on, it’s our lingo!” 

August 2019 was a critical moment in YSL’s history. After years of praise as an innovator, Young Thug finally earned his first No. 1 album when So Much Fun debuted at the top of the Billboard 200 chart with 131,000 album units in its opening week. Ogunlesi says it not only marked a huge personal milestone for Thug, but it proved that the YSL ethos can be effective at the highest mainstream level. 

“It was a massive turning point. You have somebody like Thug, who for years has been culturally influential and a pioneer, but when you have somebody who's so pure and so about the art, it doesn't always match commercially,” he explains. “It was so big for Thug and for us, because now you have somebody who's pure to the art, and the commercial success matches who they are inside. I think that's amazing and monumental, because it shows that you don't have to necessarily compromise who you are as an artist to reach that pinnacle of success.

Later that year, Gunna released his debut album, Drip or Drown 2, which peaked at No. 3 on the Billboard 200 chart. Then Lil Keed followed with Long Live Mexico in June 2019, coming in at No. 26. And this year, YSL continues to build on their successes. In May, Gunna released WUNNA, which debuted at No. 1, while Lil Keed’s Trapped on Cleveland 3, which dropped in August, peaked at No. 41 on the Billboard 200. 

Ogunlesi points out, “Gunna going No. 1 is very, very important. Because it shows that not only can we identify and sign talent, but grow them into hitting a pinnacle for us in the United States.”

“YSL made my career,” Gunna adds, point-blank. “With the loyalty, and just putting the passion in, that shit is everything to me. YSL is my career.”

With just a month left in 2020, YSL is prepping the release of its next compilation project, Slime Language 2. And as they plot the next phase of their careers, the mission that launched the brand four years ago has not changed. The goal is still to rake in more No. 1 albums and continue to turn artists into multimillionaires, as YSL hopes to expand on a global scale. 

“It’s always about getting better and striving for more,” Ogunlesi says. “How do we become influential in the U.K.? How do we become influential in Nigeria? The goal is to become one of the biggest and most well-known brands in the world.”

While he admits there is much more work to be done, Ogunlesi predicts, “When it’s all said and done, YSL won’t just be an ‘Atlanta hip-hop label.’ It’ll be a global brand and label. It’s about taking the right steps to get there, and also maintaining this incredibly strong brand that Thug has built. I think it’s one of the strongest brands in the industry, culturally.” 

As Black-owned labels are becoming more successful, YSL is in a unique position to shift and control culture. Its biggest competition at the moment is Quality Control, but even that rivalry is founded on family and friendship. “It’s competition in the friendliest, most family-oriented way. It’s all love,” Ogunlesi says. “Especially as Black entrepreneurs and Black CEOs, of course we want them to win. We need them to win, because that paves the way for more.” 

Should YSL continue to set the standard for rap’s sound, Ogunlesi says, “I think you will see it as something similar to a Cash Money. That’s what it is at the end.” But Kevin Liles draws another analogy. “Young Thug, YSL, and the mark he has already put on the game, I think we’re going to be talking about it forever,” he says. “Thug is like Star Wars, 1, 2, 3, and 4. It’s Fast & Furious. It’s any mega-blockbuster movie, and it’s just beginning. There’s so many iterations of it, and people don’t want to just see who the characters are, but they actually want to be a part of the journey.” 

“YSL is not just a label to us,” Liles says. “For lack of a better term, it’s blood. It’s something that we need. It’s something that we’re never going to do without.”

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