Bringing The World Home To You

© 2023 WUNC North Carolina Public Radio
120 Friday Center Dr
Chapel Hill, NC 27517
919.445.9150 | 800.962.9862
91.5 Chapel Hill 88.9 Manteo 90.9 Rocky Mount 91.1 Welcome 91.9 Fayetteville 90.5 Buxton 94.1 Lumberton 99.9 Southern Pines
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Starlito And Don Trip: Writers First, Rappers Second

Back in 2011 two rappers from Tennessee, Starlito and Don Trip, made a mixtape called Step Brothers. They were rhyming over original production and had sprinkled clips from the Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly movie of the same name throughout the tape. Step Brothers outperformed everything the two of them had released previously and everything they did on their own after it, until this fall, when they released an album called Step Brothers 2.

While in New York on business, Don Trip and Starlito spoke to Microphone Check co-hosts Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Frannie Kelley about where they come from, their definition of trap music and relationships, both working and romantic.

FRANNIE KELLEY: Thank you for coming.

DON TRIP: Thank you for having us.

STARLITO: For sure, glad to be here.

KELLEY: So how did you two meet?

STARLITO: I was introduced to Don Trip 's music like a few months, maybe two months before we actually formally met. One of my best friends had given me a CD and was like, "Man, check this out. This guy reminds me of you when we were first starting." Because this was a guy that helped me get my whole situation off the ground ten years ago. So I gave it a fair listen and I liked it. I was like "Yeah, he's raw, this is what the game's missing," kind of thing. Like, "It's dope."

Two weeks later — I was working with Yo Gotti really close at that time and he asked me just the same like, "Man, I'm thinking about signing this kid from down here from Memphis." I'm from Nashville, and he was like, "Have you heard of him? Don Trip?" And I was like, "Yeah I just got a CD a couple weeks ago and I like it. If you're gonna deal with somebody from Memphis, that should be who you're looking at." Like, "He's hard."

Sooner than later we were in the same room on account of that they were negotiating or working something out or just working at the time and they came to Nashville. We did some music, he came to my studio, and we've been rocking ever since. Like, his first time coming in the studio I lined up a feature for him, some guys that I knew, put some money in his pocket and --

DON TRIP: I think that was like a — I don't want to call it an icebreaker, 'cause you know as rappers, we perceive each other to be as rappers. So me not knowing him — me knowing his music but not knowing him — of course that's how I assumed he would be: he would act like a rapper. And the fact that he made me some money before we even met, like, we never shook hands or anything before he reached out and said, "Hey, I got this cat that's trying to buy a feature from you." That alone showed me that he wasn't so self-centered. So when we sat down after that — everything we made after that it felt like we had already knew each other.

STARLITO: 'Cause that first session we did a number of songs and the idea was born to do a collaborative mixtape. It would be probably six months after that before we really got knee-deep into working on that project but it was just really, really seamless.

Like we met, it was cool, he was gonna come up. I was doing my thing and I'd say I was somewhat established or, you know, paced toward — I was pacing myself for a come-up of sorts on the independent tip. I think the strength of our bond was I just wanted to see him do well. At the time we met, I had been in the game for seven years professionally, and it was, like, anything that I could do to help him avoid some of those speed bumps, bulls---, if it was just advice or lending my opinion on something, once we got to a point where everything was just open and we were just kinda transparent with one another, that was a strength of our dealings.

And that first project we recorded in three studio sessions. He came to my spot once, we did six songs; I went to his spot, we did like five; and then we finished the project, mixed and mastered in LA. For a third session, we recorded "Pray For Me" and "Hot Potato," some of the last songs on the project — we finished it and mixed and mastered while we were out there and the rest is history.

I mean, 27 months later there's still a demand for it, following that first project, which tangibly — what the numbers can prove — that was the biggest project for either of us up to that point and even still. Like, we've dropped solo music since Step Brothers 1but nothing is like, it's not on the same magnitude.

When we in creative spirits, we take advantage of that.

ALI SHAHEED MUHAMMAD: When you're working on your individual projects, do you each miss that support?

DON TRIP: Actually, we're still involved. Even when I'm not physically there, I'm involved when he's working on his projects and he involved on mine as well. I mean, that's just how we work. That's initially how we started working and it just so happened we meshed so well that we both thought it would be a good idea to become a duo. And even in between — like this project, Step Brothers 2, I think the second record is titled "28th Song," 'cause that was the 28th song we had done together.

STARLITO: We released maybe 29, 30 songs as the Step Brothers brand, but there's probably 15 other songs out there just floating around, Starlito featuring Don Trip or Don Trip featuring Starlito. So I wouldn't say that we miss it or it's like some absence, because, like the Cold Turkeyproject that I put out this summer independently, I recorded that while we were doing Step Brothers 2. He was actually in the studio probably while I recorded half of that project.

DON TRIP: A lot of times we in the studio together, so if he's recording a record, that don't make it a Step Brothers record. It's his record, but I'm just there — I'm involved. That's just because we brothers, you know. That just is what it is. 'Cause I don't hang in the studio with people — I'm not in the studio with other people so I doubt Craig do the same thing — but when we in the studio together, the first five songs might be his records and while we doing that, we might hear a record and we both like it and we're both into it. And when we do that record, where it goes is determined later on. We really don't care where it goes. We just, you know, when we in creative spirits, we take advantage of that.

MUHAMMAD: So what's your process in terms of like, do you challenge each other? Somebody's saying something, you like, "You can do better," or "You could go back," or is it just y'all respect each other's space?

STARLITO: I think it's more of a respect of each other's space, but almost by default. Like, the competitive energy doesn't let us half-ass or half-step when we're in the studio with one another. If anything, one of the weird quirks about our whole brand and situation is that we don't email verses back and forth. We live three hours away from each other, but it's nothing to meet in Atlanta or fly out to LA or come up here together and just set the time aside to actually work together.

DON TRIP: Yeah, no matter what, that's what we pride ourselves on.

STARLITO: Right, you put on a beat right now, we're not gonna be competing like, "Oh, who's gonna have the harder verse." But if you put a beat on and we combine our energies to do it --

DON TRIP: We both gonna give our best.

STARLITO: Right. 'Cause I know for a fact I can't deliver a subpar verse on a song with him or he's gonna kill me.

DON TRIP: And vice versa.

MUHAMMAD: One of the songs you start off: "This is the last song I'm starting first," or something like that.

STARLITO: Oh, it's the first song on the album.

DON TRIP: See what happens a lot of times, we just go in the booth and a beat'll play and one of us will tell the engineer, "Hey, run it right quick."


DON TRIP: And when we step in, we just give whatever we already got right then. So I won't call it freestyling, but some of the records — well most, actually, I think that record was unwritten — but that's just how we record. And it just so happened that that time he came up with something to say before I came up with something to say.

MUHAMMAD: Oh, OK. I just thought it was an interesting part of your creative process. I was like, "Uh oh. What does that mean?"

STARLITO: No, it's more so like — it started the project off. It was, I guess, by design that it would be the intro. And the last song on the first project was called "Hot Potato" and I started out the verse, "Last time I checked, I cashed it."

And this one starts off similarly; we did a similarly structured song and I started out with, "Last time I checked, I deposited it." We were playing off the closure of the last CD, that we ended it with a back and forth record, kind of the same tone even. And so I was letting him know like "First of all, we're not just re-doing what we did before." That's probably the song that closely parallels something from the first project, but just, we didn't want to narrow — we don't want to box ourselves in.

DON TRIP: Yeah. We didn't want to make a remake of the first tape; we wanted to keep going. Almost like add another chapter to our legacy.

STARLITO: Like that first record, "Hot Potato," was supposed to be like symbolically we're playing hot potato with the microphone. And this song is "Paper Rock Scissors," like, "Alright, let's see who goes first this time." And since I lost the paper, rock, scissors and had to go first, on the track I'm like, "Hey, I'm not going first no more."

MUHAMMAD: I thought that was funny.

STARLITO: Yeah, I mean, it's just us being quirky and personable.

KELLEY: And also another difference between the first and the second one is there's no clips from the movie.

DON TRIP: I think we wanted to give it a album feel. It's easy for us to get caught into what we do with our mixtapes and bring that into the album element. But we didn't want to do that. We wanted it to feel like an album, we wanted it to be perceived as an album and we pretty much felt like it was already understood where we come from. It's almost like we already expect you to know what Step Brothers 1contained already — we don't have to keep giving you the same thing that we already offered you.

STARLITO: It was gonna be a headache and probably not very lucrative to try to clear those drops or whatever, you know.

DON TRIP: And we would have had to find ones we hadn't already used.

STARLITO: That was the other dilemma. It's like we used our favorite parts on the first.

DON TRIP: That would have took too much out of the creative process to find excerpts.

STARLITO: Right, to customize movie clips to our music.

KELLEY: So other than logistics and legal reasons, what is the difference between an album and a mixtape to you?

STARLITO: Branding; the way that you service it. Like — a great example: Rick Ross did Rich Forever and it was a mixtape in the sense that it was on the mixtape websites and outlets where you get your free music. But to me — and this is just my opinion, I'm not taking anything away from his album — he delivered a more complete, cohesive project with a mixtape. And so in that sense, I listened to that mixtape like it's an album. The only difference in that to me was the way that it was serviced and the way that I got my music.

And that's why with the Step Brothers 2album, we partnered with Live Mixtapes and tried to offer it to them with as much access to the music without letting people download it. Like, you can still find it the same way you find all of our mixtapes and free music because they did like 110,000 downloads of Step Brothers 1. The mixtape listed at 800 something thousand views, so it's definitely like we didn't want to deny that there's a market for it within their world and what their site covers. I mean, I've got like 15 tapes on that site, so I feel like if people are looking for some new Starlito, they might start there. But at the same time, it's just — I think that's today.

I was just recording a solo album, Fried Turkey, and I could just as easily give it to the mixtape sites and it'd be like, "Oh, here's Starlito's new mixtape," despite the fact that I'm not on anybody else's beats and it's all original production. It would be accepted and taken in as a mixtape even though I went in and crafted an album. I tried to do more like what Kendrick Lamar did on Good Kid m.A.A.d City than what Lil Wayne did on Dedication 5. That's a mixtape in a traditional sense 'cause you're jacking beats and stuff. But these days, the line is so blurry, it's just music.

KELLEY: Right. You worked through Bandcamp a lot also. How is that different for you?

STARLITO: I haven't used it as much lately. My last project I took straight to iTunes, Google Play, Amazon and whatnot. But at the time when I started using that, through research and consulting and whatnot, I just found that that was one of the sites that was most user-friendly. It gave me a platform to put all of my music in the same place at the same time. Then they had the option where fans could donate. Like, I could still offer my music for free and people could donate what they wish. People have paid $100 — plus that — for projects before.

I sold my Mental WARfarealbum in 2012 as an April Fool's joke for $100. I was at a turning point in my career where I was just trying to figure out how to do everything myself, and that was one of the sites that just kinda came to my attention, like, this fits my business model right now. And now as it's expanding and my audience continues to grow, I just want to make sure that people have access to it. I feel like there's awareness, there's presence and then there's access and that's what you gotta focus on as far as trying to break your music — at least from my standpoint, my perspective as an independent artist.

KELLEY: Do you think about it differently?

DON TRIP: Not so much. I mean, like he just said, the line is quite blurry these days. For the most part, when we make music, we try our best to not use other people's anything, really. I'm not too into that. I feel like every record I make should be able to be sold in a certain aspect. Not to say — of course I've got free mixtapes as well, but I'm not into — when it's time to go and do shows, I don't want to perform your song. That defeats the purpose.

STARLITO: I believe that that's one of the strengths of our process is that all the way around the board — like the first one was categorized as a mixtape. There was a bonus track where we jacked five beats but it was all one track, it was like a jacking for beats kinda — it was called "Karate in the Garage." But further than that, that's all original production on Step Brothers 1. This is two plus years ago, like, we had the same approach.

Another thing to note: there's nobody else on Step Brothers 1. There's not another vocal — beside the movie clips — and this time, it was the same thing. It's original production, obviously — it's an album. There's no other rap features on there. The features are all vocalists. Even Kevin Gates, he's a rapper — he's a great rapper — but he gave us a singing hook. And no knock to anybody else, but that's our brand; it's us, Starlito and Don Trip. We're rappers' rappers, we're lyricists, we're something different.

DON TRIP: And that was something that we couldn't really do with people we didn't have personal relationships with, actually. Because I mean rappers — all rappers come with an ego, you know, everybody might not have an inflated ego but we all come with an ego. So that's something that most people — well, most rappers — can't swallow when you say you don't need a verse from that person, you just want them to do the hook or the chorus or whatever. When Gates came in, Gates was all for it; he didn't care. He was like, "Whatever y'all need, I'm involved."

MUHAMMAD: I think with each of you as MCs, you offer a lot so it's enough just to hear the two of you. It's more pleasurable as a listener than to have to listen to a bunch of additional people rap on top of your music.

DON TRIP: For the most part, everything we do we approach it as if nobody's ever heard of us. So in that sense, if I'm gonna give you a record on it that's got two guys on it that you've never heard of, why add a third guy you've never heard of? Why add a third guy you have heard of and then you forget who the two of us are? We OK with that.

MUHAMMAD: I like the dynamic between the both of you. Your style is — there's similarities but there's definite differences in the storytelling aspect. It balances each other out perfectly.

DON TRIP: That's how we are in person. I think that's why it works so well when we go on records. Like, it's weird because we're both equally weird, if that makes sense. It's times I'll be like, "Craig, you crazy," and vice versa, but that is what makes it work 'cause when we go on record, we've got the freedom to be exactly who we are. I know he's not gone give you my story, he gone give you his. And that alone is comforting enough to know we can go in and whatever we create is worth the creation.

MUHAMMAD: Who are the producers? You work with Drumma Boy? DJ Burn One?

STARLITO: Yeah, Drumma Boy's got two of them on there; Burn One did one.

MUHAMMAD: Young Chop.

STARLITO: Young Chop did one.

DON TRIP: Yung Ladd.

STARLITO: It's one of Trip's producers moreso. Yung Ladd did three, he actually did three records.

DON TRIP: He contributed very well.

STARLITO: Fate Eastwood, he's one of my Day One producers.

DON TRIP: Street Symphony.

STARLITO: Street Symphony and Bar None — they're both from my way. Like I said, Yung Ladd's his producer, these guys I been working with forever, Drumma Boy works with both of us — it's a really really organic kind of project.

DON TRIP: Yeah, I mean, that's what we wanted to do, too: blend both of our sounds, both of our brands into what we were doing. So the record you would expect to hear from me, we stepped up a bit and it's involved Step Brothersinstead of a Don Trip record. And that gave the producers an incentive. They didn't want to give the Step Brothers a beat that they would give me. They wanted to be a part of what we was making as well so that's what made the project a whole.

KELLEY: Can you describe what the difference in sound is between what they give you and what they would give Step Brothers?

DON TRIP: It depends sometimes. Like, if I call Yung Ladd about a record, nine times out of 10, he's gonna send me something that's deranged. Sometimes that's, you know, sometimes that's where I'm going. And for a Step Brothers record, he'll send deranged records and he'll send triumphant records and sometimes — I think it's all about timing — sometimes that works for us, sometime it just works for us individually. Drumma Boy do the same thing. Like, when he offers records, I think he offers the Step Brothers records that he wants to be bigger than the average record he would give a individual.

STARLITO: I think — further than just what the producers offer — one of the things is that we A&R this project ourselves. So they may bring the same batch to the table, but you're putting two heads together. There may be a beat that he's feeling and I'm like, "Nah, that's cool, keep that for your solo or whatever." So I think the selection process brings something different out of each producer. We probably had 50 beats that we both contributed to and we're just going through until like we both look at each other, "I like that one." "So do I." "What do you hear?"

KELLEY: I know you guys are both writers — but I am very curious about what you hear when you listen to a beat for the first time — what you want, what you --

DON TRIP: It depends on the beat.

KELLEY: Yeah. To me, the album, it goes from more traditional "trap" to less so. Am I right in that?

DON TRIP: I think you are.

KELLEY: I feel like we have to deal with the word "trap," the sound.

DON TRIP: I mean, to us, trap is just what's going on in the environment that we come from, the environment that we in. Trap ain't necessarily us selling dope all day.

The "Leash on Life" song is actually a trap record, even though it's about what's going on in the schools. That's to display that we're not the only ones who live in a trap. You may call it something different, but it's still a trap. That's somewhere that no matter how hard you try, you cannot escape it — that's a trap. And that's in more areas than a black neighborhood. That's everywhere. And, for the most part, I think in our records, even the records that you wouldn't believe are trap records are trap records. But that's just because that's what we come from, and we don't approach it like, "Hey, I'm gonna tell you I'm selling dope and I've got six Lamborghinis," every time I say something to you.

KELLEY: So to be clear, that word as applied to music doesn't describe the production?

DON TRIP: Not to us.

KELLEY: It describes — it's more of a genre, like a book genre, a literary genre?

DON TRIP: It depends on who's making it, actually.

STARLITO: I think — I see it as more like a state of being or a state of mind, almost. It's like, where you are and your surroundings, even. I know what you're saying in terms of the sound, but I don't think that we categorize our production or production choices. The way something makes me feel — it determines the most about the direction of the record.

DON TRIP: Yeah, indeed.

STARLITO: Than if it's this type of beat or that type of beat. Because the two Drumma Boy beats are very different. He's got two tracks on there, and one of 'em is really dark and the other one is more — it just makes me happier, it just makes me move a little bit more than the other one. And so that one that makes us move, we've got the "Shut Up, I'm Grinding" record — it's something that you can repeat, it's something that you probably naturally feel comfortable rapping along with or singing along or whatever. And the "28th Song" is darker, his production is really, really monstrous and it sounds big and whatnot but we're able to mellow out our flow a little bit and just shoot off and rap.

Trap is a state of mind. I don't know what trap beats are, trap music. I've heard of it. I just can't keep up with all the trends and nuances of categorizing music and so we don't really try to do that — it's just our music coming from where we come from. And in the same way, some of the beats and the mold of the beats are similar from song to song because we're in a similar state of mind, or state of being.

KELLEY: And that's coming from sequencing, too, right?

DON TRIP: Oh yeah, definitely.

MUHAMMAD: So when you're coming up with your concepts for your songs, like, "DNA," how'd that come together?

DON TRIP: I was first on "DNA," wasn't I?

STARLITO: Yeah, you got the first verse on there. Well, the song had the chorus built in — that helped.

DON TRIP: Yeah, that helped a lot. And I don't know, I guess we kind of heard two different — of course we get our own interpretations of what we hear when we listen to music, you know, with everything that involves art. So when I heard the record, of course I was in a different zone. First time he heard the record, my verse was already on it. Am I wrong?

STARLITO: I think you were recording it.


STARLITO: That was just it. I was moved to write my verse on that song from what I heard, like the beat and the chorus. And it pushed me to write an incredibly personal verse. I wrote a story — a true story — something that happened yesteryear. And I felt like this is not just my plight, like this is — if anything it was a therapy of sorts. I was purging to write about that particular story. Even more so I was holding up a mirror to let myself know my faults during that.

MUHAMMAD: I think that sort of realness you don't get from a lot of musicians. A lot of artists — from whatever the stories may be — I think lots of times people sensationalize the experience versus really talking about how the experience affected you. And you can talk about how it affected you without saying, "Yo, it made me angry." There's more words. I like the fact that you guys put it together — the ideas, the thoughts, the experience — and it comes across so real.

STARLITO: Right. And I think the divide is that, as an artist, I — this may sound like I'm cheapening the process — but I only have to do half the work. When I hear a beat that's banging and the chorus is like, "Wow, this sounds bigger than what I would be able to compose or produce by myself," and then his verse is talking about man to woman. It's just talking about how a woman made him feel, and when his verse ends, he's painting a clear picture but it stops there — it gives me all the leeway. I only have to write 16 and I already feel a certain way about this. I just have to fill in the blank.

And a parallel to that is "Leash on Life." I talked about, I barely touched on the subject, or I talked about so many things as far as being sensitive to our current culture and it's not just racial. That it's not a clear divide between who's struggling and who's doing what. And he took one of the things that I touched on and offered some real perspective to it, like he talked about the kid that's going to shoot up his school.

MUHAMMAD: Right, yeah, I was thinking about Columbine; I was thinking about a whole bunch of different things when I heard that. I was actually wondering like, "Is he talking about himself?" But it's not because the way you end it off.

DON TRIP: Yeah, see that was the way that I wanted to depict it anyway. I wanted — in order for me to give you the story of the anonymous kid, I had to put my life in it as well. It would be like a keynote to my real life, growing up. Not saying that anything in there was exactly like my childhood was, but I think that's the element that helps you understand, help you relate to what I'm saying. In order for me to give you that picture, I have to go back in my own life for me to involve that and incorporate that in it. And like he was saying, with him only having to do half the job, that's what make it more, I guess, more organic. Because we're comfortable enough with each other to do that — you can't really do that with everybody.

MUHAMMAD: That's why I was asking earlier did you guys miss each other.

DON TRIP: But see that's why we really don't miss that aspect of it, 'cause no matter what, even when you hear a solo Starlito record, I may not be involved as far as him creating the record — we give each other the space that we earn and we deserve because before Starlito met Don Trip, Starlito was Starlito and Don Trip was Don Trip. So I trust everything he can do — like he said, we compliment each other, we give each other advice.

Sometimes it might go down to the drawing board and I call Craig like, "Hey, I'm finna send you this record. I want you to check this record out and let me know if you think this is a record I should rock with next or I should put this on the next tape." And it ain't many people's advice that I value. He one of the select few that that I can confide in when it come to that.

KELLEY: This is the most healthiest relationship I've been in the same room with all year.

DON TRIP: Well, I think that's 'cause we not — nobody put us together, for one. No disrespect, I ain't trying to take no shot — but it wasn't like Diddy Making the Band. It was just something — you know, we met each other, we could get along and we had a lot in common. And from that, like, we realized, "Damn, I've been around you for two weeks straight." Fortunately, we've never had a falling out. But I think that's because we know how to communicate with each other. If it's something that he don't really agree with, h's gone tell me that he don't agree with it, and vice versa. We not gone let a small issue become a large issue and then it spill out in a interview when he say, "I'm dropping Fried Turkey." And I'm like, "Oh, what you mean?" But you know I think that's the reason why even in person or in public, we can still get along. But we not putting on a front. It's truly, you know, it's truly a friendship.

KELLEY: No, you should write a book.

DON TRIP: That's real.

STARLITO: Touching on what he said, it's just — it's not anything that we have to do. Because a lot of times the pressure is what undoes situations like this.

Like, if you consider that two artists started together and they came up so when one artist starts, his situation starts to flourish a little faster, there's a spirit of resentment and all that that comes with it. We were able to kind of miss all that because when I met him, he was coming up and so was I. I could have just turned a blind eye to it and say, "OK, there's a kid over there doing something, I'm gonna ignore it." I chose to involve myself in it because it made sense. Just the same, it continues to make more and more sense to do it, and it's fun.

Somewhere deep down, that's what it's all about. I care to look at myself as a writer before a rapper.

MUHAMMAD: I think the best working relationships as far as making music is the ones where it's friction-free, it's organic and you enjoy each other's company. And lots of times when you're in these situations and you trying to meet whatever the record company wants to put together or all these other things, I think people are not — no one wants to come and really just do something without a kind of attitude.

DON TRIP: I think that's one of the things that help our relationship. We not coming together to do a project because of the expectations. We not doing it because he feel like he owe me something or I feel like he owe me something. And we not doing it because the label's saying, "Hey, y'all need these records in; we need 'em right now." The fact that we independent, we can do what we want to do.

MUHAMMAD: It comes across.

DON TRIP: I think that helps where the friction would lie. It really ain't outside forces involved in what we do. And as far as that, when I say he's family to me, I mean, truthfully, he's family to me. I know his siblings, he know mine. Well, he don't got no siblings, but still. Either way, you see my point.

STARLITO: But he knows that, you feel me?

DON TRIP: That made my point without making my point. We know each other. When he comes somewhere, if someone's with him, nine times out of 10 I know exactly who this guy is that's with him, and vice versa.

MUHAMMAD: In knowing each other, if you've got, you know, "Caesar and Brutus," do you take knowing each other's life experience to bring that into the --

STARLITO: Not necessarily that record, because that record was fiction. We were just being good writers. But in general, yeah. A song like "Where Do We Go From Here" works because as I'm writing, I know his story. When we're building on that song and the chorus gets put together, that's the kind of song that there's room for more than one draft. 'Cause as we're building the ideas it's like, "Alright, bro, maybe you should make it — curve it, make it more autobiographical." Not that I have to tell him what to say or anything but just the idea of like, "You've got a cool story; people need to know where you coming from."

DON TRIP: Actually, with that record, that's what happened. When I came in the studio, he was listening to the beat. So I just went in; I had something for it. And when I dropped my verse, I think that's when we came out and then the hook came along. And then after the hook came along, he dropped his verse. Now it's a song, but it wasn't the complete record. The reason being, our verses were in two different lanes. And when we listened to the record, the verse that he laid kind of built the direction for the record to go in.

I think my first verse — my original draft — was more, I guess MC-ish, more lyrical and less personal, if that makes sense. His verse was personal, and the hook was kinda universally personal. So when he called he was like, "You should check the verse out. I think, personally, you should do something more personal." When I listened to it and listened to the whole body of the song, I could agree.

I know when we doing a record, his intentions are for this to be a great record. If he offers any input, that's where it's aimed, and vice versa.

MUHAMMAD: Alright. You know what I really love? That this album has more metaphors in one package than I think I've heard in all of hip-hop in the past 10 years. You guys got lines, quotables, for days.

DON TRIP: Oh yeah, we went there with it. We went there with it

STARLITO: So that's part of it. 'Cause that was the critical response of the first one. Even though I care to think that's what we do. But I think when you put us together, like, we trim the fat. There's personal records, don't get me wrong, but when it's time to rap and it's rapper's rap or we're gonna really try to out-rap ourselves on here, it's just — it's like playing ping-pong. The faster that I hit the ball back, the faster he's gotta hit it back to me to just keep the game going.

KELLEY: I was listening on my birthday with my brothers.

STARLITO: Oh, happy birthday.

DON TRIP: Happy birthday.

KELLEY: Oh, thank you. Thank you very much. I was writing and so I had it on in my house. Both of my brothers were over and they were just doing their own thing, they were watching football or whatever. And then every once in a while, one of them would look up and be like, "Ha ha, 'Chili like Hormel,'" and I'd write it down real quick, and be like, "That hit."

STARLITO: It's about the lyrics. Like I said, to us, it's — somewhere deep down, that's what it's all about. I care to look at myself as a writer before a rapper.

MUHAMMAD: Are there any other rappers or writers that inspired the whole process of your writing? Anything that stands out that you know for a fact put you on your path?

DON TRIP: Starting out, Kriss Kross is what made me want to be a rapper. You know, to see kids could do it. And later on in life, to watch Lil Wayne do it. And there were some kids in between. The Biv 10 — I don't know if y'all remember the Biv 10. Me seeing kids do it and then when Lil Wayne surfaced, to see a child speaking on what he was going through that was so similar to what I was going through. Not every aspect of it, again, but a lot of what he was saying was stuff that was going on in my life as a child. I can say that those people are who inspired me to become a rapper as a child, that made me say, "OK, this is what I want to do," 'cause I've known since I can remember that this is what I wanted to do.

MUHAMMAD: What about you, Starlito?

STARLITO: I can remember Snoop Dogg being one of the first rappers that was like just super cool to me and it was on some normal s---. I can remember — I think it was the "Nuthin' But a 'G' Thang" video — and I'm like, "Man, that guy's cool," like he was kind of younger than everybody else. His delivery and everything, it was nonchalant to the point where it was like, "Does he even care?" Like, this is just him. That's what I got from it.

That wasn't me falling in love with rap at that moment, I was already bought into the culture and all of that but that was one of the first rappers I'm like, "Man, this guy's cool." And he's still the same person he was then, he's just super famous — way more rich and way more popular.

DON TRIP: And older.

KELLEY: Starlito, you said by the time you heard Snoop you'd already bought into the culture? What does that mean?

STARLITO: It means that the music that I was listening to mirrored what I saw day to day. So this genre of music was for me. Apart from everything else that I was hearing, I was able to say, "The things they're talking about are what my big cousins are over here doing." Or is what I'm seeing when I walk out of my front door. And so I was like, "Yeah, this is what I'm gonna be listening to." Even if it was because I didn't have so much of a choice, you know, all the people that were raising me were listening to it so it was a part of my culture.

Like, "Oh s---, they're at a cookout and messing with girls." And then there's this young cat that's, "Getting' funky on the mic like a old batch of collard greens." Like, I know that collard greens stink when they're old — I understood. Like, wow, nobody else will say it like that. He might have piqued my interest as an artist, but I was listening to rap exclusively, almost, at that time. I was listening to music to get charged up for little league football games. It was a part of me already.

Same — like Tupac, the Tupac music that I grew up on, the earlier Tupac stuff. The video, the director's cut of "Leash on Life" reminds me of "Brenda's Got A Baby." It's what's going on right now. It's one of those almost taboo topics. It's right in front of our face; we know it's going on but we kinda turn a blind eye to it 'cause it's not comfortable to talk about. And he went and made a rap song about it and showed a girl putting a baby in a dumpster. He's walking around downtrodden with the kids like this is what's going on. Teenage pregnancy in the early '90s — that was the hood — that's what was going on — kids was having kids.

DON TRIP: S---, that's how we was born.

STARLITO: And now kids shooting up schools and stuff — there's a public massacre every 30 days it seems like, to the point where it's normal. I don't know about y'all but that scares the s--- out of me. In making my music, if I'm borrowing an influence, I'm closest to that space where I want to talk about something that's being ignored or being pushed.

DON TRIP: Something that means something.

STARLITO: Because it's a headline. People like Tupac made it so that I'm not afraid to do that — I feel like there's room for it, there's a market for it.

And I used to like soundtracks, when rap songs were on movie soundtracks, like the Above the Rimsoundtrack, the Menace II Society soundtrack. I was really, really, really partial to those, A. because I liked the movie, but it was just cool that you could make some music to support something that was going on visually.

For MC Eiht to make a song and he's rapping from Caine's perspective in Menace II Society —maybe we've all seen the movie and are familiar with Caine but to hear it in song form? You can hear that song and know the movie and like, as a little kid, that was cooler than the movie to me. And then to know he's one of the guys in the movie, it's kinda like, man, you can be a rapper and an actor.

Even back then, my influence was that the sky's the limit, that you can be your own boss, that this can transcend into that. Master P was an influence: 80/20 splits, 85% ownership, walking away with your masters. From an entrepreneurial standpoint, I was influenced by success, by the trends that we couldn't avoid, but the things that were more pure, like more real. MC Eiht, yeah, true enough he's making that rap song for that soundtrack. It may not be a story, but it is a story, there's the story because this writer, the Hughes brothers or whatever, put together a whole movie about it.

MUHAMMAD: In your writing — you can see it's a clear picture, it's like a painting. Does that stem from that sort of thing?

STARLITO: Yeah, it's just artistry.

DON TRIP: Yeah, I think so, I think so. You know, I do a lot of writing for other people — I'm a ghostwriter so I must remain a ghost — but that comes from being exposed to other things, being exposed to more than just what's going on in my world. 'Cause it is — like he said about "Leash on Life" — it's a lot going on around us that we don't pay attention to, that's we're oblivious to. And for the most part, I think, one, that makes for a better artist, of course, and, two, I think that makes for a better person to know that what's going on in your world ain't the only world that's occurring.

MUHAMMAD: Yeah. It helps you relate to other people and not live in a bubble, or it's just you. It breaks down these barriers and allows people to communicate, help one another, inspire one another. I like what you said about, not only other artists being an influence, but the fact that sky's the limit. I never heard anyone say that before in terms of influences and life, and I think that's important and a lot of people don't realize that. Lot of kids don't understand that there are opportunities out there. Based off of the environment and what you're told, it's like you're never gonna get beyond this point here. You buy into that and you live into that and you never get beyond that --

STARLITO: And that's a lot of people's reality. I feel like that's at the core of what we do. What makes us go collectively and individually is a human element — we are people first offering personality, the fact that we allow ourselves to be personal within the music. Because when all this is said and done, when I'm tired of rapping, when I'm no longer putting out music, I'm still me and I'm still gonna have the same struggles, I still come from the same place. And like you said, where I come from, options are few and far between.

I'm way more familiar with the story of not making it, or, I've seen way more examples of what went wrong than what went right. I can't really make a song about a car because I know way more people without cars, or I know more people that'll break into your car, that kind of thing. Even "Caesar & Brutus," that's a dope boy's song, tried and true, that's a street record, it's the story of two dope boys. But it's not --

DON TRIP: It's not the typical one.

STARLITO: It's not like we getting money and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. It's a story about friendship; it's a rise and fall; it's Shakespearean, obviously. But that's what's going on. I know way more guys that fell out over girls than guys that got money and lived happily ever after.

DON TRIP: Indeed. I don't know many that got money and live happily ever after.

STARLITO: That's our reality. So rather than glamorizing something that's not even actually occurring for the sake of commerce or for the sake of making a "hit record," or making something that we think will go, I think our goal is to give legs to this real s---, like talk about what's really going on because there are people that don't come from that walk of life.

There are people that grow up with the same sets of friends, and they're in each other's weddings and they can call them and get recommendations for jobs and etc., etc., and that's just not what goes on over here. So I just want to shed light on that.

MUHAMMAD: It comes across. Just knowing that you're not glamorizing any of the things that you talk about. Even though sometimes, especially you Trip, you sound like you beating your chest — even though you're not — but it still comes across with sincerity.

DON TRIP: See, that's the thing: I feel like my whole purpose is to give you every shade of the picture. Every day I'm not sad, every day I'm not happy, every day I'm not — well, I can't say that — every day I am horny. But either way I'm saying, we don't have the same emotions all day every day.

For the most part, I think that's needed. I think that's the only way you will be able to understand me as a person, is for me to give you every shade. I don't hold no blows. 'Cause I give you the record that would make me cry and I give you the record that we enjoyed — I'm making all the money I can make in this record.

MUHAMMAD: Can I make a small request? I know you gotta do a Step Brothers 3, but can you guys do third and fourth versus?

KELLEY: You're being greedy.

MUHAMMAD: I am being greedy. But you guys are that good.

STARLITO: I guess, other than just honoring your request like, "Alright, we're gonna do that," the only thing that I could say that would maybe take away from that is that we don't really cater to song structure, other than balancing the amount of maybe bars or line for line or whatever. We try to have a pretty close to 50/50 balance song for song.

MUHAMMAD: It feels that way.

STARLITO: A lot of times we don't structure it verse one, verse two. Like, "Caesar & Brutus" has a break in between the verses, but on each verse, we both rap twice. So if you separate it like that, we've got four verses apiece. On "4x4 Relay," we go four bars and four bars.

MUHAMMAD: Alright, you got that. True that.

DON TRIP: See, sometimes, the way we working, we just go in and create. Like the "4x4" record I think is the shortest record on the tape.

MUHAMMAD: And I respect that; I respect that.

DON TRIP: We don't want to sit down and say, "Oh, we gotta add some more to this; it's gotta be more," 'cause that's when we start forcing it. And if we forcing it, it's not organic.

I know way more guys that fell out over girls than guys that got money and lived happily ever after.

MUHAMMAD: Yeah, don't force it. I wholly respect that. As a producer, I never ask people to go in and follow structure. There's nothing about my music that's structured, it's just feeling, emotions. But my feelings were like, "Man, I just want to hear a little bit more."

DON TRIP: I mean, when it happens, it happens. Records like "Hot Potato" from the first tape — I don't know how long we was in there doing that. We actually had to say, "OK Craig, it's time to stop." "Karate in the Garage" we did the same thing, you know, we just kept going. It's eight minutes, we gone have to cut this short.

MUHAMMAD: I'm not mad at that. One of my first hip-hop records was a song called "Super Rhymes" and it was a 12".

KELLEY: So long.

MUHAMMAD: I know. It was like 1981 that came out. That was my first hip-hop record I ever purchased. No, 1980 — it was either '80 or '81. A-side, B-side, one long verse, 12 minutes. After A-side, you flipped to B-side and it was another 12 minutes.

DON TRIP: But that's just how it works though; we just go in there and create.

MUHAMMAD: I feel that.

KELLEY: "4x4" sounds really different from the other songs.

STARLITO: It was the last song that we recorded on the project.

DON TRIP: Very last. Actually it was the last song we recorded together, period.

STARLITO: Yeah, we haven't actually recorded together since "4x4 Relay." But I agree with you that it sounds different, it feels a little different, but in terms of the structure of the album, it's, by design, an interlude. So the seven songs, or the six songs before it are more of a side A and the six songs after are side B, and — with the exception of "Leash On Life" — the music on the front half is more upbeat, it's more back and forth, spastic. And the second half is more, I don't want to say it's more conscious music, but it's — the structure is more song-oriented. We've made a song about not treating a girl right and she's trying to open your eyes to it, in "Open Your Eyes." "DNA" is man and woman, like the content is a little bit heavier. And the reason why "Leash On Life" is on the front is because by design we wanted that to be the single for the album, we wanted that to be the song that perhaps has the most legs.

MUHAMMAD: I love the fact that you guys talk about relationships in a real way. Not just on some machismo, but, "I understand the structure of our relationship and, yeah, some things are really kind of unfair but it is what it is and I accept me. Hopefully ..." I love that you guys just put that out there. I don't really hear many songs like that.

DON TRIP: Nah, it just be straight love.

MUHAMMAD: It's not always even straight love, either, it's just straight --

STARLITO: It's generic. It's typically generic. I get what both of y'all are saying. It's just cliché — like when you hear relationship songs, they're programmable. You don't get, "Oh, this is my song, this is what I'm going through." You get a song that you would probably be comfortable listening to with your girl, or that they can play on the radio.

And when we made those songs, like we were talking about "DNA," that wasn't a part of the process. We liked the beat, we liked what the guy was singing on the chorus, it was cool that it wasn't a sample, that the producer got with the singer and made a song. And we wrote about what we felt based on that. "Open Your Eyes," the same thing. The beat was cool, we had the singer, Robin Raynelle, in the studio with us. In the same fold that women would be comfortable, or could relate to, as well as men. Like, a female could feel as comfortable singing along with her part as the guys do rapping along with our part because it's our perspective. She's the girl that's like, "What's up with you? I love you and I'm not getting that feeling back from you, but I'm not going anywhere." 'Cause that's real; that's a lot of people's day to day.

DON TRIP: That's life.

KELLEY: My favorite part about that song is how you're basically like, "I'm really busy right now."

STARLITO: 'Cause that's my reality, you know what I'm saying.

DON TRIP: Indeed, yeah.

KELLEY: That's a lot of people's reality.

STARLITO: Because of what we do and where we are with what we do, we don't really stand a chance of normalcy, privacy, like, down to relationships. I can't make a generic record about that kind of stuff because it's not — what I go through is weird. I would love to give somebody more of my time but I can't. I have to be here doing this right now, so if you gonna be involved with me, first thing's first, you gotta kind of have a certain amount of respect for that. And then, further than that, is how everything else I do determines how far the relationship can go. It's just real s---, it's just real life. I think we're all either jaded and you don't want that, or, more than likely, everybody's kind of seeking some form of companionship, even if it's just moment to moment.

KELLEY: It would be good for that to be on the radio, but you guys don't care?

STARLITO: I mean, you guys can play it.

DON TRIP: We care in the sense of, of course we would love for our music to be on the radio and for it to be streamed to masses but we don't cater to it. I can't really tell you what I want to tell you if I'm worried about how it's gone be perceived.

My calling card is "Letter to My Son." I would have never thought that that would make it to the radio, but it worked. But it didn't work 'cause I made a radio record — it worked 'cause I was just pouring out my heart. Like he said, the "Brenda's Got a Baby" record — he didn't make that record and say, "Hey, this is gonna be on the radio; this is gonna live for 30 years from now." He couldn't have known that that would do that.

No matter what, we just want to make great music. If it makes it to the radio, that's always a plus, that's great. We don't shun that, that's not something we're saying we don't need or something that we would rather do without, but at that same notion, that's something we've kinda grown accustomed to moving without.

I feel like we got music that could go on the radio, that could stay on the radio, but I don't control those kind of things. That's something that would drive us crazy if we tried to figure out how to control that. We don't got the money, the resources, the relationships or none of that to really make that work. All we can depend on is the quality of our music, and hopefully that does what it's supposed to do.

MUHAMMAD: I just wanted to know, in terms of growing up in Tennessee, I know it's way different than growing up in Georgia or even New York City and I have an artist who I'm working with who's from Jackson and his mannerisms — I love this — he's very sincere. I know there gotta be thousands more like him and you guys and the way you come off. So can you talk about where you come from a little bit?

DON TRIP: Course, I'm from Memphis, he's from Nashville, so we grew up in two different — I don't want to call them ghettos, but we grew up in two different communities that were not the high class, more like middle class, or lower class.

When you think of Memphis, you think good things, you think of B.B. King, you think Elvis, you think blues, you think Beale Street. When you think bad things you think First 48. It's so much more in between. Of course everything else goes on, we got the same thing pretty much everybody else got, except subways and taxis. We got the strippers, we got crooked politicians like everybody else got. And we got a struggling economy like everybody else got.

For the most part, I think I grew up in the typical hood. I can say that some of the differences from Memphis and other places I've been would be like — I don't want to be cliché and say hospitality — but hospitality. Back home I don't have to know you — if we walk past each other and I don't know you, I don't have to know you, I'mma greet — of course I'm not finna shake your hand I don't know you — but we gonna nod or, "What's up" or "How you doing," or whatever. But that's just cause we crossing paths. Out here, you gotta watch where you going — somebody gonna knock you over 'cause it's so crowded. But I think that's because it's extremely crowded.

Back home — I guess that's why in our communities smaller issues become large issues because I think we take disrespect a bit more personal. Out here you get bumped, you just walking on the street, they just keep going. They blow the horn at each other all day and everything. But back home, you walking on the street and somebody bump you, that leads to something. Whether you know him or not, something follows that. I think that's because of the hospitality.

KELLEY: I've been doing this series on 1993 in hip-hop — all those albums that came out: Doggystyle, Wu-Tang, Midnight Marauders. Tons and tons from The Bay.

STARLITO: Didn't Tupac drop an album that year?

KELLEY: Yeah, and also 8Ball and MJG, Comin' Out Hard. Does Comin' Out Hard-- does it matter to Memphis music at all?

DON TRIP: Of course. It's very important. I don't want to be misquoted, but I think that was one of our first records to come from Memphis that kinda gave people hope that you could come from Memphis. Growing up, that was one of the milestones, like, Comin' Out Hard came from here. If they can make it from here, anybody can make it from here. The whole time coming up as a rapper, that's what they told me: "You will never make it from Memphis."

Of course, Comin' Out Hard, Three 6 had a lot of projects, Yo Gotti, even the people most people wouldn't recognize — Kid Shine — every person that made it out of Memphis, no matter how large or how small you made it out of there, every one of them people inspired me. That's what gave me the ammunition I needed to know I could make it from here, period. I don't have to move to here to make it and say I'm from there and later on fill you in. No, I'mma make it from home. It is what it is.

KELLEY: Do you want to do a little bit about Nashville real quick?

STARLITO: I mean, I'll try to paraphrase. Nashville — it's Music City USA, but there's a divide between the type of music that I make and came up on, and the music that controls the dollars around there.

I went to the ASCAP building checking on a check and they were like, "We don't do urban here. We can put you in touch with somebody in our pop division or you can go to Atlanta." I'm like, "I live five minutes up the road, but you guys just kind of ignore my genre of music." So considering that, like, coming up there, there's studios galore, there's executives and pretty much every major recording company has an office in Nashville. You got perpetual access to it, and that's inspiring, but honestly like, that's not something to have much of an effect on someone like me that came from East Nashville in the hood. I had to find my way and figure out what I wanted to do.

I got my start at Tennessee State University. At that time I was selling CDs out of our projects that we hung in and on campus and those were my two home fronts for moving my music. That was around the same time when Young Buck got with G-Unit and he came out and went platinum on his debut. They sold four million records on that group. The same way you were saying for Ball and G to come out from Memphis or Three 6 and all those guys — it's possible like, that's our guy from here.

I mean, Buck was the exception to the rule. There was other artists. I'd like to shout out Quanie Cash — he's an independent artist from my side of town and when I was in high school, that was my favorite rapper from Nashville. And a big part of it was that I knew he was doing all of that stuff himself: he was making his beats, he was mixing, he went and got a distribution deal. He was our Master P and he was from up the street from me.

I knew I had to work in spite of where I was, 'cause it's Music City, but it's not hip-hop Music City, it's not urban Music City by any stretch. But there were those around me that, if not influenced, motivated me, like Quanie Cash and there was an artist named Pistol that had a deal with Eazy-E back when I was a kid. I knew it was possible. Those were the people I saw.

For Young Buck to do his thing — I remember the first time I saw him on TV. I had just graduated high school and was in a studio — whatever record label's studio I was at, I had just battled their artist and killed him and he was an O.G. dude that sold 100,000 something units in the '90s. And even though I felt accomplished, I just murdered this dude and I was thinking I'm making a name for myself locally — I'm looking at Young Buck and the divide from where he was and where I was was, it was so vast. I was like, "Yeah, I gotta get on my s--- 'cause I can do it if he can do it."

KELLEY: Thank you both, so much.

DON TRIP: Thank y'all.

STARLITO: Thank you. And Step Brothers 2, in stores.

MUHAMMAD: And I just want to say, not only thank you for coming here but — Kanye West did an interview where he said people should thank artists. People thank me all the time; I want to thank you guys for your art.

DON TRIP: I appreciate that.

STARLITO: That's real.

DON TRIP: And again we appreciate y'all for having us because y'all could've interviewed anybody right now and y'all are rocking with us so we appreciate that to the utmost.

STARLITO: For sure.

KELLEY: Thank you both.

DON TRIP: Indeed.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit

Frannie Kelley is co-host of the Microphone Check podcast with Ali Shaheed Muhammad.
Ali Shaheed Muhammad is a world-renowned producer, songwriter and musician, and a founding member of A Tribe Called Quest, Lucy Pearl and production group The Ummah. He cowrote D'Angelo's "Brown Sugar" and has worked with John Legend, Maxwell, Mint Condition, Angie Stone, Mos Def and Gil Scott-Heron among many others.
Stories From This Author