Photos by Jessica Lehrman
The annals of music history are filled with misunderstood geniuses, innovative weirdos stuck in the wrong time, and visionary sonic architects left unappreciated. Yo Gotti is none of these things. Yo Gotti has made a career out of getting to the point as efficiently and effectively as possible. He does things well, and he does them consistently. If you were redoing a room and called up Yo Gotti to help, he wouldn’t waste time figuring out what type of wainscoting to put in; he’d grab a sledgehammer, knock down the drywall, and make sure that room was functional in no time. Yo Gotti is all business, and that’s why he’s quietly and steadily become one of the South’s most beloved and successful rappers.
Yo Gotti is 32, but he projects the serene assurance, dominating charisma, and veteran perspective of someone a decade older. When I met him in the penthouse suite of the Midtown Manhattan hotel where he was staying for NBA All-Star Weekend, he was getting his hair cut, which is the kind of thing that mafia dons and billionaires do in movies as a power move for intimidating people who come into their offices. I’m not saying that Yo Gotti was trying to make a statement—I’m pretty sure he just needed a haircut and had a busy schedule for the weekend—but, all the same, it was immediately clear that here was someone who has figured out how to move through the world.
Coming from Memphis, a city whose contributions to hip-hop are often unfairly flattened out to the one time Three Six Mafia won an Oscar, Yo Gotti has had to move more deftly than many of his contemporaries, but he’s also turned his situation to his advantage. Through relentlessly releasing music and touring for a decade and a half, largely in the South’s overlooked mid-size cities, Yo Gotti has built a rock solid fan base on the strength of a no-nonsense approach to street rap that makes just the slightest concessions to the club. After a string of independent albums and amid a torrid parade of bad label situations, Yo Gotti scored a breakout hit in 2009 with his song “5 Star,” which went gold and cracked the Billboard Hot 100. In 2013, he had another chart hit with “Act Right,” featuring Young Jeezy and YG. But it’s not so much these singles that make Gotti beloved as it is his presence, which is both supremely grounded and gently intimidating.
Gotti is the guy who rappers get on their tracks for a stamp of approval: approval from the South, from the streets, from the old guard—or, likely, all three. Along with Boosie, T.I., and Bun B, he has become part of Southern rap’s semi-old guard of street-savvy regional stars. When he lent a verse to fellow Memphis rapper Snootie Wild’s local hit “Yayo,” it helped blow that song up on rap radio (Snootie Wild later signed to Gotti’s CMG imprint). It’s no accident, either, that Gotti spent last summer opening for Drake and Lil Wayne on their tour: He provided a kind of credibility that balanced out the YMCMB stars’ pop side. As a rapper, Gotti is workmanlike in his delivery: His voice has a gritty heft to it, and his verses are built methodically, like brick walls. He offers up simple but powerful statements and deadpan wit about street life (from “Fuck Em,” off his recent mixtape Concealed, for instance: “I know nine niggas jellin’, three of them tellin’ / I got nine niggas with me, eight of them felons”).
Above all, though, Yo Gotti has a great mind for business. He is emphatic on this point in the way rappers tend to be, but it’s also undeniably true: He’s gone from hustling as a teenager—he says he was supporting his family at 15—to making reliable money grinding out shows. His approach to rap is savvy and calibrated, his success more a function of hard work than anything else. He famously doesn’t drink or smoke weed. Throughout our conversation, he had an on-staff photographer taking pictures for potential future use. He has investments in Memphis real estate and nightlife, too, which is worth mentioning because he discusses his music above all in the context of The Hustle. His upcoming album is called The Art of Hustle, like The Art of War. At one point during our talk he told me about his interest in Silicon Valley, explaining, “I'm trying to get out of this M level to this B level,” meaning millions to billions.
Ultimately, Yo Gotti has a businessman’s best tool, which is that he is engaging to talk to. I immensely enjoyed my chat with him, and I think he did, too: At the end, I asked to take a selfie, and, although he was skeptical and said he doesn’t do selfies. (I mean, he already has a photographer around to keep the ‘gram popping), he agreed to take his first one ever with me. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation, along with, allegedly, Yo Gotti’s first ever selfie.
You’re a dad. How old are your kids?
They're five, ten, and 11.
I feel like it must be tough being a dad when you're on the road all the time.
Nah, it's actually a blessing man, it makes you think different, look at things different. I probably wouldn't be here if I didn't have them. The way I was living before that… when you’re living for somebody else you think things out a little more. You plan a little better. You put up a little better. If it was just me out here it's too much money, it's too much going on. I'd be too reckless. So I needed that in my life.
You told me earlier you had to grow up fast when you were 12. What happened when you were 12?
You know, just a product of your environment. You’re in the hood, you see the big hustlers in the hood with the nice clothes and the nice cars and you want it. And everybody around you’s goal is to hustle. To be the biggest hustler in the neighborhood. Of course, it's your environment. It's what you and your friends want to be. It's what you talk about, that's what you see.
We ain't see no doctors, unless you went to one. We only seen them in uniform, we didn't know what he drove in or how he lived. We didn't know no professional athletes. All we knew was the big homies from the hood, who had the Cadillacs and the jewelry, big chains, mink coats. Fur coats and shit. So that's what success looked like to us.
What stands out about the Memphis culture of being a hustler?
Memphis breeds hustlers, I feel. It's just cutthroat living period, so to survive around vultures and savages like that, it prepares you for whatever profession you go in.
Are there people you know who went into other fields who maintained that same mindset?
You see them. You can look at a person and tell what they come from by how they move.
What part of Memphis did you grow up in?
North Memphis, Ridgecrest Apartments.
Ridgecrest Apartments. Is that like a well-known apartment area? What's the reputation of that?
Man look, it's one way in, it's one way out. You better know somebody when you pull in that one-way entrance. (laughs) You may not make it out the one way out.
Is it really tightly gang controlled or is it just like a free for all?
You know, the culture’s changing. Back when I was growing up, gangs wasn't heavy. We was solo thugging. When we got money on our own, the hood got money. It wasn't about colors or a certain name when I was growing up. We wasn't doing no gangs. But as the generations change, things change.
That's interesting, I feel like when you were growing up that was a peak gang period in other places in the country.
Not in Memphis. Probably Chicago, LA, places where it started at, maybe.
Memphis was more of—
More of a hustler's city. It was about who got the most money. Whose squad getting the most money. You go to the club ten, 15 deep, everybody’s got on furs, everybody’s in their own whips. That's what it was about in Memphis.
What was your path?
I was one of them guys, you know? I had on the furs, I had the rims on the cars and was getting money. I just always knew I wanted to transition before it was too late. Everybody wasn't thinking like that.
How old were you when you started thinking like that?
Since I got in the game I was thinking like that. I always thought out everything—the pros, the cons. I always knew it was a race against time. Everybody in my family had already went to the fed joint, for doing the same thing. So I knew the shit was real. I didn't have to go through it myself to know that I could go through fed time.
All my aunties and uncles had already been to jail. Brothers and everybody before me had money, lost money, went to jail. And come home with nothing. I had to be dumb to not know what the outcome was. At the same time, in the situation I was in, I wasn't finna go get no job. It wasn't enough money to pay the bills that I was trying to pay. The option was get enough money to transition. Before they come.
Most teenagers aren't focused on the future like that.
It's different. I seen my first six figures when I was 16.
I was still living in the house with my momma. Staying with 130, 140K in my bedroom. In the closet.
Just like in a shoebox or something?
Yeah, it's more than a shoebox.
It was shoebox, it was coat pockets, it was shit in the attic. You don't want to have all the money in one place anyway in case somebody breaks in or robs you. I had the shit divided up ten different places.
So then you were like, "I guess with all this money I'm going to be a rapper." What happened?
At the time I was living with my momma, and I didn't realize one of the most difficult things in the streets is: Once you make money, how do you hide it? So now I got all the money I done hustled for in one house. And if the house burns down, or if I get in a fucked up situation with robbers or something, you can take me out the game in one move. So I'm like "Ah man, I didn't calculate that." So I had to start getting girlfriends and things like that. Different people I'm cool with just to spread it out to different things.
So you had girlfriends that just laundered money for you?
I don't think laundered is the right word (laughs). They was most definitely holding it.
This is like, late 90s, early 2000s. So this is like when Three Six Mafia was really big.
Three Six Mafia was real big in Memphis, 8 Ball and MJG was real big.
Is that something that you were aware of?
I was aware of how big they was, not just them but the whole hip-hop culture. I’d just see a lot of things on TV, watching videos and Yo! MTV Raps and all that shit. And with Three Six and 8 Ball being from the city, that was a good thing, too, I guess. But I ain't really see them, so it wasn't like it transferred into pushing me more, because, again the niggas who had money to me was hustlers. That's who I seen every day after school. I ain't see no rappers.
So rappers, that was just someone on TV.
Yeah, it was a surreal type thing.
So what was your moment, when you figured that that was where you were going?
My first check was, Select-O-Hits hit me up about a CD I had put out.
What was Select-O-Hits?
They was like a distributing company. A lot of independents used them back in the day, but they was based out of Memphis. So by them being based out of Memphis, they’re distributing everybody’s music from all over, but they actually used to move around Memphis because they was based out of it.
They contacted me. I was selling CDs hand to hand. They was like "Yo, we'd like to put your CDs in stores." Most people CDs they put in stores on consignment, meaning you drop them off, and we pay you when they sell. Or we press them up, ‘cause the people don't have the money to press them up, and we give you a percentage. I had pressed up like 10,000 CDs myself.
Ten thousand? You were pretty optimistic about what you were going to sell!
I had only sold 2,500 by the time they reached out to me. So when they contacted me, they were like "How many CDs you got left?" I took them the CDs I had for $8 apiece, they gave me $6500, and that was the first time I knew that I could make money off of music. But the unique thing was that they paid me my $8 up front. Everybody else they were dealing with, you had to put it on consignment. You had to wait on your check.
What was it like when you were just selling those CDs by yourself? Already you're selling 2,500 CDs. That's a lot of copies of your CD. What was going on?
I mean, we were just selling them, me and my homeboys in the hood. And the crazy thing is, somebody might pull up, buy a bag of weed, and a Yo Gotti CD.
You'd like, cut them a deal, "Hey man, I'll throw in the CD for a little extra!"
Like a combo, you buy a bag of weed and a CD from the same person. At the same house.
So people knew who you were at that point?
Everybody knew me from the street anyway, so buying the CD, the shit I was talking about on the CD, they knew the shit was real. You’re a fan, and you’re a customer. You’re buying a CD from me, and you’re buying some other shit from me, so you know the shit’s real.
What was that first CD called?
From da Dope Game 2 da Rap Game. That's actually what I was trying to do, I was trying to get out of the dope game and into the rap game.
Do you remember the first time you heard yourself on the radio?
A DJ told me he was going to play me on the radio, and I like sat in the car all day waiting on the shit to come on. I'm like "Damn when the shit gone come on?" I sat in the car for literally two or three hours for him to play the hook, the verse, and mix right out of my shit (laughs).
What song was it?
I think it was this song called “Str8 from da North,” then “Shawty” was the next record. The last shit they was playing in the club already, but the club and the radio is different. Being young and not understanding what the radio meant. You know, I didn't really know.
When do you feel like you started to understand, to get more of a grasp on everything?
Back then, it was like black and white to me, "either you hustle till you go to jail, or you transition out." Take a shot at doing something positive. So all my comparisons was like, “this is better than what I'm doing.” So I was going into different situations thinking like, “what's the worst case scenario? I can't go to jail for making music.” Instead of actually looking through the contracts and paying attention to the business, that's how I was looking at everything back then.
It wasn't until I got in a fucked up situation with TVT Records. Then I started getting hotter and I'm thinking "OK, I’ma make money off getting hotter." But they were bullshitting, then I got to thinking "Oh shit, I probably need to focus on this business." I had a lawyer said it was cool. That was his job, but now I know that you have to watch lawyers. Lawyers with records labels hang out. They cut a million deals a day; they may give a little on yours to make the next one sweeter. I don't trust none of them motherfuckers.
What was that deal? What was the deal with Select-O-Hits?
I made a lot of money with them. I don't think I had a bad deal with them.
When we tried to take it up to the next level we did a deal with TVT. Out of New York. They had deals with Lil Jon, Ying Yang Twins, a lot of people who were hot back then. Again I'm just a small guy with all these guys here, so you know how that go. On the priority list—
You're low down.
You know what I'm saying? So of course I wasn't getting paid enough attention to, things like that. I maybe got 40K to sign with them. The 40K wasn't no money to me. I had way more money than that, out the street.
You were saying that getting money from rap was better than the streets, but it doesn't sound like you were making that much money from rap.
I wasn't looking at it like, "This check gone save my life! The opportunity, to make checks gonna change my life." That's how I was looking at it.
At the time you could make more money in the streets, but that was dangerous.
There's nothing more valuable than your freedom in your life. When you’re in the streets you’re gambling with that 24/7. If you don't know that you’re just flat out dumb to me. So for me to go into a record deal for 40K, that's, like, a motherfucking Camaro money or some shit. Which I probably had two more, three more of those cars. Fast forward a couple of years later, I bought myself out that same deal for 500K. Of my own money. Shit like that just made me pay attention to the game.
I feel like, if you look at your strengths as an artist, and your value in a career, to a record label, it's kind of outside of what people think is traditionally valuable to a rap record label. You're someone who has this really loyal following in a very specific region of the country. Which is not to say that that doesn't extend elsewhere, but I don't know if a national company is aware of that.
They’re most definitely not aware of it. The music industry has grown to a space where they're not interested in getting aware of it. It's not hard to figure it out. All you got to do is get your ass on a plane, come out here to see how we living. Come tour a few shows in Alabama, Carolina, through Georgia. See these four, five thousand people going crazy. To music that you never heard before. It ain't really hard for you to do it. It comes back to most times my interests, or our interests, for artists, be different than the corporate label structure’s interests.
I think it's even just, New York and maybe LA in particular have this sort of blind spot when it comes to a lot of the country. It's like, well, "All culture has to come through New York!" And it's like well no—
If it ain't hot in New York it ain't hot! Yeah I heard that before. And millions and millions of dollars later I say it's a lie. We got bank accounts to prove it wrong.
It seems like it did take a little while for your music to spread, though.
I think with this last success I've had it may have grown. I still feel that like, in these same places, anywhere there was a hood, anywhere they were hustling, they identified with who Yo Gotti was. Maybe it’s grown out of just the hoods. To more colleges and shit like that. But I think anywhere it was a hood at in America they can identify with what's popping.
Do you play a lot of college shows?
Yeah, I actually went to college. I went to Southwest Community College in Memphis, I tried to go to TSU, and they denied me.
So during all this stuff that we were just talking about you were also going to college.
My plan was I was going to graduate with a quarter of a million dollars. I was going to go to college.
Most people plan to graduate with like a quarter of a million dollars in debt.
No. I wanted a quarter million cash on my graduation. I would go to TSU and start investing and doing different things that I could identify with to be successful. That was my plan. Then I got denied, couldn't go to TSU. So I thought I was going to be mad at them forever. I thought if I was going to go to jail it was going to be their fault.
They told me if I go to this community college, I could transfer in eight semesters. So I came back, enrolled into community college, and I was going to school. And within that semester is when shit started taking off. So I started doing shows outside of the city. I started traveling a lot, which caused me to miss school a lot. It came to the point where it was like either you’re going to go do this music shit or you’re going to stay in school. Which? At the time—I ain't got nothing against school, but—I ain't really see the plan's outcome. I was just doing it to try to transition out the street.
Did you have a plan of what you wanted to study?
Math’s always been my favorite subject, and business always been my focus. Which I already had a degree in business, you know what I’m saying?
Do you feel like there's sort of an overarching theme or a focus to your music now? Because obviously your life's changed a lot in the 15 years that you've been making music.
The Art of Hustle is like the Art of War. I think its rules, and strategies, and laws to being a successful hustler. If it was so simple everybody would be great at doing it. Everybody would be financially successful. That's not true, 50 to 60 percent of entertainers, really, rappers and shit you see today, who you may interview, don't have any money. I know them. I know them personally. The shit on the ‘gram and the shit in the music is not real. It's not their shit. Me, I believe in ownership. Every car I got I got the title to it. Every house I got I got the deed to it. Every real estate investment property, whether it's a commercial property or whatever, there’s deeds, they’re owned.
In one space I understand it, too, because I ain't always been in this position. In the beginning, you have to do something to do certain things to look good. To try to keep up from here and there. Some of these niggas done done it too much. You been trying to keep up too much! You already ran through that phase. That's your first year of getting money; the second, third year you’ve got to be smarter. It's the Art of Hustle.
This is the same thing you were talking about earlier, you always have the long term plan, and that's reflected in the music as well.
That’s basically what I'm saying with the album, whether you’re doing music, whether you’re in the street hustling, or you’re in the corporate world, you’ve got to have an Art of Hustle.
So like the ideal thing would be if you have like, Bill Gates or whatever is going to listen to this album he'll be like, yeah this is my life right now. This is my mindset!
He can give me an invitation to come get some of that Art of Hustle he got. (laughs) Take my shit to the next level. I need to get to that book, I ain't got to that chapter.
Yo Gotti's first selfie, photo by the author
Kyle Kramer knows how to act right. Follow him on Twitter.
Jessica Lehrman is a photographer living in New York. Follow her on Twitter.