When I walk outside my hotel, Yo Gotti is leaning casually against the nicest car I’ve ever seen. The Rolls-Royce Phantom Drophead Coupe, all white and glimmering brighter than the watch on his wrist, is our ride to Revolution Live, the club in Fort Lauderdale, FL, that is the venue for the first night of Gotti’s I Am Tour. While we drive down the highway with the top down and the sun on its way, two women in two separate cars recognize Gotti, rolling down their windows to scream his name as we speed 60 miles an hour through the sticky summer air.
For Yo Gotti, that’s become something of a routine, particularly in the South. The King Of Memphis—a title he’d credibly assumed before he’d claimed it—has spent the better part of the past 15 years building himself up from a street hustler to a hip-hop kingpin, slinging mixtapes instead of drugs and setting himself on a firmly upward trajectory. His upcoming album, I Am(Epic/CMG), due out tomorrow (November 19), is his first for Epic Records, with whom he signed a partnership for himself and his Cocaine Muzik Group label this March. It’ll also be his first major step into the national spotlight following his long residency in the Southern underground, with the backing of label boss L.A. Reid and a single, “Act Right” featuring Jeezy and YG, burning up the charts.
It’s been a long road for Gotti from the dope game to the rap game. “I was really out there in the streets hustling, putting my life on the line, taking penitentiary chances and Fed chances, and just risking my freedom to provide for my family,” he says as we sit on his tour bus, recalling his earliest days in hip-hop when he was still in high school. “I had been doing music on a scale of, ’round the neighborhood and shit like that. But that was kinda the introduction where I was trying to transition that hustle into this [music] hustle.”
The intervening 13 years saw peaks and valleys—a production deal with Cash Money signed in 2004 finally landed him enough cash to remove himself completely from the drug game; a fallout with his first major label, RCA/Polo Grounds, over the release of his 2012 album, Live From The Kitchen, cast him back into the independent realm—but he found a way to keep climbing. He’s collaborated with the likes of Lil Wayne, Rick Ross and T.I. His label experiences taught him how to be the boss of his own CMG imprint. And his hard work and diligence have allowed him to make sure he connects with his fans as much as possible, delivering over a dozen mixtapes and consistently staying after his shows to take photos and pose for Instagrams with his rabid fan base.
After we finish the interview on the tour bus, Gotti turns to his bodyguard, Lurch, and asks if there’s time for a sound check before the club opens its doors. As Lurch goes to check, Gotti and I stand alone in his bus—his home for the next two months—waiting as the crowd ebbs and flows outside. I ask if it’s weird for him that he can’t even step outside his own bus without a crowd mobbing him?
He glances out the window, then back at me, smiling. He adjusts his clothes, his watch, his chains. “Yeah, a little,” he says. The door opens, and he steps out to fans yelling his name, heading in the back door to the venue. Thirteen years after his debut album, Yo Gotti has arrived. —Dan Rys (@danrys)
Ed. Note: The following Q&A is taken from the outtakes of the story “Go Hard” from XXL‘s current issue, on stands now.
What was the reception to your first album From Da Dope Game 2 Da Rap Game in 2000?
When it actually came out, I didn’t even know how to gauge what the responses were. I was in the 11th, 12th grade maybe, I got fuckin’ four cars, a Lexus, a Yukon truck, a Camaro, I’m going to school, I got my own house. I’m just so turnt up in the street, that music was an afterthought. I probably pressed up 10-15,000 CDs, and I sold like 5 or 6,000 of them before I got tired of asking motherfuckers to buy them. And I just set them in the house. It was not that I didn’t think I could actually move them, it was that I was making so much money being in the streets so heavy that it was kinda like, I ain’t have time for this shit. I ain’t got time to ask a motherfucker for $10 for a CD when my phone ringing for $10,000. [Laughs]
I guess the few thousand I did put in the streets, people was duplicating them on their own, which I didn’t know at the time. I was in high school still. The clubs that you have to be 18 and 21 to get into, my big partners were going to and they were like, “Man, they’ve been playing your shit in the club and it was crazy how everyone was responding.” So one night I went to the club, I saw everybody moving to the song and dancing, and I was like, okay, this shit real. When I saw that reaction, I started booking more studio time, going back in the studio.
Then someone contacted me to the distributing company, and they were like man look, everybody [is] calling for your music, and nobody knows how to get it, so they’re duplicating it themselves. I went and picked up the CDs and I took them and they gave me $8 apiece. $8 apiece times 6,000 is $48,000. First I’d seen the people reacting to the music, then you give me $48,000 for some shit that’s been sitting in my grandma’s house for months? Well, okay. I can focus on that. [Laughs] I immediately swapped the hustle up. That’s where it changed mentally. But it was a growing process to try to ease out of this lane and into 100 percent doing music.