Two years ago, Don Trip and Starlito teamed up for Step Brothers, a mixtape that paid homage to the Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly comedy of the same name, but it was hardly a joke. The initial response to the surprisingly thoughtful and nuanced tape was big for two well-respected solo artists that hadn't quite launched their careers on a major scale yet. The former was selected as a 2012 XXL Freshmen (but was left in record-label limbo soon after) and the latter built a regional buzz during his time with Cash Money. Both have remained underground favorites in hip-hop ever since.

Last week, Trip and Lito rolled out Step Brothers 2, the hard-hitting and reflective sequel to the original. The 13-track effort includes “Leash On Life,” the revealing single that addresses ongoing issues of school shootings, bullying, poverty and more. The video follows a troubled child through these scenarios and aims to reignite the conversation around these sensitive topics. In our Train of Thought, we spoke with the pair about the song’s message, its inspiration, and how it came together.—Eric Diep

Don Trip & Starlito "Leash On Life"

Verse One (Starlito)
They shooting up movies
They shooting up schools
Young black fools
Ain’t the only ones that suit up with tools
Exercising my 2nd amendment and pleading the fifth
With A fifth
This my second this Remy
I drink, I don’t sip
And the reason is this
It’s fucked up out here
So we out here fucked up
If you make it out then you lucked up
Trying to save ourselves coming from
What we raised ourselves
Stuck between a rock and a hard place with the razor and scale
Turn wine back to grapes and its raising hell
Breaking down bales
Just to make bail
Catching sells off a cell until you in a cell
I’m just trying to prevail
But only time will tell
Well, niggas telling over time
It ain’t no telling
I ain’t lying
Ain’t trying to go out like my homies did
I keep that on me and I put that on my homies kid
Wonder if I gonna be missed
If I did a lonely bid
Got homies in the pen who only focus keeping a phone hid

Hook (Kevin Gates)
I respect the time I keep my sneaks on tight
Head-on collision can hope he see me right through
Might be locked up tomorrow but we free tonight
Praying to god I get a leash on life
Leash on tight
Only right that we know
And please don’t judge us for the path we chose
Looking up to heaven; no one sending me signs
Only if this was a movie I would press the rewind

Verse Two (Don Trip)
He got that strap in his bag
See he get bullied at school
Young nigga shot dead in his class
He put his school on the news
Now put yourself in his shoes
Walking away didn’t help
He got no friends to defend him
He got to fend for his self
And he to skinny to fight
Running away just ain’t cutting it
His daddy ain’t home
His momma still struggling
She juggle three jobs
And get no help from the government
You don’t know nothing about him
But you trying to sucker him
Heart of a giant
I’m sorry he will never back down
And they gonna keep pick on him till one day he blacks out
And reach in that book bag and he pull that mag out
Now he get the last laugh and you’re just the class clown
Tool on deck
Yes I can’t help that
When momma was stressing
I hit my block like a tailback
See we trying to make it don’t got no suits
Just got cases
And I need more than this dope money to leave to my babies

XXL: What inspired the both of you to write this song and treat the video in this way?
Don Trip: As far as the video, actually, the whole process of that record after we created the record, we both sat down and we decided that we wanted the video to premiere before you could have access to the song. So, your first time hearing the record, it would be seeing the video. It would be more like watching a TV show and hearing the soundtrack. With the “Leash On Life” record, it’s a record that we felt to show how common our lives are to other demographics. It’s not just black people going through adversity. We are not the only people that have situations where we struggle through. When we sat down and create the record, Lito had his verse already recorded. I don’t really know what mindframe he was in when he recorded his verse. But, when it came time for me, I pretty much just followed his lead. He already steered the ship where he needed to be. I felt like he was in a great path with it. When I heard his verse, I felt like in order for me to contribute to this record, I can give it this perspective. I took advantage of that. I felt like the contents of my verse are the things we overlook the most. We don’t really know the next person’s struggle. You can’t tell by shaking so-and-so’s hand or walking pass so-and-so. I felt like me giving that, I didn’t want to just say so-and-so did this, and so-and-so did that. I wanted to break it down, I wanted to take you through it.

Lito you say, "They shooting up movies/They shooting up schools/Young black fools aren't the only ones to suit up with tools". Why did you open with that?
Starlito: There’s a part of what we do where we are the journalist for our environment. I really have a hard time watching the news because it is kind of scary. It is kind of sad. There’s not good news on the news. Considering where I come from … all my life I either end up dead or in jail. By 25, that was the cliche stat. As that shit echoes in your mind, as you flip through the channels, its to the point where a school shooting, a public tragedy of some sort, or a movie shooting, there’s mass killings going monthly. It’s almost like clockwork. It was just in a front of my mind, I’m not sure from when I recorded that or something just happened. It’s like Trip said, I recorded my verse after a show. We had a show together and we went to the studio afterwards.

It was like 4 in the morning when I heard that beat. It reminded me, it put me in the mindframe of Boyz n the Hood. The closing scene where Ice Cube’s character disappears, when Doughboy disappears. Tragic ending. Because that beat make me think about that, I was thinking about the hood. I was thinking about the untold story. I was thinking about where I am. I am from the hood and I making my way out of the that mindframe and everything else. But, I just thought about how often I am stereotyped. How often people operate what is clear and present to them. I heard Scarface say how you start your verse is the most important part of a song. That comes in the opening line.

Starlito Don Trip

Are you guys speaking from personal experiences?
Starlito: Nah, I wasn’t bullied. Not that part of it. I just think with telling somebody else’s story ...

Don Trip: Every form of being aggressive ain’t being bullied. It ain’t always the same thing. For my take on it, I involved a bit of my real life in it too. I feel like you would be the one to relate what I am saying to you by putting things I actually know about in it. I don’t think I could wrote the verse if I didn’t know about certain aspects of that.

Starlito: Considering that, there’s elements of my verse that are directly come from me. There are parts of my story that I say are pretty straightforward. I got homies in the pen [who] only focus is to keep their phone hid. That’s their reality and by default my reality too. That is something that I know about. There are different struggles going on. It’s not struggle rap for the sake of struggle rap, but its moreso like, “Man, that’s somebody else going through something different than you." Or, I might be saying something you are going through and you understand it crystal clear. I am kind of in the middle of it because I come from the place from the kids that are doing the bullying. I could have been in that classroom that this kid came and shot up because my friends used to pick on people for no reason. Because I was a cool kid. And this kid might feel like its him against the world. I am on the other side of that. I think its real to everyone.

Trip, you rap, "His dad aint' home/His momma still struggling/She juggle three jobs ain't get no help from the government.”
Don Trip: That’s from my own experiences. I involve that because when you see people, you don’t know what they are going through. And a lot of times, we judge a book by its cover. That’s just how we format it for some reason. You don’t know the reason why he’s not wearing Jordans cause they can’t afford them. They just plainly can’t afford them. It’s a lot more involved in that. It’s a lot of things, a lot of misfortunes that happen in life that people never look past. People don’t understand that everything has a story behind it. Like you said, if their dad ain’t home and his momma is still struggling, she’s doing everything she can do because she makes too much to be assisted and not enough to make it.

With that being said, of course that burden falls on the child as well. Eventually, if the child is sheltered from the realities of what is going on as far as that. Eventually, at some age, it’s going to start to affect their child. If you add what is going on at home to what is going on at school. When they go to school and they are being picked on. They don’t know why he’s not sociable. He’s not cool, period. If they don’t understand that, like most people, the thing they don’t understand, that’s what people gather up and pick at. I just wanted to give a better look at that. Like I said, that’s something people don’t see. I guess the given end of the bullying, they don’t look at all that. Nine times out of ten, they going through the same thing. They just take it a different way. Those busy kids, they got all that going on at home. They lash out like that. The other kid, they got all that going on and he just keeps to himself. So, you know, that was to show that even though you going through what you are going through, somebody going through something similar or somebody is going through something that is the opposite of what you are going through. No matter what, we are all going through something. You can’t treat a person like a person is not a person.

Why did you guys reach out to get Kevin Gates on the record?
Starlito: It was like a divine, almost like a far off prophecy. You know, people say the stars align. It just happened how it happened. We’ve been rocking ever since that day we recorded that song. That’s like the coolest thing in the world to me. I did that verse on his album, the “MYB.” I did that verse that day. Probably 12 noon, on my way to Atlanta to meet Trip so we can start working on Step Brothers 2. I did the verse, strangely, I don’t work with people I don’t know. We don’t record any of our music in separate rooms. We don’t e-mail verses. We get in the studio together. And I prefer to work with people that I know. People that I am cool with, etc. I heard an interview on accident one day. I was in car and satellite radio came on. I heard somebody [say], “All I listen to is Starlito. I just prefer reality music. My favorite rapper is Starlito.” I’m like, I don’t have a clue who it is. I keep listening to the interview out of curiosity. Soon or later I figure out it is Kevin Gates. I wasn’t really too hip to his music. I heard his name, but I wasn’t that hip to his music. I started paying attention and heard some things I like. I think that was around that time he dropped that project the top of this year. I was intrigued. I gave it a fair listen. This is somebody that appreciates my music, so at least, I hear it out. I was like, “Man, this shit’s deep.” I liked it.

I did the verse. Him and his people reached out. Got in touch with him. I did that verse for “MYB” as an investment and good faith because I felt like he fucks with me, so I’ll kind of make an exception for what I normally do and mail this verse in. I dropped the verse that day and I called an A&R or whoever sent the song. I sent the song back, I have a song that I think he would sound cool. I have this beat that I want him to check out and have him do a chorus. It wasn’t “Leash On Life.” It was “Luca Brasi Speaks” on my Cold Turkey album. That’s another funny story cause I wanted him to do a singing chorus, but he ended rapping. That happened later on that day. I’m like, “Just hit me up when he checks out the beat and sings this track. He would be a good guest to it. No rush. I’m my way to Atlanta to see Trip and record.” He was like, “Oh, Kevin [Gates] is in Atlanta. He stays in Atlanta right now. Give him a call. I’m sending you his number.” And I called. He pulled up. He came in the studio by himself. I really respected that. I thought I was the only rapper that really is all by myself way out of town. I go to another city to work or otherwise by myself. I don’t have to move a certain type of way.

He pulled up one in the morning, we have been working. He kind of made himself at home. I could tell he genuinely like fucked with me. We just hit it off and started working immediately. Within 20, 30 minutes of him being there, we were pulling up “Leash On Life.” Or, what would become “Leash On Life.” And it was just a beat and my verse that I dropped at Don Trip’s studio. So, Trip’s putting his verse together and Gates is kind of like, “What’s that?” In the process of walking into the booth, I’m like, “You can fuck with this one if you like it. We don’t have a chorus yet.” He started humming some shit. It kind of sounded cool from a distance. He’s like, “Check this out.” What he sung out loud is the chorus that is on the song. Within him being in the studio with us 20-30 minutes, Trip went and cut his verse. Gates dropped a chorus. The rest is history.

In the last scene of the video, why end on an image of a school shooting?
Don Trip: I think people need to understand. I think the only way for you to see the severity of what we was saying was for you to see that. Of course, we couldn’t show him walking in the school and killing people. I don’t think we wanted to show that anyway. But, we wanted to show the part that you do see. That you ignore. When we see that now, it’s just another shooting to us. I feel like that was something that was added for that. For the value of this is something that you recognize. This is familiar to you. Everything that happened before this scene in video is not familiar to you because we are oblivious of what led to that. So now you see what you have normally seen sitting in front of the TV. And what we showed you before shows you how it got that far.

Starlito: The impact of that scene. Part of it was supposed to come from … there were two subtle things within that closing scene. One, if you notice before the news report comes on, that’s the first time you see Don Trip. Both of us are in that video, just for like 5 seconds. You see Don Trip and its supposedly a music video. So the sick irony is that we are still crossing paths with these types of people. I’m coming out of a trap house and a kid is sitting on a porch looking lonely and thrown off. I’m looking at him like, “You’re out of place. What are you doing here?” And we are crossing paths in our day to day lives.

[Don Trip] is a rapper and he’s on TV. The other part that was the symbolism is that the dad. The big fat, overweight couch potato dad that’s abusive to his son and paying no attention to him is watching our music video. I know its kind of cliche because he’s watching the video about the same stuff. Our lives cross paths with these kind of people. We still in a roundabout way speak to these types of people and different walks of life. So, it wasn’t just we were showing a news report. We are showing the dad watching the news report. He’s so out of touch with his son and what’s going on in his son’s life that the first time he’s introduced to it is when its way to late. He’s seeing the tragedy he helped cause at the same time everybody else is seeing it. And its already affected who knows how many people. Like Trip said, we weren’t going to get graphic, simulate or reenact an actual school shooting, but to have the abusive dad watching the news report was actually the closing scene. So, it was a little bit further than putting a news report on there. Pay attention, before its too late.