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.


What was it about your music that made everybody gravitate towards it?
It was that real life shit that niggas was livin' and that I was livin' and people knew it. I knew every motherfucker in North Memphis. If you were from there, you knew who I was. And if you were getting money we probably were dealing with each other or knew of each other. So when you heard the music and you heard what I was talking about, you knew that shit was real. [Laughs]

So at some point in 2003, you signed your distribution deal with [independent label] TVT.
And I didn't really understand the game at that point. So [A&Rs] started flying me to New York, and I would play the music. I would always wonder, I meet with this motherfucker, I go back to Memphis, nothing happens. I meet with this motherfucker, go back to Memphis, nothing happens. After the second trip, [I was] like, how does this process go? What are they looking for? And then I met with Tina Davis, this was when Tina Davis was working at Def Jam. She was like, look, I'm gonna save you some time and help you: labels wanna hear single one, single two, and single three. How are you gonna make us money and make yourself some? The rest of this shit is irrelevant. [Laughs] And when she said that shit to me, I was sitting in her office like, that's the common sense I've been trying to put together the whole time. When she put it in perspective like that, I understood how the music business ran.

I read in an interview that you said "Shawty" got you your deal with TVT.
"Shawty" was the first record that I put out that had real rotation on the radio in my city, and it was in like 30 markets, we had radio in 30 cities. TVT reached out to me to do a deal. And at the time, I was reaching that point in the street where I could feel it coming, like man, I don't got long. Niggas around me was going to jail, niggas I really fuck with was going to jail, niggas was bringing my name up in different shit. In the streets, there ain't nothing but two ways out on the forreal forreal, and in some ways you can sense it. The situations I was being in, there were real close calls and shit. When TVT put the deal on the table, I was like look, that's your way out.

In 2006 you put out Back 2 Da Basics, your first full project with TVT.
That was the first one with a label, but I had 100 percent done everything myself, everything except ship the CDs to the store. It was a deal where they were supposed to act like a label, but they didn't. I think me going through them fucked up experiences with labels is what helped me create my strong label and my team around me, because I was forced to go do this shit myself. I ain't no give up nigga, so if you're not giving my project the right attention or got the right angle to market it, I ain't giving up or complaining. Fuck that. If you ain't doin' it, I'm gonna do it. All that shit shaped me into me being who I am today, so I'm glad I went through that shit, 'cause you got artists now who don't know how to get moving on their own without a label.

So you're in this situation where your label isn't supporting you at all, but at the same time this record, Back 2 Da Basics, is the biggest record you'd ever put out.
Yeah, that was the biggest album I'd put out. I saw them promoting the album. Around the same time, I met DJ Drama to do my first Gangsta Grillz. So when they finally started calling me to do this or do that—I think once I got on the Hustle and Flow soundtrack [with "Full Time"] is when they started calling—and at the time I was doing the Gangsta Grillz album. As an artist, we just want to put out the best material. You talkin' about what makes sense for the budget. Fuck the budget—I got my own budget. [Laughs] And the fucking Gangsta Grillz, like I told them, that was the music that the people needed to hear. The mixtape got more attention than the album.

Then you bought yourself out of the TVT deal.
Yeah, then that deal folded. Well, they went bankrupt, which was probably going to be the only way I was ever getting out of that shit. That's why I made the record "Sent Me An Angel," I was trying to figure out how the fuck I was gonna get out of that situation. And then I woke up one morning, and they'd gone bankrupt. God must have sent me an angel. [Laughs]

Right around that time was when you started Cocaine Muzik. Is that when you started the label, or just the mixtape series?
I was looking at what DJ Drama was doing with Gangsta Grillz, and I was like, that shit is a brand. You got niggas all around the world doing Gangsta Grillz, from the hoodest, hardest independent artist to the biggest artists. So I'm like, know what I'm gonna do? I'm gonna create my own. A lot of people looked at me like I was crazy, they didn't understand what I was saying. And I was like, man, I'm gonna call this shit Cocaine MuzikCocaine Muzik meant addictive music. It meant once you take a hit of this music, you're gonna be addicted. Once you listen to Yo Gotti one time, you on him. I'm gonna be talking that shit that you can relate to.

Instead of putting them in artwork, I put them in sandwich bags, tie a knot at the top, just like you'd buy an ounce of weed or an ounce of whatever you buying, we packaged it up just like that. We would pull up in your hood, right there in the trap where you slinging at, and we'd hand you a bag with Cocaine Muzik in it. It was more of a shock for people that we was actually pulling up in their hood while they was doing their thing, trapping on their block, that we weren't afraid to pull up.

When you went to bring CMG to Epic, did L.A. Reid reach out to you?
Epic called me. At the time, I'd been making money for so long it was ridiculous. I was caked up! Nobody's check can sign me. You can't write a check big enough to sign me, unless it's $10-20 mil. It was more about what your staff is like, and if you're on the same page as me. And when I met with L.A. Reid the first time, probably ten minutes in, I knew that if I was gonna do another deal, it would be with him. He wanted to be involved, hands-on. And I'm a hands-on person.

What are the biggest things you've learned that are informing where you're going now?
I bring in a lot of things I've learned from the past into every situation. How you're putting out records, making sure the timing is right for records—these are things I've learned from my previous situations, which I wouldn't say is all the record label's fault. Keeping the momentum going and going, having different looks at the same time, or having different looks virally and national video looks, and just making sure everything in the puzzle is together. That's what you want. You want the puzzle to be perfect, all the little pieces to come together, and that will give you the overall big look. And then going in and putting in the work, putting this tour together, 60 days, starting today and ending in New York on my release date, the I Am Tour. I'm involved in everything, hands on to make sure that the people get exactly what they paid for and what they come to see. I'm just trying to put it all together, man.

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