Everyone, including him, is hard-pressed for time, and he’s just hours away from taking the stage at the TIDAL X Brooklyn benefit concert later on in the evening. His crew of managers, a security guard and personal photog bustle to their duties around him. You can’t identify any urgency by looking at him, though.
Gotti munches away on some crunchy snack as he bends the corner and strolls into a room preparing for just another conversation with the media as far as he’s concerned. A first glance at him is nothing out of the ordinary for a rap artist with a radio-banging, money-motivating, hip-hop track titled “Rake It Up.” He’s comfortable in a black hoodie, black pants, designer kicks and all the makings of a rap star. Blinding, diamond-encrusted chains hang on his neck. A heavy watch and gleaming bracelets bulge from his wrists. The size of the rings swelling from his index and middle finger would make for one hell of a brass knuckle. Ironically enough, it isn’t the weight of Gotti’s rap star presence that’s intimidating, though — it’s his silence.
Born as Mario Mims in 1981, self-made into a Memphis projects street hustler and elevated to rap’s VIP circle as an artist and record label lead, Gotti intuitively harbors hustler habits he picked up along the way. Talking, especially too much of it, is easily outlawed in the streets. “I’m not a ranter on Twitter or Instagram — that ain’t how I’m rocking,” he says. “So most times, the only way [to hear me] is to listen to the album to hear my opinion or how I feel. That’s the only place I can talk.”
The 36-year-old found a safe haven in music during the late ‘90s with the studio release of his debut album, Youngstas on a Come Up. The 1996 cassette tape project unleashed seven tracks of bouncy, lo-fi sound into the streets, reminiscent of another familiar hip-hop face, or faces rather, of Gotti’s southern territory: Three 6 Mafia. The tape exists as an evolutionary symbol, from the amateur quality and production all the way down to his adolescent, pre-Gotti rap alias at the time, Lil Yo. “Funky Town,” one of the tape’s standouts, boasted four features from fellow underground “Lil’s”: Lil T, Lil Maniyak, Lil Try and Lil John The Crooked. The high-pitched, 15-year-old Lil Yo was barely past puberty. Not his bars, though.
“To these buck a** n****s who be startin' that funk,” he spit on the record. “Just spread yo Glock, and start to po/And lay them lemmas in the trunk/A buck a** n***a from The Crest who grew up breakin' da law/I started stompin' heads, I stopped, because I know that’s so raw.” As a young street hustler finding asylum in a recording studio, the then-Lil Yo was fearless in the face of the streets’ two way endgame: the cell or the grave. And not because he wanted to be, but because he had to be.
“What scared me was my mother getting evicted from my house,” he says. “Seeing them repo my momma’s car once. Wondering if I didn’t provide for her where she was going to be or if I didn’t provide for her, where my sister was going to be. Those are the things that scared me. I’m not saying it’s the right thing. But, just speaking on myself as a youngin’ at 12 or 13-years-old, I accepted the risks, knowing that my mama was going to have a roof over her head and that my sister was going to go to school. That was just the choice I made in life.”
Fearful or not, the mercilessness of life on the streets is heavy enough to numb anyone from the inside out. Coming from a family of the “strongest women on earth,” as he heralds them, Gotti has seen all seven of his aunts stand federal prison sentences. Help and giving is the nucleus of his family’s bond. On the streets, there’s no such thing. In fact, it’s one of the most obvious symptoms of weakness and that reality changes the heart. “It’s a challenge as a good-hearted person, and the rules of the street,” he informs. “In order to survive and not become weak in the streets, your heart gotta be different.”
Gotti dropped a succession of solo albums, From da Dope Game To Da Rap Game, Self-Explanatory, Life and Back 2 Da Basics. His first mixtape, in 2006, Full Time Hustlin’, spelled out for fans what life before fame looked like to Gotti:
I was movin' 'caine just doin' my thang
Down here in Memphis where we off the chain
Now, turn the top on my sixty-seven class then I'm switchin' lanes
I done served a fiend, sipped the lean, twenty-four inches don't cloud my screen (“Gangsta Party,” 2006)
For everyone else, tapping into the spirit of a Memphis trapper was just a play button away on his early, pre-major label catalogue.
It would then seem that any expectation of a meaningful conversation off wax between Gotti and a total stranger is wishful thinking, at best. Thankfully, that’s not his mood for this chilly afternoon. But he is practicing another skill mastered frequently in the hustler’s curriculum: remaining in control of the opposition. In this case, the conversation. “Life as a street hustler anywhere in America is dangerous, it’s risky” he warns. “As a street hustler, you’ve got to be smarter than everybody. You have to outsmart the police, you have to outsmart the people in competition with you, you have to outsmart all the opposition.” In its rawest form, hustling is strategy, but not a simple strategy by any means.
“The ones who are really successful and the ones that transition out of it, they’re almost like geniuses to me,” he acknowledges. “Because we all know where the majority of it ends at.”
Meanwhile, the streets were only the starting line for Gotti. His humble beginnings launched his career in the same way his Cocaine Muzik creation sparked a chain of successful mixtape installments. Inadvertently, the moniker stuck as the name for his self-founded record label, previously dubbed Cocaine Muzik Group, home to Memphis rap stars like Moneybagg Yo, Blac Youngsta and Snootie Wild. Mixtape extensions to the Cocaine Muzik series like Cocaine Muzik 5: White Friday, Cocaine Muzik 6: Gangster of the Year and Cocaine Muzik 8: Any Hood America insist authenticity on his street origins. But, the trap-stricken brand would later need to be brushed up as Gotti leveled up. And who better qualified to influence that decision than a fellow hustler-turned-helmer and industry big dog 50 Cent?
“It’s actually a secret because I never think I told anybody this, but I had a conversation with 50 Cent one time, and we was talking about Cocaine Muzik Group, CMG, and what it means,” Gotti recounts. “It was actually advice that 50 Cent gave me. I never even told anybody that before.”
While flashing back to his conversation with Fif, a smile grows onto Gotti’s face, replacing the apathy that absorbed his energy before. The Get Rich Or Die Tryin’ rap icon passed down advice as a former street pharmacist who had risen to the big leagues. In those years, Fif studied the essence of separation to attain elevation.
“He was like, ‘Yo, keep making your music,’” Gotti remembers. “‘You don’t have to change, but, certain things are just too harsh. It scares people, you know? And going to the next level, if you can, certain things you should just clean up a little. But, don’t change. You don’t have to change who you are, but it’s something as simple as the title to what you represent.”
A makeover was in order for CMG, and thus, Collective Muzik Group was born.
Gotti didn’t escape from cocaine and its likenesses so easily, however. It’s a subject of necessary evil that manifests itself elsewhere, such as “2809,” a record that brings Gotti to the confessional cabinet of a trapper’s conscience. Naivety and money lust invade the psyches of the underprivileged. They go overlooked as common vices to a young, Black Memphis youth striving to economically protect his family, even if that means slinging dope to the mother of one of his closest friends.
“2809” isn’t just the apartment complex address belonging to Gotti’s childhood friend, it’s a number that brings those moral ills into repentance for the Memphis native.
“Him, his mother and his little brother lived in that apartment and was my homeboy,” Gotti describes of the Frayser City nostalgia. “His little brother was young and his mama was on crack. Now, we used to do everything in and out of their house, even sell his momma crack. And he was our partner. As a youngin’, I didn’t see nothing wrong with that. I felt like, you know, she buying crack from everybody in the neighborhood, why wouldn’t I make the money too? And this my partner.”
Now, at 36, Gotti understands why he shouldn’t have made that money. More importantly, he hopes his partner understands, too, and accepts the apology for the errors of his younger ways.
“‘2809, Apartment 4/We was trappin’ in and out the door,’” Gotti spits from the track. “‘I just served my partner momma, she’s a crack fiend/Damn, I remember,’ And I be like, ‘I want to apologize, homie/I ain’t realize, homie/I had the hustler instinct, everything was monetized, homie/Your little brother look like my brother, left him traumatized, homie.’ It’s like I never even apologized to him in real life, but I did on this album. Hopefully, when he hears, he accepts it. Or, at least, he knows that today I realize I probably shouldn’t have been doing that s**t.”
While reliving such a poignant, regrettable time of his past, Gotti doesn’t wear his emotions on his sleeve. Instead, he wears what may be considered the vices of others on them. “Palm” is inscribed on the right arm of his black hoodie and “Weed” on the other. The words hold meaning to Gotti’s past — storied and dynamic. What remains fixed in his story is the same thing that’s fixed on his chest in the center of that same hoodie: “Money.” The word “Music” might be more fitting in the same position, a therapeutic motivator for the Art of Hustle emcee.
“The way that I was hustling in the streets is the same way I’m hustling in the music business,” Gotti explains. “When I was in the street, I was the first one up, I was the last one asleep. I out-hustled everybody that was around me. So, in the music business, I do the same exact thing. There’s nobody on my staff or that works around me that stays up longer than me or that wakes up earlier than me. It just don’t matter to me. You got to out-hustle everybody. I got that from the streets.” It’s safe to say that the vast majority of Gotti’s hustle was earned from the streets. That doesn’t stagnate his industry-accrued growth, though, and the climbing succession of his album catalog justifies that.
on Billboard’s Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums and Top Rap Albums with The Art of Hustle. Three years prior, his self-declarative I Am reeled in the No. 2 slot on the same charts. 2012’s Live From The Kitchen sat at No. 4 and Back 2 Da Basics of 2006 sat at No. 6 on the Top R&B/Hip-Hop albums chart and No. 3 on the Top Rap Albums chart. Not to mention that, when joined with another chart-topping hip-hop act, Nicki Minaj, Gotti always scores a hit to add to the vault, like the aforementioned radio-banger “Rake It Up” and his “5 Star B***h (Remix)” of 2009.
Gotti wears his growth as comfortably as the three words emboldened on his hoodie.
“I feel like I grow in a different space every year, some kind of way” he says. “Blessings. I have a bigger record than I had the last year and another bigger record than I had the year before that and I just keep going to different platforms. Things change within growth and sometimes people don’t understand growth — your fans, your friends, your partners — they don’t understand.”
It’s true. Yo Gotti is changing. And not everyone is comfortable with change, let alone comprehends it. Those people may then find better comfort in the premise of the CMG boss’s 2017 studio undertaking: I Still Am. In a hood society where suits are only appropriate for church, court and funerals, Gotti feels it even more timely to remind everyone that the more things change for him, the more they stay the same.
“I Still Am is a statement to remind them and whoever else,” he proclaims. “Don’t get it twisted of who I am in the heart and in mind. Don’t let clothes, apparel, success, plaques and nominations get s**t twisted with who Yo Gotti is. I still am.”
After lounging in a chair and spilling secrets to an outsider for 20 minutes, Gotti has to get going. He lifts slowly from his seat and his eyes sift through the room’s darkness, battling the glare of beaming LED lights. He’s generous — but smile-less — with photo ops before reuniting with his team and strapped even tighter for time now. A line of handshakes and “thank yous” lead him to his exit as he slips away in silence. Gotti is no easy read. His tardiness paired with his aloofness would leave anyone with a ton of inquiries.
Most of them had been answered, and thoroughly so. Especially the most important one: “Who the f**k is Yo Gotti?”