Hip-hop as a Power Tool for Self-Examination

An interview with Starlito

“It’s about remaining a freethinker”

At the beginning of “Nightmares,” the penultimate song on the second of Starlito’s three full-length mixtapes from 2012, the twenty-nine-year-old Nashville rapper distortedly intones, “The last three books I read were The Power of Habit, Hop on Pop, and Dream Psychology.” What follows is a claustrophobic detailing of Starlito’s nightmares—an overzealous PO, no “pot to piss in,” stuck on a label full of “extra middlemen”—atop a terrain well summarized by his recent reading list of pop science, Dr. Seuss, and Freud.

Starlito’s sound has come to be defined by his husky and lithe vocals, embrace of sample-driven soft-rock beats, and complex wordplay. He made a short-lived attempt at traditional commercial success in the middle part of the last decade (while on Cash Money Records, he made a cameo as Lil Wayne’s teammate in Birdman and Wayne’s basketball-based “Pop Bottles” video), and he has spent the past few years self-releasing music and charismatically mapping his psyche on record.

—Joshua Bauchner

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THE BELIEVER: You clearly thrive online—a twenty-two-minute music video, pay-what-you-will releases, big presences on Twitter and Instagram, and so on—but you also remain rooted in Nashville and Tennessee and turn out huge crowds for your live shows there. How do you balance the internet career, in which everyone wants new shit for free all the time, with boots-on-the-ground fan-base building, which actually pays the bills?

STARLITO: The internet stuff only goes so far; if people can’t see you, can’t touch you, they can’t gain a real appreciation for what you’ve got going on—if it’s real or not. That’s where a twenty-two-minute video comes from: it’s both trying to give you insight and showing you, OK, I’m not on television like the rest of your favorite rappers or the other guys of the moment, but I have a comparable product. Twenty-two minutes being the standard thirty-minute TV show minus the eight minutes of advertising. I’m not so stubborn to think being on a major label is what prevents other rappers from doing this, that being independent is what allows me or any rapper to kick it from a real place. Regardless of the business stuff, it’s about remaining a freethinker, a free spirit.

It’s almost overwhelming to think that I haven’t had a song on the radio in three years; I haven’t been associated with a record label or any kind of entity other than my own LLC for the last two and a half years. And I made more money in 2011 than I ever had in a year rapping; and I made more money in 2012 than I did in 2011. At this point, it’s not just about the money. If it were, I would approach things differently. But even though I’m not doing it from a commercial standpoint, it’s still becoming more and more commercially viable.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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Joshua Bauchner is a writer, editor, and student living in New Jersey. His work has appeared in Bookforum, Cabinet, and Triple Canopy.

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