In January, Memphis rapper Yo Gotti — born Mario Mims — witnessed the release of his major-label debut, Live From the Kitchen. Released by RCA, it’s Gotti’s first label-released album since 2006’s Back 2 Da Basics, for prominent national indie TVT.
You might think this would be a life-changing event for Gotti, who has ascended to the top of the Memphis rap scene in the years between official albums. But being on a major label is, for most artists, not what it used to be. And, for Gotti, Live From the Kitchen arrives after literally years of delays.
“The first reason, I turned in the album maybe three times,” Gotti says, explaining the rolling delays. “The first set of songs I turned in leaked out, and that sent us back to the drawing board. I turned in a second set of songs. They leaked out. That sent me back to the drawing board again. But that’s not a problem with me because I record so much. I have music. Swapping the songs out is not a thing to me.”
Gotti — who’s reached a wider audience in his hometown via regular appearances at the University of Memphis basketball’s annual “Memphis Madness” event — wasn’t exactly without product in the multiyear wait for Live From the Kitchen. He’s released innumerable self-released “mixtape” collections — usually recorded in two- to four-day sessions. And he released several high-profile singles: “Five Star” (Fall 2009), Lil Wayne duet “Women Lie, Men Lie” (Spring 2010), “We Can Get it On” (Summer 2011), and the current “Single.”
“It’s just more product out there to me,” Gotti says of the Live From the Kitchen release. “We’re just about getting good music to the people; however we need to go about that, whether it’s an album or mixtape or single.”
Even on Live From the Kitchen’s life-story opener “Testimony,” Gotti admits that he doesn’t trust record labels.
“They put the album out without a lot of promotion, I think,” Gotti says of RCA, “but from the perspective of the fans actually getting to get it, I’m good with that.”
"I know the pain and all the [stuff] you been through/I just want to see your dreams come true" - Yo Gotti from "We Can Get It On"
The album gives a pretty good sense of Gotti’s range, from aggressive tracks like “Harder” (with Miami-based star Rick Ross) and “Cases” to more soulful material — singles where Gotti ably plays the roughneck Romeo. (Despite his so-called “gangsta rapper” reputation, Gotti estimates that women make up 65 to 75 percent of the audience at his shows.)
One of these tracks is the aforementioned single “We Can Get It On,” the title implication ranging from a backseat lunch-break assignation to something more long-lasting: “I know the pain and all the [stuff] you been through/I just want to see your dreams come true,” Gotti raps.
Arguably the album’s strongest track, the song’s existence is almost accidental.
“I did that song at Young Avenue Studio with [Memphis-bred producer] Drumma Boy,” Gotti remembers. “Drumma had a party in Memphis one day. He came into the studio. I laid a hook on three beats he did. I didn’t finish none of the songs. When I went to New York to play some music for the label, I was playing songs and I actually played that song by mistake. There were no verses on it, only the beat and the chorus. Once I realized it wasn’t the right song, I cut it off. But they said, play that back, play that again. And I was like, ‘This ain’t finished. It’s just a chorus.’ I went and put the verses on it after the fact, after they thought it was something they could go with.”
While the album release has led to some promotional opportunities — including a recent appearance on BET — it hasn’t changed Gotti’s day-to-day career arc, which, like most working musicians, is based around touring.
“I live on the road,” Gotti says. “Touring and merchandising, that’s one of the main resources of music. When labels ain’t getting part of that from you, you see a difference in their effort. I’m one of them artists where I get everything. The label don’t get none of that.”
The night before we’d talked, Gotti had done a couple of shows in Nashville — one for a couple of thousand students at Tennessee State University, followed by a late-night show at the club Limelight — en route to a week of business in New York.
Tennessee State features prominently in Gotti’s songs, envisioning a TSU woman on the Live From the Kitchen track “Cases” and the original “Five Star” single (the remix of “Five Star,” which dates from Fall 2009 and features a guest spot from a then largely unknown Nicki Minaj, concludes the album).
“I tried to go to TSU. They wouldn’t let me in, though,” Gotti reveals with a laugh.
After graduating from Trezevant High School, Gotti applied to TSU, but wasn’t initially accepted.
“I don’t remember what I made on my ACT. Maybe the score was too low. They were telling me I had to go to a smaller college and then transfer, so I came back and went to Southwest [Tennessee Community College],” Gotti says. “That was my plan. To go there for a semester or whatever I had to do, then transfer back up to TSU. I ended up going to Southwest, but that was around the time I started touring and missed too many days. I had to pick.”
But they’ll let Gotti into TSU now to perform for their students.
“Yeah, most definitely,” Gotti says. “And give me that check.”