INTERVIEW: Tito Lopez
Tito Lopez isn’t bothered by not yet reaching household name-status. He’s not intimidated by the legions of blog stars snatching deals off digital metrics like page views and Twitter followers. As he tells it, this Mississippi-kid with an “East Coast” flow was signed strictly off talent, and talent is always paramount. In this interview with The Couch Sessions, Tito Lopez talks the Dungeon Family, Dr. Dre, and how he landed a deal with Capitol Records sans significant online presence. It’s alright if you haven’t heard of him. He’s here anyway.
The Couch Sessions: You’re in the middle of a beat-eating media blitz so to speak. You’ve been doing a lot of press over the past couple of weeks building up to the release of your mixtape, “Hunger Games.” How are you feeling?
Tito Lopez: I’m feeling great. I’ve probably gotten four hours of sleep in the last four months but it’s all good because I’m running off adrenaline. Everywhere I go, they ask me to rap. Rap. Trademark. Rap. And it be trippin me out because they’ll be like, “You know most rappers come up here and they don’t wanna rap.” They’re not rappers, I guess. I don’t know. I used to get caught up and not try to spit the same verse here that I did there but it’s different audiences so I pick what I want to.
Tito Lopez: RapFix, yeah. So it’s a good platform. Somebody might not have seen LA Leakers. I’m on with Sway. I’ve got a dope punchline in this verse so I’m gonna do it. I normally beat myself up about that, but I’m not going to [anymore].
The Couch Sessions: That sounds like it must be a transition process for you. You’re a real competitive emcee. You seem to value the competitive aspect of Hip Hop.
Tito Lopez: Absolutely. I think that’s kind of lost right now.
The Couch Sessions: You’re from Gulfport, Mississippi. New York cats are starting embrace the Southern style these days. But you have a New York style…
Tito Lopez: I’ve heard that. People will say, “You don’t sound like you’re from Mississippi.” And most of the people that say that have never been to Mississippi, so they’re just going off of what stereotype they’ve heard. In actuality, in Mississippi – in Jackson and stuff like that – they have the accents. I’m from the bottom. It’s Gulfport, Biloxi, Long Beach – all that down there on the water don’t really have heavy accents. I have a little bit of the South accent. It comes out when I’m talking. It just don’t happen to be heavy because when I’m rapping, I’m trying to get you to hear what I’m saying.
I’ve gotten called that before: “The South dude that sounds like he’s from the East Coast.” I never mind it until people try to brand it on me as if I should wear it as a compliment. They have lyricists in the South, dog. I came from Outkast and Scarface and Bun B and all types of shit. There’s lyricists everywhere.
The Couch Sessions: Wiz Khalifa is one of the biggest rappers in the world and he’s from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. There’s a lot of cats out in [Los Angeles] that have adopted New York sounding styles. In your opinion, does region even matter anymore?
Tito Lopez: I think it most definitely does, or at least it should, again. That would bring back that distinct style. It’s kind of like everybody always gets love everywhere. You have A$AP [Rocky] sounding Southern with the screwed up shit because he’s influenced by Houston. You get love in all different type of regions. It’s kind of a tip scale, double edged sword or something like that because everybody is getting love in other regions because a lot of cats sound the same. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it does take away from the distinction. When you came up, you remembered Ruff Ryder and how they sounded and they only had Swizz [Beatz] beats. You remembered Cash Money and how they sounded and they only had Mannie [Fresh’s] beats. I would never say I want people to go back to being segregated. I don’t. But, that was when some of the best music was out – when people just represented where they were from. It’s crazy for me to say because I want to get love and I want to be widely regarded and I’m very proud that I don’t sound like one thing. I was talking to my [Big] K.R.I.T. about this, too. We don’t sound the same and we’re both from Mississippi and that helps Mississippi.
I’m not at all trying to sound like I’m from the East Coast. I came up influenced by not just the Southern legends but also Nas, [The Notorious B.I.G.], [Jay-Z], [Eminem], [A Tribe Called Quest]. I can’t help it. I’m a jambalaya of all that.
The Couch Sessions: You only have one Southern group in your Top Five. I think that’s indicative of your open mindedness.
Tito Lopez: Absolutely. And even when I say Outkast in my Top Five, I always try to say it is Outkast, but also the whole [Dungeon Family]. I love them all. Goodie Mob was ahead of their time. I personally work with all of them. They’re my boys. But yeah, Outkast…I didn’t even think about there’s only one Southern group in my Top Five until you said it. That’s a good point you made.
The Couch Sessions: What’s it like being in the studio with Organized Noize? Is there pressure around that at all?
Tito Lopez: Nah, it’s incredible! It’s so much fun in the studio, man. We just have so much fun. Even working with [Dr. Dre] was a different environment than working with them. When I get in with them it’s the Dungeon Family and they call it that for a reason. They’re idols to me. When I met them, I had just signed my deal and went to work on my album. The first place I wanted to go was Atlanta and work with them. I stayed there for like a month and a half. I swear to God, we were supposed to be there for just a month but we ended up staying another three weeks. All we did was eat bar-b-q all day and just talk. We would not get work done sometimes because my manager, Wok [Watts] knows Rico, and they’re talking about old stories from back in the day. We just bring up the Backbone album and bring up Cool Breeze like, “Where Cool Breeze at?” [Laughs] I love Cool Breeze!
When I first met [the Dungeon Family], when I first got into the car, I was nearly in tears. I swear to God. They don’t understand the impact they had on me. Dungeon Family is my favorite crew. I’m very much a product of what they did. Working with them is very musical, too. I’ve got joints that you’re going to hear that’s coming real soon off the album. They can really play instruments. So I’ve got joints with live instruments but still with that funk. I think they’re some of the most talented dudes of all time.
The Couch Sessions: [Your manager] Wok [Watts] seems to be the linchpin to your access. He’s got history in this. He was breaking records Columbia/Ruffhouse Records back in the day. How did you link up with Wok?
Tito Lopez: I was in Mississippi. Me and him are like kindred souls. I was making music and putting it on the internet for years. I’ve got at least 10 or 11 mixtapes that I’ve been doing for years. I was putting them on a lot of different websites. I thought they were big websites. Apparently they’re small websites. I started realizing, why am I not blowing up? When only 20 people are looking at these websites. There’s not a big audience. But I got Allhiphop.com, HipHopGame.com. Certain ones started messing with me. And he heard my music through one of those sites. He keeps his ear to the streets. I think he was checking out what’s new. I think he had an artist on another label at the time that he was managing but got wind of my music just hearing it on the internet. He talked to the dude who posted it and was like, “Yo, where is he from?” Dude was like, “That’s Tito. He’s from Mississippi.” Wok was like, “Give me his number.”
So he called one day while I was driving and was like, “Yo, this is Wok.” I’m like, “Who? Dude, I’ve got to clock into work. Stop playing on my phone.” [Laughs] He said he liked the music. I had already had a few managers before so nothing really excites me. I’m just like whatever. He said he wanted to work with me. I said, “Cool.” My man is from New York and flew to Atlanta and then drove from Atlanta six hours to meet me. That alone showed me his character. He came to meet me, was driving on my street down my block asking people like, “Yo, you Tito? Where’s Tito?” He came and we went got something to eat and just talked about music and it just clicked. You feel like how I feel. You were in a classic era of Hip Hop and you was just participating. I was watching a classic era of Hip Hop and just being engulfed in it. We can take it over that way. We were hip tight since then.
The Couch Sessions: Was that conversation intimidating at all? You were talking to a cat who flew to Atlanta and drove six hours to talk to you. Did that moment feel like things were about to change?
Tito Lopez: Not at that moment, it didn’t. I’ll tell you the honest truth. I clicked and thought he was cool. But then he was like, “Yo, OK, so I gotta go. Give me your number. I’ve got to go handle some stuff but I’m gonna keep in contact with you. We’ve gotta make this happen. I was like, “Yeah, OK. It’s good to talk to you. I like talking music. But I’ve gotta get back up to go to work in the morning.” I’ve always been an older soul. I went through a lot of things early in life. I’m very grounded. Then I didn’t hear from him again for like six months. I heard from him sporadically. He’d call and be like, “I’m out here spreading your name. Just keep making that music.” I finally met him again when he came back down and we signed the contract [for him to be my manager] and it was on. As soon as I did that, we got the Capitol [Records] deal right after that.
The Couch Sessions: How long was that time frame?
Tito Lopez: I met him. Signed the management deal six moths after that. Then the Capitol deal happened in less than a year – maybe eight months later.
The Couch Sessions: So all of this started happening in 2010?
Tito Lopez: It was 2009 when I met him. I signed last Summer, so it happened [really fast]. We’re a two man team. Everywhere we go, they know the loud one and the quiet one.
The Couch Sessions: From this interview, I can’t tell which is which.
Tito Lopez: I was just about to say that because he hasn’t said shit and I’ve been talking for three hours. I’m loud, too. But he’s louder.
The Couch Sessions: What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned from Wok?
Tito Lopez: Be true to yourself and everything will come to you. I always believed that anyway, myself. I’m not at all saying shit that I ain’t lived in my records. If you can’t take your life and make it entertaining – because it’s still entertainment – then you’re not born to do this. If you’ve got [Andre 3000] saying “I’m going through the same thing that he has / True I got more fans than the average man but not enough loot to last me / Til the end of the week / I live by the beat like you live check to check…,” that’s real shit! What he’s saying is, “I’m broke, dog.” I got fans out here and that don’t mean shit. I believe in that. I just had that in a record: “Just because you’re on video and TV / It don’t make it no hit / If it you ain’t hit, you ain’t famous / If you ain’t famous, you broke / You do the math / They in first class / I be in coach.” I really put that still make it entertaining. I was always staying true to myself.
Another thing that he gave me was to keep my energy positive. He’s a very spiritual dude. Keep it positive, dog. Don’t be in a bad mood. I’ve been like that before: pessimistic. Since I’ve met him, I’ve become a lot more positive.
The Couch Sessions: It’s interesting you brought that verse up. You kicked that verse during your RapFix freestyle. It stands out and it’s an interesting line with so many examples of artists having success independently. How committed were you before you and Wok got together? Were you really thinking about just doing this on a completely independent level?
Tito Lopez: Oh yeah. Completely. Rapping was never something that I started doing. It’s just something I am. I live it and breathe it, so at least in my eyes, I always looked at it like I’m just making music. I’m going to continue to make music. Everybody that’s in my life through the music came to me. I’m just gonna keep making music and it brought me to Wok. It brought me to Capitol because it’s the right situation. It brought me in front of Dre or Goodie Mob and all these exciting incredible places I’ve been in the last year. Just wrapping brought me there. It never was like something I ever was gonna stop. I just do it. It’s a hobby that’s become my life, which I love. It’s like my leisure. I have a lot of songs. Dudes are like, “Why don’t you take some time and chill out.” I’m like, “You have no idea that moving around in hotels is the job part. When I get to go home and cut on a beat and write something, that’s leisure for me.” I was definitely committed. Like I say: “I don’t do this rap shit / Goddamn it I am it.” I would be independent. I would be major. I would be whatever if it was right. But if it was a major label that wasn’t right, I would just been independent in my bedroom.
The Couch Sessions: Your story is an outlier considering the way a lot of majors are moving. It seems like most artists get signed have massive online followings. You have more of a traditional story. Does it feel like you’re at a disadvantage at all?
Tito Lopez: I don’t feel disadvantaged at all. It’s bad to say because it seems like I’m taking shots, but I’m not. A lot of these dudes that think they’re winning, are losing. And a lot of people who think I’m losing are wrong. I’m winning. Everyone has a different goal. I don’t want to say they’re losing if that’s what they want to do. But a lot of times your records are bigger than you are. It’s only so long that you can continue to make a record, a record, a record. You’re gonna have to be a person at some time and if people aren’t buying into the person, then you’re lost. My personal goal is to be an icon or to be here ten years. Or have me a concert reminiscing; a “Fade To Black” after ten years. It’s about consistency. Even if they don’t get it at first, after a hit, a hit, a hit, they’ll get it.
My goal is to build my shit organically. So me not having a big following, I couldn’t be more proud. It could make you more proud to look yourself in the mirror and be like “Y’all niggas got signed off numbers.” I’m not knocking people that like your shit. I’m not discounting that. But, most of the labels aren’t the people. They just see the numbers. “We’ll give you a deal because you have those numbers.” I got signed off of impressing people. I went into the fucking label, spit, and they cut the checks. That’s what the fuck it’s supposed to be. That’s what Biggie did and all these classic dudes. If anything, I don’t care about myself. I like to do things to make other people happy, like shooting videos at home with my moms and all of my family in it. It made them happy to see that. If anything, I’m making it plausible for others. People complain about not having that “it” factor. Just be talented and you’ll get on. Look at Adele. Not to say that she doesn’t have “it” factor, but what is “it?” Her “it” factor is her voice. Mine’s is my rhymes. Biggies said “Hearth throb never / Black and ugly as ever.” It doesn’t matter. Talent is talent. So for me, it’s not at all a disadvantage. I got signed straight off talent. I even tell them in all my interviews, “I know you didn’t know me before I walked in here, but I’m here.” I’m doing something right. [Dr. Dre] is fucking with me. He likes it. And even if they didn’t like it, I’m still doing something right because I have my own measures of success.
I get a lot of resentment for that, too. Like, “How does this dude get to accomplish all these crazy things and I’ve never heard of him?” I’ll never take that for granted. I’m doing a whole bunch of shit that a lot of new dudes don’t get to do. You’ve got dudes working 15 years that don’t get in front of the producers I’ve been in front of. But, it’s God’s plan. I’m supposed to be here.