Exclusive: Gulfport, Mississippi native, Tito Lopez explains why he approaches Hip Hop like playing Nintendo--and how all the games end when he enters the recording booth.
Spend five minutes with Tito Lopez, and there’s no hiding the fact that he’s a product of the ‘90’s. His points of reference span Nintendo games—that would be 8-bit, NES cartridges, not Wii discs—and Nickelodeon cartoons that are no longer airing. He calls his flow “vintage/future,” and despite only being 24-years-old, he began compiling his Rap catalogue when people were using MySpace instead of Facebook and Twitter.
Yet the Gulfport Mississippi native clearly embraces the ethos of Hip Hop from the ‘80’s and early-to-mid ‘90’s. He and his team turned down at least one offer from a popular, major label in favor of garnering more support via a deal with Capitol. And that same youthful face that beams when making “Keenan & Kel” jokes is contorted in disgust when the subject of Hip Hop’s current circle-jerk, buddy-buddy culture is mentioned. His skills have earned the recognition of Dr. Dre, Sway Calloway and other vets. But like both a disgruntled veteran that knows better and a newcomer that just doesn’t care, he wants success on his own terms and merits.
DX: We don’t normally ask this. But since this is an on-camera interview, can you introduce yourself?
Tito Lopez: I’m just a young kid from Gulfport, Mississippi…228 area code. I had young parents. So when I was coming up all they played was Biggie, all the South stuff like UGK and 8Ball & MJG. But then they’d turn around and play Das EFX, A Tribe Called Quest, all the Bad Boy stuff and all the Death Row shit. My mom loved all that shit. I could call her now, and she would just spit you a Biggie verse. That’s her favorite rapper, and my management team met her when we went to shoot a video [in Gulfport]. I was just born and raised like an encyclopedia of Hip Hop. I think I was like five-years-old checking out Kris Kross thinking, “I wanna be like them. They’re kids rappin’, and I wanna be like that.” Since then I had been making mixtapes on the low for years. It didn’t really pop like that, but I was building my fan base. Everyone has a different path.
But the last year—this last 365 days—has been crazy. Folks have started paying attention lately. We’re Mississippi, showing that we got lyrics down there. I love it because I ain’t one that got the huge, heavy accent. So a lot of people might not know how to take me. They may want me to be a certain way like, “I want him to have a heavy accent so I can catch him automatically.” Or they think, “I want him to be country so I can catch him automatically. I want him to be from Brooklyn ‘cause he sound like he’s from New York.” Some people might not take me as I am. But they’ll get to know. This is the real…something exciting I believe.
HipHopDX: On “Conversation With Tito,” you talk about Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, Eazy-E and others with all the wordplay. How important is it for newer artists to bridge that gap?
Tito Lopez: It is important to some, and it may not be important to others. I think it’s kind of like how I used to play video games. I don’t anymore. But a lot of video games used to have exhibition mode and then you had storyline mode. I would always play storyline mode, and that’s why I stopped playing. I would sit and play a video game for two years and lose focus trying to beat The Legend of Zelda, Super Mario Brothers and shit like that. And I think what you’re seeing now is a lot of kids back in storyline mode. It’s not that I’m trying to be like that. It’s just natural. For people who didn’t follow it like that, they just care about the records.
They don’t care about the old school or about bridging the gap like you said. But me, and these new cats you see with real artistry are just playing the game in storyline mode. To me, I feel like in Hip Hop you saw who came before you. You saw the dimensions, and you saw the steps. You saw this legends, and you saw this person may have passed away. Another person may have came along to carry on the torch. It was just Hip Hop in storyline mode, and I always looked at it like that. Most cats out here are just in exhibition mode. Their mind state is, “I’m just playing. I’m out here, and I’m making this record for this money. I’ma get mine and go out here and do my thing.” But I’m kinda just in storyline mode, and I think people can see that. But that takes a little longer to beat the game than just running an exhibition.
DX: You mentioned the last 365 days, and even how doing “Sway In The Morning” boosted your profile. Was there one particular song video or look that really was the tipping point?
Tito Lopez: It probably was the Dre video with him saying, “I fuck with this cat.” I can’t lie about that. After that, it made a whole lot of people pay attention. I had been doing this for years, and I got a gang of mixtapes and stuff like that. But we started getting into the mindset of, “Okay, people are paying attention. Do we need to go make a little free album?” Most mixtapes are like albums anyway, but I just felt confident in the stuff I had before to just do a couple reloaded things to make people pay attention to what I’ve been doing.
Tito Lopez: It could be. To me, Hip Hop is unpredictable so you never know. It’s just like when Houston had its run in 2005, and then it slowed down a little bit. And that’s no disrespect to Houston. But you never know within the span of two weeks when something could start popping off. All I know is if people start paying attention to Mississippi and going down there and looking, then I did my part.
K.R.I.T. is in a different lane than I’m in, and Banner’s in a different lane—and we’re all moving at different speeds. But we’re all in the same race. To me, of course I represent Mississippi until the day I die. But that’s icing on the cake, and the cake is Hip Hop. I represent Hip Hop period, but it is Mississippi. It’s a beautiful thing man, and if they start paying attention that’s great.
DX: A lot of labels are stacking talent left and right. Given your situation with Capitol, how important is it to be a centerpiece at a label?
Tito Lopez: It’s very important to me. That’s why me and my manager Wok made the decision. We sat down, and we could’ve went anywhere with it because I’ve got friends and partners at different labels. But we thought of that automatically, and I had to give myself a pat on the back for that. Most cats don’t think like that. I wanted to go where it’s not automatically assumed you think of Hip Hop. When you say Hip Hop, you think of Def Jam or Interscope. Or you think of crews—Aftermath, YMCMB, MMG, etc. We’re trying to think in terms of taking something from the bottom to the top. When we say the voice of the underdog, we mean that for real. I’m an underdog rapper, and on the album we’ve got underdog producers. We’re an underground label.
It’s funny you brought up Hammer being on Capitol earlier, because I used to have the Hammer doll with the little boombox. And my grandma used to call me saying, “You used to dance to Hammer all the time.” Now I walk into the office, and he’s got a diamond plaque on the wall. I’m on the same label he was on.
So that was the deciding factor along with the fact that everywhere else was like an assembly line. We go over here, and we can just be big fish in a small pond as opposed to going somewhere with cats that have been out. They’d just have me at the bottom of the list. And this is a business at the end of the day. Now we can get the attention I feel I deserve. It’s not arrogance, but I know what breed of emcee I am. I not a rookie, and that’s why I don’t care to get caught up in freshman lists and covers. No disrespect to the people that make them, but I don’t feel like a rookie. I may be one to everyone else, but obviously, with the bars I’m spitting I’m like a veteran in a rookie’s body.
DX: In this day and age, free projects are as good as albums. I was looking at your MySpace from years back and seeing the groundwork that you put in. Do you think Hip Hop is finally going to start judging artists on projects versus albums as far as their tenure?
Tito Lopez: I think it’ll probably stay balanced out. A lot of people have that show and prove mentality. It’s like the cat that told me to get hot first. If he saw I had a bunch of prior projects, he may have jumped on it. Some people could be going only off of talent and not pay any attention to that. They’re thinking, “I don’t give a damn if this cat only has one song, he’s rapping better than this dude over here. So I’m fucking with him.” I’d prefer people be in that mindstate if I had to pick. But I think it’ll stay balanced out, and people will want to see the projects first. Half of the time it’s just about numbers and looking at your past shit. And I appreciate you going back, but I always knew this would happen. When I was doing my mixtapes back then, I was trying to get them to pop off like a Drake or whoever. But that’s God’s path that it didn’t go like that. I’m in a position now, and I’ve seen cats blow up without having any groundwork like that.
From my perspective, I’d be like, “Damn, he’s not really even that dope. I’m supposed to go buy his album, and I don’t even know where you came from. You’re just shoving it in my face.” If people decide to go buy my album, they’re already going to get incredible music. But you can also sit back and know that I’ve been putting in work for a long time.
DX: The title “Conversation With Tito” was a little misleading, because it was more about showcasing your skill set than being introspective. Tell me a little bit more about that being one of your bigger records and being multi-dimensional.
Tito Lopez: Oh, yeah. Everything we do is strategic. I hate to use the word lyrical, but I really am. By definition, the words to a song are called lyrics, so everybody has lyrics. But it’s all wordplay, and I happen to be incredible at it. I have to give credit to my manager Wok, because we move like Siamese twins. It was his decision to call it “Conversation With Tito.” Like I said, I just go in there with the verses. We figure out the hook and all of that stuff later. Let me just say what I want to say over the beat. I went in there writing it, and I told him, “This shit is just gonna sound like I’m talking to you.” It’s even offbeat sometimes, like where I say, “I don’t know what the fuck you think is going on, nigga.” And he was telling me, “Yeah, yeah. Keep doing that shit.” Later on, we were using makeshift names because none of the songs had titles. We called that “Tito Talking” or “Tito Conversation” or something like that. So my man hit me one day and asked, “Yo, you got that ‘Conversation With Tito’?” I didn’t know what the fuck he was talking about, because I never named the song that. But we eventually settled on that name because it sounds like I’m talking to them.
Not to point at the label or anything like that, but in this day and age it’s a record-driven business. So we’ve got records coming after this that are incredible. They’re still bouncy and carefree, but they also have lyrics. It would be the common decision to say, “Let’s drop that right now…you just dropped ‘Mama Proud,’” so let’s do something for the club and you can be hot.’” But our plan was to drop something where we just say, “Fuck melody. Fuck all this other stuff. Just listen to the lyrics.” We were talking about performing that song at some of the South By Southwest showcases, because I’m more lyric-driven when I’m performing. So I can’t take it personal if the crowd doesn’t move, because they’re in sync and listening to every fucking word.
But the plan was always to make that the biggest record, because the first time people saw me I was freestyling for Dre. If the first time they saw me had have been from a record, they would’ve been expecting that next. My first look was just going bar for bar in front of one of the biggest producers. So naturally, they’re like, “Okay, I want more of that.” So we gave them that, and that’s just what I do naturally.
DX: Given that you don’t fit the Mississippi stereotype, and you prefer the underdog, how are you putting the project together in terms of the feel it has to it?
Tito Lopez: It’s actually being put together by however I feel. I don’t even categorize things as far as being Southern or this or that. I go off what I like and what I respect. We’ve got Organized Noize on the album, and to me those dudes are legends. They did all the Dungeon Family stuff and more, but you’ve got 14-year-old kids in Atlanta that only know about Roscoe Dash and Travis Porter and aren’t paying attention to them. So to me [Organized Noize] is underdogs. You could’ve sold 80 million records, but right now is what matters. Right now, if I feel you’re an underdog I’m gonna go with you. It’s all about the music. We need to take away this stigma in the game about the names—because a lot of the cats with big names are making garbage. Cats that may not be household names are making some of the best music. So if we can take that away, then we did what we’re supposed to do.
We have creative control, and we do what we want to do. Capitol tells us, “Go do what you want and make this Hip Hop, then we’ll get behind you.” So it really wasn’t a question of names or trying to be Southern.
With the dialect—I’m a normal person and a human—I used to get frustrated. I’d be in my bedroom thinking, “Maybe I need to sound more Southern so they can take me off top.” But I had great people like my homeboys Dee and Wok telling me, “No. That’s what makes you you. You are a black dude from Mississippi with a Spanish name who sounds like he’s from Brooklyn.” It was dope once I started looking at it in that light. It’s just something so original that people are not going to know how to take it off top. All I know is they’re going to know by that feeling…so quit thinking about it. Music is not supposed to be thought about. Use your heart not your head. I know when they push play, there’s no denying it.
I am the best. I salute everybody out here getting money, but it’s too much of this, “Kumbaya, let’s all hold hands and jump on the same remix” shit. There’s no differentiation in Hip Hop. When I came up, you had Wu-Tang over here sounding one way. Death Row was over here, and Ruff Ryders was in another lane. That’s what I represent. I’m from Mississippi, this is what I sound like and this is how I do it. I’m not out here kissing no asses, and we don’t want you kissing ours. Y’all do what y’all do, and we’ll do our thing. We’ll salute each other on the way, but standing out is what it’s about. The competition is missing. So sounding the way I sound, you know there’s no one standing next to me. And that’s how it’s supposed to be.
DX: There are a few bars during the second verse of “Conversation With Tito,” and I don’t think anyone really knows what you’re saying. Can you break that down?
Tito Lopez: “When GPT was getting no P.T. / They all thought it was dumb to pick us / They ain’t seen no real monster / Oblina Krumm and Ickis...”
GPT is my city—Gulfport—and it’s also my crew, the Great People of Today. So I feel like anytime I say GPT, I’m bringing my city with me. And P.T. is playing time, so it’s just a wordplay thing. On that next line, nobody knows what I’m talking about but they just rap it anyway. When I was coming up, it was an old cartoon called “Aaahh!!! Real Monsters” on Nickelodeon. And the three monsters’ names were Oblina, Krumm and Ickis. They had the cat named Krumm who used to hold his eyeballs in his hand, and the girl Oblina was like a candy cane monster. My homeboy Steve at the label has no idea what I’m saying in that line, but he raps it all the time as if he does. So I laugh at him like, “You don’t have no idea what I’m talking about, nigga.” You gotta be 24 and younger!
But I do that all the time, because the small number of fans I do have are cult fans. I swear to God, some cat hit me on Facebook saying, “I just had my firstborn son, and I let him hear ‘It’s Hard.’ That’s the first thing he heard when I took him from the hospital in the car.” When I spit those lines for people that were my age growing up, they’ll be like, “Oh, I know that show.” People remember “Keenen & Kel,” “Rugrats,” “Doug” and all that shit. There’s more normal people in Rap than it is niggas who are getting money and fucking bitches all day. That’s all it was.
Additional Reporting by Jake Paine