This February saw the release of an almost slept-on masterpiece of Southern rap music: Renaissance Gangster.
A street album that clocks in at eleven tracks in 42 minutes is a stroke against the current grain of contemporary rap’s obsession with excess. The sort work of cohesion that’s almost extinct these days, Renaissance Gangster is the product of two individuals, one handling beats the other handling vocals. The result is testament to the original simplicity, and transparency of rap music. Sleeping on Renaissance Gangster would be criminal.
FACT was lucky to catch up with these two talented and busy individuals to talk about the project and about how it came to fruition.
How did you two get together for Renaissance Gangster?
Starlito: “We were introduced professionally by a common acquaintance and Burn One then started shooting me some beats for Starlito’s Way 3, my street album. And…truth is Renaissance Gangster happened over about three studio sessions with Burn’s beats, when I realized I can’ necessarily make Starilto’s Way 3 sound like this…just cause, you know, Burn One’s just got his own sound and eventually that moulded its own project. I looked at it and I had gathered an album’s worth of material to tell my story with, and I think musically it told Burn One’s story as well. In the end we had carved our own niche, doing what we do and a great project was born.”
The record has a live feeling to it much like a Outkast or Goodie Mob album, could that be because you two were working together in the studio on this LP?
Burn One: “We didn’t actually get a chance to work together in person but hopefully we will in the future. What lead me into this musical direction was hearing him [Starlito] rap over a sample-based track. I liked how his voice sounded over that type of material, over those types of instruments. So, everything I worked on I did with him in mind. Everything I sent him was made just for him.”
Star, you talk about making “real gangster music” on this album. But this album sounds nothing like the type of music that most people would associate with “gangster”. To me this album is some straight chill weed smoking shit. How did you come to think of this sound as being “real gangster music”?
S: “I think the notion of being gangster, all the time, has been overdone. You associate it with being boisterous, loud or being a bully. And…to me…where I’m from, playing tough, or trying to be over the top doesn’t amount to anything. It’s about valuing, finding a value in what you stand for. It’s in the actual morals you stand for. Sometimes you gotta find your own space, your own zone and that’s the whole idea behind Renaissance Gangster.
“I mean dealing with all the obstacles and problems you encounter, coming from where I come from, it takes a lot just to have the resolve to take a step back and think for a moment. So thinking is the new gangster, that’s the undertone of the album. Being in your own space and doing you is more gangster than being in the game. That’s not more gangster than thinking about where you work, where you are, and thinking about where you want to be. I think a lot of people in my generation are walking around lost and it’s probably because they trying to follow some kind of trend or doing what they think they’re supposed to be doing. “
“I know what I was thinking/At least I was thinking.” [from ‘What Was I Thinking’]
S: “Yeah, okay. Well when I got those beats from Burn One he would tell me that there was something different in this batch [of instrumentals] and immediately the challenge for me was not to box myself around the music. In that case, that track gave me a lot more room to think about things.”
Yeah those beats make me think too. Burn is there anyone you think about a lot while making beats? How do you navigate making tracks that sound so classic but at the same time real fresh?
B: “I try to bring out the best in the artist [that I’m making tracks for]. I just try to find what their vibe is and focus on that. I’m really getting out on just sitting down to do beats, just to do beats, it doesn’t really work for me. I mean if I just sit down and don’t have an artist in mind it’s hard to think of a concept or get inspired. When I heard ‘International’ [a past Starlito track] I was like ‘okay, his flow is perfect for these records in my head’. So I just created something to take his style and enhance it, take him somewhere he might not have been yet.”
Burn One & Starlito: ‘Alright’
“With ‘Alright’ I didn’t even write one word down. I just listened to that track and it kind of told its own story for me.”
Lito, on this record you sound like you wrote and rapped everything in your robe and slippers in your living room or something. How can you afford to sound so relaxed? Did you always sound like that?
S: “Yeah. I’d say it has to be evolution. Listening to some of my older material, I could tell I hadn’t been too inspired at times. I mean the good material is a lot of the times just a result of me pouring into the music what’s already been sowed into my life.
“Also, there was very little editing done in that recording process [for Renaissance Gangster]. I mean I actually recorded myself on 10 of 11 of those songs and mixed myself on 10 of 11 of those songs. I might just ride around with one of those beats and by the time I pull up to the spot I would be ready to just pull up the Pro Tools session and go.
“I mean with ‘Alright’ I didn’t even write one word down. I just listened to that track and it kind of told its own story for me. So I guess it was easier to relax and some of the music actually pushed me into that direction. That’s how I prefer to be making my music. Its because of Burn One being so ready to understand the style of an artist. I think this project, as far as it captures me in my element, as a picture if you will, is more successful than anything I’ve done so far. And I’ve been releasing mixtapes till I’m blue in the face you know?”
As a quick sidetrack question, whats up with Starlito’s Way 3? You got that track on Renaissance Gangster called ‘March 13th’…
S: “Yeah, I pushed Starlito’s Way 3 back because of Renaissance Gangster. Because of the depth of the project, because I didn’t want that record to be overlooked.”
B: “I mean we’re still in the beginning stages of promoting the record. There’s still a lot of visual work that needs to be done. I mean it’s like there are still a lot of people that haven’t been exposed to us yet so that needs to get done. So we’re just trying to reach those people before we move on to the next project.”
Oh so you are both working on Starlito’s Way 3 as well? Are there more Burn One beats on there also?
B: “Uhh…yeah I think I got like three records on it. How many tracks do have on there Star?”
S: “Yeah I think three. ‘Alright’ is supposed to kind of be the first look for that album.”
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Burn One & Starlito: ‘Tired of Being Tired’
What are some things you’re influenced by outside of the music?
S: “Well earlier in my career when I still called myself All Star I had a big sports influence. Not just directly from being a fan, but also from the idea of sport and the competitive nature I liked about it. Being a rapper there’s a lot of parallels between athletics and performing.
“But music has become my passion all the time. Like I said, even from the technical side of it. To be an artist who cares enough about their craft to learn all the technical procedures of how to make myself sound exactly the way I want to sound. That’s a whole another level of the game, that’s part of the evolution you were asking about. It’s about more than just making lyrics and writing verses. Now when I hear a beat, I know how I want to rap, but I also know exactly how I want to sound, and how to make all the surrounding elements sound right. I’m knee deep in my art form.
“I also do some writing outside of my music too. I’m way more hands on with my mixtapes even, not to put any other artists down, just I know that from experience. By now I’m only a few steps away from the job of the DJ. Working with Burn One we probably made each other’s jobs way easier.”
B: “I think we just do a good job of helping each other out with the direction and complimenting each other. We’re not overbearing, we both just have good ideas and we just meet in the middle.”
Yeah you can tell things went easy on this record. So many tapes these days you just end up fast forwarding through half of it and it’s got no flow. This doesn’t feel like some network enterprise product.
B: “Yep. I think cohesion has a lot to do with that. If you look at any project that was great, they always had only one to two producers on the project. You look at Dre and Snoop, Outkast, Rick Rubin and Run DMC it wasn’t 12 different producers on the record, it was one producer who understood the artist and got the best out of them on the record. Recently with the Trunk Music tape I did with Yellawolf, you know, Will Power did all the beats on that and the project had lots of continuity and people responded to that. If it had been a lot of people behind it people wouldn’t have responded to it like they did.”
So how has the material from Renaissance Gangster fit or not fit into your performances?
S: “Well, its really so new that I didn’t get the chance to rehearse with it for this current tour I’m on. I definately think that ‘Alright’ could make its way into just about any scene, it’s like a breath of fresh air. But it’s [Renaissance Gangster] not the bounce, not the big club records really. That’s one sound of southern music, those club tracks. And I think ‘Alright’ is definitely another type of Southern music, maybe one that’s really true to the roots of Southern music. I think that record could stand out in any venue, but you have to know what market your targeting. Some of Renaissance Gangster is a little heavy, some of it is for someone that is willing to listen and devote some kind of thought process to the listening. Even if you know, it’s because they’re smoking weed to it, you know?”
B: “We actually talked about this recently, that Renaissance Gangster isn’t really a performance record. I think in the next couple of months we’ll get to those songs. This is really for the true rap listeners, the real hip hop, the want to hear you talk about some real shit dudes. You know.”
S: “If I get in the car I don’t necessarily play anybody’s performance records. Unless that’s the type of mindset I’m in, maybe I’m on my way to the club there or something like that. But for the everyday, waking up getting up and out…I think I made 11 songs for that. I made this project with Burn One to help get you through that everyday life.”
“Now when I hear a beat, I know how I want to rap, but I also know exactly how I want to sound, and how to make all the surrounding elements sound right. I’m knee deep in my art form.”
So seeing as this record was made in a very casual manner, is there any definite relation between how the record is made and how it functions in the world? Or can any kind of working habit that you all get into lead to many different results? Kind of a vague question I suppose.
B: “I think that the more natural you work on something the better it is going to come out. We didn’t go in saying ‘this is the project we’re doing and its gonna sound like this’ or anything. We didn’t have a whole lot of thoughts other than let’s just get together and make some dope music. I guess if you want to make a club record or something, then you know, you want to do something catchy you want to do something that has energy. So I guess to a certain extent you do have to have a little bit of calculation. Like you know, ‘let’s get T.I. in here and let’s get T Pain to sing the hook and use a 75 BPM’, and you know all that stuff, it’s not going to be natural it’s going to be for the club.”
S: “I agree with that 100 percent. Especially as an artist that has been a part of a major label situation I’ve had certain expectations and commitments and certain parts of my process that were linked to the next part of my process. And all that comes with pressure, and that clouds the recording process. Whatever you can get the most natural feel out of is the best work. I’m not saying go in the studio and do anything, but once you’re inspired to say something go ahead and say it.
“Like when Burn One sent me these tracks he knew what sound he was creating and the potential it had for me to go somewhere else with it. I knew with these songs I had an album of non-performance songs, but I think rap as an art form is not just about performance I think its just as much about expression. I think 2Pac was probably great at turning introspective songs into performance songs and short of that I think there’s just two sides to it. I think a lot of the best artists have both performance albums and albums that are introspective. And the best singles out there do both.”
B: “You gotta think that there are different types of performances too. Like Jay Z’s Reasonable Doubt doesn’t have any club bangers you know? But he’s up there on stage and people know the words and they get into that.”
S: Also there’s the ‘GH’ cut. The ‘GH’ cut I think definitely has got the energy that could move a crowd. There’s those feel good records there that once the mass awareness grows and the appeal grows that they could also move the people. The seeds and tools are definitely there. But in the way this project came together I don’t think [performance] was really a part of the thought process. It was mainly about the best product, the most true to form product.”