Memphis vs. Nashville might be a perpetual rivalry, but those interested in breaching the Music Highway divide can find useful symbolism in the form of Step Brothers, a rap duo that unites Memphis’ Don Trip and Nashville’s Starlito.
The duo’s free mixtape debut, Step Brothers, which came off as something like an underground, regional answer to the year’s biggest rap record, Jay-Z and Kanye West’s Watch the Throne, was named one of the 10 best rap albums of 2011 by Spin magazine. The sequel, Step Brothers 2, was released on October 15th, after a public introduction via a “First Listen” feature on the website of National Public Radio, of all places.
“It was definitely a shock to know that we were recognized in that aspect of the music world,” says Don Trip. “That wasn’t something that we sought out. [NPR] contacted us and said they wanted to stream it first. That was a big look that we wouldn’t have been able to accomplish with our resources.”
Trip and Starlito have more in common than a home state. Each has struggled to navigate the record-label limbo that’s become epidemic for hip-hop artists in recent years. Starlito put out a single for major label Cash Money Records several years ago, but not much came of it. Trip was a high-profile signee to Interscope Records after the homemade video for his confessional song “Letter to My Son” went viral. The label released a single version of the song, with an added hook from pop/hip-hop superstar Cee-Lo Green, but the expected follow-up album never materialized. Trip’s association with the label ended late last year.
Banding together, they’ve perhaps built a stronger brand as Step Brothers than they did as solo artists. But this is no mere business arrangement.
Don Trip and Starlito met in early 2010, when Trip was in Nashville playing a show with fellow Memphis rapper Yo Gotti. The duo went into the studio together and became fast friends.
“It was easy,” Trip says. “It was like working with myself.”
What Trip and Starlito also have in common is a personal style and artistic world view. On the surface, the content of both Step Brothers albums hews to the “gangsta” rap basics, with plentiful references to guns, drugs, and sex. But Trip and Starlito are each smarter, funnier, more introspective and more vocally gifted than most of their cohort.
Starlito’s flow is slower and woozier, like he’s always just waking up. Trip is quicker and more intense, and having him often follow his Nashville partner as the pair trade verses creates a kind of recurring, ascending rhythm on their records.
There’s a palpable chemistry and camaraderie here unusual in contemporary hip-hop, where most collaborations feel more like marriages of convenience or marketing strategies. Trip and Starlito come across like two friends who care about each other and enjoy each other’s company, and that has a humanizing effect on the music even at its most coarse.
On some songs, the interaction speeds up, with the duo trading off lines instead of verses. If it sounds like the product of hanging out in the studio, listening to and trying to top one another, it’s because that’s exactly what it is.
“The records where we trade lines, we don’t do any writing,” Trip says. “We go into the studio. I’ll lay down what I have. By the time I come out, he got something. By the time he comes out, I’m going back in.”
Trip notes that all Step Brothers songs are recorded together. The duo doesn’t work long distance, emailing verses, which is more common for rap collaborations.
The duo’s rapport is underscored on video, especially the body-switch clip for “4th Song,” from the first record, where Trip and Lito lip-sync each other’s verses while mimicking each other’s dress and mannerisms. This engaging spirit is repeated on the clip for Step Brothers 2’s lead cut, “Paper Rock Scissors,” where Lito and Trip show up for a drug test in tuxedo and sneakers.
Nothing on Step Brothers 2 is quite as strong as the rueful “Life” or the fierce line-trading on “Outtakes,” from the first record. But the sequel is a stronger, more cohesive overall collection.
And if there’s little here as thrillingly personal as on Trip’s best solo work, the duo still digs deeper than the norm. Starlito mentions cheating on a woman with her sister, but follows with the murmured admission, “I know I ain’t [expletive]/I ain’t proud of it.” He recounts time spent in the drug trade without encouraging it.
Few rappers — or songwriters of any stripe — can convey the day-to-day details of poverty with the feeling and specificity of Don Trip, a subject plenty of rap artists are intimate with but which most shy away from.
“Ramen noodles in the pot till it overflow/All we got is two packs, trying to feed four/And if my cousins wake up, we got to feed more/We ain’t realize as kids, we was dead broke,” Trip raps on the Step Brothers 2 closer “Where Do We Go From Here.”
After putting out the first Step Brothers album as a free download, the duo has released Step Brothers 2 as a for-purchase digital release, available via iTunes and other online retailers.
“I think we’d built enough of an audience on the mixtape market that it was time for the project to go up a level,” Trip says. “This is the best way for us to see where we really stand as far as our supporters. Not just who’s into getting free music. Because if you really support us, you understand that this is our livelihood. This is how we feed our families.”
Trip is currently banking solo songs for mixtape and album projects next year, but the current focus is on Step Brothers, which figures to be a going concern regardless of what happens with each member’s solo career.
“It’s not a rapper relationship,” Trip says. “His people are my people and my people are his people. Our connection is that tight. It’s all like family.”
Don Tip and Starlito bring their current Step Brothers Tour to the Lyric in Oxford, Miss., tonight, opening for Atlantic Records artist Kevin Gates. Doors open at 8 p.m. Tickets are $15. For more info, see thelyricoxford.com.