Hey, You’re Cool! Lute
The N.C. MC went from dead-end jobs to Dreamville Records
Dreamville lyricist Lute dropped his new project, West 1996 Pt. 2, last Friday—about three years behind schedule. The Charlotte artist was just hours away from releasing his 11-track Interscope debut as a free mixtape back in 2014. J. Cole—then just a fan—intervened, offering to help drum up some more exposure. A year later, Lute joined Cole’s Dreamville roster, where he’s poised to make a name for himself on a major stage.
The 28-year-old artist seems well on his way. The short-but-strong West 1996 Pt. 2 proves Lute to be a thoughtful MC with the same penchant for hyper-relatable reality raps as North Carolina wordsmiths before him—Phonte Coleman, Rapsody, and of course Cole. But his greatest musical influences all originate far beyond North Cackalacky.
“ODB, Andre  and Cee Lo [Green] stood out to me, because they weren’t afraid to be who they were, to open themselves up to the world,” says Lute. “ODB was my favorite artist of all-time. Seeing how unfiltered ODB was about his life really opened my eyes to being yourself… If you look back at certain pictures of me in high school, I look like a fucking costume, trying to fit in with all of these different crowds, not knowing, fuck this, I could just be myself. It took me a while to realize that.”
Lute dropped by the MASS APPEAL office in Manhattan to speak about fatherhood, his new project, and why he—perhaps controversially—chose to emulate Nas’ Illmatic album cover.
What is your story?
I’m from West Charlotte, North Carolina, which is a historically black neighborhood. It’s seen its peaks of the black community and it’s seen its failures. But my mom always made sure we had what we needed. I dropped out of high school in 11th grade—that’s what made me into the person that I am today, because at 17 I had to learn how to be 21 really fast. I was working at Walmart, and then the airport, then a third shift at Target.
What was your job at the airport?
Fueling planes. My daughter was on the way. It wasn’t until Creative Loafing Charlotte hit us up about a group that I was already in at the time, Forever FC. They did a spread on us and asked my boy Ry, “What’s up with Lute? When’s the music coming out?” He was like, “I don’t know, but if I had a daughter, I’d have a lot to write about.” So I read that and I was like, Damn, he’s right. I’m so focused on these bills and getting tied up in life that I’m not realizing that I have a story to tell. So that inspired me to write West 1996 Pt. 2. Music was cool and things were happening but I wasn’t making no money off of it. I was getting props, but likes and retweets don’t pay bills.
It had to be a tough spot to be in. Especially after Pete Rock showed you love on Twitter when you dropped your first project, West 1996 back in 2012.
That’s how I met Cole for the first time. 2DopeBoyz had posted it and Pete Rock retweeted it. I get a text from my boy Scott. He’s just like, “Yo, Cole just hit me up and told me he fucks with your music. I don’t even know how he even knows who I am.” I was working at Walmart at the time. I’m thinking, “Why would Cole hit you up? And don’t be playing on my phone, because I just got a slip about being on my phone yesterday, so I could get fired for this shit.” On my lunch break I went to see what the hell he was talking about. I followed Cole and he’s like, “Yo Lute, I fuck with your music. I hear the pain. This shit is dope. I’ma be at the Fillmore the weekend, holler at me and I’ll tell you how I found your music.” He told me that while they were out in Florida, a guy had asked him about the music scene in North Carolina. I think he said he wasn’t too familiar with it. The guy was like, have you ever heard of this cat named Lute? So he did his research and saw me on 2dopeboyz and looked at my YouTube. That’s how I met Cole.
You didn’t get signed at that point. Did you and Cole stay in touch?
We would speak now and then, but my priorities weren’t really into music. I was actually about to drop West 1996 Pt. 2 in 2014. It was like 2 a.m. and Cole gives me a call, like, “I heard the project. I fuck with it. This shit is really inspiring, the people are going to love it.” He’s like, I wanna do something for you. I really want to get it into the hands of the people that you need to get it into. If you could hold onto it for me man, I really wanna push this to the point to where it needs to be pushed. What I wasn’t realizing was we were so used to dropping music on a certain level that once I got signed, you got sample clearances, paperwork. We wasn’t familiar with none of that stuff. Once that kicked in, I realized how incomplete that project was—we can’t find those producers or some of those samples didn’t get cleared. That kind of discouraged me because some of those songs I didn’t want to redo for the simple fact that now I’m in a different place so you’re not going to get that same feel and emotion. I had to keep telling myself to be patient, that everything is going to work out.
Did the version of West 1996 Pt. 2 that dropped last week change a lot from the original?
Yeah. Beats changed, hooks changed. I didn’t go back and change verses. It’s like two songs where the hooks aren’t original. And the only new song on there is “Crabs in a Barrel.” Everything else is from 2013.
I really like that you sampled Slum Village’s “Tainted” for “Premonition.”
Shoutout to Cam [O’bi]—Cam made that beat. We made that song my first time going to The Sheltuh to meet Earthgang. Cam was down there on the beat machine making beats and sampling his voice. We just sat down there and wrote it and recorded it. It was very organic.
Before you press play, the album cover for both West 1996 and West 1996 Pt. 2 grab your attention. Why did you use the aesthetic of Nas’ Illmatic for those projects?
Me and my boy at that time wanted to do something that was going to get people to talk, like barbershop talk. “Who the hell does this guy think he is using this Illmatic cover?” But we thought this album was going to be our hood’s Illmatic—my story from my environment. When you play it, you might be like, “I may not agree with the cover or like the cover, but regardless, this music is kinda fire.” With the second cover, I wanted to give my old fans of West 1996 the feeling of a sequel. For people who don’t know me, I wanted the project to be its own. I wanted it to stand alone. That’s why I chose my daughter—a sequel but yet still its own story.
How old is your daughter now?
How did becoming a father impact you as an artist?
It motivated me to be myself and tell my story the way that it should be told. I wasn’t even really thinking about doing music until my daughter came. So that kinda really opened my eyes to what’s possible. [She was] the motivation for West 1996 Pt. 2. People really enjoying the realness of that project motivated me to give people me, the things I go through. I don’t write every day. I live life a little bit and then at the end of the day, everything that I’ve accumulated I write it down. It don’t even rhyme half the time. Sometimes I’m just writing down how I’m feeling and then I go back and pick certain things or sayings and turn them into songs.
Throughout West 1996 Pt. 2, there’s a consistent idea about blowing up and changing your financial situation. How much of that was your real experience?
All of it. The project is actually a timeline of my life from 2012, getting fired from my job and leading up to being signed. “Ambition” is like, “What time is it, damn I’m late for work.” And then the next song is like, “Woke up late this evening, yesterday I got laid off.” So it was a timeline of all of these events—me and my daughter’s mom breaking up, losing friends, losing jobs. And it’s crazy because some of those songs I spoke into existence. When I wrote “Still Slummin,” I didn’t even know J. Cole was going to hear this project. I said, “You should be laying tracks with J. Cole, who knows maybe he’ll sign your ass.” I didn’t even think he was going to hear that shit. It amazes me to this day because I spoke some of that into existence. I had no clue I was going to sign to Dreamville. I didn’t imagine none of this. In my head, I’m still supposed to be working at Target. Now I live across the street from the Target that I got fired from. [Laughs]
Do you still shop there?
I go in there a couple times. My daughter’s in dance, so I went in there to buy her a dance uniform. I still see some people, some of my supervisors that I dodge. [Laughs] I still shop at the Walmart I got fired from because I’m right around the corner from there, too. It’s very surreal how all of these things worked out. I remember one day I was on a flight to California and I saw the guy fueling planes doing the same shit I used to do. I remember being out there wishing I was on the plane going somewhere, doing something. So to be on the opposite end—those moments you don’t forget.
How has your recent musical style changed since West 1996 Pt. 2?
My new music helps me to be more open, helps me to talk more and dig deeper about certain things that I might be going through, or things on my mind. Before I could only talk about what was on the surface. Now I’m able to just really dig into how I’m feeling and what’s going on, not only around me but within. I’ve been writing music and songs, trying to dab into other genres. So you never know, man. This was supposed to be my last project, but it’s definitely not my last project. All I’m saying is, more is coming.