Dreamville's Lute Talks Authenticity in the Hip-Hop Landscape
Luther Nicholson was working in Walmart when J. Cole slid into his DM’s. The North Carolina-based artist first broke onto the scene with the rap collective Forever FC and has, since, garnered the attention of Hip-Hop superstars like J. Cole, DaBaby and Kendrick Lamar.
While humbly describing his rise to success, Lute recalls important moments of his upbringing and young adulthood that eventually resulted in his record deal with Dreamville. From saving his lunch money to buy Slim Shady’s LP to mourning Tupac’s death with his neighbors — Hip-Hop has been the thread tying together his community. It is that community that has helped mold him into the artist he is today; one that seeks authenticity and camaraderie above all else.
Michel Oscar, Gustavo Soto, and Eudomar Lopez caught up with Lute in his hometown to get a glimpse of the rapper in his element while learning about the source of his drive, the meaning behind his tattoos, and the impact he wishes to have on the world.
Lute, thanks a lot for sitting down with us. It really means a lot.
Yea bro, thank y’all for coming all the way down here.
I wanted to start with when you first got into hip-hop. I’ve heard you say that you fell in love with the art form when you were about seven, who were the artists that made that happen for you?
Yea about six or seven, I was super young. When I got into hip-hop shit was still on cassette tapes. I was listening to Eminem, Outkast, Dr.Dre, Snoop Dog, Bone Thugs In Harmony, Three Six Mafia, Goody Mob.
I remember writing down all of Eminem’s lyrics from the Slim Shady LP. That was the first album I bought with my own bread. I’ll never forget it. Listen, I remember going to this record store near my house called Willy’s, Jay Z had done a pop up there once. When music came out the whole hood knew about it, there was no internet so If you didn’t have the shit when you went to school the next day, and everyone was talking about the project, you had no clue what they were talking about. By that time Slim Shady’s LP came out, mad people were talking about it and I didn’t want to be left out so I cut some grass, saved my lunch money. So when I got the bread, I walked to Willy’s and the dude at the counter goes, “I’m sorry lil man I can’t let you get this project. I need you to bring your parents.” So I waited for my mom to get off at like six and then I came back with my mom. We come in and the dude behind the counter goes, ”en Ma’am I wouldn’t advise you to get this for your son” and now I’m just sitting there thinkin’ in my mind like “YO, MY DUDE! Why would you make me walk all the way back to the crib to get my mom and come back for you to tell her this shit?!” * laughs *
Now I’m sitting by Willy’s and my boy and his sister come through and I ask my boy’s sister to cop it for me. She’s like ‘I got this’ and walks in and I guess the guy at the counter liked her or something because she gets that shit for free. So I got to keep my money and I got the album, so I ran back into the store with the CD in my hand like “AAAAhahhh I got this shit!” * laughs *
I’ve been following your career since 2016 and you’re blowing up now. As you continue to grow in the world of music, what do you want to be for your neighborhood?
To my community, I wanna be a staple without having all the glamour and fake shit around me. I met some people that I looked up to and they turned out not to be who I thought they were, which changed how I listened to their music. That hurts when that happens because their music got you through some shit. That’s why I vowed to myself to be exactly who I am when you hear me on the track to when you meet me in person. There’s no in-between, no mask, I am who I am whether you see me on stage or see me at a coffee shop. I just want to be who I am, how I am.
I remember the day the neighborhood found out Tupac passed…it was such a crazy moment. There was a guy, he was probably one of the only dudes in the hood that had one of those big ass TV’s. He literally opened up all his windows and doors and you got like 100 people around this guy’s house waiting on the outcome to what’s going on with Tupac, because at that time they hadn’t announced that he had died only that he got shot. I can’t remember if I was on somebody’s shoulder, I just remember being crowded around this dudes window and then hearing it come through that Tupac passed away and you just hear the gasp in the crowd and you just see people emotional. Every time I think of that it reminds me of how hip hop brings the community together.
The crazy thing is I didn’t become a Pac fan because of the music, I became a Pac fan by watching the interviews. By seeing the type of person he was or what he was trying to do made me think ‘Damn that’s what I want to do, I want to be a staple in my community’. Even when Nipsey passed, the impact he had on the community, forget what it did to the hip hop scene, the impact that somebody has on their community shows a lot more about who that person was.
Thinking toward the future, I wanna support the artists in my community through my own label, Slum County, I want it to be in the likes of a Dreamville, Dreamchasers, or a TDE. I want it to be that for the Carolina’s in general, I want to build that platform for artists out here. I want it to be a hub for musicians and artists of all kinds, like my boy Goose [Gustavo Soto, Graphic Designer], and I want our imprint to someday be as influential as Dreamville’s imprint. It’s very inspiring to see how everyone works together to make Dreamville what it is. But I have to first get myself to the position I need to be in so to be able to provide that, how Cole did in his journey with Roc Nation.
How did you and J. Cole connect?
I dropped a tape in high school that did nothing, then I dropped West 1996 in 2012 and I thought it wasn’t gonna do anything either but somehow it gets to the hands of Pete Rock and he re-tweets it, then 2 Dope Boyz retweets it and it goes viral. Then, lo and behold, somewhere in Florida somehow the conversation comes up about North Carolina artists. Some guy, that to this day I don’t know who this guy is, asked Cole what he thought about the NC music scene and Cole was like, “nah I don’t know, put me on.” So, that guy basically asked him if he ever heard of a guy named Lute. Then Cole went on different platforms and came across my music on 2 Dope Boys and was fucking with it ever since. Then he contacted me because he was coming out to CIAA which happens down here every year, which is super crazy that he did that.
I saw and heard Cole for the first time in 2010 in Ohio when he was opening up for Jay Z — to getting a phone call from him — to then years later being on the For Your Eyez Only tour opening up for him in that same area in Ohio.
If somebody had told you that night that you’d be signed and opening up for him –
I would’ve never believed that shit. The wild thing is that night in 2010 was my first time seeing Jay Z perform but it was also the first time I solidified for myself like, “yo, this is what I wanna do for the rest of my life.” Everyone is facing this way looking at Jay perform in this sold-out arena, and I’m looking up the other way at all the people that came to see one person being like, “YO, I want this.” I wanna have that kind of impact on people.
When we performed in Ohio, I told the crowd that story. The universe is crazy.
Did it feel surreal at the time that somebody of his caliber was reaching out to you and not the other way around?
Yeah dawg and the shit he went through to get to me, I don’t see anyone else doing that kinda shit. Cause when he reached out he didn’t reach out directly to me, he DM’d a friend of mine since he couldn’t DM me because I wasn’t following him. So I’m workin at Walmart at the time and my boy Scott is hitting me like ‘YO, J.Cole just hit me and he’s fucking with your music!’ and I’m like, “…chill” because he jokes around a lot. But he kept hitting me and he gave me Cole’s twitter, and as soon as I followed him, Cole DM’d me and told me he was gonna be at CIAA and that he wanted me to come through. And I’m sitting there on my lunch break like WTF. Mind you, I’m like 15 minutes late coming back from my break because I just didn’t know how to respond. And my boss is like “YO! Wassup? You 15 minutes late,” so I showed him the DM and he goes, “OHH, take another 10.” * laughs * that’s the homie.
Do you feel your journey to where you are has been skill and luck, or skill and manifestation?
Where I live in North Carolina it was a one way in, one way out kind of place. When I stopped making music in-between West 1996 Pt. I and Pt.II, I felt defeated and like I gave up on myself. Every day I was tryna figure out how do I get out of this and I didn’t have the answers at all. When people ask me “Yo, what was your plan,” or, “how’d you do this,” honestly bro I just respond: Luck and God. I can’t tell you myself, I can only tell you how hard I prayed, how many times I cried, the shit that I endured to get to where I’m at and the patience that I had. That’s all I know and any opportunity that came for me to get to where I was tryna go, I took it. Ready for whatever.
Opportunities came when I didn’t have a Plan B. Not having that safety rope, like how Bruce Wayne had in the cave in the Batman movie with Bane, is what pushed me. I used to always think that I had to have a job because if I don’t I can’t take care of this, that, and the third, but sometimes you just gotta go on a whim. There’s never a perfect time to quit your job to follow your dreams. You just have that moment like, “fuck this shit, it’s time.” When I got fired and I was down on my luck, I didn’t even look for another job, I knew that was the time to work hard. There were times where I fell right on my back, but I got right back up.
What do the tattoos on your face represent?
The “N” is for my daughter and the “?” was inspired by my uncle that got a question mark tattooed on his forehead while he was in Vietnam. We’d ask em, “Yo Unc, wtf does that mean?” and he’d be like, “Who am I?” and we’d be like, “Ah man, this man is crazy bro. What the hell he talkin’ bout?” * laughs * But the older I got, I realized it was a rhetorical question or an affirmation. He must have seen some shit in Vietnam that made him question himself. And I thought maybe the question mark isn’t a question at all, but to know what and who you are at all times. For me, my affirmation is, “Who am I? I am me, me is love. What am I? Still learning.”
At the end of the day, we’re not always gonna have the answer, you know what I mean? And that’s perfectly fine though, because finding the answer is life in itself. Figuring that shit out. I got this tattoo a couple of months ago, it was a pivotal point for me because I didn’t always have the answers to these questions but they were finally coming to me. I always know I may not always have the answers but I’m still learning and figuring out who I truly am. It’s all about growth no matter how slow it is.
Anything I come to, I make sure I come into it with love and compassion, you know? Care about it.
* smiling * Damn right bro.
* dap *
Yea bro, that was a good dap too. * laughs *
So, new music anytime soon?
Listening to some of your latest tracks on Soundcloud, I heard two different sides of Lute. Side A, a grittier Old Dirty Bastard-esque Lute, and Side B which to me is more in line with 1996 Pt.2. Both with a fresher, more confident Lute.
There was a point where I was getting really pissed off. I feel nobody’s putting respect on my name and I get it, I’ve been putting in work but there’s still more work to be put in. But at the same time, it’s like sucks teeth nah I feel like I’ve earned some respect so now I’m demanding that shit. That’s what Side A and Side B came from. With that, I wanted to show the range of things that I could do. Yea, I can do the boom-bap shit but I could also do this shit too, I don’t want to box myself into a certain category. I want to show people that I’m an artist.
You came through with that range in Revenge of the Dreamers III.
What the RODIII brought out of me I didn’t expect, I went in there blindly. We thought those Atlanta sessions were just gonna be Dreamville until we got to the studio session and it was a jungle of other people. There was some days I went back to the Airbnb defeated because I didn’t record shit. Then you got people like JID and Buddy that are like, “Yo I did like 8-10 today,” and you’re like, “goddamn I ain’t do shit.” But it made you go back the next day like bet, I gotta get something.
Mind you, even after all the shit I did when I recorded at the sessions, when we went home I didn’t even think I placed on the album. Up until E [Ibrahim Hamad] told me what songs were being put on. It’s still surreal to me that I’m on a song that went #1 [“Under The Sun ft. J.Cole, Lute, & DaBaby”] and that I was on an album that went #1 [RODIII]. I thought I’d maybe have one song, but to actually having two songs and two more on the deluxe is amazing.
I didn’t even know DaBaby was gonna be on it, E told me during All-Star weekend * sucks teeth * and the day before the song came out is when I found out Kendrick was on the hook. So I was sitting in the car like, “YO this is crazy!” * laughs *
I realized for myself that I want to work on projects that tell a real story. That’s why we’re here with you these next few days, to try and tell yours. Does that resonate with you?
That’s my thing with everything, even videos, I want it to say something. I don’t want it to be like, “Oh, I got a video for a song,” you know? Like, fuck that. Whether it’s representing me or the environment or whatever, I want it to say and represent something. I want whatever I do to speak to people because at the end of the day that has more of an impact. I realized that when we made the video for “Morning Shift.”
I had a dream that I was running away from something and I didn’t know what it was from and my mom was like, “How do you know you’re running from something? You might be running toward something,” and I was like damn. At that time we were on the For Your Eyez Only tour and so I missed my daughter’s birthday. In the video that’s where the birthday comes from, and one of my boys had just gone to prison. So I thought to myself, “why I don’t I mash it all together?” I’m running from prison to make my daughter’s birthday but at the end of the day it was just a dream, he never left the cell. Ya know?
That’s amazing, man. I appreciate you giving us some of your time. I’ve been a genuine fan for years and this is a dream come true. You still have so much more growth ahead of you and it’s great to have the opportunity to sit down with you to record a conversational snapshot of who you are right now. Thank you.
That’s fire bro, thank y’all so much.
STYLIST: Raeana Anaïs
IN-HOUSE VIDEOGRAPHER: Gustavo Soto
PHOTO ASSISTANT: Eudomar Lopez
DIGITAL TECH: Fallou Seck
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