North Carolina has made many contributions to hip-hop: Petey Pablo, 9th wonder, Lil Brother and more. Still, it seems that not too many artists from North Carolina have been able to blaze a trail for the Tarheel state like J. Cole. The Fayetteville native and leader of Dreamville records has managed to use his success to begin building a very solid roster of talented artists. Despite not having a massive roster and a ton of mainstream visibility, Dreamville is stocked with some very lyrically-inclined MCs: Cozz, Bas, J.I.D., Earthgang and Dreamville’s newest signee, North Carolina’s very own, Lute. Pair that with the vocal brilliance of Ari Lennox, and you've got a rapper's rapper artist roster (get it?).

Lute, born Luther Nicholson, from West Charlotte, first gained minor attention online in 2012, when he released his mixtape West 1996. The tape featured tracks that were stocked with a soulful sound, and cover art reminiscent of NasIllmatic album -- a clear nod to his old school style and aesthetic. Thanks to this tape, Lute was featured on different platforms in his hometown, and began gaining a substantial following locally, extending to social media. Still, it was just a small success. Lute was about to have a daughter, he was in a tough spot financially and unfortunately music, at the time, wasn’t paying the bills. Prioritizing his growing family and his need to survive, Lute began considering retirement. That was, until he received a late-night phone call from his fellow North Carolinian, J. Cole. Things turned around after the two spoke. Lute went on to be featured on Revenge of the Dreamers project, the track “Still Slummin,” which can also be found on Lute’s debut album, West 1996 Pt. 2.

Lute stopped by the HNHH office in NYC to talk about the new album, some of the experiences that led him to this point, his middle-of-the-night phone conversation with J. Cole and more.

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Prior to your success in music you went through a phase that a lot of artists go through, when it comes to zeroing in on an identity and name. You mentioned in your Still Slummin’ documentary that you went by Lil Ace, but could you speak on your process of sifting through names. How’d you land at Lute?

Umm Lil Ace was like the name I went with the longest. There was another name but I honestly can’t even remember any other names. But yeah Lil Ace was from 7th grade until 11th grade when I dropped out of school.

But why Lil Ace?

At the time I was really into graffiti, and I was drawn to spades and cards and all that stuff. So at the time, I went with Lil Ace and it worked. I got to Lute because going through high school I was really trying to figure out who I was and at one point in time I wasn’t hood enough for the kids in the hood, but I was too hood for the kids in the suburbs when we moved to the suburbs. So it was all about trying to find out who I was and it wasn’t until I got expelled and had to drop out of school where I realized, like, being myself was most important-- like there’s nothing wrong with being who I was. If you look back at my high school and middle school that shit just looks like a costume wardrobe, trying to fit in with all these different crowds of people. But after high school, I was like “you know what, I honestly don’t care what people think of me.” You know? People been calling me Lute for the longest so I’m just gonna roll with Lute.

How does being from West Charlotte influence your writing?

Man, it’s influenced me a lot. I live in a historically black neighbourhood and I seen the rises of the black community and I seen the downfall of the black community as well. And as many downfalls, as we’ve seen, my mom always made sure that we were good and we had everything we needed. You know? And even seeing my brother sacrifice the things he did with going into the military and making sure when he got back he was able to move us into the suburbs. He bought a house for my mom. Then we moved to the suburbs.

What’s Forever FC?

Forever FC was a group that I got into after high school with my [friend] Jimmy Kelso, High I’m Rye. High I’m Rye is actually on the new project too. But yeah that was a group we started in 2012.

For people who don’t know that much about you, they may think your music career started with West 1996. But tell me about Road to South West Blvd. What was that project all about?

That was my first. Everyone has put out a project or mixtape and my boy was like, 'yo you gotta to put out a project and get some music together.' And I put out that project and to be honest that project wasn’t me at all. You know? It was me talking about things on the surface. I’m a very reserved person so at that time I didn’t know how to talk about things I was going through or even the things around me at the time. So I was just rapping like the people I heard on the radio and talking about shit I wasn’t even going through. So I dropped it and it did nothing. Nothing at all. So I realized that maybe this [rapping] wasn’t for me. So I tucked it away. Then with West 1996, I was like 'let me try this again but let me be more about myself.'  

Were they any projects before that?

Nah. That was my very first one. That was like 2010.

You started gaining some momentum with your West 1996 mixtape that dropped in 2012. What happened between 2012 and 2015?

Music wasn’t my priority. Umm, I had a daughter on the way, 2014, hell I was 2-3 months behind on rent and was about to move back in with my moms. I wasn’t even thinking about stepping back in the studio. Because now here I am trying to figure out how I’m going to put food in my daughter’s mouth, where are we going to be living, what’s my living situation, do I have a roof over my head? I have a whole human being on the way and I couldn’t even take care of my damn self so it was really trying to figure what was next for me. I remember that there were nights I was sitting there, daughter's sleeping, and I don’t even know what I’m doing tomorrow. I ain’t got no job. No, nothing. I don’t know where this money is coming from. So music at that time was at a standstill. But like I said I was in Forever FC, and it wasn’t until they did a spread on us in Charlotte, and one of the interviewers asked my boy Rye, “What’s up with Lute? When’s the next time he’s going to make music again?” And Rye said, “I don’t know but if I had a daughter I’d have a lot to write about.” When I read that I was like, "Damn, you know what, he’s absolutely right." That made me think. I was so focused on things that I’m going through that I didn’t realize that I have a hell of a story to tell and new content. So I said I’m going to try this one more time but that was going to be my last project. Part 2 was going to be my last project.

Listening to some of your older tracks, even the ones you did with Forever FC. I get a Joey/Pro-Era-ish. Do you think you guys are on similar paths as far as reviving that classic hip-hop sound?

It’s crazy because there was a lot of comparison between Forever FC and Pro Era. Even when Joey Bada$$ dropped 1999, we were months apart from dropping. I dropped West 1996 in February and he dropped 1999 a couple months later. Yeah, we used to get a lot of comparisons. I do see us going down similar paths, but Joey Bada$$ is on a whole other playing field now. 

Most notable artists from NC are probably 9th Wonder, Cole and Petey Pablo. You’re a testament that NC clearly has more to offer to hip-hop. Would you say NC is underrated when it comes to hip-hop talent? Why or why not?

Very much so. Very underrated! We have the talent we have the music but the thing about North Carolina is we have yet to have the platform to do so. And I think that that’s what J. Cole, and even myself when I get to a level, want to do; is to bring the culture together and bring the people together to actually showcase what we have in North Carolina because there’s a lot of talent. The crazy thing is, there’s so many genres and so much talent musically in North Carolina it’s like we have so many genres talking about the same content. That’s what I feel like makes it even greater. It’s not just hip-hop or alternative rock, or whatever the case may be, we’re all talking about the same environment in so many different ways. It’s like a melting pot.

Noticing the similarities in the cover art. What’s the relationship or connection between Nas’ Illmatic and your West 1996 Pt. 1 & 2?

Me and my boy, we felt as if West 1996 Pt. 1 was going to be our hood’s Illmatic. And at the same time, we wanted to pick something that was going to get people to talk. We wanted to create a conversation. It was like, what’s more impactful than the Illmatic cover? So we decided that this tape is going to be our hood’s Illmatic, and it did just that. When it dropped on 2DopeBoyz, we had people saying “who the hell does this guy think he is?” BUT they clicked on it and the music was actually fire. So you might not agree with the cover but when you play you’re going to be like “you know what? I can’t even knock this.” We had people that loved it and we had people that hated it, but at the same time everyone genuinely liked the music. Honestly, I didn’t expect it because like I said I dropped the first project Roads and it did nothing at all. So we were doing it again because we loved music even though we weren’t taking it seriously at the time. It wasn’t until West 1996 dropped that we were like, maybe we have something, maybe we need to take this a little more serious. For me, it was all I had. You know all my friends were off in college and all that other stuff so once I saw that, I thought maybe I should get a little more into this than I was. This might be a pathway.

You got a phone call from J. Cole in the middle of the night. Take me through that experience what was going through your mind? From before you picked up. Then answering. Then hanging up.  

Well, I previously met Cole in 2012. So I already had his number saved in my phone. So I’m just going through the motions, making sure all the links are right. It was 2 o’clock in the morning and I was going to post the project at 11:00 am that morning. So I’m up late at night trying to get the links right because I had just told my fan base from West 1996 Pt. 1 that I would be coming out with Pt. 2 that morning.

Oh, they were expecting it?

Yeah! They were expecting the project that day! So I look down at my phone and I see J. Cole text me and it says “Yo I’m going to call you in second.” So then he called and he was like “Yo man, I really fuck with this project. It’s dope. I hear the pain in your voice.” Then he was like “Are you about to drop it today?” I told him yeah. Then he said “Yo man that’s fire but umm man I really want to help you out with this project. I really just want to help you out. I can hear struggle and your hunger as well. I want to make sure it gets in the right hands...” He wasn’t even thinking about signing me at the time. He just wanted to help me get it in the hands of the right people. And, umm, he was like, “you can do what you want to do but I want get this in the hands of the right people so if you can hold onto it for me. Think about it.” So I was like damn, I just told these people that I was just about to come out with this project, 11:00am right there. As soon as I go to sleep, when I wake up it’s going to be 11:00am. I’m thinking, should I hold on to it or should I put it out? This about to be my last project so I’m thinking, why not?! I ain’t got nothing to lose so why not hold onto it. And I did just that.

What’s the difference between the West 1996 Pt. 2 that you were going to drop prior to getting signed and the West 1996 Pt. 2 you released with Dreamville? Did you take some tracks off or add some tracks?

Oh yeah! Because it’s a whole different ballgame. Like we were so used to - every song on the project is from YouTube. We were so used to just plugging songs and just working with any kind of producer that, now that I’m signed, I didn’t realize the business background of everything; like having the paperwork and samples cleared - we knew nothing about that. So here I am, coming into this situation thinking that I have a complete project, then to find out that we can’t find some of these producers, we can’t get some of those samples cleared, I’m realizing how incomplete this project is. So you got all of these complete songs with all these voids in the middle because everything is incomplete right now. You can’t use that beat now or you can’t use that hook no more. So going through that, it was discouraging for a while but then I was like you know what man like I don’t care what hurdle is coming my way I’m going to make sure that I continue to move forward because I didn’t have this situation come around for no reason. So it’s not like I’m about to let it stop me right here. You know? Like my mom always told me, “God didn’t bring you this far to drop you off.” So it’s like I gotta be in this situation for a reason. This shit don’t come around twice.   

Why’d you decide to make this debut album a sequel to your West 1996 mixtape instead of titling it differently and making it its own thing?

I just wanted to show people what I was going through leading up to being signed from West 1996 Pt. 1. It was such a hit mixtape to people and they were wondering, “where the hell did he go? What happened?” So I wanted to give a window of, you know, like I said before music wasn’t my priority, I wanted to show people why music wasn’t my priority. I’m taking care of a kid, I’m four months behind on rent. Likes and retweets don’t pay bills. Know what I’m saying?

You’re in partnership, correct? Slum County Inc. is your record label? Can you explain how that came about?

That’s my imprint. But I’m trying to make it a lot of things honestly. In Charlotte, I’m really trying to bring the community together and the hip-hop scene and the whole creative scene. I also draw and paint as well so I’m trying to get artists together I’m trying to get photographers together, I’m also trying to dib and dab into acting and directing. So I’m trying to make a platform for everybody to just come in one place and really showcase what we got. That’s Slum County.

What’s the difference between your creative process before and after the birth of your daughter?

Honestly, this project allowed me to really open up. I’m a very reserved person, I’m a Cancer, I keep everything within. I’ve always moved through life thinking that I can deal with things myself and now I realized I got the people around me that I don’t really have to go through certain things by myself no more. I can actually be a little more open and even in my music, I’m a little more open now. And now I can really like dig deeper. Before I was just rapping about things that were on the surface and now with this project it allowed me to get out what’s within.   

You’re on a lyrically strong and talented roster, Cole, Bas, Cozz, Omen, J.I.D., Earthgang and Ari Lennox. Is there a Dreamville track that has all of ya'll on it? Is that something we should be expecting?

Ummm. Actually, it is. Well not all of us, but I remember on the Forest Hills Drive Tour, we were in Virginia Beach and there was a microphone, they put a microphone in the middle of the room and Cam OB was in there making beats and sampling his own voice and shit. The beat was free game, you just go ahead and record. It was me, Cole, Bas and Cozz on the hook. I doubt that it’s going to see the light of day but I can’t wait til the day where Me, Omen Cozz, Bas, JID & Earthgang and maybe Ari singing some adlibs or some shit on some crazy ass track.   

Stop me if I’m wrong. You worked at Target?

Yeah.  

Wal-Mart?

Yeah.

Dollar General?

Nah I worked at Harris Teeter though. That’s a grocery store.

Oh okay, how close is the timeline of you working at these jobs and getting signed?

It’s funny that you say that because right after Cole asked me to hold the tape to get it in the right hands, that was in June, and in August he hit me up and was like, “Yo I know you just had a daughter and all but about to go on this Forest Hills Drive Tour. Let me know if I can re-compensate for the days you miss if you want to come on this tour; because I want you to come on this tour and really like see what goes on behind stage or behind the scenes.” I was like shit man. I just got fired like two or three days ago. So I ain’t even worried about that. I got my bags I’m ready to go. At that moment everything was happening pretty fast after I got fired and stuff like that. But then you know things kind of slowed down for the simple fact that we still had things that we had to put together as far as finding people that produced those songs and those samples being cleared. That’s what really held everything up.  

If it wasn’t rap what would it be?

I’d be working third shift at Target right now or a mechanic or something.

Well that's all the questions that I have. You are a real inspiration to artists everywhere so continue doing what you're doing.

I appreciate that bro! I appreciate y'all having me.