“Et tu, Brute?” is the phrase Shakespeare wrote as Julius Caesar's final words. History revokes the authenticity of this quote—it’s been said that Caesar died in dead silence—but I love the idea of him using his last breath to acknowledge the disloyalty of a man who he believed to be a friend. The gravity of Brutus' betrayal has made the story of Caesar’s demise transcend 44 BC.
March 15 is the day of Caesar’s demise, better known as The Ides Of March, but this year the day famous for deceit and backstabbing also brought the release of Step Brothers THREE―the third installment of Starlito and Don Trip’s acclaimed collaborative series. Ironic how two strangers who have grown into brothers are also connected to a tragedy that ends in one friend slaying another.
Four years ago, “Caesar and Brutus” was released as the first single for Step Brothers Two. It marked the return of Lito and Trip, who had originally joined forces under the Step Brothers umbrella for a well-received mixtape in 2011. The two Tennessee titans had an uncanny chemistry, like long-lost brothers who reconnected after years of separation. “Caesar and Brutus” only further solidified how well the two complimented each other by crafting a storytelling single where the two narrated from a first-person perspective of the brewing feud between two drug dealers who were once friends but were torn apart due to paranoia, mistrust and love―a story that modernizes Shakespeare's tragic themes under modern guise. The single wasn’t a trendy trap record, it didn’t have the appeal radio demanded, but there was an immense fanfare surrounding the song and video that made it the biggest Step Brothers release to date (it currently sits at over five million views on YouTube). In honor of the success of “Caesar and Brutus,” the duo returned four years later with a new album, a body of work that is equally impressive.
“We knew it was the kind of record that had never been done before, told in that kind of narrative style. For the most part, once we put it together and got it out, the reaction was organic,” Don told me over the phone while in Austin, Texas for SXSW. The song's success gave them room to further explore storytelling and pushed their pens further, which is most noticeable on the first single off Step Brothers THREE, “Good Cop, Bad Cop.” The narrative approach is revisited, honing in the back-and-forth storytelling between the two, but this time the story is told from the third-person point of view, giving it a more cinematic quality.
“Good Cop, Bad Cop” captures police brutality with duality―all sides of the story are delivered, from the cop to the shot―but just like “Caesar and Brutus,” there’s a slight twist. It's by far some of Starlito and Trip’s best writing, a necessary single for the times with a visual that captures all the sobering details. How fitting that a duo who adopted their name from a movie would come together to create music videos that are more like short films.
“We get to be the voice for people who can’t be heard. Even with that approach, we didn’t want to go in and attack anyone. It’s always more to the story, we wanted to touch all sides. We didn’t want to go in and make a, ‘fuck the police record’ and we didn’t want to go in and make a record that the police are right. Every situation is different, our goal was to display how it plays out on both sides. We understand how good cops can be in predicaments to have an unfortunate outcome, and on the same token, we understand how bad cops work as well. Us being on the outside [means] we can also incorporate how an everyday good samaritan can end up in the mix of an outcome they didn’t deserve.” - Starlito
Artists using their platforms to delve into the issues of the world helps to spread awareness and creates dialogue, especially when it’s done in a way that presents such a great display of understanding. “Good Cop, Bad Cop” is visually a step forward for the Step Brothers in both quality and execution―the music video is by far one of their most stunning.
“We’re thinking music videos when we are making a record,” Starlito confessed, delving deeper into the importance of details and creating a story where the characters appear as human as possible. Capturing life at it’s most pure is a distinction that has made their music stand out more and more with each release. Whether it’s drug dealers or police officers, Star and Don aren’t just seeing their status, but what makes these people act the way they do. Including how a cop approaches a Mercedes with his gun drawn but with fear in his heart gives a glimpse into what leads to him pulling the trigger. Mixing fear, adrenaline and a deadly weapon quite often will lead to a fatal circumstance, but news publications will never divulge such details when justifying why a police officer killed an innocent, unarmed man or woman.
Step Brothers THREE is the series installment that sounds as if Starlito and Don Trip have reached a certain level of maturity. The Step Brothers tapes tend to be a barrage of bars, music that’s driven by punchlines and humor, but this time around, there’s a deeper level of introspection and self-reflection that adds to the acrobatic lyricism. Both artists are four years older than the last time we heard the two together in a complete collection, they’re a bit older and wiser, and that maturity is prevalent in their music.
I spoke candidly about their growth, seeing the third Step Brothers as a graduation tape. Starlito agreed, and added, “The main thing that adds to the series and brand is allowing ourselves to live in-between the projects. I think all three have a different vibe that shows where we are in our lives, which makes it a time capsule of sorts. A big part of the process [is] us just living and being humans first.” Songs like “3rd 2nd Chance,” “Just Want It All,” “What I Gotta Do,” “Remember” and “Untitled No Hook” capture the men behind the music who aren’t afraid to shine a light on the personal aspects of their private lives. It juxtaposes well with “Yeah 5X,” “Boomshakalaka” and “Fortune,” which are more of the classic Step Brother approach.
“The way we work when it’s time to lock in for a Step Brothers project is to make sure we’re in the same place. We don’t email verses when it comes to that, we don’t phone it in, we make sure we’re both literally in the studio. We don’t go in with records half done, no one brings incomplete records to the studio. We sit and create every record together.” - Don Trip
Living life separate and coming together to record speaks to the chemistry that has helped to make the Step Brothers projects feel as if you’re hearing two artists completely in sync. It’s been six years of relationship building, truly becoming brothers who have seen all the twists and turns of this industry. A lot of artists talk about collaborating on projects, teaming up for something special, but it takes making the time to be around one another to pull out a project that feels balanced. Step Brothers THREE showcases how joint albums should sound―two artists fusing into a single entity without sacrificing their originality. Star is true to Star, Don is true to Don, but it’s how they’ve grown together into better artists that make the third Step Brothers the best of all.
Starlito and Don Trip have been in the game for years. Even before becoming a duo, both artists separately signed major label recording contracts and saw the light and darkness of being under a label’s thumb. The third Step Brothers is two artists proud to be independent.
When I asked about his current situation, Don said, “I could be in no better position at this moment. I got the freedom to be a father and an artist and that’s one of the most important things to me. With that, I can’t put a value [on it]. We learned a lot along the way. At this moment, who better than me to dictate the path of my career.” Fatherhood is a recurring theme in Trip's music, being able to find solace in his creative field and life at home is a reward in itself.
Lito also beamed about being in control of his own destiny:
“I released a mixtape, a solo album and a collaborative project and we aren’t even out of the first quarter of 2017. The industry at large is evolving, some artists do release music that fast. It’s becoming a common thing. But not to have anyone over my shoulder, trying to alter my path, stuff like that [makes it worth being independent]. I believe I lost some time in different phases of my career, just with the input I was getting. There’s many sides to each situation. I know it’s a lot more work―routing your own tours, setting up your own promo, marketing plans, and even outsourcing people is a lot. I enjoy it and it gives you more to stand on. It’s more fulfilling and leaves you feeling proud knowing you’ve done everything hands-on. Knowing it starts and ends with what I put into it, there’s no greater joy. Even if people tell me they don’t like it, it reached them. It [went from] just a theory upstairs in a makeshift studio in my cousin's house six-plus years ago to charting for the second time. That’s pretty tough.” - Starlito
They might not have the biggest names in the industry, but in their own niche markets, Starlito and Don Trip are seeing a level of success where they are reaping all the benefits. No one is in their pockets, no one is dictating their moves―the Step Brothers are free to do what they please. Freedom is allowing them to make some of the best music of their careers.
I've been playing Step Brothers THREE nonstop and enjoying every second―by far one of the underlooked jewels of the year's first quarter. Not only are the raps excellent, but the music has meaning, soul and the personal touch of two men who have the scars to prove they’ve earned their position.
The two are currently on tour, pushing out visual content, and gearing up to release another Step Brothers album later this year. Age isn’t slowing them down, they are going to keep pushing forward until the wheels fall off or the road ends, whichever comes first. Even if they never become the darlings of mainstream media, Starlito and Don Trip are still grinding like they have the world to conquer, and that is why they’ll always have fans asking for more. To survive in this industry, all you really need is something to say and someone willing to hear you out.
By Yoh, aka Don Yohlito, aka @Yoh31
Photo Credit: Facebook