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Making it big, but still feeling small: Chart-topping Charlotte rapper Lute opens up about mental health

Charlotte rapper Lute
Luther "Lute" Nicholson has quickly become "the hottest rapper in Charlotte," so says North Carolina hip-hop legend and Dreamville Records founder J. Cole.

This is a extra-special of episode of WFAE's Amplifier.

It's special in that it was recorded at Charlotte’s GrindHaus Studios, owned by Amplifier podcast alumni Jason Jet. And it's also special in that it’s the 100th episode of Amplifier.

For this milestone achievement, Amplifier hosts up-and-coming rapper Lute, who embodies “the Charlotte music dream." He was born and raised in the 704, recruited by rap legend J. Cole and signed to his Dreamville Records label, received a Grammy nomination and earned a Platinum plaque for his collaboration with DaBaby and Kendrick Lamar.

More than the accolades, Lute's worked through personal grief and self-doubt to bring his verses to life, never forgetting his Charlotte roots and the people who supported him along the way — from his 2012 self-released mixtape all the way to his 2021 full-length studio debut album.

"When I was starting out, I thought success meant meeting J. Cole. Now I look at my success differently. I didn’t graduate from high school, so I never got a diploma. So when I got the Platinum plaque for “Under the Sun” (featuring J. Cole, DaBaby and Kendrick Lamar), I finally had something with my name on it so I could hang on the wall."
– Lute, Grammy-nominated Charlotte rapper signed to Dreamville Records

Interview Highlights:

On his first music memories:

The West Side of Charlotte was full of culture when I was growing up. I remember when Jay Z came to the neighborhood record store called Willie’s, and everyone was hopping in their car and running to Willie’s to see him.

I remember when Tupac was killed. One of my neighbors had a big-screen, floor-model television. He pushed it to the window, and everybody was standing outside on his porch to watch the news. I’ll never forget that.

Around that time in the '90s and early 2000s, my brothers were putting me on to all types of music. I have one brother where genres aren’t a thing. He has no barriers, so he listens to everything, including country. He really showed me a lot of different music. My other brother was more into hip-hop, and he put me onto Goodie Mob, OutKast and A Tribe Called Quest. And my other brother put me on to playing a piano. Music played a really important role in my life. The more music that I heard, the more tapped in I became and wanting to make my own music. I started making rhymes at 10 years old. They were trash, but it was a start.

On his debut mixtape “West 1996":

It was basically me trying to show the world what living on the West Side of Charlotte was like. The reason why I chose a rendition of the NAS album cover for my mixtape cover was to show everybody that this was my 'hood’s “Illmatic” fueled by 1996-style music.

I don’t have the most orthodox way of writing music. I know a lot of people go into the booth and freestyle and let it go, but I’m not that kind of guy. I can freestyle here and there, and I like to do it for Instagram now and again, but writing is therapeutic for me. It helps with my anxiety. Songwriting is like a journal for me, and my verses are journal entries. Sometimes I go back to songs to see where I was in that place and in that space.

On being signed to J. Cole’s Dreamville Recordslabel:

To this day, I still don’t know how it happened. I was working at Walmart, and J. Cole contacted a friend of ours, and that friend contacted me. I thought my friend was joking, because I’m at work, and I almost got fired the day before. So I ended up following J. Cole on Twitter, and he followed me right back and told me he was at The Fillmore in Charlotte for the CIAA tournament, and he invited me out. That’s how we first linked up. And it blew my mind at the time.

Fast-forward years later with J. Cole’s “Revenge of the Dreamers II” compilation album, and he put my song “Still Slummin’” on the record. I went to Best Buy to buy three copies of the album. Gave one to my mom, I kept one in the plastic for myself and opened up the other one and listened to the other one all day as I rolled around the city. I went downtown, I looked at the Charlotte skyline and I was saying to myself, “Man, my song is on here! My name is on the back of a CD!” That was a turning point for me.

On the meaning behind his 2021 studio debut release “Gold Mouf":

Have you ever seen “The Nutty Professor?” Gold Mouf is to me what Buddy Love is to Professor Klump. So, me dealing with my anxiety, Gold Mouf is my confidence. I have this running joke on Instagram where I post pictures of myself and title it “Big Ugly,” which is my low self-esteem. But Gold Mouf is the opposite, when I’m at my highest confidence. Gold Mouf started in Atlanta for the Dreamville sessions. I did six songs one night, and a manager gave me the nickname Gold Mouf because I knocked down my social barrier and introverted nature. We all have these masks and affirmations that we use for our mental health and our confidence.

On working through anxiety and depression:

It’s hard making music. I created “Gold Mouf” while I was dealing with all types of mental health issues. I didn’t know how I was going to finish this album. If you ask any of my friends, they’ll tell you that at one point, I thought this would be my last album. I fell out of love with music. So it was hard for me to tap in and go to the studio every day when I just wanted to go home and lay down and do nothing. It was hard pushing through, but I had to come to terms with myself and realize I have to be open and vulnerable about what I’m going through. And once I became more open and more vulnerable about what I was writing, everything started to come together.

I had been working on their album for two-and-a-half years, and quarantine messed me up. There came a point where I had to get a therapist, and she made me realize that I’m not only dealing with anxiety but also depression. And the way I was dealing with anxiety wasn’t working with coping with depression. So this project is literally my diary for the past two-and-a-half years.

On defining success:

When I was starting out, I thought success meant meeting J. Cole. Now I look at my success differently. I didn’t graduate from high school or from anything, so I never got a diploma or have had anything with my official name on it except bills. So when I got the Platinum plaque for “Under the Sun” (featuring J. Cole, DaBaby and Kendrick Lamar), I finally had something with my name on it so I could hang on the wall.

On being from Charlotte:

Being from here, Charlotte music means a lot to me. I don’t grow plants, but when you see people grooming a bonsai tree, that’s like how Charlotte cultivated me. It’s me. I am it, and it is me. For any other Charlotte artist, where we come from is what we embody in our music. Without Charlotte, there wouldn’t be me. We’ve watched each other grow.

Charlotte is a melting point, and we don’t have a definitive sound. We can tell you about our side of town and so many different genres. This isn’t like a private school where everybody is wearing the same thing. We don’t have to sound the same and hold hands; I think that’s weird. I like the fact that we can be individuals and not sound like anybody else to be on a big platform. It’s about amplifying you being yourself.

Music featured in this #WFAEAmplifier chat:

Lute - “Carolina Folks”
Lute - “Flossin” feat. Boogie
Lute - “That’s How It Goes”
Lute - “Queen City Slummin’”
Lute - “Still Slummin’”
Lute - “Myself” feat DEVN
J. Cole and Lute - “Under the Sun” feat. DaBaby and Kendrick Lamar
Lute - “Eye to Eye” feat Cozz
Lute - “Be Okay”
Lute - “Ghetto Love” feat. Blakk Soul and Ari Lennox
Lute - “Crashing”

Stay Connected:

Click here to subscribe to the Amplifier podcast (and to give the podcast a rating/review in your favorite podcast app).

Click here to discover your next favorite Charlotte musician on our Amplifier Spotify playlist. Like what you hear? Let us know on social media!

Chat with Joni Deutsch and tag WFAE on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Joni Deutsch was the manager for on-demand content and audience engagement, at WFAE, where also hosted the Amplified podcast and helped produce such podcasts as FAQ City, SouthBound, Inside Politics, Work It and the Apple Podcast chart-topping series She Says. Joni also led WFAE's and Charlotte's first podcast festival.