Chicago’s influence is arguably more prevalent now than it’s ever been. Just ask NandoSTL. Born Fernando Tillman II, the 31-year-old rapper is the newest signee to chart-topping rapper T-Pain’s record label, Nappy Boy Entertainment. He slid through Chicago on May 9 for a listening party at Grammy Award-winning Classick Studios. 

“The whole drill sound came from Chicago. The lingo: the ops, slide and lacking and all these terms that you hear, it all came from Chicago” Nando told The TRiiBE. “As far as actual trendsetting and uniqueness [goes], Chicago has always been that.”

On May 19, Nando is dropping his debut album out of Nappy Boy. It’s called Y.O.T.A. (Year of the Ape). His energetic, artistic and expressive style is reminiscent of Chance the Rapper, Saba and fellow St. Louis artist Smino.

Without a doubt, Chicago has played a major role in his development as an artist. He recorded and mixed the album at Classick Studios, and the music video for its title track, “Y.O.T.A.” is produced by Classick Studios.

“It just seemed like everything musically that I was being influenced by was coming out of Chicago. So when I started doing music in St. Louis, I was like, man, I need to take a trip out there [to Chicago],” Nando said.

That trip led to a relationship with studio owner and engineer Chris Classick, engineer and producer Darwin Derequito, and other creatives such as PDub The Producer. 

“I went to Classic Studios, and I recorded with Darwin. I didn’t even know Chris Classick. Darwin loved the song so much. He sent it to Chris,“ Nando said. “We just developed the connection man and they’ve been family ever since.”

After coming in a close second place in a competitive March Music Madness competition held by T-Pain in 2022, Nando impressed T-Pain so much that he decided to sign him.

Graduating college with a math degree, Nando has spent the majority of his adult life as a financial advisor. He’s only been making music for a couple of years now. But his growth has been rapid, and is a testament to his work ethic.

Check out NandoSTL’s interview with The TRiiBE below. 

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

The TRiiBE: First off, congratulations on signing with Nappy Boy ENT. What has life been like since signing on the dotted line?

NandoSTL: Different, dawg. Like, it’s definitely an adjustment. You know what I’m saying? Going from being an independent artist to working with a lot of people who you’ve never met before, it’s definitely a big trust factor there. But I’m handling all of it. I’m liking it.

Talk to me about the March Music Madness competition. That's a crazy story. Just walk me through that.

Yeah. So T-Pain decided that he wanted to sign somebody to Nappy Boy. And the way he wanted to do it was he was gonna take 600 submissions. And pit us all head-to-head. He played one of my songs, somebody else’s song, and then the [virtual] chat would vote on who moved to the next round until we got down to one person. So of course [there were] thousands of submissions, but they kept it at 600. 

We got in there. And we fought man. Week after week, I was submitting new music. I lost by 0.8, man— not even a full percent of a vote. But T-Pain was already hooked. He heard so much of my music. By the end, he was like, “Yo, we gonna make something happen.” 

And from then, I just went crazy, like, pulled up to one of his shows and snuck in to meet him. You know what I’m saying? I was sending records over. That’s how the “Y.O.T.A.” record came about. I was just hungry. So I ended up signing. The person who won actually didn’t sign at all.

I want to talk about your connection to Chicago. You spend a lot of time in the city. It's kind of like a second home for you. What role did Classick Studios and Chicago play in making the album?

A lot. Chicago’s influenced me musically ever since I was a kid. I have family out there that actually owned an African drum studio. Shout out my Auntie Nigeria who passed away. But they did a lot of that. That’s what got me into music before church. I remember seeing them out there beating on stuff when I was a baby. And they said I came home and couldn’t stop beating on tables. So I always had some type of connection with Chicago. 

When I was in college, Chance [the Rapper] came out. I was hip on Chance before he was popular, like, when he was shooting videos like “Juice” and shit in downtown Chicago. 10 Day mixtape, shit like that. So that was something that was on repeat. 

Then Smi ended up coming out of Classick Studios. Me and Smino went to high school together. So we knew each other. We know each other personally. So I mean, it just seemed like everything musically that I was being influenced by was coming out of Chicago. So when I started doing music in St. Louis, I was like, man, I need to take a trip out there. I went to Classick Studios, and I recorded with Darwin. I didn’t even know Chris Classick. Darwin loved the song so much. He sent it to Chris and Chris was like, “Yo, let me mix this let me master this.” For nothing. He hit me on IG. And we just developed the connection man and they’ve been family ever since.

New York, Los Angeles and Atlanta are known as hip-hop bases. Being from St. Louis, where do you see Chicago in the overall landscape of hip hop? What role does Chicago play in hip hop for you?

I think it’s funny that we say that. Right now, I feel like Memphis is the one that’s bursting  through with a million artists, but even the whole drill sound came from Chicago. The lingo: the ops, the slide and lacking and all these terms that you hear, it all came from Chicago. So the fact that I feel like Atlanta might be the mecca —well, New York is technically the mecca, but Atlanta might be the home base for hip hop because they have so many artists that’s coming out of there. But I think as far as actual trendsetting and uniqueness [goes], Chicago has always been that. 

And then [with] St. Louis, before rap, we talked about rock and roll, jazz, blues. A lot of the greats came from the Midwest area. So I think that is always gonna have a bigger influence on music. You know what I mean? When we look at what’s popular, we go to New York, LA and Atlanta, but when you are looking for what’s gonna last forever, what’s gonna be influential? You go to the Midwest.

You talked about your grandfather at the listening party at Classick Studios? What role did your grandparents play in your upbringing?

Huge bro. So I was raised by my dad and my grandparents. My dad would drop me off with my grandma. I didn’t really meet my mama until I was 19. So from field trips, to packing lunch, just teaching me how to do a lot of things, my grandfather and grandmother kept me grounded. If I was to get in trouble at school, most of the time they would call [my grandma] before they call my dad. That was the person who has always been the rock of my family. Everything is influenced by them. So I try to keep them in mind with things that I do when I’m making decisions to this day. I’m blessed to still have both of them around to see this happen.

You're a fairly new artist. I'm interested just in your creative process. How did it start versus how do you do things now? Has there been a progression or change?

Yeah, I don’t write any more. When I first started, I would record at home and then try and go to the studio and record myself. After meeting Darwin and linking up with PDub, it created a family.

The biggest thing that has changed is that now I do it for a living. I went to college. I graduated with a math degree. I was a financial advisor. I was just doing this shit on the weekend just to, like, break up my schedule. It was just work, kids, work, kids. So I wanted something that was for me, you know, and it’s actually a business now. I get to explore. I’m not afraid to explore and try new shit, man. Everything is different from the beginning. Being independent and recording in your basement is totally different from having a standard.

Let's talk about the debut solo album, Year of the Ape. It's 11 tracks. How did you come up with the name for the album?

In my hometown, like, [in my] inner circle, my nickname for some reason became “the gorilla.” Like everybody would drop gorilla emojis every time I dropped a freestyle and it was hard. [A while ago], I just was having a shitty year, man, I was working at Wells Fargo as a financial advisor and I was moving to Fidelity to do the same thing. But in between, I found [out] I had some student loans I aint know I had, and it fucked up my transitions. I was jobless for a minute. I had to move cribs. I ended a long-term relationship. I was a single dad, because their mom was from North Carolina. I was out here, the kids were with me. I was doing my thing. And basically, I just was getting depressed. Every day was starting to become a struggle to do anything. 

So I just decided that nobody was gonna come save me if I didn’t save me. If anything went right — and I’m talking about if I put my toothpaste on my toothbrush, and it didn’t fall off —  I was, like, see, look at that! Today is my day! Then it became this week is my week. And then good shit started happening. And every time I get a “no” or something happens, I’m like bro, this is my year or I will post it, like, “YO, this is my year.” Then everybody starts saying it. So when I said I was dropping the album, I just kept the motto going. That became my mantra.

Touching on the subject of mental health and fatherhood. At the listening party, we listened to "Weakdays. You just dropped the visual for "Weakdays.” Talk us through your mental state while making that song and the inspiration behind it.

Me and my daddy ain’t really close. You know what I’m saying? I give him his props for being there. But we don’t really have no conversations. And music was always, like, the one thing that helped me. You gotta playlist for everything, whether it’s when you angry and ready to go beat a n— up, you got angry music. You got trap music. You got sex music. You got love music. And I feel like when I was going through shit being a dad, I didn’t have no daddy to really call and I also didn’t have no music that I could find that felt like it related to me. So I was, like, I’m gonna make my own playlists and I’m gonna just tell my truth. And the crazy part was, it was like a bittersweet moment when I played the song for people. I love that they connect to it. But I hate that they can relate, you know? So that’s what that was about. I just felt like I wanted to make something that I wish somebody would have made for me.

Now “Year of the Ape” is the title track off the debut album. It features Young Cash & T-Pain. Tell us the story behind the song.

So I lost the [March Music Madness] competition. The crazy part [is that] I was at a show performing while the last round was happening. So I got off stage, and everybody was looking all sad and shit. And I’m like, man, we lost. I just hit T-Pain in his DMs. I had seen earlier that he followed me on IG. I just was congratulating the winner and him, like, “yo man, I’m excited to see what y’all got coming.” He hit me back immediately, same day, like, “I just couldn’t say it online, But I had already made my decision about signing you weeks ago…I just had to let the competition run.” So that was all I needed. 

If you know me as a person, I’m a go-getter. Like, you can’t give me no glimmer of hope towards a goal or a dream, because I’m the person that won’t let up. I don’t care about being annoying or bothersome. I’m gonna go get it. So I found out he had a show in Chicago. And I call Darwin like, Yo, I’m coming. We came deep. I snuck into the show. I met him backstage. And I booked the studio session the next day. [T-Pain] ain’t come of course. But we were posting [on IG] from the session. We were tagging both him and Cash. Cash was like “yo, I’m down to a record.” So I sent him a record and I sent him “Y.O.T.A.” with it. He ain’t respond back for like a week and I hit him again, sent it again, like, “yo, this the one.” He’s like, “yeah, I f— with it.” Him & T-Pain was still on tour. He was playing the record, writing his verse apparently and T-Pain heard it, and was just like, “is this Nando sending more shit?” He’s like, “I’m finna murder both of y’all.” They sent the record back and T-Pain was on it.

"On Everything" features Nelly. Talk about Nelly's influence in St. Louis.

It almost feels like we treat Nelly like [he’s] our Jesus in St. Louis. It’s the weirdest thing ever, dawg. He’s the one who went the farthest. [But] it happened so long ago that the newer generation ain’t really connected to it. Doing the record with him and meeting him and actually being able to experience Nelly as a person, and to call him my friend at this point, is an amazing situation. It was deeper than the music. He gave me a lot of advice, musically. He was teaching me about the business. 

Doing that record with Nelly made a lot of it worth it. You know what I mean? First of all, I love the record. The record’s fire, but it made me feel like I’m supposed to be doing this because a lot of people in my city didn’t get to achieve nothing like that. When you see murals in St. Louis, they have pictures of Tina Turner and Ike Turner. Of course, we got Dick Gregory and Chuck Berry. [Chuck Berry is one of] the first people to ever get inducted to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. [We got] Cedric the Entertainer and Nelly! Nelly is always on these murals. So the fact that I got a record with somebody whose painting is all over St. Louis, it makes me feel like my painting is coming next! For sure. And of course, I slid on that bitch [the track]. He couldn’t just make up no bullshit, because I was gonna RAP RAP.

We all consider T-Pain a gem and a legend in music. Being signed to him, what does that mean for you?

DAWG, a lot! On one end, T-Pain is on the Mount Rushmore of influence. Nobody would be using auto-tune the way they use it if it weren’t for T-Pain. I feel like T-Pain and [Lil] Wayne influenced a generation. We wouldn’t have Future if it weren’t for both of them together. We wouldn’t have a lot of artists who approach music the way they approach it. 

Also, watching T-Pain’s story showed me how being talented can backfire on you. T-Pain is the only artist in the industry that people request to hear without auto tune. I think that is the craziest shit in the world when he created that whole sound. How are you okay with everybody else using it, but [not] the n— who started it the way he started it? Of course you got Zapp & Roger, but nobody did it the way T-Pain did it. So it let me know that you just have to stand and stay true to yourself. 

Now on the other end, the hard part is [that] I’m the first artist on Nappy Boy to drop an album. So it’s a lot of pressure when you have somebody who’s done so much. Like, I’ve been to his house. I’ve held real Grammys now. I’ve touched Source Awards; shit that ain’t even around no more. I’ve seen the impact that he had. Out of all the millions of rappers, he chose me to solidify his legacy. He told me, like, “one thing I never did [was put] anybody else on. That’s what makes you an icon.” 50 put somebody else on. Eminem had 50. Dr. Dre had Eminem. You watched [Young] Dolph put out Key Glock. You’ve watched Gucci [Mane] put out Waka [Flocka Flame] and numerous other people. T-Pain has never had that person. He’s depending on me to be that person.

Anything else you want to say before we wrap it up.

I appreciate it, dawg and I feel like a lot of times as artists we get on these calls and we just talk about ourselves all the time and we take a lot of these platforms for granted. You know what I mean? So last thing I want to say bro is that I appreciate you sincerely for popping out [to the listening party at Classick] for me. You didn’t know me from a can of paint, you know what I mean? [And you brought] good energy, which is why I didn’t want to give you my email. I wanted us to exchange numbers, because it’s hard meeting real people in this industry sometimes. Everything is just, what can I get out of this person? I appreciate you for that man. I’m looking forward to working with you in the future. Let me know what the birthday plans are. I’m coming! [Editor’s note: Rome J.’s birthday is coming up later this month]. That’s it man. Shout out to you, your platform, and blessings to you bro.

Also, I’m opening for T-Pain on the Escape from Wiscansin Fest 2023. That’s gonna be fire. After that I got a few other records we are working on right now. Me and Smino got something. Me and Big K.R.I.T. are supposed to be working on some shit. It’s a lot of people, man, and I’m excited to see all of it come to fruition.

is a culture correspondent with The TRiiBE.