In the wake of releasing his first major studio album in almost half a decade, Houston's Street King shares some wisdom.
Photos courtesy of Trae Tha Truth
Until this summer, it had been roughly five years since Trae Tha Truth, the prolific and prodigious Houston rapper, had released a proper studio album. Yet his presence has continued to loom large over his home city, as he has kept busy with mixtape releases, guest features, and humanitarian efforts, cementing the status he established as a member of such iconic Houston crews as DJ Screw’s Screwed Up Click, Assholes By Nature, and Guerilla Maab.
His album, Tha Truth, released in July through T.I.'s Grand Hustle Records, is a statement of the Street King's ongoing dominance. The first part of a two-part project, it features artists such as Future, Boosie Badazz, T.I., J. Cole, Jeremih, Ty Dolla $ign, and more. Not to be redundant, but Tha Truth is indeed the truth, a sonic and emblematic representation of the present-day Trae. It still contains the dark orchestra feel that Trae, the phantom of the Houston hip-hop-era, is notorious for, but it also offers some small glimpses of luminosity. One such bright spot is “Determined,” an invigorating song about Trae’s unconcealed perseverance that radiates one of Tha Truth's most valuable glimmers of positivity.
Tha Truth also functions as a symbol of Trae’s grit. Trae has been rapping since 1997. His rap career began at Dope House Records, when a “lil Trae” was taken under the auspices of Carlos Coy, also known as South Park Mexican, and Rasheed, who both taught him the process of becoming a successful independent artist. He's been signed to Rap-A-Lot Records, and his music, which includes the hit 2005 single “Swang,” is now an essential part of the Houston rap canon.
I met up with Trae during a recent trip he made to New York to promote his new album. He answered questions with glacial force and precision, discussing some of the controversies surrounding his music and sharing some perceptive observations about human nature. Throughout our conversation, he projected an austere authority and lived up to his name: Trae has plenty of truths to share.
Noisey: Tell me about your new album.
Trae Tha Truth: It’s one of two parts.This is the first part and my first album in five or six years. I was going mixtape crazy at one point in time. I think where I am at now, musically, it represents me well. You know I have over 1300 songs. I’ve got songs with everybody, and I picked the songs that I felt were my vibe, the stuff that makes me feel good right now, and that I can open the world up to.
You kind of moved away from the Houston sound on this album.
Well, I think what happened was “Swang” was the song that actually introduced me to the world by the masses, and that was their first time hearing it. I’ve been rapping since ’97, so I’ve always been on reality rap, but that’s just the song that everybody took to, so this is still true to me. Here and there I can dip and dab a little, but I am still going to stay true to me. An up to date modern “Swang” is “Tricken Every Car I Get.”
My favorite track on the album is “Determined.” Maybe I am reading too deep into your music, but in “Determined” you said, “it’s hard to imagine life when you are stuck in a nightmare.” Are you stuck in a nightmare?
I think my whole life has been basically. You’ve got to think, man, my brother is doing life sentences—one murdered, sister is murdered, one of my sons is disabled, being banned worldwide from the radio, losing everything you have. I mean, I just kind of face it and even with me facing it, I am still determined to fight against it and go out leading in a blaze trying to win. So that’s what came to “Determined.” You are never necessarily reading into things too much. I guess I am more nonchalant about it because I am used to it.
You’ve involved yourself with a whole bunch of philanthropic endeavors for a while now. In 2011, you sat on a panel at Rice University on hip-hop and its influence on culture. What motivated your humanitarian efforts?
That’s just me being the big homie, one that the hood could look up to, the less fortunate can have to believe in and rely on, one that the little homies can have a conversation with and I can give them the game that they need. I’ve always been the type. There is so much stuff I do that I forget; of course I was the first rapper with my own holiday, and I was the first rapper to tour through Texas prisons.
You started a nonprofit?
Yes. Angels By Nature. It’s just a form of me doing what I do in the community, being a big homie. I guess my assistants felt like, even though I don’t want to be recognized for it, it's still a way of doing things to where I can flourish more. So they felt like I could grow the non-profit and bring other people in and do a lot more things. For instance we are planning on opening a children’s shelter through it too. Of course, if I didn’t have the non-profit I would have been just doing what I was doing and keeping it moving.
What is Trae Day?
Trae Day is a day that the mayor of the City of Houston gave to me for a lot of things that I do in the community and because I am one of the people that they reach out to. It was a day in celebration for me, but, me being the person I am, with the heart I got, I made it a day for the city, meaning a day to where I can make people within the city have a day of less stress. I get kids their school supplies, backpacks, immunization shots, and things they need to get ready for school that they may not have the money for. At the same time, it's a day for the kids to experience things they’ve never experienced, from carnival rides to moonwalks, to petting zoos, face painting, rock climbing, go karts, camels, snow, seeing planes. And then I bring a whole bunch of movie stars, entertainers, rappers, singers, and athletes and bring them out there and they just kick it with the people. And the attendees tend to never forget. It’s like clockwork, every year they are coming for it.
Everyone has written about it, but what happened on the second annual Trae Day? [Ed. Note: In 2009, multiple people were shot on the grounds of Texas Southern University, where Trae Day was held, following the end of the day's festivities.]
I mean, you know, shit happens. The event was actually over, nothing really happened at Trae Day. But since a shooting happened that day they just tend to lean in on. It was influenced by the type of people who came out behind me. There are shootings everywhere. You can’t determine that. And if the event was over I can’t determine what’s going to happen if I’m long gone.
As a result of that incident what consequences did you face?
I’ve been banned from radio for about six years now; a worldwide ban by Radio One. I just felt like they went to bashing lower class people, and it just wasn’t fair man. I feel like if God gave me this talent to speak up and be one of the representatives and voices of other people, I had to stand up and couldn’t let everybody take the fall because of what one or two people did.
In hip-hop there is a tension that requires some examination. Off their records artists talk about education and making the right decisions, and on records there is a lot of talk about violence, making money, and illicit activities. You touched on this topic on your newest album in the song titled “Realigion.” Talk to me about how you navigate staying true to yourself and making responsible decisions.
I’m me, and I’m human. I fucked up to the maxitivity of fucking up, and they know that. So I understand the handle-your-business-side, and I understand the street side because I am that. I think that they can just respect my moves and my decisions. My thing is I never tell them what not to do, I just tell them what the real consequences are going to be; once you walk through that door I’m telling you there is a chance you might not come back. There’s a chance you are going to go sit down for a long period of time. I’m not to tell you right or wrong, but at the end of the day, you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do as a human being. And I think they respect it because sometimes some of them chose not to go that way and I ended up saving them from a life full of heartache. Some did go, got lucky and made it through; you know it can go so many different ways.
I am human, even though I’m on the path of doing music and handling my business. If you fuck with me or my family or do something the wrong way I’m going to go the same way I think anybody else would go. I think it’s just a respect factor. I’ve been here long enough and made it through a lot, so my opinion counts to a lot of people. So they don’t really put me in that, “well you are doing good, now you can’t do this” [category], that don’t apply to me. There is a song on the album called “Why,” and I’m questioning some of the youngsters and curious to know… I’m not saying everything they are doing is wrong, but [I ask them to] enlighten me because if they enlighten me and I can get a clear understanding and I can tell them OK, I can respect why you are doing that. But if they can’t then I’m like OK, you are just dry, you ain’t got no legitimate reason for it. Most people are like how do you put that on and then have a song about this or a song about that, but I think my life is a movie within itself. And in every movie you have your good parts, bad, parts, happy parts, funny parts, and your laid back parts. I think it’s just me in general.
You are Trae Tha Truth and your new album is called Tha Truth. You place a lot of emphasis on honesty and sincerity. What is your definition of truth?
I think everybody has their own definition of truth. My definition of truth is me in general, in every aspect, meaning you get the good with me, the bad, the hurtful shit, the funny, and the brutal honesty. So as long as I’m doing me and I’m not trying to do something that’s opposite of me that can get me caught up in anything that’s less than the truth. But that’s not to take away from others' truth because their truth may be whatever fits them or whatever makes them comfortable.
If you were to teach a class on truth what would the first few days look like?
Accepting yourself because a lot of people don’t accept themselves because they are worried what the next person thinks. For instance, I’m a street nigga, and I rap. But I’ve never smoked or drank a day in my life. You’ve got some people who are like “oh that’s not cool, that’s lame,” but at the end of the day no, that’s not lame. How is that lame? If that’s what you do and you decide to do that, they are going to have to respect that. I’m not saying, “hey don’t smoke, don’t drink.” I am just giving you an example of telling a person do them. Do whatever the hell makes you feel comfortable so you can look in the mirror and feel comfortable and that you aren’t doing some hidden underlying, hidden motive, fucked up snake type shit. Because a lot of people go to doing stuff like that and they know in the back of their mind that they are doing some fucked up shit. Some shit that ain’t righteous or real, and I refuse to do that.
In your song “I Can’t Feel You,” you delve into the problems that people who keep it real face. What is the best way you deal with people who try to take advantage of your honesty?
I had a song on…I don’t even know what album it was on, but on the song the chorus said, “I’m trying to keep it real cuz, but I see real don’t pay off.” Being real can make you stand out in a number of bad ways because they don’t like the truth. I am so adamant about speaking on the realness and how fucked up it is because when you genuinely real like us—we tend to have loyalty and other things and we tend to be loyal to the wrong shit that no matter how much we do right—they are not going to do right by us. But the fact that we are not fucked up people, we ain’t going to do the same fucked up shit they’ve done to us; we are still going to keep it real. It is like a gift and a curse.
Dude, I love you, dude.
I tell people all the time. My loyalty is a gift and a curse. By far because they know I’ll ride to the end with you but at the same time [since] those people know I ride until the end, they are going to camouflage whatever they need to milk me as far as they can get me because they know the type of person I am and my character.
I want to take it back and talk about when you first started out. You used to be on Dope House Records right?
When I first started rapping, I ended up getting with Carlos. Carlos is South Park Mexican. And in the process—him and the homie, Rasheed, who actually showed me how to hustle the way I did as far as being independent with music and slanging CDs and stuff—I did my first group album. I was still dealing with them, but then I wanted to not just focus on my solo stuff, and I went and did a group album, Guerilla Maab Rise. And from that point on I just kind of stayed to myself. But they are most definitely family. I was there in the beginning phases.
Would you like to share any funny stories about you and Carlos?
He’s always been the homie. [Laughs] Always been the homie as far as I can remember. That’s who would take me on the road. We had good times. I was a kid then. It’s been so long—I’ve actually been reaching out lately—but he probably wouldn’t even know that Trae Tha Truth is the same lil’ Trae that was moving with him, you know? So that’s a conversation me and him are going to have real soon.
Wow. How’d that relationship start?
I actually don’t even remember man. I honestly can’t remember who took me over there. But it happened. He had mad love and we were rockin’ man.
And what can we expect from Trae in the future?
For one you can expect the truth, and two I’m going to be a problem, meaning something that they are not going to be able to stop no time soon.
Douglas Doneson is a freelance journalist and lives in New York City. Follow him on Twitter.