The mainline Memphis rap scene is littered with performers, but there are only three that have fully broken through to become notable figures nationally: 8Ball & MJG, Three 6 Mafia, and Yo Gotti. Make room for a fourth.
A self-described "Eastside" Memphis native and Sheffield High School graduate, Don Trip is in the midst of a "swift" ascent a decade in the making: He says he started recording music at age 16, but few had taken notice until roughly a year ago, when the YouTube video for his song "Letter to My Son" began to gain traction. Now, a month shy of 26, Trip has signed to major-label Interscope Records and has finished recording an official debut album for the label, Help Is on the Way.
"The history of Memphis rap is that no rappers get along with each other, and I haven't had that problem," Trip says, speaking by phone from Los Angeles, where he's on a promotional tour visiting radio stations. "I've done records with Gotti, Ball & MJG, and Three 6. But I think [my style] is new. Ball & MJG sound nothing like Three 6. Three 6 sounds nothing like Gotti. I sound different from all of them."
Does he ever.
The original clip for "Letter to My Son" — an "official" video directed by Memphis director Joe Gotti debuted last month — was put on YouTube in September 2009 and consists of a shot of a bare-chested Trip rapping into a microphone. Raw and intimate, it's one man's testimony from the wrong side of a contentious custody battle.
Addressing his infant son, Trip apologizes for his absence ("I don't get to see you like I want to/I just want to let you know I want to"), disparages the mother ("To get back at me she knows she gotta use you ... she don't understand that this shit will bruise you too"), references court hearings, details steps taken to straighten up his own life and rectify the situation, and lashes out emotionally ("I just want to see my child").
It's a startlingly honest and affecting piece of music.
Two years later, Trip reports that the situation with his now 2-year-old son has improved.
"It's a lot better now," he says. "It's not perfect. But I get to see him a lot more often." And that transition has been documented as well. On "Letter to My Son," Trip complains about not getting to change his son's diapers. On the recent single "Finale," he raps: "Now that I'm a father, I ain't stopped thuggin'/I just stopped buying bullshit and started buying Huggies."
"Letter to My Son" sat, generally unnoticed, on YouTube for roughly a year. But then, late last year it started to spread like a "virus," Trip says, "and it hit another level when Interscope got behind it." The clip drew label interest, including a call from Sean "Diddy" Combs, which Trip recounts in the song "Halloween" from his December 2010 mixtape Terminator. Trip also says he got a call from Interscope honcho Jimmy Iovine, which led to him signing this February with an Interscope imprint — Epidemic Records — run by Miami producers Cool & Dre.
Working with Cool & Dre and other producers — including Mississippi's David Banner — Trip has been prepping Help Is on the Way, which will likely include "Letter to My Son" along with otherwise new music.
"I hope to push it out this year," Trip says of the album. In the meantime, Trip has been flooding the market with downloadable mixtapes — by my count, eight full-length mixtapes and several stand-alone singles over the past calendar year, the most recent, Step Brothers, a collaboration with Nashville rapper and friend Starlito, which dropped this week.
"When it comes to the mixtape, I try to do them like albums," Trip explains. "But the album is a bigger thing. The album is more like a movie and the mixtapes like TV shows."
In truth, "Letter to My Son" has the look of a fluke — and in the context of the other music Trip was making at the time, it might have been. But the record not only spurred the growth of Trip's career; it appears to have spurred the growth of his art, as several recent releases — the May single "Finale," July mixtape Terminator 2 standouts such as the vocal tour de force "I'm on One" and the conceptually brilliant "Feelin' Like Mike," and the early leaks from the Step Brothers tape "Karate in the Garage" and "Life" — are at or near the same exalted level.
If Trip stays on this trajectory, he's got a chance to be not only Memphis' next rap star but perhaps the scene's most important artist. In contrast to the scene-specific, chant-like flows of Three 6 Mafia or Yo Gotti, Trip offers a richer, more complex vocal style. There's a sly ease to his flow that — like so many of the greats — presents the illusion of spontaneity.
There's fun here as well: Trip indulges hip-hop's playing-the-dozens braggadocio, peppers his rhymes with left-field metaphors, and lights out on plenty of rhyme-for-rhyme's-sake digressions. But, as "Letter to My Son" suggests, there's an unnerving realism to Trip's music. "I think that's why so many people cling on to me now," Trip says. "There's a lack of honesty in music. It became let's just be flashy. I like to be flashy too, but that's not what everyday life consists of."
In the world Trip describes, everyday life consists of cut-off utilities and sole providers trying to keep their families "out the ... MIFA." Trip crafts a persona that negotiates this world coolly but is self-aware enough to allow the kinds of admission most rappers keep at bay.
Trip's steely pessimism comes across as an instructive — perhaps essential — reaction to a soft recovery that, despite the black president Trip insists is "not our hero," is leaving behind young black men in record numbers. This downbeat but defiant worldview is most clearly expressed on "Feelin' Like Mike," where Trip expresses psychic empathy for an unraveling Mike Tyson: "Fuck a degree/Be glad I got a diploma/We can grow up to be presidents/Yeah, right/We can grow up to chase after dead presidents/Hustle for the rent/Now that sound 'bout right/Now that sound like the story I'd write/Story of my life got me feelin' like Mike."
For a guide to Don Trip's mixtape catalog, see Sing All Kinds at memphisflyer.com/blogs/singallkinds. For more information on Don Trip and to download his music, check out dontriponline.com and mrdontrip.bandcamp.com.