The video clip — which now has nearly 2 million hits on YouTube — is dated September 8, 2009. In it, a shirtless young man, then essentially unknown 24-year-old Memphis rapper Don Trip, is alone in a dim, unadorned, makeshift recording booth. He presses a play button, puts on headphones, adjusts the camera, clears his throat, and leans into the microphone. Then he tells his story.
The song is "Letter to My Son" and it is artful in its artlessness. The rhymes — unlike in Trip's other best music — are not creative. They are mundane: a lot of "to/through/you/do/too." But Trip — real name, improbably, Chris Wallace, which he shares not only with the Memphis Grizzlies general manager but with late rap legend Notorious B.I.G. — is speaking plainly here, from the wrong side of a contentious child-visitation battle.
Addressing his son, Jaylen, then two-and-a-half-months old, 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"), lashes out at 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 potential court hearings, details steps taken to straighten up his own life and rectify the situation and finally howls: "I just want to see my child."
This was no gimmick. It was an audio diary entry/therapy session — every word utterly autobiographical — that was posted online without expectation. Trip had no way to know that, two years later, the clip would be responsible for transforming both his personal and professional life. And for giving Memphis music its next potential national star.
"Letter to My Son" — which is now being added to radio and video playlists across the country with a vocal hook from pop superstar Cee Lo and with the muscle of major-label Interscope Records behind it — was recorded at a moment of personal crisis for Trip, who grew up hard in the Parkway Village neighborhood around Sheffield High School.
"I grew up, of course, with no father. Just my mama, my brother, and my sister," says Trip, now 26, sitting on the couch at his home in a wooded middle-class neighborhood south of the city. Jaylen, now 2, is asleep in his lap while he talks. Trip had tried to hand the child to another relative before our interview, but Jaylen refused to let him go and instead buried his head in his father's shoulder and went to sleep.
Trying to raise three kids on her own, Trip's mother worked multiple jobs, which left him and his brother to look after their younger sister. Then, at one point, the mother was laid off from her main job, "so I had to go and do other things to support the family and keep us from having to move to the projects," Trip says. "I wasn't running around gang-banging. I wasn't robbing people. But I did what I had to do to keep the lights on."
At the time "Letter to My Son" was written and recorded, Trip's life was in flux. Financial difficulties had forced him to move back in with his mother, where he repurposed a bedroom into the recording booth you see on "Letter to My Son" and other homemade clips made in 2009 and 2010.
With a son in the picture, Trip was trying to reorient his life.
"That changed a lot of things," Trip says of Jaylen's birth. "Before then, my priority was to keep my mama afloat. After that, he took priority. I stopped everything I was already doing. Everything I was doing to pay the bills for my mama and my sister, I stopped because I got a child and I wanted to be able to be present in my child's life. What I was doing ... ain't too many avenues for that."
Trip was taking electronics classes at Southwest Tennessee Community College — something alluded to in the song, when Trip raps, "Matter of fact I'm in school right now in case the music don't work and I can put the work down" — and trying to keep his flickering music dreams alive. But his relationship with his son's mother was rocky, and at the time "Letter to My Son" was written, Trip hadn't seen Jaylen — born June 26th — in several weeks.
"I hadn't seen him for the whole month of August or September," Trip remembers. "And when I did see him in July, it was an hour a week and it was getting to me. Of course, I knew he was growing. I was seeing pictures of him on Facebook. That was the only way I could see him. That was getting to me more than anything. I couldn't see my own child. I had to go online to see him."
It was a moment of desperation — a grown man forced back into his mother's house, an infant son he can't see, a music "career" going nowhere, a tough choice between legitimate and illegitimate means of financial survival — that Craig Brewer might turn into a movie.
"I turned my old room into a studio," Trip says. "I didn't have a bed in there. I soundproofed the walls and built a booth. I went and got all the equipment I needed. No matter what, I was going to have to make it. That's all I had left."
"Letter to My Son" was not an instant success. The song sat online for months without getting much notice, not going viral for a full year, before taking off in September 2010.
Among the people to eventually pick up on the song were Miami hip-hop producers Cool & Dre, a team that has worked with many of the genre's biggest stars over the past decade. Cool & Dre developed a relationship with Trip and soon a raft of major labels was calling, resulting in what Devin Steel, program director at Memphis hip-hop/R&B station K97, suggests was "a bidding war."
This took Trip by surprise. "I didn't know something that old was still going to work," he says.
"I got a call from Atlantic and a call from Columbia, but they were just talking a single deal," Trip remembers. "That wasn't what I was interested in. Them just offering me a deal for one song made me feel like that's what they believed, that I only had that one record. I felt like even if that's the case, if I've only got one record, I can do that on my own."
More serious interest came from an exciting source: legendary Interscope-Geffen-A&M Records chairman Jimmy Iovine, who has helped launch the careers of Eminem, 50 Cent, and Lady Gaga, among others.
Iovine called Trip directly, with a skeptical Trip peppering Iovine with music trivia questions to confirm it wasn't a prank call.
Once Trip was convinced he was talking to the actual Iovine, the rapper received an enormous compliment.
"He was telling me his view on how he felt my music could go," Trip says. "One of the first things he said was that it'd been a minute since he'd seen true passion in music. He said the last person he witnessed that had that kind of passion — and he kept saying he didn't want me to feel like that's who he's trying to make me be — was Tupac."
Iovine flew Trip to Detroit the next day, where Trip found himself in a studio with Dr. Dre, Eminem, and emerging rap star J.Cole, and then to Los Angeles for meetings. From there, Trip and Interscope began discussing a deal.
Shortly after, Trip got another unexpected phone call from artist/producer/label owner Sean "Diddy" Combs, whose Bad Boy imprint is affiliated with Interscope.
"Diddy and Jimmy work very closely, and I guess Jimmy thought if this was going to work, he needed a [mentor] to be involved, to help steer it," Trip says. "That's the whole point of Diddy getting in. I felt like Diddy was just looking out [for me], and I had no problem with that."
Trip recounts his interactions with Iovine and Diddy on the song "Halloween," recorded in similar fashion to "Letter to My Son" and posted on YouTube on November 1, 2010.
Trip finally signed a multi-album deal with Interscope Records in February of this year, but it took several months for the label to get "Letter to My Son" out as an official single.
"Their biggest concern was ownership of the record," says Trip, who got the song's original backing track from his brother. "When I did the record, I was under the impression that whoever my brother got it from, it belonged to us after that."
But it turned out that the track had already appeared on an album by New York rapper Fat Joe, setting up legal hurdles for the label — and resulting in a slightly different musical track on the Interscope version. Additionally, Interscope wanted to make the song more radio-friendly.
"Jimmy requested a hook on the record. When he first told me about it, I was against it," Trip says. "I understood his point of view. He said it would be easier for me to break it without a hook if I was already in the game. But I'm not. I'm a new artist and you can't come in changing things."
When Interscope presented a demo for the song's hook, Trip was satisfied but insisted that "it has to be somebody with soul, somebody like Cee Lo," Trip says. "I was really just saying that's the kind of feel it has to have, but they turned around and got Cee Lo and it worked out from there."
Most listeners may know Cee Lo from recent pop smashes like the solo "F--- You" and the Gnarls Barkley song "Crazy." But Trip grew up listening to Cee Lo's '90s Atlanta rap group Goodie Mob. Trip met Cee Lo for the first time this September — almost exactly two years after first posting "Letter to My Son" on YouTube — when he flew to Los Angeles to shoot a video for the official single release of the song. The video is now in rotation on MTV Jams.
As the presence of Jaylen in Trip's lap testifies, this journey has done more than elevate Trip's music career.
"It's not perfect yet, but it's a lot better than it was," Trip says of his access to his son and relationship with his son's mother. "I get to see him now, and since September I get to keep him overnight. He's two years old now. So that's long overdue."
There's no doubt that Jaylen's mother would have her own take on the situation Trip describes in the song and unsurprisingly — if a subject of great annoyance to Trip — there are several "answer records" from opportunistic rappers that have popped up online.
"Of course she was upset," Trip says when asked how Jaylen's mother reacted to the song. "But she actually knows who I am — not Don Trip. She knows Chris Wallace. Her knowing me, she knew it was more pain than anger on that record. I wasn't just lashing out. And I've never called out her name. She knew it had reached a boiling point, so from there she started slowly coming around and allowing me to see him more. We're on better terms now."
More Than "Letter"
"Letter to My Son" has the shape of a classic one-off fluke hit, but Trip would insist he's a lot more than that. Interscope is convinced, and a spin through Trip's enormous catalog of self-released material will convince anyone with an ear for rap and hip-hop.
Trip has released 10 full-length "mixtape" collections since late 2010 along with several additional stand-alone tracks. And while much of this music is generic — as the sheer volume probably demands — there's also plenty that's as exciting as anything happening in the genre right now.
The best of Trip's mixtapes is probably Step Brothers, an album-length collaboration with Nashville rapper and good friend Starlito.
Together, Trip and Starlito display a rapport that suggests true friendship rather than a business arrangement. The duo bounces lines off each other like they stayed up all night in the studio joking around to come up with material. The result is akin to an underground, regional answer to Kanye West and Jay-Z's Watch the Throne.
"When we sat down to plan it out, we made sure that, no matter what, we were in the studio with each other to record this project," Trip says. "We didn't want it to be an average project. I felt like we weren't afraid to be ourselves around each other."
Trip's best solo mix is Terminator 2, which contains his most impressive individual recordings since "Letter to My Son."
Trip's favorite of his tracks is "Feelin' Like Mike," off Terminator 2, which alternates verses with three interview clips from different stages of Mike Tyson's career — from promising teen challenger to prickly champ to end-of-the-line desperation.
The song draws a comparison between street hustling and subsistence living and a boxing match — "Ain't nobody warned us/Looking at the corners/That this gonna be the fight of our lives" — tapping into the mix of violence, vulnerability, and volatility that marked Tyson's career.
"It's about life, period," Trip says. "Hustling is scary, but you got to do it. It's dangerous at both ends. He can get knocked out. I can get locked up or killed. But I have to provide for my family, and he's got to win the fight."
If "Feelin' Like Mike" is Trip at his best conceptually, the Terminator 2 track "I'm on One" — Trip's superior take on the hit DJ Khaled single that features stars Drake, Rick Ross, and Lil Wayne in its original version — perhaps best establishes his pure rapping ability.
Not a topic-based song but rather a stream-of-consciousness rap tour de force, the five-minute song finds Trip hitting lots of different marks in succession: Cold. Swaggering. Menacing. Witty. Sociological. Seductive. And, finally, confessional — the startling "I'm smart enough to know something's wrong with me" leading to "Proud to be a parent/Afraid of being married/Terrified of sharing."
"It's easier to do records like that, because I can hit everything," Trip says. "If I'm doing a song, I have to stay within the basis of what my hook is about. With me doing 'I'm on One' and not having a topic, I can go wherever I want."
There's fun in Trip's music: He indulges hip-hop's playing-the-dozens braggadocio, peppers his rhymes with left-field metaphors, similes, and comparisons, and lights out on plenty of rhyme-for-rhyme's-sake digressions. (A favorite rhyme chain, from the single "Finale," goes like this: "commotion/wildlife poacher/kosher/Stouffer's/chauffeured/gophers/Ebert & Roeper/covert.") But the content of Trip's music is probably most striking for its confessional notes and for how honest and direct it is in depicting everyday poverty. Take the Terminator 2 highlight "Vent," where Trip raps about being a sole provider, struggling to keep his family out of MIFA.
"I've never wanted to run away from nothing," Trip says. "I don't want to pretend like we've made it. My music comes from what I'm going through. We grew up on MIFA. I think that's why so many people [are interested in] me now. 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."
Help is On the Way is on the way.
As the endlessly shifting release dates of albums by more established local rap artists such as Three 6 Mafia and Yo Gotti attest, major-label hip-hop albums have a tendency to be delayed. But Trip seems confident that his Interscope debut, Help Is on the Way, will be released sometime in early 2012.
"We've had enough meetings and I've seen so much money allocated to my project, and Jimmy came to get me personally, that I got no doubt that it's coming," Trip insists. "The only thing now is to work with the label, because I come from doing it all on my own. So it's a big transition to trust other people, but so far they've been doing what they've said they were going to do."
Steel, who has been playing "Letter to My Son" on K97 and labels the song a "conversation piece," agrees that Trip is a likely exception to the album-delay trend and says he expects the see the album in the "first quarter" of next year.
"He's got the right people behind him, and Interscope's decided this guy's [part of] the future of what they want to do [in hip-hop and urban music]," Steel says. "He hasn't gotten the normal underground buzz. He's gotten a lot of attention because of the lyrical content and style. And 'Letter to My Son' is getting a lot of attention, especially now with Cee Lo on it. They just have to get him out there with a full-court press. They have to mold him into an artist."
Trip, whose Interscope deal is via Cool & Dre's Epidemic Records imprint, has been working on the album with a variety of big-name producers in a variety of locales — Miami, Los Angeles, Atlanta, and Virginia — and says he's recorded 70 tracks to choose from.
None of the music that might end up on Help Is on the Way — except for "Letter to My Son" — has been heard outside the studio or Interscope offices, according to Trip, who says he keeps his mixtape work separate.
In addition to "Letter to My Son," there are only two songs that Trip is certain will appear on Help Is on the Way. One is "Too Little Too Late," an apology to Jaylen's mother. "Not an apology for 'Letter to My Son,' but an apology for everything we've been through," Trip says.
The other is the title track, which Trip describes as a three-verse anthem revolving around the title phrase. The first verse is about hustling to make ends meet. The second verse is dedicated to Jaylen. The third verse is about the larger hip-hop landscape.
For Trip, the song's multiple meanings are meant to capture where he's come from and where he is now — poised for a major breakthrough that is still far from guaranteed.
"First, I get to provide for my family and I don't have to do what I was doing. So for us to get out of the hole we were in — help is on the way," Trip says. "The second meaning is for music in general. Everybody's hiding the scars right now. So for the people who want to hear the truth? Help is on the way."