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Fat Trel is watching a roomful of seniors do the electric slide.
It’s a miserable Saturday in February, and inside Kuehner House, a brick fortress of a retirement community on Good Hope Road SE, D.C.’s fastest-rising hip-hop star stands out like a Parental Advisory sticker: Fat Trel—born Martrel Reeves, aka the Fat Fool, aka the leader of the Slutty Boyz—has a tall frame, broad shoulders, a mess of dreads covered by a San Francisco 49ers beanie, and bright green eyes his mother swears aren’t contacts. Tattoos blanket most of his corpus. Under his right eye is a winged “W,” for Washington.
Swag is turned up. Trel is courting the ladies—in this case, a group of seven or so young women who’ve shown up, apparently uninvited, to the Valentine’s-themed dance the rapper is facilitating along with Bless All People. The nonprofit is run by his friend Roc Carmichael, the Houston Texans cornerback and Clinton, Md., native.
For several weeks, Trel’s management has invited me to these service-oriented activities. The message is clear: Trel is really out here. “I go to the high schools, I talk to the kids,” Trel says. “I’m at the train station with them. Kids shop and eat with me when I’m at the mall. They come and see me.”
Marvin Gaye’s silken voice is livening limbs on the dance floor, although most people are playing Checkers or Uno. It’s a party all the same: There’s a comically over-equipped disc jockey, a full-service bar on the kitchen island, a cameraman with limited edition Michael Johnson sneakers, mad Hershey’s Kisses.
“I linked up with Trel through [recently signed Washington Redskin] Josh Morgan,” who’s another local, Carmichael says. “Trel is a guy with so much power. The youth, man, the kids are downloading. My little brother told me about Trel before I met him just off the strength of his Internet presence.” Soon, our hosts are interrupted by cane-wielding revelers with requests for autographs and T-shirts.
Trel, who is 21, makes combative, evocative, trunk-rattling trap music for his neighbors’ little brothers and their cousins. In the past two years, he’s gone from a basement-level rapper selling CDs from the back of a car to a who-the-hell-is-that? stringer in Wale’s posse to a breakout ’hood favorite. These days, he’s the rare local hip-hop artist making national murmurs.
Trel was the hottest rapper in the DMV in 2011, according to the list-makers at WKYS-FM. He opens for Rick Ross and sports beats from producer-of-the-moment Lex Luger. Somewhat mysteriously, his tracks get crossover shine from Pitchfork—never mind that indie tastemakers don’t ordinarily praise parochial rap about buying cocaine on Rhode Island Avenue. On weekends, Trel’s in New York doing interviews for MTV and BET, or in L.A. taking meetings with industry execs.
Spend some time with Trel back home and it’s easy to understand his appeal. He offers a compellingly unfiltered persona—evidenced by a crazily unhinged Twitter feed that’s amassed 34,000 followers and his habit of rarely wearing a shirt. His lyrical themes are simple and street-bound, but he has a deep, confident flow and occasionally betrays an attention to craft. Recent hip-hop trends may suggest you don’t have to be authentic to be a successful gangsta rapper—witness the unlikely career of former corrections officer Rick Ross—but to Trel it’s clearly important. As he boasts over and over, he’s about representing “the real D.C.”
“I wouldn’t expect for a lot of different community situations to happen because of my music,” Trel says. “So when somebody asks me to feed the homeless or whatever, I always jump at the chance. If you really from here, you always give back to what made you. It’s only right.”
Trel’s breakout mixtape, 2010’s No Secrets, landed like a cluster of public-school kids robbing a man for his Washington Sports Club gym bag. It’s reckless and raw, but also funny and crammed with perfect similes. “I got a hundred stories like old folks,” Trel raps in “Deep Thoughts.”
Released on the same day, No Secrets and Black Cobain’s Now were the inaugural mixtapes from the Board Administration, a local imprint owned by slow-burner rap phenom Wale and entertainment entrepreneur Le’Greg O. Harrison. Wale’s own breakout success with 2008’s The Mixtape About Nothing helped spark a minor renaissance in area hip-hop. Now Wale was sharing the glow of his star wattage.
“Wale opened the door,” says Angela Byrd, who until 2011 directed publicity for the Board Administration. “Before him, the DMV wasn’t drawing interest.” In his early years, Wale was known as a fairly cosmopolitan rapper: He liked wordplay, sneakers, and television sitcoms. “It hasn’t been an easy role for him because he speaks to the suburban Maryland kids,” says Byrd. “[Wale] went to college, yet he grew up with very real struggles like sharing a bed with brothers and sisters in a big African family. Fat Trel speaks for the angry kids in D.C.”
In other words, Wale habitually name-checks D.C., but his credentials are cross-checked just as often. Fat Trel doesn’t have that problem. He grew up in Ward 5, raps about the game, and still lives some of the time with his mom. “I think it’s because I’m the real definition of D.C.,” says Trel by way of diagnosing his popularity. “But that’s also about representing D.C. in a good way. Some artists are real D.C. niggas but their craft isn’t there. The music isn’t there. It’s about me being a real D.C. representative in a real way.”
If Trel has become more of an occasional presence on local urban radio, thank the kids for that, too. Nikki House, the programming direction at WKYS-FM, cites the rapper’s grassroots hustle and social-media savvy. “Trel’s had an underground following forever,” House says. “Eventually some of your fans get gigs in radio. It was our Web people and our interns hired to do promo events that got him on our radar.”
On the most superficial level, Trel is admired because he echoes Lil Wayne, circa 2005: He sports regional slang, gruff vocals, and fast lines that are equally confident over dirty, bouncy bangers and pimpin’, soul-sampling beats. As with a lot of DMV rappers, you can hear a handful of styles colliding in Trel’s music. But one stands out: the South. People want to hear exemplary, bass-driven mood music at the pop level, and on much of No Secrets, that’s what Trel delivers. (“No work in the city so we goin’ down south,” he says in “Trappin’ Like a Fool.”)
On paper, Trel’s guns-and-strippers raps are an odd fit for any of Wale’s numerous personae. The rappers’ best collaboration on No Secrets, “Freak a Melody,” disproves that thesis. With its carbonated Freelance Whales sample, the song is total hipster bait, but Trel prosecutes his verses without blushing: “I had to take the stairs, I usually take the elevator, every now and then I eat that nookie like a Now & Later,” he raps, twisting the indie-pop original’s central lyric.
Although it is mostly comprised of the kind of lowbrow bangers Trel loves, No Secrets contains a handful of other genre experiments, plus appearances from artists well outside Trel’s niche. His musical catholicity works because he’s both honest-sounding and playful. Narratives stay firmly grounded in the ’hood; he doesn’t fuck with surreality or aspiration. Out of hip-hop’s handful of archetypes, he isn’t a king, a bawse, or even really a gangsta. Like Wayne, he’s more of a thugged-out, occasionally introspective jester—the Fat Fool.
“Mostly it’s like ‘Wow, he’s a really talented dude,’” says Phil Adé, another young, radio-friendly, popular D.C. rapper—second place on the WKYS list—who’s collaborated with Trel even though they’re near-opposites. “We hadn’t seen that street side of music in the scene…He’s a big kid. He’s a good dude that raps about where he lives.”
No Secrets was too long and rangy to qualify as an instant classic. Nonetheless, in the second half of 2010, it catapulted Trel close to the top of the local game.
But instead of being the Year of the Fat Fool, 2011 was the year logistics undid Trel.
Around family, Trel’s the center of attention. He smiles big and cracks the best jokes. But he’s conditioned to treat reporters distantly, with team-first resolve: “We about to get it in.” “I’m just a rookie to the game.” “We just trying to make the best possible music.”
Trel is respectful but laconic the first few times we meet. I try to bond over sports and the fact that we both have the white iPhone 4S. It’s unwelcome banter. One night, I’m told to meet him at a Men’s Warehouse in Alexandria, but he doesn’t show.
Martrel Reeves was born in 1990 in Danville, Va., at the tail end of a romance between his parents. His mother, Pamela Sheppard, moved her kids to D.C. when Trel was three. The family packed into an friend’s bedroom until Sheppard channeled her strength and resolve into a handful of degrees in human services. To hear her tell it, she taught her three boys to be humble, nurturing the artistic streak Trel inherited from his father Calvin Gravel, an armchair musician who now lives Las Vegas. The family settled on the 1600 block of E Street NE.
“People ask me about my son’s music and I just tell them he raps about how he feels,” says Sheppard. “I never sugar-coated anything. I told him this is how it is and this is how it’s going to be unless you change.”
Trel arrived at Largo High School—he briefly lived with a relative in Prince George’s County—idolizing neighborhood characters who carried .40 Smith & Wessons. Once, Trel says, a boyhood friend shot him in the buttocks. He didn’t finish his freshman year.
Trel has two kids. He describes his four-year-old daughter, Charity, and one-year-old son, Harlem, as the bottom line for his drive and work. Charity’s mother died of a heart attack two years ago, Trel says. The girl lives with Trel’s mom; Harlem lives with his own mother.
About four years ago, Trel started recording the raps he’d been playing with since he could speak. He disseminated material in pre-digital age, by-any-means fashion. “We’d sell CDs out of my car,” Trel says. “We’d perform on U Street, around Howard.” In early 2010, Wale held an open mic night to evaluate talent. Fat Trel became the first artist affiliated with the Board Administration.
Last March’s fifth annual DMV Awards was supposed to be Trel’s payday. He’d released No Secrets six months earlier, and was up for several awards, including Breakout Artist of the Year. He won the prize, but it was still a bad night. About halfway through the ceremony at the Crystal City Hyatt, a series of fights broke out, resulting in multiple arrests, a handful of hospitalizations, and an early end to the event. Trel and Killa, a member of his crew, admit they were involved. There were no legal consequences, even though in one of the YouTube videos that surfaced over the next few days, Trel is clearly the guy chucking a chair and making contact with a hater. It was enough of an embarrassment to the scene to yield a soul-searching community meeting a week later. One hotel employee, apparently assaulted by a woman, lost an eye during the melee. Trel’s name wasn’t mentioned in any of the ensuing coverage.
“That was pure hatred. D.C. has the most hate ever,” Trel says. “We were nominated for a bunch of awards and we did too much that night far as stuntin’ on niggas, poppin’ bottles of Rosé goes. But we were quick to settle any beef afterwards.”
The month didn’t get much better. Weeks later, the Board Administration dropped Trel from its roster just as he prepared to release his follow-up to No Secrets, April Foolz. The news came via a cryptic, weirdly jargony press release sent to WKYS. Trel says he learned the news by reading about it on the Internet.
At the time, Harrison, the Board’s CEO, held his tongue. “I feel like going back and forth is weak,” he says. “We don’t lash out. I let his team go on the radio and play the victim.” As Harrison tells it, he had developed a game plan from which Trel diverged. He claims credit for No Secrets’ artwork and sonic breadth, as well as the title for the sequel, Nightmare on E Street.
“The problem with rap in D.C. is that the Southeast and Northeast will start attacking it before it breaks,” Harrison says. “Before I released any music I took [Trel] around to all the real D.C. players. They knew that youngin’ was running with me and he was able to get on.”
After No Secrets, Trel recorded April Foolz without Harrison’s knowledge. And following the DMV Awards fiasco, Harrison says he didn’t hear from Trel for two weeks. Trel’s manager, Dakari Dudley, told Washington City Paper at the time that the Board simply didn’t want to collaborate with the Basshedz, the Silver Spring-based production team Trel has worked with since age 16.
“[Trel] had a lot of people in his ear, and I felt like he got away from what we started,” Harrison says, adding that he dropped Trel without Wale’s knowledge, and that Harrison and Wale later sparred over the decision.
“We don’t have a relationship,” Trel says of Wale. “I haven’t spoken to him in a long time. That’s about it. We’re definitely two kinds of human beings with two different lifestyles.” Both rappers’ camps describe relations as chilly, not heated.
Certainly, April Foolz does not sound like a Wale project. It’s a blockbuster-minded record full of expensive guests, mosh-pit anthems, and simple, mantra-like choruses. “All we need is pills and weed and liquor and lean,” Trel repeats throughout the tape.
Among the lowlights: “Going Crazy,” South Beach filler for cats who keep three flavors of Bacardi in their cabinet at all times, and “My Silencer,” which stresses the importance of knowing your pistol accessories. Trel’s posse of green rappers, The Slutty Boyz, fill space with entertaining but often empty rhetoric.
More worthwhile are a beat from blog-trending producer Araabmuzik that undergirds a song about not spilling booze in the club, and the J. Cole-built “Live My Life,” a downtempo, Coltrane-referencing, inward-gazing gem. It’s more uneven than No Secrets, yet April Foolz mostly works because of the personal touches: Trel tells you what he’s eating for breakfast (fettuccine and linguine) and that he prefers sleeping alone. He shouts out tattoo parlors on Telegraph Road in Alexandria. It also helps that Luger, the young Suffolk, Va., producer who’s one of hip-hop’s most in-demand beat-makers, contributes a pair of tracks, including the massive “Respect With the Tech.”
April Foolz was intended as a tease for Nightmare on E Street; Trel spent much of the summer recording it. Unfortunately, that initial version will likely never see the light of day. Trel says that when he dropped Dudley early in the fall, the manager kept all the recordings. (Dudley never responded to interview requests.)
In October, Trel started his own label—Da Company 1135—that boasts colorfully branded artists with names like Boosa Da Shoota and Yung Gleesh. He’s working with a more professional publicist, LaToya Brandon. “I’ve been tending to legal matters,” Trel says. “Letting people go and refocusing the energy within my team, within the family.”
After Kuehner House, V, a member of Trel’s posse, invites me to shadow a music-video shoot in Laurel. It’ll be Trel’s sixth guest appearance in another performer’s promo. He commands a $850-per-pop appearance fee. In this case, it’s a routine hype track by rapper Champ Yon. The song is called “Yella Bone.” It’s about Asian women.
V forwards me Champ Yon’s casting-call text: “The theme of the video is of me and Trel having a model call to find bad yellow bones…Dress code for ladies is just have a fly/sexy fit and bring a nice swim suit…Will be on World Star Hip-Hop, Starts at 4pm.” Every aspect of the shoot is coordinated via social-media bartering.
It’s shortly after six, and Trel’s 26-year-old brother Kel and I keep the engine running outside a warehouse bearing the unlikely name Catwalk Studios. We’re waiting for someone to show up. Trel and his crew arrive after stopping for Wendy’s. He’s detailing the plot of Contagion, with spoilers.
To understand Trel, you have to know his posse. V is Vance McDonald, the president of Da Company 1135. Ricky B. is Ricardo Jones, Trel’s personal assistant and driver, who talks fast and wears sunglasses at night. They also call him “Hol Time,” because he’s always around. “I always supported him behind the scenes,” Ricky B. says. “Trel calls me his uncle. I offer life advice. I’m going to be by his side whether he succeeds or fails. Hol Time: Everything is present.” Killa’s just Killa. He makes vague references to underworld know-how.
The streets, as it happens, get evoked as often in conversation as they do in Trel’s songs. In interviews, Trel will sometimes allude to acts of theft and vandalism during his teen years; a search of local court databases using his name and date of birth turns up several traffic violations; a concealed-weapons charge, for which he received a fine; and a conviction for resisting/interfering with arrest, for which he received probation before judgment. But for the most part, he seems to forge his gangster narratives from the tales of his friends, most of whom he’s known since childhood. As with any rapper-posse relationship, they’re his thematic wellspring, and he’s their meal ticket.
Maybe that’s why the crew is so protective. “[Safety’s] always a concern,” says Killa, “That’s why I always like to be around. I need to let him know about certain people.” The members of Trel’s crew are fond of the phrase, “Wherever Trel go, I go.”
Violence has bled into the crew’s world. In late 2010, armed men in ski masks broke into the Silver Spring home of Ian Craig, a straight-laced suburban hippie who’s the founder of the Basshedz and these days serves as a sort of senior advisor to Trel. Craig says he never saw their faces, but he’s sure the intruders were either failed artists who once recorded in his home studio or close acquaintances of failed artists who once recorded in his home studio. He cites anecdotal evidence, like the fact that the robbers knew exactly which locks to target. Stuff like that makes it into Trel’s narratives.
So does Northeast D.C. lore. The song “Patron in My Cup” begins with the line “Bitch I think I’m Rayful,” referring to the notorious D.C. drug kingpin Rayful Edmonds.
In December, Trel announced that he’d been stabbed in the leg by a stripper. He tweeted pictures of the wounds. He frequently post Instagram pictures of guns. (Then again, last month he also tweeted a picture of a Monk DVD cover. “1 OF MY FAVORITE SHOWz!!!” he wrote. “BOUGHT DA WHOLE LAST SEASON.”)
Trel raps a great deal about Ecstasy. In an interview, I ask: “How often do you take ecstasy?”
“Out of every seven days, I maybe take it three or four. Not too heavy,” he says. “It gets me ready…Makes me fearless. Gives me the edge to drive. It keeps me up and I work longer and harder.”
There’s no doubt he works hard. But when I bring up the inherent perils of this brand of authenticity, Trel responds in fatalistic rapper boilerplate. “Your past catching up with you is possible,” he says. “And then there’s natural hate. The world is a dangerous place altogether. It’s easy to die and it’s harder to live.”
If there’s something confounding about Trel, it’s that despite the enthusiasm for weapons, the mixtape coke narratives, and the face tattoos, he more or less comes off as a good kid. “I see where he’s coming from in terms of being recognized on a larger scale and dealing with a community that wants to hurt him physically,” says Peter Marrack, a Toronto-based hip-hop writer. “But when we spoke his logic shifted toward him just thinking guns are cool. He started talking about wanting the same guns he saw Lil Boosie flaunt. It’s the contradiction prevalent in the whole culture.”
“They’re all good boys,” says Craig of Trel’s crew. “It’s just that this game isn’t safe. I worry for all of our safety. Especially in D.C., because people know who we are and people know where I live.”
For what it’s worth, Trel’s mom thinks exactly what most mothers think about their sons, never mind how convincing a gangster he is on record. “I’ve never had any problems with Trel,” says Sheppard. “When I’d tell him to come inside or do his homework he would. I mean, once that girl thing kicked he’d stay on the phone until 2 o’clock in the morning.”
Trel’s regional popularity, and the buzz in the national hip-hop press, mean he may at last be approaching his moment. March 26 marks the release of a mostly re-recorded Nightmare on E Street. “Stakes are very high,” Trel says. “Oh man, where do I start? I just took my first trip to California. I’m meeting with Atlantic Records and recording with famous producers…I want to get my mom out of her house. We’re ready to take it to the next level with this music that’s wrapped around the present.”
Trel says he met with an Atlantic A&R rep on his recent L.A. trip. He tweeted a picture from Atlantic’s reception area. He says he’s met with a handful of other labels, too. The feeling is a deal hinges on the success and reception of Nightmare on E Street.
It’s just a couple weeks before the release party, and the album still isn’t done. I’m back in Craig’s home studio with Trel, Ricky B., and V drinking Yuengling Black & Tans. Our shoes are off at the insistence of Craig’s tolerant wife. Trel has gathered his inner inner circle to discuss Nightmare on E Street’s final track listing. He brings an external hard drive containing 50 or so tracks. Only three were produced by Craig, but Trel depends on his old friend’s mixing and advice.
After a McDonald’s run, V crashes on the couch and spends the next several hours snoring. Craig fires up tracks, mixes them on the fly so they’re listenable, and spins them. The guys determine what fits. As far as I can tell, the album is exactly what it should be: loud, lyrical, paranoid, polished.
A Luger-produced banger (working title: “Luger D”) is heavy on the snare and sound effects. “Flyer Than You” is built around the alien guitar chords from St. Vincent’s 2011 indie-pop hit “Cruel.” R&B crooner Raheem DeVaughn sings over piano loops on “Find My Way.” “Freak It” is self-explanatory. “White Cocaine” is a futuristic, synthesizer-driven car-bomb jam. “She the Type” is over-the-top inappropriate. “Money Walk” is soon renamed “Blood In, Blood Out,” and Ricky B. approves by mouthing all the words.
“I’ve learned to take it slow,” Trel says about assembling the album. “To feel people out more. You can’t rush a good thing.” He quickly returns to his authenticity refrain. “The real side of D.C. that everybody was interested in is what I bring to the table. I’m bringing the street life back into the mainstream.”
After a smoke break, Trel plays “Get It Together.” It’s his best song to date. It’s his “Hey Mama,” a ballad about lost love and disappointing his family. He sings the chorus himself. Trel penned the opening verse on a plane ride home from Atlanta. You can tell it’s a great one because it’s vulnerable, but not corny. Ricky B. is actually moved to sniffles.
Trel is floored by his friends’ reaction. “I didn’t think anybody would like it,” he says, “so I didn’t write another verse.”
This story originally contained several reporting errors: The article misidentified the subject’s birth name, which is Martrel Reeves, and the high school he attended, Largo High School. Because of the misspelled name, the check of court databases was originally incomplete.