Tee Grizzley: Detroit MC Finds Success Through Redemptive Jailhouse Rap

"First Day Out" rapper talks walking out of prison and into a contract

While incarcerated, Tee Grizzley wrote the lyrics to 'My Moment,' featuring the diaristic tale "First Day Out," released a month after his release in October 2016. Credit: Bobbi Digital

Detroit's Tee Grizzley is 2017's brightest rap upstart, thanks to his breakout hit "First Day Out." His hard-bitten, snapping rap style reflects years of pain as well as eventual redemption: Between 2015 and 2016, the man born Terry Wallace – who apparently earned his nickname for having a ferocious, brawling "grizzly" attitude while locked up – served an 18-month sentence for home invasion, the result of breaking into other students' dorm rooms while he attended Michigan State University. While he was incarcerated, he wrote the lyrics to My Moment, featuring the diaristic tale "First Day Out," released a month after his release in October 2016. It set off a label bidding war eventually won by 300 Entertainment, home to stars like Young Thug and Migos.

Despite his humble regional origins, My Moment strikes a careful balance between Tee Grizzley's street bona fides and his spirituality, his knack for hardcore raps and his talent for emotional singing. There's not only bouncing tracts like "No Effort," where he thumps hard over a DJ Mustard beat; but there's also "Testimony," where he harmonizes anxiously about his faith in Jesus. While My Moment earns critical acclaim, Tee Grizzley has dropped hot singles like "From the D to the A," a collaboration with Lil Yachty. During a phone interview, the admittedly circumspect rapper discusses adjusting to newfound fame and why his street persona doesn't affect his spiritual life.

You have said that you wrote My Moment while you were still in prison.
Yeah, I wrote that when I was locked up. Yep.

Did you make any changes to it when you got out?
Not for real, nope. I didn't make no changes.

What have the past couple of months been like for you?
It was a lot just to have my freedom again after so many years in prison. So to have all this fame and love and all that is crazy, through the roof.

Has there been an adjustment period for you? I assume that getting out and then having all this success must be a big shift.
Oh yeah, definitely. It's definitely been one of the biggest impacts in my life. I've had a lot of big impacts before the music as far as deaths and tragedies and experiences in my life. It's definitely one of the things, that's for sure. … I learned that I've gotta move more careful because a lot of people waiting on me to mess up or do something crazy. So I gotta move more careful. I gotta move more protected, you know what I'm saying? I've never needed security because me and my group, we was our own security. We protected ourselves. But now, I'm in a whole 'nother position, so I move more secure now. People treat you different. A lot of people switch up and say you switched up. A whole bunch of stuff.

Do you still live in Detroit?
No, I don't live in Detroit no more. I live in Michigan because I'm on parole, I can't leave. But yeah, I'm still in Michigan. The city is Birmingham, Michigan.

Is there anybody that inspired you to get into rapping?
Yep, my uncles and my pops.

Did your uncles and your pops rap professionally?
Naw. They rapped around the hood, but they ain't never got a check off music.

What was it about the way they did it that inspired you?
I thought it was sweet to hear your voice on a song. And when they finally took me to the studio, and I heard my voice, I fell in love with it.

Was there anything about their style, or the way that they rapped?
No, they rapped regular Detroit stuff. They wasn't rapping crazy like that.

What does it mean to have a "regular" Detroit style?
It means, basically, you rap about the local stuff that's going on. This neighborhood, that neighborhood, the clothes and the fashion, and just basically give you our point of view. Talk about drugs, murder, all that type of stuff.

On your mixtape, you do a lot of rapping, but you also do a bit of singing. As an artist, how do you choose when you're going to use which method?
Man, I ain't gonna lie to you, I feel like the singing puts soul on top of the rap. I feel like the rapping's good, but the singing puts that feeling on it that makes you feel [the song] more. I don't know what it was. I be like, it's more real. I can be more real and more vulnerable when I sing. I just like the feeling more.

On My Moment, you have a song called "Testimony," where you talk about your relationship with God. Do you consider yourself a spiritual person?
Yeah, I'm spiritual. I believe in God. I pray. You know, I used to go to church, all that. I read the Bible, all that type of stuff.

Do you still go to church?
Not really. I don't believe in God [so I can] go to church, though. Like, you can have church at your house. I feel like as long as you're giving him praise, you can do it wherever. You don't have to be inside of a church to give praise to him.

On the one hand, you have a song like "Testimony," where you talk about your relationship with God. Then, on the other hand, you're talking about street stuff. How do you resolve those two things?
Because at the end of the day, the street stuff is my life, and the testimony is what I feel. I still believe in God. But the hand that I was dealt in my life, that's just what that is. Yeah, I believe in God, but as I was saying in "Testimony," that side is true. But at the same time, it still what it is. It's how I was raised. It's who I am.

Do you feel like you can get closer to God if you get out of the street life? Or do you have to strike a balance between being spiritual and being in the streets?
I feel like [I carry God with me] regardless, because if what I was doing was terrible or really horrible, then I would have never been born. And if what I was doing wasn't really supposed to happen, I would have never made it. So I never question what He got going on. I was in the streets and [now] I'm doing my music. I don't really have a lot of time to do this or that. But I'm not going to question it, though, because at the end of the day, it's His will.

What can you say about the track "Day Ones."
"Day Ones," that's a song I wrote with a heavy heart because it was, like, everything in it was true. I lost a lot of people: family, parents. So I really wanted to dedicate that song to them. I wished that they was here. I wrote it when I was locked up, but when I was locked up I knew that I was going to be something, and whatever I was going to do, they wouldn't get to be any part of it.

Which books did you read while you were in prison?
I read a lot of Louis L'amour Western books. I read Rich Dad, Poor Dad, all of them. I read The Art of War. What else did I read? … I read a lot of black novels, too. I read a lot of Five Percenter books.

It's interesting that you read Five Percent Nation books. Is that a religion that you're studying closely?
Naw, I ain't study it. But I read what they got to say. It's not something that I considered converting to, but I definitely appreciate what they had to say, though.

You attended Michigan State University before you got locked up. Are you planning to go back to college?|
I ain't going back to school before I'm ready to focus 100% on school, because that's where I messed up the first time with my mind, and got into that situation. I want to go back to school, but right now, I don't need it.