In his music video for “First Day Out,” Tee Grizzley wears an orange jumpsuit with “inmate” written across his chest. This isn’t a costume. The 23-year-old rapper, born Terry Wallace in Detroit, filmed the video just a few days after being released on parole last October, wearing the same clothes he wore in prison. Six months later, the video has more than 24 million views on YouTube and nearly 20 million streams on Spotify.
Grizzley wrote “First Day Out” while incarcerated, along with the rest of his debut mixtape, My Moment, which dropped last week. Earlier this year he signed a record deal with 300 Entertainment. He’s now on tour with 21 Savage and Young M.A.
Grizzley has been rapping for more than a decade, but his journey to success has been a tumultuous one. He grew up in West Detroit in what he described as “an abusive household” and was the first member of his family to go to college. In 2015, he was sentenced to up to 15 years in prison for a series of robberies at Michigan State University, committed when he was a freshmen there. Police uncovered about $10,000 worth of stolen merchandise and nearly $10,000 in cash that Grizzley, along with two other rappers, took from students’ dorms in 2014. Grizzley’s sentence was reduced and he ended up being released after 18 months last fall.
Complex caught up with Tee Grizzley to talk about his new mixtape, growing up in Detroit, and what he read while incarcerated. He called me from a mall in Anaheim, California, where he’s currently on tour.
What made you start rapping?
I started rapping when I was young, like 12, 11. But I wasn’t really talking about nothing and it didn’t really get me nowhere. But then when I got locked up and I saw all these other people winning; Meeks, Future, Drake and all these people, I was like, something’s gotta change. So I just started telling my story. I wasn’t trying to be like them, I was just like, lemme tell my story. There’s a lot of people who can relate to me, like on “First Day Out,” talking about my case. It went crazy.
Can you describe what it was like writing this mixtape while you were locked up?
I didn’t have any beats. So usually when you’re rapping with a beat, you’re really trying to ride the beat, and make sure everything sounds good with it. But when you ain’t got no beat, you don’t waste no word. Every word is meaningful, every word got meaning. It’s really better for me [that way]. I made my words more significant. They gonna touch people more.
I wasn’t listening to nobody when I was making this mixtape. I was just thinking back on times in my life when this happened or that happened. I was really trying to remember different chapters and make you think about it. I wasn’t thinking about nobody else.
That comes through in your music—you’re a writer first.
You talk a lot about some rough situations growing up on the mixtape. What was your childhood like?
In high school and middle school, my household was crazy. Abusive, a lot of drug dealing, drug addicts running in and outta the house. Everyone around me was smoking and drinking young. But I stayed sober, I stayed getting 4.0s in school so I could make it to college.
I just want people to know I’m mentally strong. Everything I’m talking about is 100% fact. I read everything on social media. And some stuff I respond to, but I read everything though. I sat there and read a million books while I was locked up. I don’t got no problem with reading at all.
What did you read?
I read all types of books. I read Christian books, I read black novels, I read religious books. I read stuff like Rich Dad, Poor Dad and The Dictator’s Handbook and then I turned around and read science-fiction novels. Or some black authors, [on] like Triple Crown, stuff like that. I felt like each one of them I could learn from, each one of them helped me.
Stylistically, in a lot of ways, you’re a classic, straightforward rapper. But you’re also working with artists like Lil Yachty who’s more out of the box, more bubblegum trap. What’s it like working with artists coming from different styles and backgrounds like that?
It was a pleasure and an honor to do a song with someone with a different background like that. And with someone like Yachty, it’s huge—everyone knows him. As far as my style of writing and creating though, it never switches up. Whoever I do a song with, I’m always doing me. I’m always doing what I feel is best and how I would’ve done it anyway if it was just me on the beat.
Do you have any advice to other young rappers who have either recently been incarcerated or are coming from similar backgrounds as yourself?
Yeah, first and foremost, be yourself. Because you might create a whole new way. You can either be like everyone else or you can be you. You gotta set some realistic goals, stay focused, and grind. Put out good music. If you’re doing that, and you’re telling your story or you’re doing something that makes people feel some type of way, make ‘em want to laugh or dance or turn up and be happy; nine times outta 10 you’re gonna win.
My style, personally, I want people to feel that pain, I want them to catch the chills, I want to put a picture in their heads. I want everyone who’s been through [what I’ve been through] to look at my current situation and be like, “it’s still possible to do something though.”
And have people responded to you in that way?
Everyone responded exactly how I knew they would. That they’re looking at me as an inspiration. And that’s what I wanted. Initially, the first day I came out it was all like, “Oh, yeah, yeah, he’s got it.” And I was like no, I want to inspire you. That’s what it end up being.
I’ve been getting a huge response [to the video for “First Day Out”] from people who have recently been incarcerated. Because they feel it. There’s something about being able to identify directly with it.
There are a lot of rappers in Detroit but only a few have really made it on the national scene like you. You talk about your city supporting you on the mixtape a couple of times. Do you feel any extra pressure knowing that?
My home city has been supporting me—I don’t feel no pressure though. There’s nothing to feel no pressure about ‘cause I’m doing me. If I was in competition with somebody or if I was following behind somebody and trying to be in their footsteps then I would feel some pressure. But I’m doing me so I don’t feel no pressure. I’m in my own lane. Ain’t nobody can do me but me, so I’m good.
You made a video a few months ago offering to pay back everyone you stole from at Michigan State. Has anyone gotten in touch with you and have you returned anything?
Yeah, people definitely reached out and I returned some stuff. I returned over $6,000.
What’s it been like touring all over the country with artists like Young M.A and 21 Savage?
It’s good, it’s like I got nothing else to dream about ‘cause that was my dream. It’s more work than I thought but I’m ready for it, I love it.
The only downside to it is people around you, family, close friends, just start get to acting funny. And they swear it’s you who’s acting funny but it’s really them. ‘Cause they want you to cater to them in a way that they want.
People from back home?
Like people want something but then when you can’t do it, they turn their backs completely on you. Because you can’t do it the way they want you to. But then on the other hand, it’s someone who you’ve been not messing with, they call you out of the blue and start saying, “Oh, you fake, you’re not rocking with me for real.” But you’ve been not rocking with that person. Everybody got something to say as far as what you’re doing and how you’re moving. Especially people who you don’t owe nothing. The people who you don’t owe nothing to start going crazy.
What’s next, after the tour?
I got a full album I’m working on, during and after the tour. I’m excited about getting different beats [on the new album]. Like down South beats and West Coast beats. I’m excited about that cause it’s gonna make me more creative. I’m just gonna keep making good music and continue to stay in tune with the people and with reality.