The thing T-Rell remembers the most is the pain.
The Topeka, Kansas rapper and singer (“Top City,” in his parlance), born Terrell Terry, is talking about the September 2014 car accident that left him with lingering back pain and a dead best friend. T-Rell and his manager Chris Partee, known as 8-Ball, were in a Ford Explorer driven by another friend, Sevon Covington, headed from Dallas through Oklahoma. A car stopped short in front of them, in an attempt to move into a median for a U-turn. The Explorer swerved to the right to get out of the way, the vehicle flipped over, and 8-Ball flew out the windshield.
T-Rell was put in an ambulance, and then helicoptered out to Oklahoma City, where he was treated for two fractured ligaments. But it was in the ambulance that the pain became more than physical.
“They told me in the ambulance that [8-Ball] didn't make it,” the rapper remembers now. “I don't even know if they're supposed to do that, if you're in a traumatic wreck like that—to tell you that somebody passed away. It broke my heart.”
Chris Partee had been far more than a manager to T-Rell. They met when Partee moved to T-Rell’s hometown of Topeka in order to attend Washburn University. Partee, the scion of a vice president at Colgate Palmolive who frequently had business in China, was alone in a new town. T-Rell, just 15 at the time, hit it off with this college student who, in the rapper’s recollection, “didn’t know nobody, so he kinda clung to me.”
They told me in the ambulance that he didn't make it. I don't even know if they're supposed to do that. it broke my heart.
The two became fast friends. After a while, it dawned on T-Rell that his friend who was studying mass media and business would be the perfect person to look after a fledgling music career. And he was. “He was more motivated than me,” T-Rell says now of his late friend, who he frequently refers to as his brother. “He did everything.”
After the accident, T-Rell was laid up at his mother’s house for a few weeks, trying to make sense of it all and wondering if he even wanted to continue making music. But then he thought about 8-Ball yet again, and came to a conclusion.
“I was thinking to myself, he didn't have to be my manager,” T-Rell recalls. “He didn't have to do no music, none of that. He was already rich. His dad was the vice president of Colgate [and] owned a couple million dollar house in Lawrence, Kansas. He could have been living there, doing everything he want to. But he was grinding with me. So I was like, I can't let him down. I can't let him die without me pushing.”
And it was in that state, drugged up on pain meds and missing his best friend, that T-Rell came up with the song that would change his life. He remembers of writing his tribute to Partee, called “My Dawg,” that “I didn’t even wanna do it at first. Then I got motivated.”
He freestyled some lines, “just speaking my heart.”
I just wanna pour another drink with my dawg
And I just wanna sit and talk some shit with my dawg
All the late nights in the club, you never once not showed me love
Because nobody got my back like my dawg
Once released, the song started spreading throughout the region. And then a funny thing happened: people started adopting it to pay tribute to their own dead friends, and they wanted to hear T-Rell sing it.
The rapper remembers the first time this occurred. In Starkville, Mississippi, a kid named Lil’ D had been killed by a burglar.
“I got this call from a promoter who said, ‘This kid got killed and all my city is doing is playing your song. Kids. Adults. Grandparents. It’s touching people. We gotta bring you down here,’” he remembers.
Getting to Starkville was no picnic. There was a car with a blown engine, a last-minute rental, and a new manager who refused to take the trip. But eventually, he made it.
“I had no security. I’m in the hood by myself. It’s just me and the promoter, and I’m going to this family’s house and I’m gonna sing the song to them—no PA and no stage,” he continues. “It’s so emotional in there, but when I walk in the house, everybody’s face just lights up. I sang that song for their grandparents and the kids, the mother. It’s so crazy. Then I pulled up at a gas station and kids come out like crazy singing the song.”
That Starkville show was the beginning of an unexpected ride for T-Rell. He got another booked to perform at another memorial concert, and then another. And now, it makes up a little less than half of all his bookings—he performed at 40 in 2017. “I’ve done 16 cities in Mississippi alone,” he tells me.
At these shows, beefs get left behind. Family disagreements, rivalries between gangs—everyone puts that aside to pay tribute to their dawg. T-Rell remembers one particular show in Magnolia, Arkansas where the power of his song became evident.
“These two dudes got killed in a car accident,” he explains. “I get brought out there for their party. It’s wall to wall. Two thousand people in there and picture this—two different gangs. You got two different sides of the hood, because these two people were so loved in that city and my record was that powerful. These people were hugging each other, coming together, no violence, no fights, loving each other. I always do this thing where I say, ‘If you love your dog, hug your dog.’ So everybody’s hugging in the crowd, holding their lighters up.”
The shows can be emotional, for performer and audience alike.
“I be crying sometimes when I perform,” T-Rell admits. “Sometimes I break down and I cry on stage, and it engages the fans even more. They love it because that’s genuine. You see a performer crying on stage that’s performing a record, you know what that song means to that person.”
It’s been two years of memorial concerts, and they are not slowing down. Many of the people at each show follow T-Rell to other venues, to the point where a crowd in Omaha nearly tore the venue apart when the rapper’s set time ended before he had a chance to perform “My Dawg.” “It literally might be unsafe if I don’t to that record,” he remembers thinking, and performed it a cappella.
T-Rell’s career got a boost recently when Boosie Badazz hopped on the “My Dawg” remix, the video for which is, as of this writing, hovering just below three million views. But getting to that point took some of the determination that T-Rell learned from his late manager.
T-Rell openly admits to “chasing after” Boosie for a while before landing the verse.
“When he got out of prison, I said, I want this record to blow up. It was already doing good numbers, but I want that [snaps fingers]. So I said, who better than Boosie? My manager at the time was a promoter. He booked Boosie in Kansas City and in Wichita. I said, boy, you gotta put me on these shows. I was in every V.I.P, every backstage, trying to link with him. I got a thousand pictures with him. He finally gave me a shot in Omaha, Nebraska.”
But getting the verse was only the first step in T-Rell’s plan. Next was following Boosie on tour—whether the Topeka rapper had been booked on the show or not.
“I said to myself again, a whole bunch of people got features with Boosie, but how many people tour with him? So I just followed every show. Went to every concert, performed. And it worked out for me. My buzz is crazy in the South.”
The whole process ended up with Boosie—T-Rell’s favorite rapper growing up—acting as a mentor. T-Rell was even around during the recording of Boosie’s BooPac project, “doing backgrounds and picking up game.”
With his burgeoning career—the devoted fans; the busy gig schedule; collabs with Boosie, Kevin Gates, and Moneybagg Yo; a brand new album, Can’t Stop Me; and much more on the horizon—T-Rell can’t help thinking about how his dawg would react if he could see it all.
“He’d be hype right now,” the rapper says of 8-Ball. “He would be proud of me not giving up.”