At only 25 years old, Tee Grizzley walks around like he’s lived a lot of life. In spite of his young age, the rapper—born Terry Sanchez Wallace Jr.—saw more than his share of tragedy and strife growing up poor in Detroit. He watched people he loved go in and out of jail, including his own mother, who was sentenced to 15 years for drug trafficking in 2011. He lost his father, who was slain in 2012, and he even ended up behind bars himself for a time, serving three years in prison for robberies committed in 2014. He’s also had a bevy of good fortune after emerging in 2016, fresh out of jail, with a debut single “First Day Out,” a song that became a viral hit—particularly after it appeared on Lebron James’ Instagram—and eventually went platinum. Since then, Tee has signed to 300; his first studio album, Activated, came out last year.
When we meet in the SPIN offices, his tall stature and large frame—along with a heavy looking and hypnotically glistening “Grizzley Gang” chain—take an instant command of the room. Tee holds a steely glare and walks with a supreme confidence, but the minute we sit down to talk he’s ready to be an open book, as though he’s been waiting for a chance to impart everything he’s learned in life. He is here promoting his sophomore album Scriptures, an album (released today) executive produced by Timbaland, who also produced most of its songs as well. Tee sees it as a bold step musically, but it is still full of some of his most vivid and heartbreaking storytelling yet, including an entire song dedicated to his mom. In conversation, he’s full of the same candor and reflectiveness that colors his music; he is completely game to talk about his mom, his music, his experiences and attitude towards prison, and the dream opportunity of getting to work with Timbaland and Kanye West.
So let’s start with the album. How’d you come to first meet Timbaland?
I was in the studio with Kanye West, we were down there in Miami or whatever. He was like come to the studio pull up. I pull up—Timbaland in there. I’m like, “Oh shit this nigga Timbaland in this bitch, you feel me?” Timbaland noticed who I was, and was like, “You hard, I fuck with you.” Now, I’m trying to get a beat from him, you feel me? “Timb, I look up to you bro, you one of the coldest, top 3 producers.” He was like, “Shit let’s work.” I’m like, “Shit, let me get a beat. He’s like, “Nah, I’ll do your whole album.” I’m like, “Damn.” Fucked me up.
Did he share how he discovered you music?
He ain’t even tell me how, but he got kids though, so his kids probably was bringing the music to him. That can happen a lot.
What’s working in the studio with him like, was it a 1-on-1 collaboration, or did he just send you music?
No, it was 1-on-1, we were in the studio every time we worked together.
What was that experience like?
It’s like being at work and your mentor there. So you learn a lot, you’re inspired at the same time, and then you working, being creative. It’s a good space.
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How did working with Kanye come about?
So—free YNW Melly—Melly actually plugged me in with Kanye. So that was cool. Bro a real one for that, not a lot of people would’ve did that.
What was that experience like?
When I first went around Kanye I’m trying to figure out all the weird shit people keep talking about. Let me see, let me look at this weird shit up close and personal, and just see what the fuck. Whole time, dude a cool guy. Dude was serious. Like, he’s working. All that shit people think, he ain’t really doing that type of shit. He really doing groundbreaking shit. He really putting his mind to, “How can I be the next Rockefeller?” And really taking the steps to doing that. He just a cool nigga with big ambitions, that’s all it is.
Back in 2017, you made a documentary about getting off probation. What is that experience of being on probation like? How does it hold you back?
It felt like getting out of prison all over again, once you get off. You got this new final freedom. Especially me, I had it worse than a lot of other people that was on. I had to share my location on my phone. Had to give my Instagram password up. Couldn’t hang with certain people who is family members. All type of stuff—had a curfew. Once you get off it’s like you getting out all over again, you free, you can do this stuff now.
What was the experience of being locked like for you?
It was rough. I was starving. I was hurt. I was confused. I was homesick. I was around all these people I ain’t know. I was mad. It’s just an emotional rollercoaster when you in there.
What’s the day-to-day like, just the mentality of being locked up?
It’s like being on an island. It’s like being stranded on an island. You gotta get your own food, you gotta wash up, get your own hygiene and stuff, start your own fights, build your own house. But you don’t know how to do none of that stuff. But you gotta do it. Now, you got people back in cities that can help you, they can send you care packages, they can send you tents and portable houses and—they can send you anything. But they not doing it. And they know that you here. And you reaching out, “Hey, I need help over here!” and ain’t nobody helping you, they just act like they can’t hear you. And you in here with a whole bunch of strangers and everybody is pissed. It’s madness everywhere. At any point in time anything is going on. To the point where you would never make it back to your city again, you would be staying on this island forever. That’s how it is.
That sounds terrifying.
So are you writing to pass the time, thinking about raps? What are some things you’re doing during this time?
So, I was writing, but I was letting it come to me. So I wasn’t just writing in there to pass time, whenever it come to me I be on it though. I was watching TV shows. TV shows help pass a lot of my time. Love and Hip Hop, Real Housewives of Atlanta, Basketball Wives, Married at First Sight.
You like a lot of the reality shows?
Naked and Afraid, Man vs Wild. All that type of stuff. And then on the weekends they let us watch a movie that just came out. So the TV really took a lot of the time away, and then working out helped a lot. I was in there working out a lot. That take a lot of stress away. Seeing people you know, reminding you of home, that help out a lot.
How has it been watching your family, including your own mother, go through that, too, while you’re not able to be there for them? You’re becoming successful and they’re missing out on it.
I mean, It’s fucked up. It’s fucked up. They don’t even be believing half the shit I be telling them. You know, I just can’t wait for them to come home to finally see it. Hopefully I ain’t killed a motherfucker and went back to jail before they could make it back. Because every day it’s just another temptation.
How hard do you think it is for people who come up like you did to get out of that cycle, of just constantly being harassed by police?
You don’t get out of it. I can’t even go to Rolling Loud and perform without the police and the news lying on me, trying to lock me up. So you don’t get out of it.
Do you think the scrutiny is more intense because you have such a high profile? Like, they’re just kind of looking for you in a way?
I feel like they know, alright he already been through the system. It ain’t gonna be too hard to get him back, he already got felonies, we get him caught up on one little thing we can send him down for a minute. That’s how they lookin’ at this shit.
And you see other rappers getting caught up in the same way.
I feel like I’m being targeted by the system. It’s a lot of people in the system that’s clean and want to see me win, but at the same time it’s a lot of people that’s targeting me. And even when I was on parole, I knew people that was in the police department that was telling me I’m being targeted, they constantly looking your name up for nothing. So, I know I’m being targeted. As far as other rappers, I don’t know, I never be seeing nothing about other rappers. You feel me?
What’s it like to deal with that in the back of your mind as you’re trying to go straight and really pursue this game legitimately?
I had to pursue it, I ain’t got no other choice. Ain’t nothing gonna stop me from going out here to get them bags. Nothing. So, I just hope… I just thank God for blessing me to be able to do it with the music, because, if it ain’t for the music ain’t nothing gonna stop me. Ain’t nothing gonna be able to stop me.
Do you think there’s any way to fix the prison system that we have right now?
Yeah. There’s definitely a way to fix the prison system. First of all, you gotta get a rehabilitation center in prisons, that every inmate must go through. So that means, they in there, they learn how to do shit, they filling out job applications, so everybody that get out of prison automatically got something to do. Boom. That’s an easy way for the prisoners not to go right back to the streets. For two: fire all the guards across the world. On the planet. Fire all of them. Because all they doing is adding to our torture. I done been in there, met all of them. They in that bitch roughing shit up. Lot of them killing inmates, saying somebody had a heart attack. But really they done beat them to death. I done really seen this type of shit, you feel me? So fire all the guards. And make the guards go do a motherfucking probationary period. And if they get one complaint filed against them they can’t work there. I feel like as a guard, you not supposed to do nothing but, “Alright it’s time to go to the cells.” Boom. If a motherfucker want to have a conversation with an inmate, that’s cool. Niggas need that to pass time. But all that “get y’all dumb asses to y’all cells,” throwing a nigga tray at him—all that type of shit is belligerent. You ain’t supposed to do nothing but enforce what’s supposed to happen. Boom, “alright everyone go to their cells.” And if you got somebody who like “I ain’t lockin shit up, fuck y’all.” Then you can be like, “Alright, go to the hole. Go to the cell or go to the hole, which one you want to do? Because I ain’t gonna ask you no more.” Just figure it out like that.
Instead of trying to instigate—
Yeah they taking it upon themselves to add to our punishment.
And they’re enabled by the state.
Yeah. But all of them ain’t like that though, because when you go to them prisons where niggas they got life, the guards in there getting they ass beat on the daily. It’s regular to see them get they ass beat. You can’t talk to no nigga that got life right there — here go your tray! Boom. I’ma pick the tray up, empty it, and slap the fuck out you with this tray. And I’m taking your taser, using it on you. All type of shit. I got life! I can’t wait to die anyway. So kill me!
What would you want to say to people who look up to you, and come from where you come from and want to hear from you about how to break through their circumstances
I would tell them, listen, be as creative as possible, don’t half step nothing, as far as videos, studio you going to, your beats, nothing, don’t half step it, do the best you can do. And just keep putting it out there, stay consistent with that shit. And one day it’s gonna catch, because you gonna build up this fanbase that’s gonna be fucking with you. Boom. But don’t try to mimic nobody else, it’s already everybody out there. So be you. To people that don’t rap, ain’t even thinking about rapping, find something — lot of people say “find something you like to do.” Find something you can make money off of. Don’t try to find nothing you like to do, because you ain’t gonna be like, yeah I love getting up every morning. Don’t nobody love getting up every morning. So, that automatically cancels “find what you like to do.” Find a skill, develop a skill, learn how to talk to people, ask a million questions, and just get out here and live your life, because it’s a lot of opportunities out here. But the only thing that the opportunities don’t got is legs, so they’re not coming to you. You gotta go to them. Ask a million questions, meet people, and learn a skill. I say the most well-rounded people, is the most resourceful people. OK if you well rounded, I could go talk to Obama, then turn around and go talk to Trump. So now, I got everything Obama got, I got everything Trump got, I’m the most resourceful person in the world. Because it’s only two types of people in the world, Trump supporters and Obama supporters. So if I’m cool on both ends, I’m the most well-rounded, I’m the most resourceful. Which means, it’s nothing that is not out of reach.
How do you see yourself in music right now, as far as your career?
I see myself as the godfather of the streets. I see myself as the manual to how to survive this shit. What to get into, what not to get into, what’s gonna come if you go around these type of people. I feel like I’ma give it to you raw. I gotta tell you. Because a lot of people talk about this street shit, and it sound fun, it sound good, and you think it’s cool. I’ma tell you nigga, it’s heaven and it’s hell. So come out here and catch 30 years if you want to, trying to do that shit you think sweet.
Where does that attitude come from? Is it just innate, or is it a certain type of rapper that you?
No, at the end of the day, I’m from Detroit, so. You see this shit every day, you see people getting fucked up every day, getting locked up for all this time, and getting killed. We dropping into shit, not knowing everything that come with it, that‘s just how it is in my city… and then, before you know it, niggas just getting sent off to prison forever, or getting killed.
Would you ever want to get more experimental and try new things with your music?
One day. When I’m willing to put my fanbase at risk, I would do it. I’d get on that bitch and get to talking, like how I would never talk. Like if I was on certain levels, like if I already had a billion dollars from this shit, I would be putting anything out, seeing what work.
But as for now, you feel like you have to stick to a certain sound to get to where you’re trying to go?
Yeah, I gotta feed the people that’s at my table, or they’re gonna get some food from somewhere else. They came to this table because they like macaroni, yams, and short ribs. So if I get to putting sushi on this motherfucker right now, they’re gonna go to someone else table, who got something close to this. So I gotta keep serving that soul food.