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T.F’s memoir could open in a blazing Southern California wildfire. At 18, he and fellow incarcerated firefighters cut smoldering brush and dug parched soil to prevent towering flames from incinerating more acres of hillsides and mountains. He once nearly died when gallons of viscous aerial retardant dropped from a plane knocked him onto the side of a cliff. Today, the 36-year-old L.A. rapper has yet to commit that sweltering carceral nightmare to record.
“In the book that I’m putting together, we’re only on chapter three out of a hundred. I still have so much to say,” T.F says. Wearing navy blue from his Polo hat and hoodie to his basketball shorts, he speaks while leaning back in a black leather computer chair inside a small Boyle Heights studio. “There are so many layers to the story. I could tell you a story, and then I could tell you a backstory about that story.”
The short version of T.F’s rap story is that he’s spent the last decade gradually becoming one of L.A.’s sharpest writers while expanding his idiosyncratic and chameleonic catalog. Guest spots on G Perico songs (e.g., “South Central”) and ScHoolboy Q’s “Tookie Knows II” brought early recognition in 2016. In the intervening years, he’s developed a distinctive yet malleable style. His voice and unmistakable L.A. vocal inflections can make him sound a little like Nipsey Hussle (more bass and less rasp), and T.F traffics in many of the same tropes (e.g., banging, hustling, luxury living), but his proclivity for wordplay and extended narratives mesh well with East Coast-leaning production.
The foundational influences and hours in the studio culminated in T.F’s best solo project, late February’s Blame Kansas. He maps L.A. street rap onto minimalist, neo-classical New York beats popularized in part by Roc Marciano, who features on the album and handles production alongside Lord Mobb collective’s Mephux. As T.F steers from drive-bys to Hidden Hills parties, he juggles Boyz in the Hood allusions with Ghostface Killah references, getting more assistance from heralded East Coast crime rap stylists like Griselda’s Conway the Machine. Blame Kansas becomes more impressive considering it was preceded by The Ballad of a Dopehead, a funky collection of Budgie-produced hustling chronicles with Jay Worthy, and followed by this March’s Skanless Levels 2, an EP with Inglewood rapper/entrepreneur 2 Eleven. No two projects sound alike, and all move him further away from the shadow cast by that first high-profile feature.
“I didn’t want people to look at me like, ‘Oh, that’s ScHoolboy Q’s homie.’ Initially, that’s what it was,” T.F says. “I was making sure that didn’t continue. Now, people know me as T.F.”
Born in Sacramento, T.F spent summers in the Central Valley with his father, a member of the Miwok tribe who took him to visit family and attend events at the local reservation. Back in South L.A. with his mother, he and his friends played football in the Crip-heavy neighborhood known as the 50s. They chose getting jumped into a local set over getting jumped. An attempted bank robbery in his teens and a subsequent probation violation put T.F on the frontlines of wildfires. Today, incarcerated firefighters can continue that work after their release under bill A.B. 2147 (albeit with many hurdles), but that wasn’t an option upon T.F.’s release in the mid-2000s. He spent years searching for viable employment while engaging in various hustles. By 2008, he was back in prison.
Though T.F recorded his earliest rap songs in 2006, his final prison stint pushed him to redirect his focus. He memorized countless rhymes staring at the ceiling in his cell and began recording in earnest upon his 2012 release. Projects like 2017’s No Hooks and 2018’s ErthangSkanless were wrapped years before their release, but T.F kept them on hard drives while he waited for the right time. That time came when ScHoolboy Q, a friend from the 50s, invited him to appear on “Tookie Knows II” on Blank Face LP. Since his first tour with Q, T.F’s released 10 projects, most of them sonically disparate improvements on their predecessors.
“Some people lock in on a sound and only do that. I don’t think of music like that,” he explains. “I know I can do what you can do, but I know you can’t do what I do.”
T.F likens his approach to an auteur director, someone with stylistic signatures capable of telling many different stories. He hopes to direct movies one day, but he’s working incessantly in the studio until then. At present, he’s finishing five projects, driven by his love of the art as much as the weight of supporting his teenage son and toddler daughter and serving as an example to his peers still in the streets. “I probably could have been in jail for life. I probably could be in a wheelchair right now. I could be dead by now. But this is how the story unfolds.”