Fat Trel is watching a roomful of seniors do the electric slide.
It’s a miserable Saturday in February, and inside Kuehner House, a brick fortress of a retirement community on Good Hope Road SE, D.C.’s fastest-rising hip-hop star stands out like a Parental Advisory sticker: Fat Trel—born Martrel Reeves, aka the Fat Fool, aka the leader of the Slutty Boyz—has a tall frame, broad shoulders, a mess of dreads covered by a San Francisco 49ers beanie, and bright green eyes his mother swears aren’t contacts. Tattoos blanket most of his corpus. Under his right eye is a winged “W,” for Washington.
Swag is turned up. Trel is courting the ladies—in this case, a group of seven or so young women who’ve shown up, apparently uninvited, to the Valentine’s-themed dance the rapper is facilitating along with Bless All People. The nonprofit is run by his friend Roc Carmichael, the Houston Texans cornerback and Clinton, Md., native.
For several weeks, Trel’s management has invited me to these service-oriented activities. The message is clear: Trel is really out here. “I go to the high schools, I talk to the kids,” Trel says. “I’m at the train station with them. Kids shop and eat with me when I’m at the mall. They come and see me.”
Marvin Gaye’s silken voice is livening limbs on the dance floor, although most people are playing Checkers or Uno. It’s a party all the same: There’s a comically over-equipped disc jockey, a full-service bar on the kitchen island, a cameraman with limited edition Michael Johnson sneakers, mad Hershey’s Kisses.
“I linked up with Trel through [recently signed Washington Redskin] Josh Morgan,” who’s another local, Carmichael says. “Trel is a guy with so much power. The youth, man, the kids are downloading. My little brother told me about Trel before I met him just off the strength of his Internet presence.” Soon, our hosts are interrupted by cane-wielding revelers with requests for autographs and T-shirts.
Trel, who is 21, makes combative, evocative, trunk-rattling trap music for his neighbors’ little brothers and their cousins. In the past two years, he’s gone from a basement-level rapper selling CDs from the back of a car to a who-the-hell-is-that? stringer in Wale’s posse to a breakout ’hood favorite. These days, he’s the rare local hip-hop artist making national murmurs.
Trel was the hottest rapper in the DMV in 2011, according to the list-makers at WKYS-FM. He opens for Rick Ross and sports beats from producer-of-the-moment Lex Luger. Somewhat mysteriously, his tracks get crossover shine from Pitchfork—never mind that indie tastemakers don’t ordinarily praise parochial rap about buying cocaine on Rhode Island Avenue. On weekends, Trel’s in New York doing interviews for MTV and BET, or in L.A. taking meetings with industry execs.
Spend some time with Trel back home and it’s easy to understand his appeal. He offers a compellingly unfiltered persona—evidenced by a crazily unhinged Twitter feed that’s amassed 34,000 followers and his habit of rarely wearing a shirt. His lyrical themes are simple and street-bound, but he has a deep, confident flow and occasionally betrays an attention to craft. Recent hip-hop trends may suggest you don’t have to be authentic to be a successful gangsta rapper—witness the unlikely career of former corrections officer Rick Ross—but to Trel it’s clearly important. As he boasts over and over, he’s about representing “the real D.C.”
“I wouldn’t expect for a lot of different community situations to happen because of my music,” Trel says. “So when somebody asks me to feed the homeless or whatever, I always jump at the chance. If you really from here, you always give back to what made you. It’s only right.”