Around family, Trel’s the center of attention. He smiles big and cracks the best jokes. But he’s conditioned to treat reporters distantly, with team-first resolve: “We about to get it in.” “I’m just a rookie to the game.” “We just trying to make the best possible music.”
Trel is respectful but laconic the first few times we meet. I try to bond over sports and the fact that we both have the white iPhone 4S. It’s unwelcome banter. One night, I’m told to meet him at a Men’s Warehouse in Alexandria, but he doesn’t show.
Martrel Reeves was born in 1990 in Danville, Va., at the tail end of a romance between his parents. His mother, Pamela Sheppard, moved her kids to D.C. when Trel was three. The family packed into an friend’s bedroom until Sheppard channeled her strength and resolve into a handful of degrees in human services. To hear her tell it, she taught her three boys to be humble, nurturing the artistic streak Trel inherited from his father Calvin Gravel, an armchair musician who now lives Las Vegas. The family settled on the 1600 block of E Street NE.
“People ask me about my son’s music and I just tell them he raps about how he feels,” says Sheppard. “I never sugar-coated anything. I told him this is how it is and this is how it’s going to be unless you change.”
Trel arrived at Largo High School—he briefly lived with a relative in Prince George’s County—idolizing neighborhood characters who carried .40 Smith & Wessons. Once, Trel says, a boyhood friend shot him in the buttocks. He didn’t finish his freshman year.
Trel has two kids. He describes his four-year-old daughter, Charity, and one-year-old son, Harlem, as the bottom line for his drive and work. Charity’s mother died of a heart attack two years ago, Trel says. The girl lives with Trel’s mom; Harlem lives with his own mother.
About four years ago, Trel started recording the raps he’d been playing with since he could speak. He disseminated material in pre-digital age, by-any-means fashion. “We’d sell CDs out of my car,” Trel says. “We’d perform on U Street, around Howard.” In early 2010, Wale held an open mic night to evaluate talent. Fat Trel became the first artist affiliated with the Board Administration.
Last March’s fifth annual DMV Awards was supposed to be Trel’s payday. He’d released No Secrets six months earlier, and was up for several awards, including Breakout Artist of the Year. He won the prize, but it was still a bad night. About halfway through the ceremony at the Crystal City Hyatt, a series of fights broke out, resulting in multiple arrests, a handful of hospitalizations, and an early end to the event. Trel and Killa, a member of his crew, admit they were involved. There were no legal consequences, even though in one of the YouTube videos that surfaced over the next few days, Trel is clearly the guy chucking a chair and making contact with a hater. It was enough of an embarrassment to the scene to yield a soul-searching community meeting a week later. One hotel employee, apparently assaulted by a woman, lost an eye during the melee. Trel’s name wasn’t mentioned in any of the ensuing coverage.
“That was pure hatred. D.C. has the most hate ever,” Trel says. “We were nominated for a bunch of awards and we did too much that night far as stuntin’ on niggas, poppin’ bottles of Rosé goes. But we were quick to settle any beef afterwards.”
The month didn’t get much better. Weeks later, the Board Administration dropped Trel from its roster just as he prepared to release his follow-up to No Secrets, April Foolz. The news came via a cryptic, weirdly jargony press release sent to WKYS. Trel says he learned the news by reading about it on the Internet.
At the time, Harrison, the Board’s CEO, held his tongue. “I feel like going back and forth is weak,” he says. “We don’t lash out. I let his team go on the radio and play the victim.” As Harrison tells it, he had developed a game plan from which Trel diverged. He claims credit for No Secrets’ artwork and sonic breadth, as well as the title for the sequel, Nightmare on E Street.
“The problem with rap in D.C. is that the Southeast and Northeast will start attacking it before it breaks,” Harrison says. “Before I released any music I took [Trel] around to all the real D.C. players. They knew that youngin’ was running with me and he was able to get on.”
After No Secrets, Trel recorded April Foolz without Harrison’s knowledge. And following the DMV Awards fiasco, Harrison says he didn’t hear from Trel for two weeks. Trel’s manager, Dakari Dudley, told Washington City Paper at the time that the Board simply didn’t want to collaborate with the Basshedz, the Silver Spring-based production team Trel has worked with since age 16.
“[Trel] had a lot of people in his ear, and I felt like he got away from what we started,” Harrison says, adding that he dropped Trel without Wale’s knowledge, and that Harrison and Wale later sparred over the decision.
“We don’t have a relationship,” Trel says of Wale. “I haven’t spoken to him in a long time. That’s about it. We’re definitely two kinds of human beings with two different lifestyles.” Both rappers’ camps describe relations as chilly, not heated.
Certainly, April Foolz does not sound like a Wale project. It’s a blockbuster-minded record full of expensive guests, mosh-pit anthems, and simple, mantra-like choruses. “All we need is pills and weed and liquor and lean,” Trel repeats throughout the tape.
Among the lowlights: “Going Crazy,” South Beach filler for cats who keep three flavors of Bacardi in their cabinet at all times, and “My Silencer,” which stresses the importance of knowing your pistol accessories. Trel’s posse of green rappers, The Slutty Boyz, fill space with entertaining but often empty rhetoric.
More worthwhile are a beat from blog-trending producer Araabmuzik that undergirds a song about not spilling booze in the club, and the J. Cole-built “Live My Life,” a downtempo, Coltrane-referencing, inward-gazing gem. It’s more uneven than No Secrets, yet April Foolz mostly works because of the personal touches: Trel tells you what he’s eating for breakfast (fettuccine and linguine) and that he prefers sleeping alone. He shouts out tattoo parlors on Telegraph Road in Alexandria. It also helps that Luger, the young Suffolk, Va., producer who’s one of hip-hop’s most in-demand beat-makers, contributes a pair of tracks, including the massive “Respect With the Tech.”
April Foolz was intended as a tease for Nightmare on E Street; Trel spent much of the summer recording it. Unfortunately, that initial version will likely never see the light of day. Trel says that when he dropped Dudley early in the fall, the manager kept all the recordings. (Dudley never responded to interview requests.)
In October, Trel started his own label—Da Company 1135—that boasts colorfully branded artists with names like Boosa Da Shoota and Yung Gleesh. He’s working with a more professional publicist, LaToya Brandon. “I’ve been tending to legal matters,” Trel says. “Letting people go and refocusing the energy within my team, within the family.”