After Kuehner House, V, a member of Trel’s posse, invites me to shadow a music-video shoot in Laurel. It’ll be Trel’s sixth guest appearance in another performer’s promo. He commands a $850-per-pop appearance fee. In this case, it’s a routine hype track by rapper Champ Yon. The song is called “Yella Bone.” It’s about Asian women.
V forwards me Champ Yon’s casting-call text: “The theme of the video is of me and Trel having a model call to find bad yellow bones...Dress code for ladies is just have a fly/sexy fit and bring a nice swim suit...Will be on World Star Hip-Hop, Starts at 4pm.” Every aspect of the shoot is coordinated via social-media bartering.
It’s shortly after six, and Trel’s 26-year-old brother Kel and I keep the engine running outside a warehouse bearing the unlikely name Catwalk Studios. We’re waiting for someone to show up. Trel and his crew arrive after stopping for Wendy’s. He’s detailing the plot of Contagion, with spoilers.
To understand Trel, you have to know his posse. V is Vance McDonald, the president of Da Company 1135. Ricky B. is Ricardo Jones, Trel’s personal assistant and driver, who talks fast and wears sunglasses at night. They also call him “Hol Time,” because he’s always around. “I always supported him behind the scenes,” Ricky B. says. “Trel calls me his uncle. I offer life advice. I’m going to be by his side whether he succeeds or fails. Hol Time: Everything is present.” Killa’s just Killa. He makes vague references to underworld know-how.
The streets, as it happens, get evoked as often in conversation as they do in Trel’s songs. In interviews, Trel will sometimes allude to acts of theft and vandalism during his teen years; a search of local court databases using his name and date of birth turns up several traffic violations; a concealed-weapons charge, for which he received a fine; and a conviction for resisting/interfering with arrest, for which he received probation before judgment. But for the most part, he seems to forge his gangster narratives from the tales of his friends, most of whom he’s known since childhood. As with any rapper-posse relationship, they’re his thematic wellspring, and he’s their meal ticket.
Maybe that’s why the crew is so protective. “[Safety’s] always a concern,” says Killa, “That’s why I always like to be around. I need to let him know about certain people.” The members of Trel’s crew are fond of the phrase, “Wherever Trel go, I go.”
Violence has bled into the crew’s world. In late 2010, armed men in ski masks broke into the Silver Spring home of Ian Craig, a straight-laced suburban hippie who’s the founder of the Basshedz and these days serves as a sort of senior advisor to Trel. Craig says he never saw their faces, but he’s sure the intruders were either failed artists who once recorded in his home studio or close acquaintances of failed artists who once recorded in his home studio. He cites anecdotal evidence, like the fact that the robbers knew exactly which locks to target. Stuff like that makes it into Trel’s narratives.
So does Northeast D.C. lore. The song “Patron in My Cup” begins with the line “Bitch I think I’m Rayful,” referring to the notorious D.C. drug kingpin Rayful Edmonds.
In December, Trel announced that he’d been stabbed in the leg by a stripper. He tweeted pictures of the wounds. He frequently post Instagram pictures of guns. (Then again, last month he also tweeted a picture of a Monk DVD cover. “1 OF MY FAVORITE SHOWz!!!” he wrote. “BOUGHT DA WHOLE LAST SEASON.”)
Trel raps a great deal about Ecstasy. In an interview, I ask: “How often do you take ecstasy?”
“Out of every seven days, I maybe take it three or four. Not too heavy,” he says. “It gets me ready...Makes me fearless. Gives me the edge to drive. It keeps me up and I work longer and harder.”
There’s no doubt he works hard. But when I bring up the inherent perils of this brand of authenticity, Trel responds in fatalistic rapper boilerplate. “Your past catching up with you is possible,” he says. “And then there’s natural hate. The world is a dangerous place altogether. It’s easy to die and it’s harder to live.”
If there’s something confounding about Trel, it’s that despite the enthusiasm for weapons, the mixtape coke narratives, and the face tattoos, he more or less comes off as a good kid. “I see where he’s coming from in terms of being recognized on a larger scale and dealing with a community that wants to hurt him physically,” says Peter Marrack, a Toronto-based hip-hop writer. “But when we spoke his logic shifted toward him just thinking guns are cool. He started talking about wanting the same guns he saw Lil Boosie flaunt. It’s the contradiction prevalent in the whole culture.”
“They’re all good boys,” says Craig of Trel’s crew. “It’s just that this game isn’t safe. I worry for all of our safety. Especially in D.C., because people know who we are and people know where I live.”
For what it’s worth, Trel’s mom thinks exactly what most mothers think about their sons, never mind how convincing a gangster he is on record. “I’ve never had any problems with Trel,” says Sheppard. “When I’d tell him to come inside or do his homework he would. I mean, once that girl thing kicked he’d stay on the phone until 2 o’clock in the morning.”