Out of the Box

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July 22, 2009 was the second annual Trae Day, a day devoted to honoring Trae tha Truth, one of Houston's own rappers, known as much for his philanthropic efforts as for the menace in his lyrics.

It was started the year before by then Mayor Bill White and the City of Houston — Trae became the first rapper in the city's history to earn his own day. A full-on family festival was organized by Trae's camp to crown the occasion, more than 10,000 people showed up to pat him on the back. It was a complete, unexpected success.

2009's Trae Day was to follow suit. And it mostly did. Mostly.

The second Trae Day was held in a TSU parking lot, this time with the attendance reaching up past 15,000. There were free pony rides, school supplies, moonwalks, HIV testing, immunizations and more. Trae financed a bulk of the event. Acclaimed rappers Rick Ross and Shawty Lo showed up to lend their support. So did Bun B, Slim Thug and a whole host of others.

The one flicker of disruption that occurred — a few kids tugging at a backpack that had been tossed into the crowd from the stage during one of the performances — was quickly snuffed out by Trae himself. For five and a half hours, there was no anarchy anywhere. And then it was everywhere.

At approximately 8 p.m., the fire marshal called a premature end to the celebration because of overcrowding. A snarl of traffic congested the surrounding streets. A sizable crowd, thick with children and teenagers, stood waiting in the parking lot for the traffic to die down. That's when Albert Walker Mondane and an unspecified number of others opened fire on them. Everyone scattered. Eight people were shot. The victims ranged in age from 14 to 21 years old.

Trae was both heartbroken and irate.

"I really hurt the most when I found out what happened," says Trae. "To see them kids' faces before, to know what it meant for them and to know what that meant for the city to have that day, for that to get overshadowed...I knew that's what was gonna be put out. I was pissed, but hurt more."

Trae spent the evening and following days conducting a hailstorm of interviews regarding the unfortunate ending to what was an otherwise fortunate day of communal merriment and pride.

He inevitably made his way in front of the DJs at the Madd Hatta Morning Show, the weekday morning team on KBXX (a.k.a. The Box), 97.9 FM, a Radio One-owned company operating as the only hip-hop and R&B station in Houston. The interview quickly grew cantankerous when on-air personality Nnete Inyangumia implied that Trae was at fault for the shootings, contending that acts of violence were inherent in his music.

Now, this isn't exactly an ­altogether off-the-mark observation.

Trae's music is significant for any number of reasons, but mainly this: It makes accessible not only the worst parts of the guts of a major American city, but also the psyche of a man intelligent enough to thrive there. To listen to it is to live on the 8900 block of Braeswood, except you don't have to worry about getting your shit took.

There is no better long-form example of this than Restless, his third official LP. There is an ambient feeling of depression throughout the album (though it's not driven by it). Even the songs that aren't explicitly about something awful happening to someone Trae loves — the Jim Jones-aided "Coming Around The Corner," "Pop Trunk Wave" and "Cadillac" — are tinged with just enough desolation that they seem to serve only as stopgaps between bouts of depression and suffering.

And if this were the only thing you knew about the album, or Trae for that matter, you'd be forgiven for assuming it would be good for nothing more than serving as the soundtrack to blowing your brains out. But Trae presents that despondency in an artful and willfully expressive manner.

Where many Houston MCs get lost in either the trappings of the city's caricatured regional culture or hard-life talk, Trae can talk about both worlds. He possesses the authority to talk about street life that Paul Wall doesn't have, as well as the unreserved cockiness to talk about fancy cars and jewelry, things street-talk legend Scarface has always avoided.

Trae is a hardened man, with the vast potential to be bulldozing when he chooses. That seems inarguable. He was caught in a minor controversy when he punched rapper Mike Jones in the nose at the Ozone Awards in 2007, a situation he later publicly apologized for. And violence, or any other aspect of inner-city life for that matter, is a natural subject of his music. But it's not a natural extension of it.

The remainder of that morning's interview played out in the same tense manner in which it began. Trae called back afterwards off the air to express his displeasure with the route the interview took. Still, three months afterwards, no one on either side appeared outwardly concerned with anything.

Enter The Incredible Truth.

The Incredible Truth is a mixtape Trae released in October of 2009. One minute and 24 seconds into the tape's sixth song, Trae lobbed a grenade at Nnete, rapping about her weight, "Look at you with your bad built ass, you're trash, so far gone you ain't even in the past. It's understood when I'm rolling on glass and the world hating on me like Nnete's fat ass."

The Box responded swiftly and extensively: A ban was set in place on Trae, his music, any music he contributed to and any advertisements that featured him.

He became The Box's own Lord Voldemort, an archenemy never to be mentioned by name again. Trae had effectively set fire to his relationship with not only the city's sole hip-hop station, but also its parent company, Radio One, which owns and operates 53 total stations in 16 markets. And he used his budding career as kindling.

Trae tha Truth is one of Houston's most imposing musical forces, a bona fide legend in the harrowing streets of southwest Houston. He's backed wholeheartedly by not only the ABN, the Assholes by Nature conglomeration he started in 2003 made up of various gang members, rappers, family members and longtime acquaintances, but (seemingly) every disenfranchised soul in the city.

It's never been hard to set your eyes on Trae. It probably never will be. He and the members of his camp regularly roam Houston with abandon.

Despite his growing status as a nationally recognized rapper — Trae's most recent single, a tinkering horror picture of a track called "Inkredible" that features Grammy winner Lil' Wayne and the corpulent-voiced Rick Ross, was selected as MTV's Jam of the Week during May — they continue to do so to this day.

Historically, the whole situation is a contradiction. More fame should mean more seclusion. But it's like the more famous he gets, the more visible he feels he needs to make himself.

Yet, for all the time he spends making sure that his feelings are accurately depicted and relatable in his music, for all the time he spends making sure his listeners can access him, he spends an equal amount making sure the media cannot. He's notoriously reclusive in that sense.

Mind, you can certainly score ten uncomfortable minutes on the phone with him when need be, or secure a few moments after a listening party for one of his albums. But trying to get a glimpse of the dynamics of his personal life? Not likely.

It makes sense, though. It's a defense mechanism of sorts. Nearly every important person in his life has, at one point or another, been the unintentional perpetrator of hurt. Pain seems to follow Trae around like a pilot fish.

When he was ten, he began shuffling sporadically between homes, staying alternately with his mother, father, other family members and friends. When he was 12 his older brother, the most important male in his life, was locked up for life after being convicted of murder. Around that same time, one of the women helping raise Trae, a woman he to this day refers to as his sister, was murdered. His younger brother, Jay'Ton, spent his 21st birthday in prison. In 2003, his older brother's girlfriend was murdered. When he was 25, a rap mentor and one of his closest friends, fellow Houstonian Big HAWK, was murdered.

Perhaps most devastating, though, was the one thing that couldn't have been prevented.

In 2003, Trae's former girlfriend gave birth to his firstborn son, D'Neeko Thompson. The baby was born with a chromosomal abnormality that resulted in both mental and physical defects as well as a dramatically decreased projected lifespan. The irony is immense: A man so proactive in helping other people's children is forced to sit passively by with regards to his own.

"You don't really feel a certain way," says Trae of when he first found out about D'Neeko's condition. "All children are a blessing. It's just hurtful to know what he's gonna have to go through, really. It's hurtful."

For whatever reason — pick any from the list of the aforementioned horribleness — Trae feels responsible for the well-being of those around him.

"When you come up how I came up," says Trae, "when the person that you look up to is gone...When I got into a situation where I needed someone to talk to, Dinkie [the nickname of Trae's older brother] was gone. Jay'Ton and I had to deal with a lot of shit on our own. I chose to not wanna see people go through that. Someone needs to be there. When you're on your own, that's a terrible feeling."

"He really gets the pain that our kids feel," says Marilyn Gambrell, former parole officer and founder of No More Victims, Inc., a nonprofit aimed at serving children whose parents are incarcerated. "He has supported us for the last three or four years. The kids just adore him. I can't begin to say what he's meant to us."

It's an attitude that extends past the work with the nonprofits that finds its way into press releases, all the way down to singular acts of kindness. Ask Devin Hebert.

Devin had always been a good kid, bright, handsome, popular, respectful. He was the quarterback of his high school's JV football team, the Jersey Village Falcons. He had good grades and a good attitude.

But through a bizarre and fateful blending of timing, force and sheer terrible luck, he broke his neck while trying to make a routine tackle during a game in October of 2008. He was immediately paralyzed from the waist down. He spent the next nine months in a hospital, undergoing countless surgeries and battling his way through rehab.

Through what Trae describes as the will of "the homey up above," he heard what had happened to Devin. And though he had no prior affiliation with the family, he decided to show up at the hospital.

"My son didn't talk after his accident," says D'Juna Vontoure, Devin's mother. "He couldn't talk. He had a trach in his throat. But when Trae came in he started saying, 'Trae, Trae.' He was whispering it. It was the first thing he said."

Trae dialed up a few other rappers — Hurricane Chris, Soulja Boy, Z-Ro, Rick Ross — and had them wish him well too. Devin was ecstatic.

D'Juna has been out of work for the past year taking care of her son. When she couldn't pay their rent, Trae did. When it came time for Devin's senior pictures, Trae paid for those too.

Even his self-proclaimed "gang," the Assholes by Nature crew, is a bit of a misnomer. Intimidating as they are (and they absolutely are), their chief concern is to encourage their members to focus less energy on the immediacy of the perils of street life and channel it into something more fulfilling. It's not always a successful transformation, but the opportunity is there.

When Trae talks to you, you feel it. Not in the metaphorical sense; he doesn't speak in elongated profoundness. You literally feel it. His beyond-baritone voice sounds like what shoveling gravel feels like. It's his most powerful tool.

Yet, as it is, he is sitting gently in the conference room of the historic S.H.A.P.E. Community Center in the Third Ward, listening to suggestions from the 200 or so community members jammed in there on what the next step should be.

Save a succinct seven-minute speech, and despite his typical might and accompanying brute force of personality, Trae spends the evening mostly in silence, which is apropos considering the curious predicament he finds himself in.

More than eight months in and The Box's ban is still in place. Fighting it has consumed him. So much so that Tha Truth, the perpetually delayed album that was supposed to christen Trae's arrival in the national spotlight, has become an afterthought.

"It's been put to the back. I ain't worried about that," says Trae. "I gotta be sure I'm out here for the community, for the No More Victims, for the Devins. I still have to provide. They're [the staff of The Box and Radio One] going home comfortable. I'ma be out here with the people."

Since its inception, the casualties of the ban have spread far and wide.

On-air DJ team The Kracker Nuttz were terminated by The Box because, according to member DJ Klean Cutt, they played a Chamillionaire record that featured a verse from Trae on it.

Radio One's defense attorney, Victor Vital, states that they were let go for violating company policy, namely playing a song that was not on the station's preapproved playlist. It's something Klean Cutt openly admits to, periodically playing songs that weren't approved ahead of time. But he finds it curious that, in the 12 years they spent at The Box wandering away from preapproved play­lists, it happened to be an errant song that featured Trae that earned them a pink slip.

Regarding the penalties levied against several other Box employees, Vital states that "all employee discipline and terminations occur per established company policies and guidelines." He never explicitly states what those policies or guidelines are. There certainly seems to be a pattern, though.

DJ Brandi Garcia, who worked for the station for more than a decade, was also recently fired. She played a snippet of a song featuring Trae while performing DJ duties at a recent 50 Cent concert at Arena Theatre a couple of days before her termination.

DJ Michael "5000" Watts recently had the timeframe of his popular Sunday evening show scaled back. Shortly before that happened, rapper Killa Kyleon made an appearance on the show and acknowledged Trae while he was on the air.

DJ Baby Jae, also a member of the Kracker Nuttz, was suspended without pay prior to his firing. He hosted a mixtape for Trae on his own time shortly before that suspension.

DJ GT was recently suspended without pay. He responded to a message on Twitter regarding his role in the ban shortly before his suspension.

"It's so much bigger than me and it's so much bigger than us," says Trae. "It don't even really matter for me to get my music played. What's going on right now is they're affecting other people's lives."

Fellow rappers TroubleSum and K-Rino also sit at the front of the room with Trae. No other rappers of note have shown up. Most refuse even to comment on the situation. Further to Trae's right sit longtime music industrialite Kathryn Griffin-Townsend and No More Victims' Marilyn Gambrell.

At a table to the right of the speaker's podium sit Warren Fitzgerald Jr., who is Trae's legal counsel; Deloyd Parker, who is one of the founding members of S.H.A.P.E.; and Rice University's Aundrea Matthews and Aurra Fellows. Brother Deric Muhammad, a noted community organizer in Houston, spearheads the evening's talks, darting back and forth between the podium and Trae's ear.

When Muhammad is at the helm, he is a forceful speaker, raising his voice and using his hands to emphasize points. He likens Trae's situation to several other precarious circumstances, the most clever of which being the stereotype of an actress who is pressured to sleep with a director to land a role in his movie (Muhammad's subtle implication: Trae's getting fucked). He refers to Trae as a "sacrifice" more than a few times, hands and volume climbing. When Deloyd Parker speaks, he says it too. So does Fitzgerald. It's become the hour's narrative.

Trae is attempting to become the first artist to successfully sue a radio station for, as Fitzgerald puts it, "attempting to destroy Trae's ability to function in the city."

The suit reaches far beyond trying to force a radio station to play an artist's music, which is what most have pegged it to be.

"That's not what this suit is about; that would be a mischaracterization," says Fitzgerald, a trial lawyer for 30 years. "We're suing because they're attempting to put him out of business. Trae has business relationships with people in the city — concert promoters, people that want to use his name and reach his fan base — and they are pressuring them and others not to do business with him. They have selectively singled him out. Trae didn't do anything to that radio station to deserve that."

Vital, too, says the lawsuit is not what it seems to be, though he has a different opinion as to what it's about.

"This lawsuit appears to be a publicity stunt to garner media attention for the plaintiff's upcoming album release; in that regard, it is an abuse of the legal system," e-mailed Vital. "It clearly is an assault on our free speech and freedom of association rights under the First Amendment."

"This is real life," says Trae. "Publicity stunt? They can't promote with me. They can't call me to do shows. They can't advertise with me. If you can show me one way that's good publicity, I'll bow down right now. When all those people died in Haiti and [Bun B] asked me to do that show, The Box wouldn't advertise it because I was on there. How is that good for anyone? How is that the right thing to do?"

In all likelihood, Trae will lose this case. The preliminary hearing, in which the main objective was "to secure a temporary injunction on Radio One that would prevent them from interfering with Trae's business," was unsuccessful. Judge Bill R. Burke Jr. ominously described the injunction as being "impossibly broad." Necessary or not, there will be no grand reform of the way Radio One or any of its subsidiary companies operate. Radio One will not back down.

"Even if Trae loses this case," says Fitzgerald, "I don't think he can lose this case. He has made it about principle. He is standing up for those principles. Ask the children that have benefited from him being in the community if this is a publicity stunt. Ask the parents of the daughters and sons that Trae has helped how they feel. Trae is about what he says he about: The truth."

Same as with the ABN crew, even though the transformation might not be successful, the opportunity is there. Maybe that's the most important part.

Trae says he won't leave Houston, even if he doesn't get back on The Box; he'll play other places, but he'll always live here.

And he's already making plans for the next Trae Day this year. No one died in last year's shooting; all recovered, but clearly he doesn't want anything to go wrong this time. He's nervous and excited at the same time; restless, you might say.

But he's expecting a good turnout again.

And a better ending.

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