T2 the Ghetto Hippie has never been the kind of rapper who’s afraid to smile. Onstage, he’s a ball of energy, bouncing and swaggering and basking in the electric joy of his role as chief party-rocker. His rhymes are tight and his ambitions are lofty, but it’s T2’s happy-go-lucky defiance that people really respond to.
That’ll probably never change, and T2 is cool with it. But he wants you to know there’s a little more to his story, too.
“Everybody kind of expects from the Ghetto Hippie something wavy, friendly and very uplifting,” T2 says. “And that’s kind of my whole thing. Everybody knows the happy-go-lucky side. But it’s time we introduced the other side. I want to show the ghetto side of the hippie.”
T2’s new album, A South West Side Story, adds some rough-and-tumble shading to his smilin’, smoked-out persona. Backed by Trakksounds’s lush, synth production, there’s an unmistakable urgency to the rapper’s triplet-pattern rhymes as he describes growing up in a household with plenty of love but not quite enough dollars to keep serious trouble from seeming like a fair opportunity. When he was a kid, it was music that helped him keep his chin up and imagine different possibilities.
“My dad is English, and he’s very hippie,” T2 says. “Some of my first memories were sitting down and listening to the Beatles, Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd on his headphones with him after work. He put me on a lot of game, like classic rock and the whole lifestyle of One Love. He would show me stuff about MLK and Nelson Mandela. My dad’s white as hell, but he was all about equality.”
Equality is certainly a noble ideal — sometimes maybe a little too noble for the southwest Houston neighborhood where T2 grew up. On A South West Side Story, it sounds like a prideful place, but also the kind of place where hanging out aboveground wasn’t a day-to-day given. As a budding, biracial MC as obsessed with Bob Marley as with Big Moe, T2 didn’t quite fit in with his peers, either at school or in the local hip-hop scene. Or maybe he just didn’t want to.
“I was kind of expected to do one thing, the ‘Houston Rap’ thing — and I never wanted to do that,” he says. “I’ve always been goofy, and I was always that dude who was being more sarcastic than anybody else — talking about Full House while everybody else was talking about N.W.A. Listening to Eminem, it was finally like, ‘Cool, it’s OK to not do what anybody else is doing.’”
As his skills as a rapper blossomed, the studio began to seem like T2’s ticket to something bigger and better than the Southwest side. But to get there, he’d have to navigate the streets.
“Where I’m from, it just gets crazy, especially middle-school, high-school times,” the rapper says. “It’s a very fast life. You become a man very early in the Southwest. It’s a lot of struggle and a lot of dreamers. You see a lot of dreamers where the dream fizzled away.”
Telling that part of his story has been T2’s dream for quite a while. A South West Side Story gave him his chance. There’s plenty of comedy and braggadocio in its eight tracks, sure. But there’s tragedy, too. The semi-autobiographical skits between songs that form the album’s narrative make it clear that T2 has seen enough of the streets to know that money, respect and even love can be crushingly fleeting. Through the ups and downs, it was music that he clung to. If it was Eminem who helped give T2 the confidence to stand out, then A South West Side Story is his 8 Mile.
“It took awhile to get good enough to be able to be different, to portray the natural energy I have with my friends and in my daily life while performing in front of people,” the Ghetto Hippie says. “It took time, and now I’m there. I’ve found a way to show people who I am.”
The obvious single from the new album is “Swang On ‘Em,” a personal tale of pain and escape that largely encapsulates the record’s themes. T2 released a video for the track, featuring fellow Houston up-and-comer GT Garza, last week. But the album’s moody energy crackles most intensely on “Last Breath,” the nervy, go-for-broke finale to A South West Side Story’s narrative arc. It’s an ambiguous ending, closing with a single gunshot. As if to reassure us that he’s too slick to die just yet, though, T2 can’t help but return for an encore of “Hustletown,” last year’s radio breakthrough that finds the Ghetto Hippie trading verses with Z-Ro, Houston’s long-reigning King of the Ghetto.
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It’s a fun, fitting capper for T2’s full-length summation of the people and the place that made him who he is today.
“This (record) is for the city,” he says. “The next project I’m doing, I’m trying to take it to California. I’m trying to take it to the world. But A South West Side Story is for Houston. It’s for the people who endured what I endured growing up. This year, we’re going to make some crazy shit happen.”
And for your friendly neighborhood Ghetto Hippie, that’s reason enough to smile.
A South West Side Story is streaming online now at ASouthWestSideStory.com. Physical copies will be available for purchase at BC Smoke Shop (7909 Westheimer and 10950 FM 1960 West) and Smoke Dreamz (6447 Richmond and 1201 Westheimer).