The 21-year-old squints his piercing green-gold eyes and remembers his adolescence in these streets, “selling coke, gambling, selling weed, stealing, robbing, burglaries.” At 18, he was shot just a few blocks away by a friend who tried to rob him. When Trel turned his back, a bullet bit into his right leg. “It was just bed rest for a week, and then I came right back outside,” he says.
Since then, he’s slowly tried to escape the chaos of the street life by rapping about it, even when the pull refuses to let him go. As his career bloomed over the past year, Trel has had sour splits with mentors and managers, thrown punches in a notorious brawl and, most recently, was stabbed. All the while, he says he’s been chased by record labels waving contracts, some of which offered studio time and top-tier producers to the “Nightmare on E Street” project.
Now, the most riveting figure in the city’s sprawling hip-hop scene is trying to figure out how to share his troubled story with the world — and without falling victim to it.
“I feel like every day when I wake up, my career is in jeopardy,” Trel says. “It’s just up to me to make the right decisions, to stay as far away from that as possible. Know what I’m sayin’? I’m mature now. I understand what’s right and what’s wrong.”
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Washington’s musical landscape has transformed over the past five years with the rise of Wale, the local rapper whose sophomore album, “Ambition,” debuted at number two on Billboard’s album chart in November. Once fiercely loyal to the sound of go-go, young, black Washington has opened its hearts and ears to a stable of stylish rappers thriving on local radio and beyond — Phil Ade, Tabi Bonney, Phil Da Future and Kingpen Slim among them. But Fat Trel is generating a different kind of heat.
“Of any rapper in D.C., he has the most potential to go above and beyond Wale because of his persona, his marketability, his authenticity,” says Pharoh Martin of WKYS (93.9 FM). “He means a lot to the D.C. streets because he provides that element that a lot of the other guys don’t.”
Onstage, it usually only takes Trel a song or two to lose his shirt. He wears a bramble of dreadlocks on his head and an arsenal of tattoos on his body. His image is as arresting as his rhymes. His strongest songs — “Y’all [expletive] Ain’t Real” and “Respect With The Tech,” which has over half a million views on YouTube — are delivered in heavy, sticky syllables, blending menacing tough talk and lewd sexual boasts. At his most thrilling, he manages to sound dangerous in a genre that has exhausted the notion of taboo.