Outside the Pentacle apartment complex on Benning Road NE, the Friday morning air smells like springtime, weed and Newports. Fat Trel drags hard on his cigarette as if he’s sucking down a milkshake, then smiles, soaking up the sound of chirping birds and the laughter of his friends.
Eleven a.m. feels way too early for the rapper to be hanging with his crew outside the building where they grew up, let alone be awake. But Trel hasn’t gone to bed yet. He’s been in the studio all night finishing “Nightmare on E Street,” the eagerly anticipated mix tape he’ll be releasing March 26.
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.
“I do what the [expletive] I do,” Trel says bluntly, a few nights earlier at MidiEast recording studios in Alexandria. “And I rap about it.”
Martrel Reeves was born in Danville, a small Virginia town on the North Carolina border. When he was 4, Trel’s mother, Pamela Reeves, moved her sons to the city, hoping they’d find better opportunities. “We were living up at Fort Totten in a one-bedroom apartment,” Trel says. “My mother with three boys. We all slept in the same bed.”
His mom found a job at a Kentucky Fried Chicken on Riggs Road, moved her family to E Street NE and enrolled Trel at Minor Elementary. One day after school, Trel told his mother he wanted to perform a rap song in the third grade talent show. She made him write his own.
“I told him to rap about what was going on, how he feels, his neighborhood, how he feels about his friends,” Reeves says. Trel titled his song “My Ghetto Neighborhood.”
In the summertime, Trel would visit his father back in Danville, who would pass time in the car with rhyme. “My father was from the country, but at home [in D.C.], rapping ain’t cool. It’s all go-go in these streets. . . .But if we weren’t listening to [Texas rapper] Scarface, he’d be free-styling, thinking he was Scarface. He was the one that really made me think I could rap.”
Back home in Washington, Trel’s older brothers turned him on to New Orleans rappers Soulja Slim, Juvenile and the Hot Boys, the troupe that gave Lil Wayne his start. Trel fell under the spell of Memphis group Three 6 Mafia. He was in seventh grade.
“It was that worst-kind-of-music-for-your-child-right-now music,” he says — the kind of music Trel makes today.
“Me being his mom, I don’t like the negativity,” Reeves says of Trel’s work. “But my son is a really hard-core, gangster rapper, and his lyrics are what he’s lived, and what he’s been through.”
The Reeves family moved to Prince George’s County, where Trel attended Largo High School but was expelled his freshman year for bad behavior. After a four-month enrollment in Job Corps, he ran back to E Street, and the nearby Pentacle apartments, where he drifted from house to house. He says he was trying to take care of himself.
“Who wants to grow up seeing their mother stressing out?” Trel says. “As a child you wanna see your parent happy. So why wouldn’t we go out there and try and get it and try and enhance the money that was coming into our household?”
That meant hustling drugs, and the troubles that come with it. Trel says he’s been arrested three times — once on a gun charge, once for unauthorized use of a vehicle and once for assaulting a police officer — but never did jail time.
At 17, he started trying to replace the street life with the rap life. Too young to get into Lux Lounge, Lotus or Eyebar, he would wait for the city’s hip-hop nightspots to close and set up shop on the curb outside. Using “two big speakers out of a Mitsubishi truck,” he’d rap for passers-by, handing out his demo CD, most of which he saw discarded within a few footsteps.
He earned a warmer response at the weekly open-mike nights at Pure Lounge on U Street NW. After a few performances, he connected with representatives from Wale’s recently-founded Board Administration label. They quickly brought Fat Trel into the fold and helped with the release of his acclaimed mix tape “No Secrets” in August of 2010.
His reputation continued to swell. He took home the title of “Breakout Artist of the Year” at last March’s DMV Awards, but the annual awards ceremony intended to celebrate Washington’s hip-hop scene ended in an ugly melee. Trel and his crew were spotted on YouTube throwing fists and chairs. Today, Trel says he was acting in self-defense. Did he squander the scene’s goodwill in one night?
“I’m not sure, and I really don’t care,” he says. “We were protecting ourselves that day.”
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A few weeks later, Trel was driving on New York Avenue and listening to the radio when a DJ announced that the Board had released him from the label. His new mix tape, “April Foolz,” was set to drop in 72 hours. Even though he felt excluded from the label’s dealings, he says the news blindsided him. “I felt like they carried me in the most disrespectful way ever,” he says.
But he didn’t dwell on it. Since the split, Trel says he’s been courted by “six or seven” major labels that have supported “Nightmare on E Street” by paying for studio time in Los Angeles, Memphis and at the legendary Quad Recording Studios in New York. He says the mix tape will also feature production from the likes of Mississippi rapper-producer Big K.R.I.T and young Virginia phenom Lex Luger, whose juggernaut hits with Waka Flocka Flame have created a space on the airwaves for a rapper like Fat Trel.
Trel hopes “Nightmare on E Street” creates enough buzz to score him the right deal — the kind that will help him provide for his 4-year-old daughter and 1-year-old son, his mother, his brothers, their kids and all of the friends he grew up with. “I’m hoping for a million-dollar offer,” Trel says. “But we waiting on God to tell us what’s up. Can’t rush a good thing. Everybody knows that.”
So he remains patient in the chaos, talking about success as if it were preordained.
”Nobody done got a better swag than a Washington, D.C. person,” he says. “Best swag, best dressed, best slang, the way we shake the dice. Everything . . . The whole world needs to know the real story of a 100 percent Washingtonian.”