(AllHipHop Features) The Hustle Gang Presents: We Want Smoke compilation is the musical initiation for several up-and-coming acts from the Atlanta-based crew. Tip “T.I.” Harris rounded up an impressive roster of talent for the Grand Hustle/Roc Nation release.
One of those apprentices working to elevate himself to Top 40 status is Alabama’s Translee. The emcee derives directly from the lineage of other southern wordsmiths such as OutKast, Goodie Mob, UGK, J. Cole, Big K.R.I.T., and of course his Hustle Gang boss Tip. But at the same time, Translee’s tunes embody elements of musicality that originated outside the South.
Along with his Digital Nativ3 Culture colleagues Chris Hunter, Todd Marshall, Tha Officialz, Darius Jackson, and Jervon Morgan, the Huntsville-raised front man made moves to grab the attention of rap followers. Translee’s appearances on We Want Smoke (and Hustle Gang’s 2016 mixtape H.G.O.E.) came after his own Culture Junky and M.A.O.T.P., Pt. 1 projects circulated online.
A few days after he finished shooting the video for “Humble/TTY” in his hometown, I chatted with Translee about his buzzing career. We also discussed Hip Hop culture, politics, and more in the latest installment of the Conversations series.
AllHipHop: You seem to be a student of Hip Hop. You make references to lines from legends like André 3000, Jay-Z, and 2Pac. When did you first start studying rap music?
Translee: I first started really studying rap around the T.I./Kanye days. Those were the two people I was most influenced by. Kanye for his content, and Tip because we had similar stature. It was easy to idolize these guys. I ultimately started rapping because my momma died, but then I found these artists I could look up to, that I felt like I could relate to. After studying them and the OutKasts of the world - when I say study I mean listening to them a lot - those guys really helped me to craft my talent, my skills, and where I wanted to take it. So I definitely gotta give them big props.
AllHipHop: It’s interesting that Tip was one of the people that influenced you and now you’re working directly with him. At the time, could you have imagined you’d be on tour and doing an album with him?
Translee: I never would have imagined. I’m from Alabama. These people are like unicorns to us. Me and my team always had a grind, so we knew that we could get somewhere. It was a “shoot for the sky and if you miss, land in the stars” type of thing. We were blessed for him to even hear the music. I don’t even think it was a difficult thing for him to want to work with me. When he heard the music he was pretty much on board with what we wanted to do. It was a blessing to work with a legend.
AllHipHop: One of the things I like about Hustle Gang is that there are so many [musical] styles as part of that collective. What is that creative process like when you’re trying to manage all these different artists on a compilation project?
Translee: It’s shockingly easy. You would think with all these different personalities, artists would have egos. But I think everybody realizes ain’t none of us “made it” except for Tip, Dro, Trae tha Truth, and B.o.B. We look at each other like we haven’t made it to where we want to go. So we look up to our OGs and come together. Egos be out the room so we can make the best record. I’m really proud of this project, and I’m excited to put out We Want Smoke 2.
AllHipHop: Speaking of sequels, do you have an idea when you’re going to release part two of your project?
Translee: That is very, very, very top secret. I’m actually working on [M.A.O.T.P., Pt. 2] now. I will probably wrap that up in the next month or so. I just moved, so my life is changing now. Shout out to Grand Hustle. They got me a nice crib in Atlanta. We’re trying to get the studio up and going. I already have a lot of songs done, but we gotta spend a few weeks putting it together. I’m also working on my next album after Pt. 2. Freedom Summer is gonna be the album I drop after that. You’ll get Pt. 2 by the top of next year, if not this year.
AllHipHop: There’s a line on “Humble/TTY” where you say women sometimes refer to you as the male version of Erykah Badu. On your Instagram page, you have pictures of Erykah, Lauryn Hill, and Solange. Do you draw a lot of inspiration from R&B/Soul singers?
Translee: Not necessarily lyrically, but their calmness.There’s a certain calmness about their music and they’re very vivid in their lyrics. André 3000 is the same way. They can say the most with the least. Like when Erykah Badu sings, “It ain’t like he ain’t got education. I was right there at his graduation.” When she says stuff like that it just hits you. They can say a lot with a few words, and that’s what I’m trying to master. Lauryn Hill is one of my favorite artists ever. Even though she put that one album out, it’s still one of the greatest rapping-singing albums I’ve ever heard. I definitely take a lot of inspiration from them because they’re so unapologetically themselves.
AllHipHop: You use melody in your music. Do you consider yourself to be a singer?
Translee: Nah, I’m definitely not a singer. I can hold a tune. I’m also a fan of saying, “Hey, I’m going to lay this down, but I’m going to have a background vocalist back me up a little bit.” That always sounds better. I’ve mastered doing my own uplifting, but it helps when you have more people that can bring it all together. That’s what we’re working on now, bringing in background vocalists and adding extra layers and textures to the records. That’s what makes it special.
AllHipHop: I can hear you mastering being a lyrical rapper who’s giving you content and then having your hooks be radio-ready. There aren't too many artists in the space now that can have that mainstream/Pop appeal and still keep it lyrical.
Translee: Me and my manager always say we gotta make something that makes people want to bob their heads to the beat and nod their heads in agreement. That’s our goal, that’s our mission statement. So if that’s how you feel then that’s exactly what we’re going for.
AllHipHop: You also seem to be outspoken about politics and social issues. Do you think Hip Hop has a role to play in social change?
Translee: Everything. We have the youth’s attention more than Barack Obama or anybody ever would. He definitely had people’s attention, but Drake could get out here and say something and it mean a lot more to young people. Or Cardi B could say something to make more people vote than Barack probably could right now. Hip Hop has major influence. I’m proud of Hip Hop for stepping up because that’s not even necessarily what most of us get into it for. For me, it was a release from my momma dying and I just got really good at it. Today, we’re forced to be models, actors, politicians. You might have just got into it for rapping, but you gotta be all of that. Now, even more than ever, it requires us to be in that political space because it’s a lot of bullsh-t going on that we gotta speak on. We would be fools not to. Whenever historians look up this sh-t in 100 years from now, we don’t want them to think it was just Molly and Percocet. We want them to know the sh-t that was going on, and we can tell them what’s going on through the music.
AllHipHop: I was watching your Sway interview and noticed you talked about the “money phone” trend. That was back in April. Then Jay-Z rapped about it on 4:44 which started a conversation in the culture. What was your reaction when you heard that line on his album?
Translee: I was in agreeance. Some people had something to say about it because some people like living in a world where it’s “I don’t give a f-ck. I’m gonna get this money.” At the end of the day, for all of us to come up as a culture, definitely as a black culture, we all have to be on the same page. That’s the hardest thing in the world to do, because we’re so discombobulated. We’re separated - light skin/dark skin, iPhone/Android. We’re so separated it’s hard to even get on the same page. It killed me when Jay did that. That was such a good thing for black people. Then you got the Futures of the world - which I don’t got no problem with, Future’s the homie, we’re cool - but they had their rebuttal and it kind of gives the “ignorant” people a team to be on too. We gotta just push the culture forward and up that level. Other races are focused on the betterment of their race. We’re one of the only cultures that don’t do that. So if I can be a beacon of light to anybody or if I can put out a song that inspires someone... We have a real purpose out here to better the culture.
AllHipHop: So you embrace that responsibility? Some artists don’t.
Translee: I fully embrace it. If I gotta get into politics 15 years from now, then that is what it is. I must stand on something my damn self. But for right now, I’m speaking through my music. I just want to leave something that puts some meat on your bones when you listen to it.