Def Jam Records is in something of a youth revolution. The most iconic label in hip-hop history may be turning 35 this year, but it has its eyes newly fixed on the future, with some seventeen newly signed artists set to showcase on next month’s release of Undisputed, a compilation recorded over several days last November in Los Angeles.
Front and center among the Undisputed lineup is Harlem, New York’s latest ambassador to the music world, 18 year old TJ Porter, who in only a couple of years in the game has begun to serve notice of his intention to follow in the formidable footsteps of the greats that put his neighborhood on the rap map, including Mase, Dipset and ASAP Mob. The young MC has versatility on his side: early singles, like 2017’s “Trust Issues”, “Quiet Storm” and “Can’t Wait” offered bar spitting life lessons; last fall’s Pregame, his release first with Def Jam, found TJ in melodic mode – celebratory on the breakout “Glowin’ Up” and boastful on “Tricky”; while his most recent EP, No Disturbance, released only two weeks ago, goes dark on “The Don”, admits to relationship infidelity in “Cheated”, and claps back at doubters on “I Can’t” and “Harder Than Ever”, featuring Jay Gwuapo and KJ Balla. The same theme is echoed on “Doubting Me”, a recent collab single with Bay Swag. It’s the doubters, Porter says, that motivate him.
Few doubted his basketball skills as a kid. The sport was his first love, and it appeared for years that TJ was destined for a career on the court and not the recording studio, until three years ago, when a broken ankle and the gang-related shooting death of his best friend Chico, who had always encouraged him to stick with music, inspired him to change his course, and he hasn’t looked back. He’s not short on confidence, and trash talking, those around him will tell you, is a talent he’s mastered, although in our conversation, he came across and appreciative and humble. He does admit that sometimes advice from the old heads falls on deaf ears—a fact that’s been pointed out at times by his manager.
That manager, by the way, is Porter’s other not-so-secret weapon: Wayne “Wayno” Clark, who’s guided the career of Dave East, among others, and is best known these days as one of the co-hosts of Complex’s daily destination show Everyday Struggle. Not many artists can say their manager is a bona fide celebrity in his own right, and Porter admits it’s been a blessing and a challenge that’s forced him to grow. All indications are it’s a relationship that’s working just fine. TJ’s got two tracks on Def Jam’s Undisputed, his own debut album, Voice of The Trenches comes out this spring, and, dropping today is his most sentimental single to date, “Do You Care” which has TJ fully singing and reflecting more than ever on love. I caught up with TJ recently to talk about what he’s accomplished, what’s ahead, and being at the vanguard of Def Jam’s next generation.
TJ! First of all, congratulations on the new song “Do You Care.” It’s really amazing, so melodic, and kind of unlike anything we have heard from you before. Can you say anything about it, how it came together?
TJ Porter: Thank you! Yeah I made it last year. Like, January of 2018. And I was just going through something with this girl at the time, and I just wanted to put it in a song, the way that I felt.
You’re singing more than ever on it! Did you always envision it being super melodic?
TJ: Yeah, I felt like doing it like that would make more of an impact, that you would feel me more, the message I was trying to bring across.
So the relationship that you’re talking about in the song, is it the same one that inspired “Cheated” on your recent EP No Disturbance?
TJ: [laughs] Yeah. It’s a here and there situation. Like I don’t really know right now where it stands. But I wanted to drop it on Valentine’s Day. I thought it would have more impact. But I posted a snippet over the summer, and the snippet had went crazy. And then I told my manager, “I want to drop this thing.” And he was, “Just hold on, we gonna put out a plan for it.” And then it came about that I would drop it in February.
So just working out way backwards for a minute, the last video you dropped was for “Doubting Me”.
TJ: Oh yeah, that was that was me and my boy [Queens rapper] Bay Swag. We had made that song in the studio, and we were like, “Let’s just shoot a video.” Me and Bay have got good chemistry on that song. So we went and shot a video around Times Square, and I think it got like 50 thousand views in like three days.
That song, and also a couple of songs on No Disturbance seem to address the doubters. On “I Can’t” you talk about buying a new car, getting endorsements, all the girls who used to not write back when you were broke and now won’t stop texting you, and then with “Harder Than Ever” you’re basically responding to those who said you wouldn’t make it.
TJ: With my songs, my motivation comes from people doubting me. It drives me to get better and better. Every time I feel like someone is doubting me, I go in the studio and make brand new, better songs than I made the last time. It drives me to be a better artist, and a better person. Because I just put my real feelings in the music, and I think people feel me when I’m doing that. Because I’m not lying.
It seems things have really blown up for you in the last few months—but does it feel like that to you? Or do you think you’re just on the launching pad?
TJ: I feel like I’m still on the launching pad. I don’t feel like I took off yet. Everything now feels like just the beginning, and I’m waiting to get better and better. But when I do launch? I’m gonna sky rocket.
You signed with Def Jam last summer, and the story is that you were at the point where you were frustrating that things weren’t happening fast enough and were ready to walk away from music, and that’s when Def Jam called?
TJ: Yeah I was thinking it had been two years straight that I was with Wayne, and I was making more music and more music, and it felt nothing was happening and that there wasn’t any progress. I mean Wayne saw progress, but being in my shoes, I didn’t see it. I see it now, but I didn’t see it before. And so it felt like just, I don’t want to do this no more. But Wayne met with Def Jam and played them some of my music that I didn’t drop yet. And then I went in there and met with em and they just liked me as a person.
This legendary label, I have to say, seems to be really beefing up their young roster these days. The new Undisputed compilation features seventeen of you. Does it feel good to know that they are investing in new, young talent?
TJ: Well I feel like they have to, because it’s the future. You can’t just stick with the old, you have to plan for the future, and they know that, all the new artists that they’ve signed, upcoming, are gonna be something. And before any of us has had big buzz or popped, they gave us respect.
Is it a challenge to set yourself apart and establish an identity for yourself, not only among these seventeen at Def Jam, but just in the music game in general? And how do you do that?
TJ: I feel like just being yourself, and talking the way the way you want to talk, and not having a filter—well, I’m not gonna say not having a filter, but not having limits on what you wanna say and how you wanna say it. That’s what makes you an artist.
You’ve got two tracks on Undisputed?
TJ: Yeah, they were done the first time we went to Cali. [November 2028] All the artists showed up and those got done. Me and Lul G linked up in the studio, we both just stood in there and he came in with his Bay Area swag, and I came in with the Harlem swag, and it went like that. And then with “Recount”, my A&R, his name is Rico, and he makes beats too, and I told him I wanted some swag, metal-type beat. So he had made one, and then I was like “Yo, I can get [Landstrip] Chip on the hook.” And I called Chip because Chip ain’t have the studio until about 8, and we were in there at like 3 o’clock. But I called Chip and I was like, “Yo come to the studio right now, I need a hook,” he did the hook and it came out fire. I just had to kill the verses.
You do have a variety of styles. I’ve heard you do aggressive hard hitting tracks—“The Don” on the latest EP is pretty dark—but then you can also go more sentimental, as we see today with “Do You Care.”
TJ: Yeah I try to switch up my styles, and be as versatile as I can, because any type of artist might want to jump on a song with you. Some artists might be like, “Oh this don’t sound right, I can’t do this flow.” But I want to be an artist that can jump on any song. I can do any flow. You can’t tell me I can’t do a flow, because I can do it.
One thing that sets you apart from a lot of young artists is you can flex and sometimes you’ll talk about bands or women, but there’s like zero drug references in your lyrics. There’s no lean, no molly, no pills—I think there was only, in “Harder Than Ever” maybe one reference to Xans. But basically, it’s like no drug references at all.
TJ: Yeah in “Harder Than Ever”, the only reason I put Xans in my verse is because sometimes you start off with something from the last verse. And in the first part of the song with Jay Gwaupo, he had said “poppin’ like the Xan” so I just said it again, to emphasize it. “Pop it like a Xan”. But yeah, I don’t put drugs in my verses because I don’t do any drugs.
You don’t smoke either?
TJ: Nah, I don’t smoke.
Is it something that just never interested you?
TJ: Nah I just feel like drugs put a limit on your career. Like, I’ve never smoked or drank, and it wouldn’t be smart for me to start now. If I was to drink or smoke, I couldn’t get the endorsement deals that I’m getting. So why do that, and miss out on that amount of money, and that type of exposure?
Do you feel like we’re living through a time in hip-hop where a lot of the most extreme personalities, those people who are expert trollers, who have outrageous looks and know how to troll and create drama, they’re the ones who get the most attention?
TJ: I just feel like you need to be yourself. And if that’s you, with crazy hair and all of that, popping pills and stuff—if that’s you, then that’s you. But that’s just not me, I’m myself, so I just try to keep it humble and be as tame as possible. Because you can’t forget you.
Your full-length project is gonna be called Voice of The Trenches, a title that you’ve had for a while. What’s the background that name?
TJ: I feel like a lot of people in my community don’t get heard enough. So I feel like I’m just supporting everything that we want outside people to hear, I’m putting into the music. So that’s why I call myself the “voice of the trenches”, because I talk what everybody is feeling, and I get it out there. I get out the message from the trenches. My community I call “the trenches”, you know what I’m saying? I get the message out for them.
How important to you is representing New York, or even specifically representing for Harlem? Do you think now because of the internet that we’re in a time when maybe being from a certain place doesn’t matter as much?
TJ: I feel like it does, because I’ve got a lot of—not pressure, but I’ve got a lot of expectations. Because everybody feels like I’m the next one out of Harlem and New York to pop. So it’s like, they talk about Diddy and Cam’ron and Mase and you see a legacy there, so. And you start to feel like you’re up next, and you can’t let that down. You’ve got to keep pushing.
With Harlem, you’re talking for starters about two of the most iconic crews in hip-hop, in The Diplomats and ASAP Mob. Were those guys—Rocky or Yams or Ferg or Cam’ron—inspirations to you growing up?
TJ: To me they was like superstars. Like Cam for me growing up, that’s what you wanted to be as a kid. And Rocky, I knew Rocky when I was young. I knew him through friends. Because I was always the kid that would hang out with older guys. I didn’t hang out with a lot of people my age. And Rocky he was a legend in the area that I’m from. So I knew him—matter of fact I was on IG Live with Rocky just yesterday!
You mentioned Wayno earlier, but I have to ask you what it’s not having this, basically, celebrity as a manager. Not many artists are in that situation!
TJ: Yeah I don’t feel like most artists have managers who are celebrities on their own, and that’s something I had to adjust to. Because I’m seeing all these other up-and-coming artists with their managers, and they are with them every day. And I had to get used to learning how to do stuff on my own, but one thing about Wayno is he told me from the jump, like, “I’m gonna teach you the business. Because there’s gonna be stuff that I’m not gonna be around for, and so you are gonna have to know. And like, me and L—that’s my day-to-day manager—we’re on top of everything else if Wayno is not around.
You linked up with Wayno before he was hosting Everyday Struggle. So I would imagine once he got that gig he had even less time!
TJ: Yeah it did. And I just had to learn to pull my own weight and pick myself up as an artist. And instead of people knowing me as, “Yo that’s Wayno’s artist,” everybody sort of knows my name now, I’m buzzing, and it’s just—I’ve got my own identity now.
I saw one video interview where Wayno was talking about how great you were, but then he added, “but also TJ doesn’t always want to listen.”
TJ: Well, sometimes I just trust my gut. And usually it works. Lately, it’s been working, and it’s like when I feel something, I just go with it. And I don’t let nobody tell me. Because the thing with me is I’m ready for any repercussions or any consequence or any downfall that might happen if I make a mistake. A lot of people are not ready for the repercussions of a mistake, and they just do stuff without thinking. I think throughout the whole process of what I’m about to do before I do it. So Wayno was just talking about that, but it’s true that I don’t like to listen sometimes.
That reminds me of that line you’ve got in “Glowin’ Up” about people wanting to tell you there’s rules, but you say “I got the feeling I’m making the right songs”?
TJ: Yeah, that was just—like, a lot of people was trying to tell me the type of music I need to be making. And they was like, “This type of music got me here so far, why am I gonna switch up and start listening to you when I’ve been listening to myself?”
Do a lot of older people—A&R, other artists—try to give you advice?
TJ: A lot of people do try to give me advice and I take into account everything that everybody says. I don’t brush it off, because at the end of the day, I’m fresh in this game and you’ve been in the game for years, so I just listen, and I just take notes. Sometimes you’ve got to know when to talk and when to humble yourself. A lot of artists don’t know when to humble themselves.
What’s your writing process like? Do you have to sit down and focus on writing?
TJ: Nah sometimes I just go in the booth and I mumble stuff, freestyle. And then other times I will sit down and think of topics. I might write down ten topics, and I’ll write a hook for each of the topics. And then I’ll go and freestyle the verses.
Do you think that you will keep coming back from time to time to more relationship-oriented songs, like the new one, “Do You Care”? Or are the topics, the lyrics going more in a different direction now?
TJ: I feel like I’ve got a lot of topics. My topics vary—they’re everywhere. Because I want to grab every fan base. I don’t want to just grab one fan base. I am open to rap, hip-hop, melodic—I am open to everything.
TJ Porter’s Voice of The Trenches will be out in April. Monday night he’ll join other new Def Jam artists for an Undisputed showcase at SOB’s in New York.