By Jeremy Essig
By Jason Robinson
By Hans Morgenstern
By Joseph Hess
By Peter Gilstrap
By Julia Burch
By Jeremy Essig
By Nathan Smith
It was 1999 and Travis Tyler had been in the jail cell for three days. Because you don't get bail when you're arrested for first-degree murder.
So he paced around the walk-in-closet-size space, mind racing. Would he spend the rest of his life locked up? He thought about orange jump suits and prison food and an hour a day of exercise in the yard.
He thought about what could have been, thought about how his hip-hop career was just about to take off. Back then, he wasn't thinking about one day becoming one of the biggest rappers in St. Louis or having the top hip-hop album on iTunes. No, he was just a freestyle legend with a little bit of buzz.
He started rapping when he was nine, freestyling with his cousins. He started slanging when he was twelve, dealing drugs on corners and in alleys around his west St. Louis neighborhood. And he was as hard as they come, a big dude with a nasty scowl and a don't-give-a-fuck attitude. He dropped out of school in ninth grade. "It was interfering with my hustling," he says. When they weren't working, though, he and his friends crowded around a boom box and cyphered over whatever instrumental they could find.
By the time he was eighteen, he had solidified his status as a freestyle legend. One day, L.O.S., the hottest rapper in St. Louis at the time, showed up to battle Tyler. Two hundred people gathered around when they heard the neighborhood freestyle king was being put to the test. And two hundred people saw Tyler lyrically eviscerate L.O.S. So L.O.S., more impressed than distraught, went back to the brass at Bullet Proof Records, his independent hip-hop collective, and told them about the big man with the power flow. Three days later the group took him in, and suddenly Tyler was on the fast track for a rap career.
But they never made an album because Bullet Proof wouldn't let Tyler's cousins, who were less talented than Tyler, get on the tracks with him. Tyler valued loyalty above all else. His neighborhood partners had his back when they were all on the streets slanging. These were people he would die for and kill for because he knew that they would do the same for him. If he couldn't record an album with them, then he wasn't going to record an album at all.
So he split off from the Bullet Proof collective and sharpened his craft on his own. He linked up with Jay E, the beatmaker best known for producing Nelly's Country Grammar. Jay E taught him how to structure a song and how to maximize a hook. They recorded four songs together, and Tyler's buzz grew.
"I was at this place where it was like: Man, I'm 'bout to get it in. I'm bout to do this," he says. "I had people getting at me, like 'We wanna take to you to try to get you a deal.' And then right at that point, one of the craziest things in the world happened to me."
One of his best friends killed his cousin.
"Broad daylight, in front of my family. Shot him down. With an A-K. Over some straight dumb stuff, he-say-she-say stuff," he says.
It rocked him. He turned angry and depressed.
"It destroyed my whole foundation for what I was taught in life," he says. "All my life I grew up in the 'hood. And 'hood dudes, these my partners and you do whatever for them, you ride or die. I'd lose my life for these dudes. This is what we're taught. But when he did that to my cousin it destroyed all that. Because this was a person who was from my same neighborhood that done it."
A few weeks later, the people suspected of hiding the cousin's killer were murdered by a man with braids. Tyler became the police's top suspect. Except Tyler had shaved off his braids a month earlier. He turned himself in to the police. They questioned him for twenty hours and threw him in a cell.
So there he was, three days in, pacing and thinking and angry and depressed. He'd always believed in God, but subscribed to what he calls "'hood theology," which he describes as a "twisted view of God" where "I could run up in the bank, and God's cool with that. I could sell dope, and God's cool with that." But alone in the cell, with his life unraveling around him, he knelt down and prayed.
"I was like, 'God, you know everything I've done in this world, and you know I didn't do this. Lord, if you get me out of this, I ain't gonna say what I'm not gonna do again, but from now on, my life belong to you, and wherever you send me I'm going."
He laid down and went to sleep.
Knock, knock, knock...
The guard was at the door.
Tyler stood up, grabbed his things, and put a scowl on his face.
"What dorm I'm going to?" asked Tyler.