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.
"You ain't going to no dorm," the guard said.
"Where am I going?"
"You're going home."
The charges had been dropped.
When he got home, Tyler smoked a blunt and drank a bottle of Moët then threw it all up and fell asleep feeling like shit. Habits are tough to break. But over the next few weeks, he worked to break them, worked to keep the promise he made that night in the cell. He buried himself in books and regularly read the Bible. He'd go one day sober and straight, then another day high on the streets. Then two days straight. Then three days straight. Then a week. Then one morning he walked out of his house and saw the world through a different lens.
"For the first time in my life, I didn't see my neighborhood and my community as an opportunity to make money," he says. "I saw the damage that I had been doing. I saw all the trash. I saw the vacant buildings, the poverty that had come in because of the same drugs that we were selling to try to make money. I saw the crackheads, and I didn't see them as 'Here comes so-and-so; let's see how much money she got.' I looked at her and I was like, 'Damn.' And I said to myself, 'I'm a part of the problem.'"
That was the day he stopped hustling. He got his GED and took a job at Subway, where he made as much in a week as he used to make in a day on the streets. And he was happy.
He also realized that he had a story to tell. So he got back in the studio to convey the wisdom he had gained. At first, he struggled to find his voice. His verses were preachy and dense with biblical references. He remembers thinking, "This is not me right here."
"I thought about the people I want to reach, I thought about the people I run into on a daily basis, and they're not gonna understand any of this stuff I'm saying," he says.
Then he remembered how Jesus explained Heaven to his disciples through the parable of the mustard seed.
"They asked Jesus, 'Why are you explaining it like this?' and He said, 'If I explained it to you any other way, you wouldn't understand it,'" he says.
So Tyler turned his verses in to 'hood parables. His song "Lifeline," is a story about a dead gangster who wants to tell his homies on earth that the lifestyle isn't worth it. "First 48" describes a murder scene then backs up to explain that the dead man once thought he was invincible because he carried a gun. It would be a misnomer to call him a Christian rapper. Like many other rappers, he simply raps about his life, of which God happens to play a big part.
Travis Tyler became Thi'sl and released his first album, Chronicles of an X-Hustler, in 2009. It reached number four on the iTunes hip-hop album chart. His success stems from a devoted fan base that he has developed through tireless touring. Since the beginning of this year, he has done more than 40 shows across the country. In an era of file sharing and free downloads, album sales reflect a fan base's loyalty.
It's enough loyalty that he doesn't have to work at Subway or on the street corners anymore. In August he released Beautiful Monster, which reached the No.1 spot on the iTunes hip-hop chart within 24 hours.