2016 marks a decade that Trip Lee has been in the music industry since the release of his debut album, If They Only Knew, in 2006. As an original member of Reach Records and the 116 Clique, the Dallas native has seen the independent label grow and the movement morph accordingly.
Lee’s last LP, 2014’s Rise, came after he had debated retiring from the rap game as he balanced his roles as a family man and pastor. Two years have passed since then and Lee says in an exclusive phone interview with HipHopDX that he’s never really sure when his next musical output will be his last.
But he’s not done yet as he’s set to drop his first mixtape, The Waiting Room, tomorrow (December 9). The project features labelmate Tedashii and production from frequent collaborator GAWVI. Lee moved to Atlanta, Reach’s headquarters, soon after Rise’s release to help plant a church and to be closer to his musical family. As he’s transitioned to his new home, he’s been reminded that there’s a lot more to life that he is waiting for. Whether it’s the dream of becoming the best artist he can be, hoping for an end to police brutality or the restoration of his health when he gets to be home with his Creator, Lee put pen to paper to express what he’s persevering through in The Waiting Room.
HipHopDX: I know during Rise, it was a time where you were debating retirement, what did you learn from that album and did it give you any renewed sense of confidence or reassurance in music?
Trip Lee: Even when I did Rise, even while working on Waiting Room for a lot of the time, it’s always a thing for me where I’m not quite sure whether it will be the last one or not. And that doesn’t have anything to do with my desire to do music or my even my confidence with music. It’s really just trying to always think about what’s the best way to use my time when I have other things going on. One thing it did is it did remind me how much I love making music. It did remind me how much I love connecting with fans who’ve been impacted by the music. Doing the tour did remind me how much I love shows like that that I get to put together. I never get tired of making music and trying to connect with people in that way and same thing with The Waiting Room while working on that, I really do love the creative process. It’s amazing that I get to like sit down and think of ideas then get to make those ideas and hear how they impact people. I never get tired of that. I love that process.
HipHopDX: It’s been a couple years now in between projects. Is there anything new that you brought to The Waiting Room or do you feel you picked back up where you left off?
Trip Lee: I’m always trying to bring something new. I’m always trying to get better and in between certain projects, there may be different things I’m thinking about that I want to get better at. One of the things I’ve always admired is artists who don’t stay stagnant, but they get better with every record or they give you a different kinda feel every record, I admire that. And even though the album seems to be kinda dying a little bit, people don’t always love full albums as much and playlists are getting so much more love these days, I still love a good body of work, someone putting together just a great record, so I always try to do that. With this one, one of the things I focused on a lot on this one is just a raw kind of realness about how rough life can be. So you got some of that on my last record with “Sweet Victory” and songs like that and on this record, there’s a lot of those. A song called “IDK” where I’m expressing this life sucks and it feels like God never hears me when I ask him for help. There’s another song called “Longer” where I’m kinda doing the same thing lamenting some of the hard things about life and a song called “Clouds” where I’m thinking about the ups and downs of being someone ambitious with dreams. And this happens in album processes, too. On Monday, I’ll be like “Ooo this album is amazing, I can’t wait.” Tuesday, it’s like, “This sucks, what am I doing?” Kinda the ups and downs of having dreams and ambitions, so I talk about a lot of that stuff on this record. It’s definitely going to be different than Rise, have a different feel than Rise and there’s a lot of ways I’ve tried to improve in between the records.
HipHopDX: The intro song is “Clouds,” and after your long run in the music industry, what dreams do you have that you’re still working on?
Trip Lee: Most of them when I dream about stuff with music, I mostly dream about being as great as I can possibly be. I don’t so much just dream about how ever many people I really want to get my record, though I tell a lot of people to get it obviously, or oh, I just need this Grammy, or I just need this or that, I’m mostly dreaming about ideas that I wanna go after. Oh, it would be dope if I did a song that had this element in this or what if I did this kinda storytelling stuff? I love listening to a record where I’m blown away at creative decisions, how the music feels and the storytelling. I miss when there was more storytelling in Hip Hop with twists and turns. You think of like some of the peak ‘90s Hip Hop where we had some of the best storytelling, Biggie was doing great storytelling, Nas was doing great storytelling, Jay was doing great storytelling. I love thinking of different kind of things I want to be able to do with my music and the impact I want it to have. That’s what I dream about most. The reality is, sometimes I have an idea that I think is amazing and maybe doesn’t turn out the way I wanted it to, but I have to move on to the next song and that’s just part of the creative process. If we can’t push through something not always turning out the way we want it to be, then we can’t be great. I think part of being great is being able to accept that things don’t always work out exactly how you want ‘em to. And you just gotta kind of have the discipline and the diligence and the passion to push through it. I’m so obsessed with trying to make things great that I’m willing to just stick with songs for a long time even. “Too Cold,” I probably wrote that song 10 times because it just kept feeling not good enough. So my dream is just related to making the greatest music I possibly can.
HipHopDX: What advice would you give to people chasing their own dreams?
Trip Lee: I think one of the things for me that’s been good for me and I think it’s one of the reasons it’s probably good to focus your dreams on being the best you can be is because I can not control how many records I sell. I can not control awards I get or any of that kind of stuff. I can’t control that and the Lord has been gracious and I’ve had record sales and I’ve had awards, whatever, I have some of the stuff that I wanna have, but I’d encourage people to kinda lock in on the things that you’re passionate about and try to be as great at it as possible. Because it’s much more productive to focus on things that you can do something about. You can do something about being as great as you can possibly be. You can do something about getting around people who give you good feedback. Those are things that you can actually do something about to get better at. One of the things that’s been helpful to me is there’s been many, many, many, many times that different people have said, I don’t think that you can do that. That sounds hard or that doesn’t seem right. But when I latch onto something, one of the reasons I’m so passionate about things, I don’t try to get passionate about stuff that I don’t think I can actually do, but when I’m convinced that I can actually do something, it’s really hard to tell me otherwise and that kinda drives in filtering feedback. There’s some people giving me feedback, cool, who I know the kind of feedback they give and even if they tell me I can’t do this, but I think I can actually do it, so I’m gonna press through. I’m not gonna make unwise decisions, but I think that kinda diligence and determination to kinda press through even when people don’t believe you can do it, I think that’s been huge for me. First time I was gonna do a book, I had people I trust told me that I don’t think you can do it. First time I was trying to put out this album when I was in high school, did my first album when I was in high school, I had people tell me they didn’t think I could do it. So for me, it’s not like holding grudges against people ‘cause they don’t think I can do it, but it’s like when I’m convinced I can do something, there’s not really much you can do to tell me otherwise and I think it takes that kind of drive to be great because you have to push through adversity and naysayers.
HipHopDX: I heard this saying recently, “There’s a lot of people who are famous without being great.” Would you agree with that statement, especially in today’s social media-driven world?
Trip Lee: Absolutely. There’s not always a correlation between how good you are at something and how well-known you are for it. You could be really well-known and not be great at something, absolutely. And there’s plenty of people who are really great and not that well-known. The thing is, there’s stuff you can do to try to be well-known, I don’t try to focus on that stuff. I do want to do marketing for my record obviously, I want to make music that I think people will like, all of that, but I think we’re at our best when we focus on being the best we possibly can and for me, I’d much rather make incredibly great music and not be as well-known rather than kinda sell out and not make great music. I would crumble up and die if I didn’t get to make the kinda music I want to. Or if I had to be like the only way people can like me is if I don’t talk about God in all of my music or if I just kinda dumb down my lyrics or if I whatever. I don’t think I’d be able to make it because I’m just driven by being able to make great stuff that has good content in it. I just wouldn’t, if I base my worth on how many people like what I’m doing or how famous I am, my emotions are always going to be up and down. Ima always going to think that I must be amazing, everyone likes me, or I must be worthless when people don’t like me. And that’s not a good way to live my life. I don’t want to live my life just for the applause of other people. I actually wanna be great at what I’m doing. I actually wanna honor God that’s what I was put on the earth to do. I wanna make great stuff and then I’ll trust God with the results and I’ll focus on the stuff that I can actually do something about.
HipHopDX: It’s all about that perspective.
Trip Lee: And it can be hard as an artist, especially in this, when there’s literally immediate, you immediately have people telling you whether or not they like what you just posted with literal likes, it’s easy to get really obsessed with that and to kind of live your life to just get more likes and more claps. That’s just a dangerous place to be, it’s just a prison ‘cause people may like you today, they may not tomorrow. I always live with that reality in front of me. People might not care about me next year. So let me while I’m in this moment, let me enjoy it and let me try to give people the best music I possibly can and let me use this platform well, but my worth ain’t based on this. I love it, but if I can’t do it for some reason, I’m not allowed to do it anymore, I finish rapping, I’ll thank God for the great run and I’ll try to be faithful in the next season. I don’t expect that to happen, but I know that people don’t, you can’t win in the same way forever. There’ll be some point where stuff shifts and that’s ok because my worth isn’t based on that.
HipHopDX: What was the decision to share “Too Cold” as the lead single for The Waiting Room?
Trip Lee: Me and GAWVI started working on that song, it was maybe about a year and a half ago and it was before I even had the concept of The Waiting Room I actually had a different concept in mind. It was just like, “Hey let’s just work and see what happens.” So I held on to that track for a long time, wrote to it a whole bunch of times. Really, the reason that was the first single was just ‘cause we thought that that would be the song would really just connect with people well. The people would love that and it would be a good way to kinda reintroduce my new music that’s coming out. And also, just the message behind it and it’s kind of stuff that we’ve been talking about even in this conversation, I’m not gonna make decisions about who I am and what I do based on just what people want me to do and just how people respond to it. That’s the kinda I’m too cold, can’t move, not gonna let the world mold me. Ima try to be faithful and live how I was made to live and make the music I think that I have been called to make. I’m not gonna get kinda pushed back and forth by how people respond to me. That’s the message I think really connects with people a lot. We thought it would be a good first single. I’ve been real encouraged by the response to it so far.
HipHopDX: It’s always good to see what you and GAWVI cook up.
Trip Lee: The responses to so much of the stuff we did, especially the bangers from Rise has been dope. It’s been cool to see how “Manolo” still kinda gets traction. YouTube, you search “Manolo,” there’s hundreds of these dance videos, some of ‘em with half a million, a million views, and well done, well-produced. There’s like a bunch of joints in other countries, surely they don’t even know what I’m saying, just all videos all over the place and same thing with “Lazurus” and “Insomniac” so it’s been cool to see how those songs have connected with people in cool ways. It was on America’s Best Dance Crew, it was on So you Think you Can Dance, it was on all these dance shows, it’s been cool to see how the music has connected with people in different ways so we wanted to give people another banger with me and GAWVI and I love working with him, so yeah, the response to it has been great so far.
HipHopDX: You touch on police brutality on The Waiting Room as one of the issues you’re processing through. Why was that important for you to address that?
Trip Lee: It is something that weighs on me heavily because it hits close to home because I’m a young black man and young black men are often perceived as a threat whether or not they actually are. And it does seem like often it’s easier for folks to undervalue black life and I, just every black man that I know has had strange encounters with law enforcement. Some worse than others, including me, I’ve had plenty myself. For me to keep seeing these videos of unarmed men being killed is really tough. There’s a guy in our church who’s a cop who I’ve talked through these things with. I don’t wanna in any way act like that’s an easy role to be in, but there’s so many of these videos what’s happening… So in this album, where so much of it is just kinda lamenting and airing my griefs about difficulty in this world, it was important for me to include that as well. That’s something that weighs heavy on me. It weighs heavy on my friends and my brothers and sisters everywhere. I think that’s one of those things that’s been tough for the last few years, is on a lot of people’s minds and hearts, so I wanted to express that grief as well.
HipHopDX: It seems like sometimes people don’t want to hear it, but how do you navigate that?
Trip Lee: I have a very diverse fanbase, so I have a lot of fans that look like me and I have a lot of fans that don’t. It’s always more difficult to understand things when you haven’t been in the situation. And that’s for all of us. It’s more difficult for me to understand the experience of a white man or the experience of an Indian woman or the experience even of a police officer when I haven’t been in the exact situation. So for people who don’t look like me, who haven’t experienced what it’s like to be a young black man in the United States, there’s people who respond very defensively to any suggestion that there may still be racism in our country, to any suggestion that there may still be systemic issues that may need to be addressed. What I’ve tried to do is I’ve tried to be patient with them, I’ve tried to call out things where I’ve tried to have helpful discussion around those things to help people see. There’s so much stuff that just takes a long time for us to get. I tried to be gracious with people. It can be difficult sometimes, though, as a young black man, when it feels like people like my music until I start talking about something that feels a little uncomfortable with them or as soon as they disagree with me on something, they’re ready to write me off. That can be tough at times, but what I’ve tried to do is I’ve tried to be patient with both. I’ve tried to be gracious. But what I’m not gonna do is be silent on stuff that I think I should speak up about. I think hopefully, I had a song called “Coulda Been Me” a while back right after the Eric Garner stuff where I just felt like hey, sometimes when I watch these videos, part of the reason it hurts so much is I feel like it coulda been me and I continue to feel that way. And a lot of people who responded, who were defensive during that, “No, shouldn’t have did that. They were criminals. They deserved it.” That type of stuff, which I think is really heartbreaking, then there’s other people who are like, ‘You know what, I never thought about it like that. Thank you for helping me.’ So my hope is to continue to express that grief, even the people who haven’t experienced it themselves, they’ll be able to understand and empathize.
HipHopDX: One of the standout tracks for me on The Waiting Room is “Still Unashamed.” How has the unashamed motto evolved or where does it stand now?
Trip Lee: I think what hasn’t changed and the reason I wanted to call it “Still Unashamed” is what hasn’t changed is our hearts behind that. The reason Romans 1:16, it says, “I’m not ashamed of the Gospel, that the power of God for salvation for all who believe,” the reason that was our kinda motto or slogan or what we called ourselves is because that’s what we wanted our lives to be about. I’ve been redeemed by Jesus, the Gospel, the good news about him, I’m messed up, but he took care of it for me. And this kind of thing where so just ‘cause I’m a rapper, I’m not going to pretend to be a gangster or a drug dealer. I’m not going to pretend, I’m not going to rap about stripping. I’m unashamed of what God has done and I’m unashamed to be real about that. That’s what I’ve seen the whole time. That hasn’t changed. I think what has changed is we’re just in different situations in terms of how that unashamedness is expressed because when we started we just hadn’t, I just did not think that, we were gonna have any, I didn’t think that I’d have the #2 album in the country ever. I didn’t expect that Lecrae would have the #1 album in the country. We just didn’t expect these things to happen at all. What hasn’t changed is we’re unashamed of the Gospel. What has changed is we get to be in more spots and express that in different ways to different groups of people. Sometimes, that can feel like to people, “Oh you guys are selling out. Everything’s changed.” For me personally, if you listen to my music, you see who I am, I’m a pastor. Nothing has changed for me in terms of being unashamed of the gospel and I’m happy that I get opportunities to be in new places and doing new things and it still be me.
HipHopDX: What has your transition to Atlanta been like?
Trip Lee: That transition’s been great. I had already, I was in Atlanta a lot already because record label’s in Atlanta. I got a lot of friends in Atlanta. And one of the reasons I moved was to help plant a new church, I’m a pastor at a new church in Atlanta called Cornerstone Church and that’s going great. It’s in a rougher neighborhood in Atlanta. We all moved to the neighborhood and I love our neighborhood. So that’s been going good. And it’s been great to be in Atlanta right there with the record label. It’s a lot easier for me and GAWVI to work. I was just with some of the guys last night, Lecrae, Tedashii, so it’s great to be here. It’s good for my music, too, ‘cause I’m right here with a lot of the guys that I work with, so I love Atlanta. And obviously Atlanta is a great place for Hip Hop in general, I love the culture. I love the people here, so it’s been a good move for me.
HipHopDX: Amidst everything, how is your health holding up?
Trip Lee: My health is always up and down, so there’s some weeks it goes up, some weeks it goes down, some weeks it feels in the middle, so it’s always up and down and it continues to be the hardest part of every area of my life, hardest part of my life as an artist, hardest part of my marriage, hardest part of me as a father, hardest part of me as a pastor is just not being able to rely on my body like a regular person can, just say “Hey I’ll be there at 3” and I can do it because my body doesn’t quit on me. But that’s always tough and it’s up and down. That’s kind of some of the backdrop of the record is sometimes when things are going great, we think everything’s great in the world. Oh, life isn’t that hard. Things going fine. But it’s those times when there are particular hard things that always in our faith, we’re reminded, oh, this life isn’t all that there is. There are hard things about it. Maybe I’m not as strong as I thought I was. I’m kinda weak and my health will leave me one day. Stuff that we bank on like it’s ultimate or like it’s final or like it’s eternal really isn’t and hard times remind us of that. So that’s some of the backdrop of this record is I’m waiting for a day when all things will be made right, but I’m gonna just try to persevere through this hard life while I’m here.