It's 9:30 a.m. on MLK Jr.'s birthday and Pill is headed back to Pink City for another photo shoot. Although it's his third shoot there this week, he seems no less surprised upon arrival, as he stands in front of the condemned two-story building on the corner of Edgewood Avenue and Hilliard Street in Old Fourth Ward.
"I can't believe they shut this place down," he says, pointing to the upstairs unit near the rear of the boarded-up hotel from which he used to pump drugs. The Hilliard Street Residence Hotel had always been known to him by another name — one that certainly didn't come from the color of its lime-green paint. According to street legend, the motel once served as a pit stop for prostitution — hence, Pink City.
Last June, Pill brought new infamy to Pink City when he made it the central location of his video shoot for "Trap Goin' Ham." Filmed within walking distance of the King Center, the spontaneously shot, guerilla-style video shined a light on pockets of intown poverty that persist despite the encroaching land-grab of gentrification.
There, in full view, was a side of Atlanta that most of its citizens only dared to glimpse — usually from the safety of their cars as they zoom past en route to such trendy establishments as Cafe Circa, Thumbs Up Diner or Noni's Bar & Deli. A far cry from the lavish clubs, video models and A-list celebs that typically show up in Atlanta rap videos, the talent in "Trap Goin' Ham" consists of curbside dealers, crack addicts and street stragglers who happened to wander by that day.
The video resonated in unexpected ways. Within an hour of posting "Trap Goin' Ham" online, the MC's fate was sealed by two divergent incidents: YouTube yanked the video due to its graphic nature, and representatives from Asylum/Warner Bros. called to inquire about the unsigned rapper's label status.
"Trap Goin' Ham" became one of the most viral rap videos of the year, eventually garnering airplay on MTV Jams and earning a No. 5 spot on Complex.com's Best 10 Internet Music Videos of the 2000s list. While the video delighted fans thirsty for a return to reality rap (the New York Times' Jon Caramanica called it "the sort of document that was once de rigueur in hip-hop and now feels appealingly anachronistic"), plenty of critics and hip-hop fans alike cried foul. The video was downright disgraceful, blog commenters complained — so much so that Pill penned a postscript disclaimer of his own.
"I just wanted people to understand where I was coming from in that video; it wasn't meant to be any type of exploitation," Pill says. "This is just me letting people know that this is really how fucked up it is out here for some people. You'll get the wool pulled over your eyes with all the new condos, stores and businesses going on in Atlanta. 'Everyday is an opening day' is what they like to say. But where the hell do the impoverished people fit in at?"
As both a resident of Atlanta and a rapper on the rise, Tyrone "Pill" Rivers represents the last of a dying breed. And his sudden emergence heightens the otherwise disappearing sense of honesty in rap music — a genre that has experienced its own share of gentrification over the last decade.
Ask Pill where he's from and he's likely to rattle off a laundry list of housing projects in the shadows of Atlanta's skyline, including Kimberly Court, Adamsville, Grady Homes, Bowen Homes and Englewood — all of which have been demolished in recent years or await the wrecking ball. "Pretty much, I'm from all of the fucked-up parts of Atlanta," he says. "I've been house-to-house since I was 7 years old." Pill's mother was one of the only consistent fixtures in his early life, though she wasn't exactly steady. Her struggles with drug addiction meant he had to live with other family members, friends and, at one point, one of his school teachers.
"My mama tried her best, but I'd come home and junkies was always there stealing my shit," he recalls. "You'd see niggas in the house that you don't know. It would make me late for school all the time." Yet he overcame the odds to graduate from Frederick Douglass High School in 2003.
One night a few years ago, Pill returned home to his worst discovery. "I saw my mama on the floor by the bathroom," says Pill, whose mother had been diagnosed with colon cancer. "I thought she was drunk, so I tried to wake her up, saying, 'You tripping, I got company, go get in the bed.' But she never woke up."
Fresh out of high school, Pill met Killer Mike, an older Douglass alumni, who was coming off of his Grammy win at the time for his feature on OutKast's "Whole World." "My cousin Chris and [Douglass football] coach Frazier kept telling me about this kid who could rap his ass off," recalls Mike, who recruited Pill into his Grind Time Rap Gang collective. "Me and Pill are both from Adamsville. To be able to put the Adamsville experience into dope wordplay is not common in Atlanta. I saw a kindred spirit and wanted to help him."
After appearing on every Killer Mike project since 2003, Pill stepped out on his own last year. Hosted by DJ Burn One, the release of his debut mixtape, 4180: The Prescription (a title that pays homage to his former address at Kimberly Court), served as a reintroduction. "I had my own story to tell and I couldn't keep it bottled up," says Pill, who was still spending most of his time in the streets instead of the studio. "I would've felt bad if I was on the corner saying, 'What if?' My family always encouraged me to do my own thing. Mike was always going to be my boy, regardless. So I just did it on my own."
He got a major assist from another Grind Time affiliate, Derek Schklar, who quickly earned the nickname White Boy D after his initial, perilous trips to pick Pill up in Pink City when it was time to put in work. "The shit was crazy. It was like a horror movie, really," says Schklar, who manages Pill now. "When I used to pull up, they used to think I was a customer. They used to always harrass me and look out like they might rob me. After doing that for a couple of months, people recognized me. And every time they saw me ride up, they would start yelling, 'White Boy D here! Pill, time to go to the studio!'"
Spitting trap tales and poverty parables via a confident drawl, the dreadlocked MC with the slight build drew flattering, if somewhat lazy, comparisons to T.I. on his initial outing. But in a city where trap rappers make a mint off of their rags-to-riches 'hood tales, Pill's somber, sobering depictions succeeded in magnifying what others merely glorify. Package that with an undeniable charisma and respectable lyricism, and it's no wonder Pill's popularity among rap critics and blogs has skyrocketed nationwide.
Still, the fact remains that he's barely known within industry circles in his own back yard.
Pill was hard to find among the sweltering lineup of 150 performers at Atlanta's A3C Festival last year, but he was a main draw at New York's CMJ Music Festival. He has yet to appear in any mainstream Atlanta publications, but he's been prominently featured in the New York Times and praised by both the Los Angeles Times and Washington Post. He's a frequent guest on Sirius Satellite Radio, but he still hasn't been invited as a guest to local urban stations V-103 (WVEE-FM) and Hot 107.9 (WHTA-FM). Outside of his Grind Time affiliations, he doesn't rub shoulders with many of Atlanta's industry elite or roll with an entourage. He and Schklar have been the only discernible force behind his rapid ascension.
Last November, Pill released his follow-up mixtape, 4075: The Refill. Like The Prescription, he laced it with a range of emotion, including the kind of personal anguish one might expect from a young man who watched his own mother decay from drug use while rationalizing his choice to continue selling drugs at the time. On "We Don't Even Know," he conveys a sense of irony when he raps: "I seen some shit the other day and I just want you to know/It hurt my heart I seen him serve his own mama some blow/Damn, for the root of all evil we destroy the people/and I ain't Martin, Malcolm or Jesse, I'm trying to eat, too."
Unlike the previous mixtape, Pill dropped The Refill with Los Angeles music juggernaut DJ Skee. It was an unconventional move considering that the typical circuit to national exposure for local rappers comes via Atlanta-based DJs such as DJ Drama's Gangsta Grillz series, DJ Scream's Hoodrich outfit, or the city's radio and club scene.
"I chose that route because I didn't want to be grouped in a box with the other Atlanta rappers," says Pill, who insists, with no disrespect intended, that many of the city's rappers get lumped together and quickly discarded before making an impact outside I-285. "A lot of times, rappers here will have the city on lock and it will be just that – the city. I wanted to go further than that."
Like such Atlanta-groomed MCs as Donnis and Spree Wilson, who've since relocated to New York, Pill's venture has landed him career options and a far-reaching fan base. But it's obvious that his hometown has yet to embrace him.
"Atlanta is a very strong home-based market," says DJ Drama, who admits that while he digs the music Pill has presented him with, he isn't very familiar with the rapper. "The stars, hip-hop-wise, have always started with Atlanta. You have to have the city behind you; it's important to have a foundation at home. I'm sure Pill wants the city on his back. But if the direction he chooses to go is not the conventional way, you can't knock that. I didn't go the conventional route when I started, either."
Having inked a record deal this month with Asylum Records – the Warner Bros. subsidiary that's been courting him since "Trap Goin' Ham" – a full-court press is expected for Pill's eventual debut album, The Medicine. The release stands to make the biggest impact by a new, Atlanta-based artist in years, which could go a long way in repairing the city's rep for cranking out two-hit wonders that draw little appeal outside the city.
Whether Pill can generate the hometown support necessary to cause such a shift remains to be seen. But by show of the love he receives while walking through the Old Fourth Ward, the 'hood – if not the city – definitely has his back.
"I don't even know what a home is, to tell you the truth," admits Pill. "A lot of people didn't want me. Not even my own family sometimes. The feeling of not being wanted hurts worse than pain. I wouldn't wish that on anybody."
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