There's a humble, orange-pink duplex just off Washington Boulevard in Mid-City Los Angeles. It faces a patchy front yard, an oxidised, stomach-high chainlink fence, and a narrow street of similarly understated single-story homes. The sunbaked brown walkway could use a new coat of paint, and the last digit of one of the addresses has fallen off, but its neutral tones are pleasant beneath blue Southern California skies and the towering green palm trees of the neighboring block. Much of Los Angeles's unbound sprawl is comprised of homes like the duplex. But this one is remarkable, because this where TeeCee4800 and his cousins Ty Dolla $ign and Big TC were raised.
TeeCee looks like a California gangster rapper: The tops of his white tube socks come perilously close to the bottom of his shorts, he looks comfortable in plaid flannel, and his upper body, tattooed from neck to knuckle, has multiple tributes to the departed. Yet there's more to him than literally skin-deep accoutrement. He thinks the United States needs another late-life, peaceful Malcolm X but, surprisingly, claims that he hasn't faced overt racism from whites. He's a Crip who self-awarely jokes about neighbourhood nostalgia. At 28 years old, his life is rich with possibility, but some days are just rich with the inevitability of changing his grandmother's diaper. He no longer breaks into homes. He still raps about it, though.
Despite releasing two solo mixtapes, Loyalty Is Everything and Realness Over Millions (three if you count his MySpace-era debut, 459 Everything Fast, which even he doesn't have a copy of), and a group effort with Mid-Town Money, the soft-spoken TeeCee is probably more widely known for his guest appearances. He was featured on YG's Just Re'd Up, 4Hunnid Degreez, and Just Re'd Up 2 mixtapes before the release of My Krazy Life; on "Meet the Flockers," a highlight of the album, he enlightens the uninitiated on the history of "The Flock." In Dolla $ign's video homage to Reservoir Dogs, "Only Right," he's a cooler Mr. Pink—still a wise-ass, blunts substituted for cigarettes. DJ Mustard, who's hosted all but one of TeeCee's mixtapes, always includes a verse or two by the Mid-City rapper on his projects.
The endorsements from famous compatriots would stink of nepotism were there not a hint of Eazy-E to TeeCee. He's a charismatic, diminutive shit talker and a relative latecomer to rap, who, in the intervening years between 459 Everything Fast and the forthcoming Realness Over Millions 2, has refined his initially stilted rapping into a smoother, more patient flow. Backed by Mustard's (or a Mustard imitator's) bouncy, skeletal keys, TeeCee's rasping, high-pitched orations explore essential gangster rap tropes: violence, lust, regret. He'll threaten to "C-Walk on your face, nigga, while I'm listenin' to Ma$e, nigga" ("Tool"), tell you to shake to your ass ("Shake Your Ass," appropriately), or also express dismay that, even though he's sitting in a jail cell, swearing that he's a changed man, he'll again be running from the cops with a mouthful of crack rocks when he's released ("25 To Life"). Unlike Dolla $ign, whose stardom seems preordained—his father, Tyrone Griffin, Sr., was a member of Lakeside who encouraged his children's musicianship—TeeCee's career is almost the result of happenstance. There's a version of his story that has him dead, incarcerated, or still on the block.
"If I was born on the other side of Crenshaw, I'd be a Blood, because that's where I was raised," TeeCee says, standing on his own side of Crenshaw with Mid-Town Money members Crazy and Marley Blu in tow. "I'm not a Crip because I like blue; I'm a Crip because I was born here, and this is where I was brought up."
His parents were both Crips. His cousin Gabriel Griffin, "Big TC," was a School Yard Crip. So a teenaged Marquise Newman, once just "Little 'Quise" or "Fat 'Quise," became "Little TC," a School Yard Crip. The "infamous" potholed alleyway at the end of his block, adorned with aggressively legible NO PARKING and NO LOITERING signs, beckoned. As a full-fledged Crip and Yank Mob clique member, TeeCee stopped going to school and, in lieu of class, began selling dope on the corner of Washington and La Brea. When asked about "Meet The Flockers," which details the techniques for robbing a home, he laughingly demurs, "I don't wanna snitch on myself—all I can say is it's a part of the lifestyle when you're young. I just rap about it now, but I had my time when it was all I was doing."
The transition from high schooler to gang member wasn't seamless. TeeCee's parents, who he describes as being strict, tried to deter him, and the possible consequences were evident: in 2004, a 19 year-old Gabriel was sentenced to 67 years to life for a gang-related murder he and his family insist he didn't commit. (From a decidedly amateur legal perspective, the evidence used to convict him, which includes a drawing of a man pointing a gun at a dog, appears plausibly specious.) For fans of Ty Dolla $ign and TeeCee, Gabriel's the voice of interludes, whose soulful singing is filtered by the technological limits of contraband cell phones. For the Griffin-Newman clan, he's their son, grandson, brother, cousin, and nephew, always with with them, if not physically, then spiritually or musically. For Gabriel's 13 year-old son Shyne, the tall, brown-eyed man behind the glass, iron, concrete, and concertina wire of Calipatria State Prison is dad.
"If you talk to him, you'd never know he got life, because his spirits are always high," TeeCee says. "He always tells me God won't put you through nothing you can't handle. Ty's working on it, getting lawyers; it's been 12 years, so it's like, the longer it gets, the more unreal it's gonna seem when he gets out. Me and Gabriel didn't have to bang. Our families weren't broken—his mom and dad did get a divorce, but who doesn't go through that? Everything affects everyone different when you're young. We don't regret anything–it is what it is, we just from right here. It was the thing to do."
If Gabriel's life is something like a waking nightmare, then Ty's life—an R&B star, an involved parent—is something like a dream. In 2009, it was he who offered TeeCee an alternative to petty crime and territorial warfare. Dolla $ign's first big hit, his and YG's "Toot It and Boot It," was also TeeCee's, who prior to recording his verse had hardly set foot in front of a microphone.
"Ty was at his house, and he told me and Nano to come over one day," TeeCee remembers. "And he was playing the 'Toot It and Boot It' beat… We ended up writing the hook, I did a verse, and then I come back the next day, and I hear YG on there. I don't know who YG is—I just hear his verse on there. I'm like 'Who's this? This sounds hard.' 'That's the homie YG; Big B put me through and he's popping in Compton.' We dropped the video and it got big, so I'm like 'I might as well take this opportunity and do music.'"
Though TeeCee ultimately relinquished the song to Def Jam as a favour to YG (the label released it without his verse to better showcase their artist, but the original version is still on YouTube), he kept his publishing rights. Soon after, under advisement from his older cousin, he purchased a microphone, laptop, and speakers, and began recording raps in his bedroom in his grandmother's side of the duplex. His career has its grounding in the close quarters of his childhood home, and he hasn't forgotten that. His ailing grandmother, the owner of the duplex, needs him like he once needed her, so when he's not rapping, he's a caregiver.
"My mom has to work days, and my pops has to work days—who's gonna watch my grandmother?" he says. "I have to be there, so I might have to miss something just to do that. I have to do it, My grandmother was everything when I was younger. Anything? 'Yes.' She was the best grandmother—you can ask Ty—she was the best grandmother ever. I change her diapers, and when I do it, it's not even nasty to me. It's like 'You had to wipe my ass too when I was young.' We can't put her in a home. That's the last thing we would do."
TeeCee isn't self-aggrandising or sanctimonious. He legitimately loves his grandmother. It's beautifully simple: She took care of him, so he takes care of her. There's an almost cyclical nature to his life–it's a blue ouroboros recreating itself, the past and future an inseparable whole. Some of his closest friends—the aforementioned Nano, Crazy, and Marley Blu (also known as "Big 'Quise" or "Black 'Quise," the yin to TeeCee's yang)–were all raised a Crip Walk, skip, and a jump away from the duplex, and TeeCee succinctly summarizes their dynamic by saying "I like to keep everything with my same elementary niggas." The titles of his mixtapes are a bit cliché, but they're still the credos by which he lives: Loyalty Is Everything, Realness Over Millions.
TeeCee's next effort, Realness Over Millions 2, will be released soon, but no matter its success, his family and friends will remain close. They know him as TeeCee4800, the gangster rapper whose white tube socks, even when directly contrasted with the neon of Tokyo, are blinding and crisp. They know him as Little TC, the tattooed Crip who'd spend nights making sales at the edges of a dull yellow streetlight corona. They know him as Marquise, the husky boy who'd scrap with Ty and Gabriel in their grandma's front yard, hoping to sneak in haymakers on the older boys without retribution. They know it all started at the orange-pink duplex just off Washington Boulevard.
Photos by Geordy Pearson. Follow him on Instagram.
Torii MacAdams is a writer based in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter.