Imagine Missy Elliott, Diplo, and Big Freedia got together one night and had a love child. That amazing, sonically advanced human would be grow up to be TT the Artist. Originally from Fort Lauderdale, TT a.k.a. Tedra Wilson, began exploring art through different outlets like filmmaking, design, and visual art in earnest when she moves to Baltimore and began her studies at the Maryland Institute College of Art. From there TT began to involve herself into the B-more club and dance culture, settling in and soon establishing herself in the city's DIY arts community.
It's also important to recognize the waves TT has made outside of Baltimore's atmosphere. With a headlining show at Moma PS1, along with performances at both Coachella this past year and Made In America in Philly, she continues to demonstrate her unique sound through energetic and flamboyant performances. She's known for hard-hitting dance club bangers like "Pussy Ate," "Dig," (which we called the sonic equivalent of a fire emoji) and "Let Me See Ya," but her most popular track, "Dat a Freak" comes off a collaboration with Major Lazer's own Diplo. The song's success ultimately created a turning point in TT's career in terms of global exposure, plus a her first major writing credit after Jennifer Lopez sampled the original track for her song, "Booty" featuring Pitbull. In more recent news TT's single "Lavish," from her project Art Royalty, appears in HBO's new original show Insecure starring Issa Rae. We met up in Brooklyn to discuss her debut album Queen of the Beat, dance culture's impact on social issues, industry dick riding, B-more dancing with Hillary Clinton, and more.
Noisey: What is different about this album versus Art Royalty?
TT the Artist: Going into this I already knew that people have an expectation of me doing dance records, I have that core. However, people don't understand that Queen of the Beat is a combination of where I was in 2012 when I did my Money Monsta mixtape which was a combination of club and more hip-hop rap. Then I released Art Royalty which was more focused on club dance music. So for me I've always wanted to do a project with the elevation of my dance music along with telling my story as an artist, so Queen of the Beat for me is a really collaborative project. I worked with a lot of different producers—probably about seven or eight local producers from Baltimore. What's so different though is the range of music I think there's at least one record on there that anyone in any particular genre can vibe to. Sonically it was just an elevation, it was ambitious, I was able to follow my instincts and just have fun.
Who would you cite as some of your musical influences?
I have so many but to narrow it down I love people like M.I.A., Missy Elliott, Daft Punk, Pharrell, and Kanye. Artists like that not only create music but they make statements with their music and it's so interdisciplinary. They master performance, but they also master sound, these artists each have something I value about them and their artistry. So for example, I love how with M.I.A. there's still social justice content in her songs even though they are playable in the clubs. Then she drops a video and the visuals are super conceptual, so those type of things inspire me and I hope to do that type of work.
If you had to choose, what are your favorite songs from the album and why?
"Dig" is one of my favorite songs on the project. I had a chance to go to my home state and work with Miami based producer Snappy Jit on the track. I knew I wanted to create a dance anthem that was specifically catered to the dance community and "Dig" is a new dance that originated in Baltimore. Another track that is very special to me and was sort of difficult to make was "Queen." I wanted to make a song that had more of a hardcore rap vibe to it but also told a story that pays homage to women in the entertainment industry, specifically women of color who are breaking industry barriers. It's a female power anthem. "Hitch Hiker" is also a favorite of mine and it addresses the amount of dick riding that goes on in the industry. It's about about people being copy cats instead of establishing their own identity.
I know you attended art school in Baltimore before starting your music career. Talk about how that's influenced the artwork you create now?
I went to college with a major in Fine Arts and a concentration in video, but I didn't even think that diving into all those different art forms would be influential in my career. It was great because I learned a lot of things early on like photography, video, graphic design, illustration, even printmaking and what that did was it gave me all these different skills to use in my artistry and in my music. So barely having budgets for art work and what not works for me because I'm able to design my own covers, conduct my own photoshoots, and create my own videos. At one point I was directing music videos for local artists in Baltimore. So it's been so important having those skills now because they're needed and if I didn't have them then I would have to pay so much more money to have someone else do it. So thanks to my education I've just become self-sufficient and able to create at my own leisure.
Talk a little bit about your relationship with Diplo and what how "Dat a Freak" came together? Can we look forward to more work between the two of you?
For me that collaboration really changed things for me in terms of people looking at me. After that I started getting a lot more opportunities to work with other producers who are on bigger levels and more in the dance world. Then I found out that Jennifer Lopez sampled it and that gave me songwriting credits so I was very grateful for even being considered for the project. How it came about was Rusty Lazer, he's always believed in what I was doing and he reached out to me when he found out Diplo was looking for a female vocalist for the track. It all happened so fast and through the internet. I never even met Diplo until a year later at one of his block parties, then I recently ran into him at Coachella. We got to catch up and found out we're from the same area in Florida and I hope to definitely work on some new things with him.
Talk to me about Baltimore club movement, how you got involved and since then how the community and movement has grown?
I actually started off as a dancer, I wasn't even expecting to perform music. I was living in New York trying to do background dancing. I was taking classes at the Broadway Dance Center, I would audition to go on tours and was following my passion but then I realized maybe this wasn't for me. So once I moved back to Baltimore I started doing my music and in 2011 was around the time I ran into BMorethanDance which is an organization in Baltimore that does a lot of community initiative for local dancers. I reached out and went to an annual dance competition that focuses on Baltimore club dance which is a street-style form of dance, homegrown from Baltimore. So that's when I started getting more into the Baltimore dance scene and realizing how my music connects with them.
Who would you rather give a Baltimore club tutorial to? Hillary or Trump?
Definitely Hillary. She'd be cool because she's a woman and a white woman at that so I think that'd be dope. [Laughs.] The gif world would go crazy.
Yeah that's true, I'm going to speak that into meme and gif existence.
Yes tell her to wear her best pantsuit and let's rock!
What do you feel is your role within this dance movement and hip-hop? What are your creative goals or hopes?
Creatively I try to offer a different color in the spectrum I feel like female artists are only given these two extremes and one of them is overly sexualized and the other is overly ratchet. There's so many dope female artists right now that fall within those spectrums that I feel could have so much more support. There's a lot of cool different females that are rapping but because they aren't on either extreme they fly the indie route and we can't seem to get that extra push that we need. So really I just want my music and videos to offer something new to even the playing field, there's so much to offer through the woman's body, and voice through our music, I feel like the industry doesn't highlight it enough.
What do you think about the rise of the underground and indie artists getting the exposure they are now?
I think it's great because it gives us more of a platform to be seen without having these huge budgets and it's so important because a lot of these bigger artists get inspiration from the underground. Look at Kanye West, he's inspired by the kids and the underground. It's not just him coming up with these ideas, music is a huge collaboration. Sometimes these bigger artists get so out of touch with the underground and honestly they need that to stay relatable. It's like how do you stay in touch with the actual people who are out here buying music. I think it's also good because as an underground artist you learn the business of music, you realize you don't have to settle for a crazy label deal. You're in a place where now the artist is bringing the deal to the table and if the label wants to sign you it's under your conditions because of the stage we're currently in.
Talk about the influence of Baltimore on your music and creative aspirations. How it's transcended through your artwork?
When I came to Baltimore I didn't really have a sound when I first started doing music. Some of my earlier records were straight hip-hop. There's different scenes in Baltimore and at the time I was definitely working with the hood dudes in Baltimore, straight urban and trap stuff. But a little after that I met my producer Mighty Mark (then Murder Mark) and got called in to do a collaboration for the first club track I ever rapped on, the track was called "Let Me Show Em." After that me and Marty Mark started developing my club sound. Also the night life inspired me when I was in college and at the time I was a go-go dancer so I'd dance all night to club music. It was a mix of the nightclub, the radio, recording and the overall culture. So Baltimore definitely had a big influence over TT the Artist the brand and my musical journey.
Footwork is a type of dance but I know it is also lifestyle and so much more to the people active within these dance communities. How does this dance movement transcend through social and community issues within these environments?
A lot of people in these communities have family members or have been direct victims of the racial and social climate today and for some this is their only outlet. We're talking about kids who come from impoverished areas, who don't have afforded opportunities to go beyond their city's borders, so I think that's why I attached myself to it so much. I feel like it's up to me to do my best to put them in my music videos, have them in my shows, or do an event that focuses on their culture. Those are the things I try to do to give back to the community and I think there's so many ways for dance to intersect what's happening politically and socially. I definitely think they are directly connected. People need to engage in it even more because art to me is a way to express things that you can't always talk about. I feel like there's things people can connect with in art that are non-confrontational but confrontational at the same time. It's weird but it creates a conversation that otherwise may never happened.
I went to your set at MOMA PS1 and aside from the performance which was sick by the way, what I noticed most was the insane sense of style you have. Your clothes were so eccentric even your back up dancers were fitted. Is this intentional? Talk to me more about how these outfits come about for you.
Very early on in my career I never focused on my looks, it was all about the music. I didn't want to have terrible music and look cool, that wasn't me. Now I'm at a place where I feel like the music is playable and now I'm getting more into me and my womanhood. I've always loved dressing in a way that was a reflection of my artistic side. Now I like wearing custom designed stuff or clothes I've painted. Ultimately when I'm looking at stuff now I always consider comfort but more importantly what statement does it make and how does it work with my brand as an artist. Therefore I don't feel afraid to experiment with my image or do different things but I'm so grateful that we are in a different era in music where uniqueness is being embraced and it's cool now to be unique and different.
I saw your performance at Moma Ps1 this summer but talk about the experience performing at big festivals like Coachella and Made in America. Those two being your biggest performances, how did that feel?
I have to shout out Bauuer and Anna Lunoe because they're really doing their thing and to have the opportunity to perform at those high profile events the experience alone opened so many doors. It opened my eyes in a way where it was like this is really what I'm supposed to be doing. As an artist a lot of the times you struggle trying to make a record that goes radio or goes mainstream but really to me now what being an artist is about is your passion and expressing yourself. So after getting on those stages learning and understanding the differences between performing at a nightclub and performing on a huge stage you realize the way you have to work the stage and the importance of song selections. So to be able to be there and just learn was amazing. Now I'm at a place where it's like ok, how do I get to be a headliner after knowing all of these elements?
What's next for TT the artist?
I want to make a couple of films, I also want to make the soundtrack to those films with other people. I've been working on this club film that I really want to see come to existence. I also want to do a queer romance comedy, it's so random but I have this idea I've been sitting on. I'm also working on this app design because I've been working on a product for pets, I'm trying to just be a mogul for real. So really just making investments in things I've always wanted to do but definitely film that's something that I've always wanted to explore.
Photos by Six Point Productions, Jay Mastermind, Tragik.
Kwele Serrell on Twitter.