TUT / Photos by Harlan Breaux
Driving into Chattanooga from the north along Interstate 24, it looks as though the city tumbled down from the surrounding mountains and settled there. The downtown’s old, brick buildings give way to hot, sleepy roads that wind through the countryside. The architecture is blocky and matter-of-fact, monuments of sedate Southern industry—except for the church spires, which come in all shapes and are everywhere.
On a recent Monday afternoon, I pulled up to a house beside one such church, on one quiet city corner. The front porch was empty, the blinds were down, and the door was dark, covered with a curtain. The streets were empty, baking in the heavy heat. I knocked on the door a couple times and got no response, but then, walking around from the other side of the house came Kevin Adams Jr., the jovial 23-year-old Chattanooga rapper known as TUT, wearing a Diplomats shirt that showed Cam'ron as a religious icon in a stained glass window.
Left to right: Shooey, TUT, Kaytoven, Cheeze
He took me to the back, where a hodgepodge of cars sat in what appeared to be a church overflow parking lot, past the garage, which was set up as a band practice space, and through the house. A couple lounged on the couch watching TV, while in the next room a guy everyone called Martelli strummed guitar and a fourth dude sat hunched over a laptop at a desk. The back room, which was clearly originally intended as the living room, was blocked off by dark curtains sectioning it off from the hallway to form a bedroom and recording space. A projector screen hung against the curtains, and a Netflix menu screen scrolled by on a TV by the bed. It was here that TUT, along with its other inhabitant, the producer Kaytoven, made Preacher’s Son, his electrifying, eclectic debut mixtape from earlier this year.
“It’s just like a little music factory here pretty much,” TUT explained, sitting down on his bed. Most of the musicians who live at the house or spend time at it collaborated in some way on Preacher’s Son and play in TUT's live backing band, which is semi-officially called The House Band but which everyone just refer to as “the band.” Several visitors were hanging around or stopped by in a steady stream throughout the afternoon: Swayyvo, a sax player who’s played in the band at “just about every Baptist church in Chattanooga”; Martelli, whose first name is Tyler and who, along with the band’s main guitarist Taylor Freeman, plays guitar on the project; Cheeze, the group’s videographer; Shooey, TUT’s high school friend, DJ, and right hand man; Johnny Smathers, a DC transplant who raps under the name Smathers; Chris P, another rapper and old friend who TUT at one point called “like the man, the man of the hooping”; TUT’s younger sister Alexis, who’s stepped in to help with business; and Kaytoven, who’s known TUT since eighth grade and has been recording with him since their days together in math class.
Exclusive: Watch the video for TUT's new song "Throwed" below, premiering on Noisey:
Kaytoven had just returned from a two-and-a-half month stint in LA, and everyone was excited to see him. Without Kay around, TUT hadn’t really been able to record music for his upcoming project, Love Yourself, and he was feeling restless, explaining that he and Shooey had finally just started tinkering in ProTools on their own just to do something. Kaytoven, meanwhile, had been sitting in on sessions with powerhouse California rap label TDE and helping Isaiah Rashad put the finishing touches on his album. TUT and Rashad, whom everyone in the group refers to as Zay, met five years ago at Middle Tennessee State University before both dropping out and returning to Chattanooga to pursue music. Along with Chris P and a fourth rapper named Michael Da Vinci, they make up a collective called The House.
“That’s the story of Cilvia,” TUT explained, referring to the car that gave Rashad’s acclaimed breakout project Cilvia Demos its name. “Honestly we used to just have like smoke seshes in the car. We was plotting… That’s all we used to do. We’d sit in the car and smoke and listen to beats. Listen to music, lie around—” and, Chris P interrupted—“do fuck shit.”
But music was on TUT's mind long before he ended up rapping. As the name of his project suggests, his father is a Baptist preacher—soon to be a bishop—and TUT grew up going to church every Sunday. Although he wasn't always fully invested in it and sometimes got in trouble for showing up in T-shirts or sweats instead of dress clothes, he liked the part “after church let out and the sanctuary would be empty,” when his parents would stick around to talk with the other adults and there would be an opportunity to “go to the sanctuary and play the organ and the drums and all that.”
That church background shines through on Preacher’s Son. The tape’s instrumention is rich throughout, in part thanks to the band coming into the picture. Songs like “Living on the Sun,” which features an extended sax solo and just one short rap verse, and “Sheba,” a song packed with religious imagery and entirely sung over guitar peals, treat rap as just one tool in accomplishing a broader musical vision, in a way that is reminiscent of contemporaries like Chance the Rapper and Kendrick Lamar. Like TUT, Kaytoven, who produced the entire project, was raised in the church, and he rattled off a list of influences that barely touched on rap: Quincy Jones, Michael Jackson, Pharrell, and Kirk Franklin, whom TUT described as “like the Drake of gospel.”
“We pull from churches, and we pull from everywhere,” Swayyvo explained at one point. Earlier he noted, “The coolest thing about it is we have all different ethnicities here [in this house], so it’s not just one type of input coming into the music. So you have like some funky white boys, and then you’ve got a soul brother, and then you mix it. You’ve got this crazy mix of sound.”
“I think the concept of the tape really clicks with a lot of people in Chattanooga, who are raised in the church, but there’s a lot of hood shit going on here” too, Smathers said. Preacher’s Son touches on occasionally dark topics with an empathetic eye, describing, for instance, the drug dealer who’s worried about having enough money to buy his kids Christmas presents and a scene of TUT at age eight building Legos while his uncle cooks crack in the next room. It embraces the perspective of the kids doing drugs and hooking up with each other who still are trying to make it to church on Sunday morning. Even when it sounds a little rough or its punchlines are a little too on the nose, it’s held together with this human element of contradiction, one that TUT understands well.
“I was a good bad kid,” he said of his childhood. “I was a bad kid with good intentions.” After dropping out of college and coming back to Chattanooga, TUT worked his way through a variety of jobs, including a gig at a marketing research call center that fired him for hanging up on a woman who called him a racist slur and a stint in a factory making paper trays for fast food restaurants. He dabbled in selling weed and molly for a couple summers. At one point he and Shooey ended up in jail together for four nights on a $100,000 bond for a situation they didn’t want to explain before getting out and getting the charges dropped. With his background, his ensuing path hasn’t always been easy on his parents; as he raps, “preacher’s son I love my mama / kicked me out for smoking ganja.”
For another job, TUT worked at his father’s church, editing video footage of sermons to be broadcast on TV, but he had a falling out with his father after word reached him of a rap video in which TUT was, according to a member of the congregation, “throwing up gang signs.” In reality, the video—for the Preacher’s Son standout “Corner Stories”—has TUT holding up middle fingers as he says “fuck a cop,” but it was simply more fuel for the fire of his contentious relationship with his parents. Shortly afterward, his mother caught him smoking weed in the garage, and he went to crash with friends.
“It’s a very different dynamic between what he’s doing and what my parents are doing,” Alexis said. TUT added, “We’re still good family. I’ve got a great relationship with my parents, but, like, it’s just like hard to get them to see my side of things.”
He and Kaytoven eventually ended up back at TUT's house recording in the basement, but they were frustrated by the early curfew they were given by his mother to stop making noise. Seeking a new place to record, they ended up at their current spot and eventually moved in, recording more with the band and putting the final touches on Preacher’s Son. Since it came out in January, things have gone a little smoother. TUT’s played shows around the country, and his parents have started to get on board.
“Once you get out here and people are walking up to your pops like when [he’s] going out of town and doing church services… telling him like, ‘ayy, your son got a fire ass project, like I fuck with him’—once people are walking up to your pops like that he ain’t got no choice but to be like ‘maybe he is worth listening to or something,’” TUT explained.
In the end, TUT’s situation may have worked out ideally. His slow path with music meant that he arrived with a fully formed sound and a healthy, self-aware level of confidence, which is what the upcoming Love Yourself is all about: “You’ve got to love yourself before you try and love somebody else basically,” he explained. “It’s just like, it’s hard, you’ve got to have love, you’ve got to be confident in yourself, like in order for somebody else to be confident in you.”
Preacher's Son crackles with that self-assurance and thrives under TUT's guiding hand. His circle—of like-minded rappers, close friends, and talented musicians—seems poised to create a breakout scene in Chattanooga. But most of all they seem to have that confidence in each other thing figured out. As the afternoon wound down, they excitedly played new tracks they were working on and began rolling up a few blunts. Suddenly, it seemed, everyone who had floated through the house all day was in the same room. Laughing and excited to be reunited with Kaytoven and with each other, they were here in one place finally, a congregation of sorts, all gathered in this lively house.
Kyle Kramer is an editor at Noisey. Follow him on Twitter.