Ty Dolla $ign / Photo by Jory Lee Cordy, courtesy of Atlantic Records
VICE is exploring America's prison system in the week leading up to our special report with President Obama for HBO. Tune in Sunday, September 27, at 9 PM EST, to see his historic first-ever presidential visit to a federal prison.
Some of hip-hop’s biggest stars—Drake, Kendrick Lamar, Jeezy—appeared on Los Angeles rapper YG’s breakout 2014 album My Krazy Life, but the album’s most arresting feature was tucked away, quietly, on an interlude called “Thank God” that didn’t even feature YG himself. “And I thank God for never leaving me alone even when I'm on my own,” a smooth, plaintive tenor croons, a cappella. It’s an incredibly powerful moment, made even more powerful by the story: The vocalist is named Big TC, and he recorded his vocals from prison.
TC is Los Angeles singer/songwriter/producer/multi-instrumentalist/all-around musical genius Ty Dolla $ign’s younger brother, and he’s currently incarcerated on a life sentence for murder—wrongfully so, according to Ty. The YG album is perhaps TC’s most high-profile appearance, but he's been working with a number of artists, according to Ty, who has the phrase "Free TC" tattooed across his knuckles. TC's vocals can be heard on several of Ty’s songs, too. “In Too Deep,” from last year’s Sign Language mixtape, pulls TC’s flawless voice from another prison recording and layers it over lush, pretty piano instrumentation to create one of the most powerful songs on any Ty Dolla $ign release: “I said I’m leaving these streets / I’m in too deep,” he sings, chillingly, closing out the tape.
There are several other equally powerful recordings from Big TC scattered across YouTube, among them one called “Miracle,” which is similarly interpolated on Ty’s upcoming album, due November 13. That album is called Free TC, and, in addition to being full of the kind of upbeat party music and expansive, laid-back jams that Ty has made his calling card, it offers a subtle commentary on the penal system, with the hope of raising awareness of cases like TC’s.
Incarceration in America is a story that goes well beyond Ty Dolla $ign’s brother, of course—one that VICE is exploring all this week—but projects like this one help give it a human face and bring the problems and pains of the criminal justice into car stereos and living rooms where they might not otherwise be discussed. Interested in getting more of a sense of how Ty’s family story has played out in the process of recording one of the year’s most anticipated albums, we gave Ty a call to learn more about his brother.
How often do you communicate with your brother?
As much as I can, but not that often.
Speaking outside of your brother and the goal of this record, how have you seen the penal system affect your life?
I mean, it’s not a secret. I’ve seen people all across the globe that are in the same situation. There are so many people who are in prison—ever since before I was born—who are in prison for something they didn’t do. It’s an ongoing situation. So I’m using the little bit of power that I have to raise awareness about it and not let people forget about these people, and maybe we can change it. I’m just doing what I can, you know? I have a couple plans and documentaries moving forward that are going to drop with the album to, like I say, raise awareness. You’ll see when it comes. Every little bit I can do. Every step is a baby step. I’ve gone to a juvenile hall and talked. I’ve gone to group homes to talk. Anyway that I can to get people into it and change people’s minds and know that we can make a difference too. If you have somebody around you that has hope, it gives you hope. That’s what I want.
Check out the moment President Obama meets with federal prison inmates as part of our upcoming HBO special on the criminal justice system. Article continued below:
What is it like to wake up every day and know your brother is in jail for something you believe he didn’t do?
Shit’s crazy, Eric. Shit’s crazy as fuck. But it’s been so many years that I’m almost humbled, and now I think, “What can I do?” It’s a tough feeling. I’m doing all I can. I’m thankful that people fuck with me, because I feel like we’re going to change the situation. A lot of other people feel that way as well.
For someone who is maybe ignorant to these experiences, would you be able to describe what it was like in that moment when he was incarcerated? What was it like emotionally for you, your family?
Have you ever had a family member die? It’s basically that. He’s basically dead. It’s like hell, almost. A living hell. Luckily, you can reach out and you can go see him, but it’s like, he’s basically dead. It’s like if a family member dies. I want him back, man. He’s a fucking human man. Imagine if you had someone stripped from the family, man. That shit is fucked up man. He’s a human. A smartass human. A talented human. A human who could be on some whole other shit right now. A human who is mine but who is totally different than he was then. You grow everyday. You change everyday. The whole system is fucked up, too. I damn near say that if you’re going to put someone in for life, you might as well kill them. That’s a human, you know? The world is fucked up. It’s difficult, man, but like I said, I’m doing what I’m going to do. Shout out to everyone who has supported me.
How will you display this on the album?
There are several conversations between me and my brother on the album. You get inside our life. You come into our world. It’s heartfelt. Shit. We also did a song on there together; we took one of his YouTube videos and created a song from that, and I can’t wait to play it for y’all.
Is there anything else you wanted to address in regards to this subject and the album?
On top of it being about all of this, it’s also good music. It’s not a sad album. It’s not going to put you in a bad mood. Like I said, I can’t wait to play it for y’all.
All week, VICE is exploring the US criminal justice system through the series America Incarcerated. Read more here.
Eric Sundermann is the managing editor of Noisey. Follow him on Twitter.
Kyle Kramer is an editor at Noisey. Follow him on Twitter.