Born in Milwaukee, rapper Tray Gee -- aka The Prince of the Mil -- was already rapping in kindergarten. So, it's no surprise that at 16 this precocious talent has morphed into one of the city's best hip-hop talents.
Drawing inspiration from his father, also a rapper here, Tray Gee learned to balance school work and lyrics writing and surrounded himself with the kind of people that can help him move to the next level.
With his debut full-length CD, "Youngest in Charge" released last month, Tray Gee is already hard at work on a new mixtape due out in February.
As he plans a series of gigs around the country in the start of the new year, we asked young Tray Gee about his music, about hip-hip in Milwaukee and about how music might be able to build bridges in this sometimes divided city.
OMC: Can you tell us about how you got started in music?
TG: All my life I've loved music. From R&B to hip-hop, frequently writing lyrics and writing poetry as a kid, I've always been involved in music. My dad went to jail when I was 2 and got out when I was 13. My dad was a rapper and always writing. He was a very deep man and he inspired me to keep it real and not lie for the sake of music. That's why I've always respected and admired rappers like Tupac because they expressed themselves through music. That's how I see myself: expressing my voice.
My dad helped me write lyrics and my first song. Every time I went to go visit him we would go over raps and poetry I written and even when he called home from jail. And when he got out he helped me a lot in my music career. He took me in the studio, and then I hooked up with my uncle, Antonio Reese, who is also my manager and CEO of UrbanVision Worldwide. They both have helped further my career and fostered my growth as an artist.
They gave me the name Prince when I was a kid, and it translated over to what I call myself today, Prince of the Mil. I call myself this because I feel like between my dad and uncle, and my history in Milwaukee and the way I love this city, it's a befitting name.
From my first performance ever, which was in church -- I performed a gospel rap) -- I knew this was the road I should take. I got a great response from people and it motivated me to keep going. I am also very multitalented. I can sing, dance and write music.
TG: My biggest hero is my dad whose rap name was Mukarron The Don. There are several other rappers and singers in Milwaukee I respect. I actually respect everyone's craft. My favorite Milwaukee artists are Mella G, Hollyhood and R&B singers Cincere, Ladi and N4.
OMC: Has music distracted you from getting an education or have you been able to focus on both?
TG: I've definitely been able to focus on both. My uncle being my manager and family has helped keep me on track and focused. And it's definitely not easy to do both because sometimes I want to be a kid and go skating but I have to go to the studio. And then after the studio I may want to kick it with my guys but I have to go home and do homework. There are a lot of temptations but it's about being responsible.
OMC: Is it hard to get heard as a rapper in Milwaukee these days?
TG: Yes, very hard. I think there is a lack of support in this city from other artists, radio stations and people who are in a position to help. Milwaukee has a "hater mentality" where everyone is for themselves. In addition, we are an overlooked city and I don't think Milwaukee is respected in the music industry. No artist has made a lasting impression out of this city but I think someone will soon.
OMC: So this isn't an encouraging scene, where rappers help out each other and encourage each other?
TG: There are more people that are not supportive than supportive. You just can't have the good without the bad.
OMC: It's no secret that Milwaukee is a segregated town and that is reflected in the music world here, too, sadly. Do you think there's hope for crossover collaborations here that could help Milwaukee's musicians in all styles of music get together?
TG: Yes, I do. Music can help artists in the city open their eyes to different genres and collaborate. That may be what differentiates the artists in our cities from others, and helps us get the respect in this city we need from the mainstream music industry. We need a spark to set the fire and that may be it. There is a lot of talent in Milwaukee and if we all collaborated in some form or fashion, I think that would be great.
OMC: Do you think music can build those kinds of bridges; do you think that musicians have a duty to use their power to do that?
TG: Yes I do. And it heavily depends on the message you are sending our in your music. Music is a powerful tool and it can bring us together. I think that's really what it is all about.
OMC: You're young, but you've got a thundering voice, does it sometimes surprise people the first time they hear you rap?
TG: Yes they are. They often asked "Are you seriously 16." I say that I'm 16 physically, but mentally I've just turned 31. I'm older mentally because of the people I hang around. They are all positive and my mother often told me show me your friends and I'll show you your future. Being around these people helps me put profound thoughts in my lyrics and not talk about the things an average 16-year-old would talk about.
OMC: Tell us a little about recording the first CD. What was the experience like and who collaborated with you?
TG: I was real hungry for a CD so I went into with a lot of excitement and drive. I enjoyed reviewing different beats and the ones most appropriate for my album. I enjoyed expanding myself to match the different beats and lyrics on the album. I enjoyed making songs for everybody. I knew I had to have a song on my album women could vibe too, and one that is a party banger. I tried to do a song for everyone.
On the album I collaborated with Latin-singing sensation out of Atlanta Tina Q., R&B singer Ladi, and with my brother and rapper Lil Stan. I almost forgot, I collaborated with Mr. Duck Walk himself, Genesis.
OMC: What's next for you? Are you doing another CD? Going on tour?
TG: I am going to be traveling to Atlanta, Miami and Chicago in '08 to perform and I my goal now is to be the Prince of the Midwest. I'm currently working on a mixtape that will release in February and I'm working with producers and songwriters the Beat Brothers, KOK production company and producer Wayno. Featured on the album will be a lot of members from my family who rap, such as The Talionic Cartel, R Money and Ghost.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.