Hip hop has its fair share of rappers who brag about their women, fame and bling, but few are as lyrically vulnerable and personal as Tee Grizzley.
Born Terry Sanchez Wallace, the Detroit rapper has only been in the game for a couple of years, but that hasn’t stopped him from making waves. Since his 2016 debut, the 25-year-old has already worked with the likes of Lil Yachty, Chance the Rapper and Jeezy. Last week, he released Scriptures, an entire album produced by mega-hitmaker Timbaland.
Before you hit play on the record, here are five things about Tee Grizzley you ought to know.
He made the best of a tough childhood
Born into an abusive household with parents who were in and out of prison, Grizzley wasn’t dealt the best hand. But he “never smoked, drank, none of that, [and] always got good grades,” a lifestyle he attributes to his faith.
“My man’s in the streets, they took a path that everybody takes, statistically speaking, but for some reason I was just always on the right track,” he told XXL Magazine. “And it’s not because of nobody or nothing but God. It wasn’t because of me and it wasn’t because of nobody around me.”
In lieu of his itinerant parents, the Detroit native was raised by his grandmother with the help of his uncles and aunties, all of whom instilled in him a love of classic R&B. But he was most enthralled by the production process, and eventually “fell in love” with his own voice at eight years of age when his uncles took him to a recording studio.
He went on to form a rap quartet called the AllStars Ball Hard in middle school, adopting the moniker ASBH Tee—but it would be several more years before Wallace became Grizzley.
He got locked up
In 2011, Grizzley’s mother was sentenced to 15 years in prison for drug trafficking (he addressed her incarceration in his recent single, “Locked Up”). And a year later, he lost his father to violence. But even then, he stayed his course and eventually became the first member of his family to make it to college, enrolling at Michigan State University to study finance and accounting.
However, during his freshman year, in 2014, he found himself struggling to make ends meet—so he turned to crime. The rapper searched for unlocked dorms to steal cash, computers and electronics, The State News reported.
Although apprehended by the police, Grizzley escaped incarceration by—literally—fleeing the state. It was only months later, in July that same year, that the rapper got caught, but this time for attempting to rob a jewelry store in Kentucky. The next three years of his life were spent in prisons across two states.
However, it also set him up on his current path in life. “When I first [went to prison], I used to fight. I used to get jumped, jump people, steal from people, get stuff stolen from me,” he told XXL. “But I realized that ain’t how I want to do my time, plus I want to go home. I realized that I got problems bigger than anything that can happen in prison.”
Instead, the rapper focused his efforts on writing music, crafting material for what would become his debut mixtape, My Moment. It was also during his stint that he adopted the moniker Tee Grizzley, which was given to him by his fellow inmates. “That’s what people was calling me in there because I let my beard grow out, my dreads was wild, I was in there acting crazy. Working out, getting real big, just acting a grizzly in there,” he explained.
TV and books kept him sane
While serving out his three-year sentence, Grizzley turned to pop culture and entertainment to pass the time and keep his head on straight. He soon became an avid reader, devouring any book he could get his hands on, from religious texts to science fiction.
“I sat there and read a million books while I was locked up. I don’t got no problem with reading at all,” he told Complex. “I read all types of books. I read Christian books, I read black novels, I read religious books. I read stuff like Rich Dad, Poor Dad and The Dictator’s Handbook, and then I turned around and read science fiction novels… I felt like each one of them I could learn from, each one of them helped me.”
At the same time, the rapper also discovered a love for reality television, as it helped him take the stress away of being away from his family. Among the shows he watches, Grizzley listed series such as Love and Hip Hop, Real Housewives of Atlanta, Basketball Wives and Man vs Wild.
Inmate turned activist
Nowadays, Wallace is known for being an advocate for criminal justice reform, working towards a system that emphasizes rehabilitation.Since his release in October 2016, Grizzley has been frank about his hopes and criticisms of the US criminal justice system, which he has conveyed through his music and a wide range of interviews, including a recent one with Spin:
“There’s definitely a way to fix the prison system. First of all, you gotta get a rehabilitation center in prisons, that every inmate must go through. So that means, they in there, they learn how to do shit, they filling out job applications, so everybody that get out of prison automatically got something to do. Boom. That’s an easy way for the prisoners not to go right back to the streets.”
Two famous fans jump-started his career
Grizzley released his debut single, “First Day Out,” in November 2016. It became a regional hit, but it would take two influential and unexpected fans to make the track go truly viral.
Just days after the 2017 NBA Finals, then-Cleveland Cavaliers player LeBron James posted an Instagram Story of himself back at the gym, blasting Grizzley’s single through the gym’s speakers while rapping along to it.
“It’s one thing for someone like that to be listening to it, but for him to actually be rapping it, that’s what I’ve been working for—for it to get to everybody’s ears,” Grizzley told Slam Magazine. It’s hard to get people to rap your music, to really feel it like that. So I was grateful for it. He did a lot for me, for my following.”
But that wasn’t all. Later in the day, Jay-Z name-dropped Grizzley in a flurry of tweets about the rap game, going as far as to call “First Day Out” the “song best out [there].” The single would go on to climb the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at 48, and garner over 100 million views on YouTube.
Since that fateful first single, Grizzley has clinched a record deal with Atlantic, dropped a joint project with Lil Durk and reached the top 10 of the Billboard 200 with his debut album, Activated. And with Scriptures—the result of a fruitful partnership with Timbaland—in hand, the rapper looks set to push his hip hop ambitions ever further, while advocating for change and what he believes in.
Stream Tee Grizzley’s sophomore album, Scriptures, here.