Raleigh emcee Tyrell Moten (Ty 4 Thought) was born and raised in Kinston, a small town that was once the hub of African American music in eastern North Carolina. In addition to influencing jazz, rhythm and blues, funk, and gospel music—all genres that have all had a direct impact on hip-hop—in 2018 Kinston was crowned “the NBA capital of the world.”
“Kinston is a small town, but we’re not as slow as a town as most people think,” says Moten, 36, over the phone.
While attending Fayetteville State University, Moten would accompany a friend to rap battles; there, he rekindled his love for hip-hop.
“I wrote poetry up until college,” Moten says. “So when I linked up with [my friend] while he was doing this music, watching him battle for some reason—it just ignited a fire in me. My love for poetry turned into ‘Oh man, I feel like I want to rap.’”
Prior to that moment of clarity, Moten had rejected affiliations as a rapper. With poetry, he expressed himself best by carefully writing his thoughts down; rap, meanwhile, was extemporaneous and involved freestyling.
“Freestyling never did anything for me, because it’s like you talking off the top of your head and begin to start saying some crazy stuff,” Moten says. “I’ve never wanted to do that.”
Moten’s poetic sensibilities led him to his rap name, Ty 4 Thought, which also serves as an homage to Black Thought, the lyrical front man for The Roots. By the time he graduated college, Moten had invested thousands of dollars in studio equipment. The investment led him to be able to create a discography of seven projects to date.
“My music is real,” Moten says, when asked to describe his sound. “I’d hate to sound so cliche, but I literally write about my life. Ninety-eight percent of what I say is no fabrication.”
Although he’s proud of his autobiographical lyrical style, he also expresses interest in making further creative inroads with his storytelling.
God Flow, his latest project, was released on April 19. The well-curated 13-track EP consists of a mix of boom-bap and contemporary hip-hop beats and presents Moten’s thoughts and feelings on a wide range of topics through skits and lyricism. Whether it’s the cadence of his voice or the lyrical content, immediately listeners can hear the influences of Kanye West, Nipsey Hussle, and even Future.
“I like to consider myself like a reporter of the human experience,” he says. “We are all walking contradictions to a certain extent. So this project here, I tried to pull contradictions out. I have certain lyrics or certain songs where you may be like, ‘Wow, but he just made a reference to God.’ I have a song called “All Praise Is Due” that’s almost like gospel hip-hop. But then I have another song where I rap about the first time I called a girl a bitch. You feel how you feel at certain times. And I’m just gonna give you how I’m feeling, you know?”
To best describe these multiple identities, Moten has adopted a new label: “conscious gangster.” For Moten, it’s important to avoid associating the term “gangster” with only self-destructive behavior.
“Everything that we love is ‘gangster,’” he says. “The whole mentality of America is gangster. So it’s funny how we try to paint a picture one way when overall, as a country, we are all attracted to the gangster shit. Whether movies, music, politicians, the military, or the police. This is what it is.”
In Kinston, Moten was raised in a two-parent household. His father was in the military and his mother was a social worker. Moten’s parents have supported his career from the start but have also shared concerns about the kinds of messages he was sending in his music.
“In hindsight, looking back, I’m like, oh, man, we kind of had a decent life,” he says. “We never was hungry and we had all of our basic necessities.”
After his mother was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2002 while Moten was in high school, he gravitated toward the streets. His middle-class upbringing could not protect him from gang life. “Looking back on my life, it’s like, OK, yeah, we grew up middle class, nice neighborhood, the whole nine, but that don’t stop you,” says Moten. He reflects on this specific reality on the sixth track, “O T Genasis Skit.”
“Going to the street life for me was quite easy, because the guys I seen that was in it, they were aggressive and reminded me of my militant father,” Moten says. “A lot of cats are either looking, and they won’t admit it, that they are kind of looking for this father-figure type. You also join for the camaraderie and, simply put, out of pain. If you didn’t grow up in a neighborhood where gangbanging was taking place, like me, I had a lot of pain, so I wanted to join something that I saw was also inflicting pain.”
Moten’s parents can be proud that God Flow has a number of positive messages woven throughout. The conscious gangster raps about being motivated and working hard to create a desirable life, paying homage to the state of North Carolina on “NC State of Mind.” On “Shawn Carter Skit,” he uses the words of Jay-Z to remind himself and others to never give up on their dreams. References to his faith are scattered throughout.
When asked what his proudest moment as an artist is, without hesitation Moten names his parents.
“Seeing the look in my parents’ eyes like ‘Holy shit this guy can really rap. I even said it at one of my shows. I was laughing because I saw my dad’s face. So I told the crowd, I said, ‘My dad looking at me like, “Oh, this cat really doing this?”’ He really had his look in his eyes that communicated, ‘Wow, my son is actually good at this,’” says Moten. “That was my proudest moment—seeing my parents at my show. They get it. They finally get it.”
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