How Tragedy & Loss Birthed TJ Porter's Rap Career

Ryan Jay
TJ Porter

Harlem's TJ Porter might only be 19 years old, but he's old enough to remember 50 Cent's dominance in the early 2000s. "He had that aura like, 'I'm that n---a,'" Porter glowingly recalls. "He was wildin'. I was young, and I knew every song."

When 50 bludgeoned the game with his visceral opus Get Rich or Die Tryin' in 2003,  he had the music world on tilt. Though Porter was probably mastering his first steps as a baby during the earliest part of 50's undisputed reign, as he got older, he relished the rapper's confidence and hit-making abilities. Who didn't? "In Da Club" was ubiquitous, so was his infectious "G-G-G, G-Unit" chant. That type of run is what Porter yearns for, and is hoping to achieve with his debut album Voice of the Trenches, set to be out Friday (June 28) via Def Jam. 

"I want to have everything in a chokehold, just like Fif," declares Porter. 

Like Jackson, Porter's bravado bleeds New York. Either he'll crack a joke and dismantle your ego with his bruising commentary, or he'll flash a pearly smile to signal his satisfaction. When asked about his days as a touted high school basketball star, Porter performs the latter, gleefully speaking on his relationships with future NBA draft prospects Cole Anthony and Julian Newman. But before he goes more in-depth, he pauses and refrains. TJ reminds me that he's not a hooper anymore and that he wants to be taken more seriously as a rapper. 

"I'm not a basketball player who makes music, I'm an artist who plays basketball, sometimes," he says. "I make music. I want people to take me seriously as an artist. I'm cool with all the rappers and stuff like Meek [Mill] and all, but I need them to take me serious with the music. I want that longevity. I ain't trying to go to the NBA."

TJ's hoops dreams were deflated when his friend Juwan Tavarez, nicknamed Chico, was shot multiples times, with a bullet piercing his head in 2016. Two days later, Tavarez died at Harlem Hospital. Porter was 15. 

Following Chico's death, Porter looked at previous messages between him and his fallen friend. There, Porter remembered how encouraging Tavarez was about him picking up rapping. 

"When Chico was alive, I started rapping when I was young," remembers Porter. "I was like 11 or 12. I had put out a freestyle he wanted me to make. Everybody was calling it trash, but he was like, 'Yo this is crazy.' He used to gas me up. But then I stopped rapping. I was playing basketball. When he died, I just started rapping again."

Porter's decision to focus on music full-time paid off. His singsong delivery and penchant for sticky hooks caught the ear of music manager and co-host of Complex's Everyday Struggle, Wayne “Wayno” Clark, who forged a relationship with the budding MC and later, inked him to his Triangle Offense Management company.  Things continued to look up for Porter. After he completed high school last year, he crafted his biggest record to date, "Tricky," which sits at almost 800,000 views on YouTube. The swaggering tune finds Porter "putting his city in a chokehold," exuding a sharp tongue on the mic, and thrashing those praying for his downfall with his AutoTuned flow. "Tricky" also caught the ears of Def Jam Records and earned him a recording contract that summer.

Enamored with Porter's competitive streak and desire to succeed, Def Jam tabbed the hyphenate to take part in the label's Undisputed album, a project showcasing their latest signees. Among the crop of acts selected were rising star Nimic Revenue, Billboard Hot 100 success YK Osiris and Porter. Featured on two tracks, Porter made it known from the getgo that he wasn't going to let anyone steal his shine during the project's recording process. 

"I don't care if you're bigger than me. I'm not gonna be quiet because I'm not at your point. I don't give a fuck," Porter opines. "That's just how I am. I work hard and lock-in. I talk my shit. I think it's because I'm from Harlem. I can back my street talk." 

Voice of the Trenches displays Porter's ability to tell stories like a seasoned veteran. On "Harlem," TJ deftly trucks his way through the horn-tinged record, while giving listeners a guided tour of his hometown. On "8 Laws," Porter looks to Notorious B.I.G.'s "10 Crack Commandments" for inspiration, and schools novices on the importance of street ethics over the song's dark production. Despite his attachment to the hood, it's Porter's versatility that has him penciled in as a bonafide star. "Do You Care" and "Need Your Lovin'" convey his softer side, as his syrupy melodies help fortify his position as a promising hitmaker. The cherry on top? Porter's "Father Figure," where he unabashedly speaks on his dad's lack of effort and willingness to be in his life. "Did you ever want me, yeah that's one thing that I wanted to know," sings Porter on the song's chorus. 

"He's not a deadbeat. He doesn't do what he's supposed to do," he explains. "I'm your son. I see you spending money on females and all that, but you can't do nothing for your son? So it's like, I don't wanna talk to him. I stopped talking to my father for a few years. I'm a man. I chopped it up with him, and I told him about himself. Now I got my own money, my own car, my own clothes, my own house, I can take care of myself. I'm not going to hold that against you for the rest of my life because God forbid you pass, I'm going to be sad."

And while Porter's relationship with his father remains a touchy subject, he knows that if he continues to chip away at his goals, then his determination will always override his fears and past struggles like someone who once came out of the trenches. 

"It took Jay-Z almost 23 years to become a billionaire, I'm trying to do it in 15," relays Porter. "I feel like I'm going to do it and I'm going to do in a shorter time than him."