Thi'sl Explains Transcending From Gangsta Rap To Christian Rap, Rebuilding St. Louis
Exclusive: The chart-topping emcee speaks about family drama that prompted his message, and how he's building a fan-base beyond the Christian Rap community.
With the hard-knocking Midwest beats and his gritty, gravelly voice, St. Louis, Missouri Hip Hop artist Thi’sl sounds like a gangster rapper at first listen. And for a season of his life, that would have been an accurate description.
However, when his lifestyle changed, his flow soon followed. After telling is story on Chronicles on X-Hustler, Thi’sl is back with a new album Beautiful Monster and the same passion for seeing his city rebuilt. HipHopDX catches up with the X-Hustler as he talks about his new album, cocaine, the important women in his life, his latest video and the problems plaguing the STL.
HipHopDX: Talk about the new album Beautiful Monster and how it’s been received.
Thi’sl: The album’s been received real well. It debuted [at] #5 on iTunes' Hip Hop charts. I think the top four albums over mine were [Jay-Z & Kanye West's] Watch the Throne pre-order, the new Wu-Tang [Legendary Weapons] album that came out the same day as mine, the Eminem and Royce Da 5’9 [ Hell: The Sequel] album, and it was some other album I forgot.
It debuted at #24 on Billboard charts [that] week for Rap albums. Just the response of the people has been crazy. Just seeing the diversity of people that have responded to the album and saying they like it - they love it - it’s been dope, man. It’s been a dope ride so far.
DX: Where did the concept for Beautiful Monster come from?
Thi’sl: The concept for Beautiful Monster is a play off of sin, being a Christian and looking at life through a Christian lens, a Christian world-view. When I look at sin or things we consider good for us in this world, they are horrible.
For instance, one example that I always use is money. You could take any person right now, even dudes in the hood, and they’re quick to say, “Money is the root of all evil.” The Bible says that the love of money is the root to all evil.
When you look at money, it can have a dual purpose in this world. I could take money and I could build an orphanage. I could take money and feed the poor. I can take money and give it to cancer research. I need money to pay my bills. I need money to support my kids. I need money to pay doctor bills.
You need money and can use money to do so many great things, but at the same time I can take money and go build a bomb. I could take money and fund a terrorist organization. The greed and lust for money is what causes a girl to get up on a strip pole, or what causes a dude to go trap and sell dope. Money is a beautiful monster.
I need it, but at the same time it makes people do some of the ugliest things in the world. That’s where the title came from. Sin itself is the ultimate beautiful monster. It comes to us and portrays itself as being something wonderful, but at the end of the day, its job is to bite your head off. So that’s where the title came from, Beautiful Monster, sin presenting itself as something beautiful, but it’s really not.
DX: From a musical standpoint, would you say that this is the most diverse of your three albums so far?
Thi’sl: Yeah, I definitely would. I think it is the most diverse album I’ve done, and I think it’s the best album I’ve done to date. I think it should be that way, because it’s obvious a latter work than the other stuff.
I went into this album with a lot of different things on my brain. It’s not being cliché, but I wanted to make an album ultimately that would glorify God, but on the flip side I went into this album thinking about how to make it diverse.
As an artist, I would say realistically that my fan base is about 80% Christians and 20% people that are not Christians, so I always had it mind to where I don’t make music that is geared toward the church and I don’t make music that I just feel like is geared toward the hood.
My goal in making music is just to make music that I feel like is real, and whoever hears it hears it. If they love it, then they can rock with it. I had that thought in mind that I have a diverse group of people that listen to what I do.
I get Facebook messages from 40-year-old white women that’s like “I love your album. I love your music. I appreciate everything you do.” So I think about all that stuff and add it all up. I hold true to who I am as an artist. I don’t make music to cater to a specific group of people, but I do keep in mind that I’m trying to communicate something to a wide range of people, so that’s definitely where the diversity of the new album came from, because I wanted to be able to communicate what I was saying to a larger group of people.
DX: What song on the album means the most to you personally?
Thi’sl: Man, it’s funny. I would have to say this is not good marketing or promo, but I would have to say the whole album. It depends on which day it is. This album if I had to go from song to song to song, it was like I went and made a bunch of songs that could have been an album within themselves. And I poured everything into that one song, and then I went and did another song and another song, and they end up being a dope album.
It depends on what days it is. One of my favorite songs would have to be “Hold On,” because it’s really personal for me. Certain parts of the song, when it kicks to certain parts, I feel it, it really hits my heart, especially the part where I talk about “The years I sit watching while my mother struggled./Wasn’t no one around to take care of me and my younger brother.”
When it gets to stuff like that, it’s so personal, it hits a whole lot harder. Even from the intro, depends on the day, I’ll listen to the intro five times, because of what it is saying. I’m communicating something that’s from the heart. That’s what I try to do with all of my music.
A song won’t make it on my album that I’m not feeling. If I don’t feel it, it’s not going on the album. That’s why I have to say all of them. I love all of them for different reasons.
DX: On Chronicles of an X-Hustler, you had a song about your wife. On Beautiful Monster, you have a song about your mom. Talk about putting those two songs on your albums.
Thi’sl: When I did the Chronicles of an X-Hustler album, I was growing a lot into a comfort of who I was as an artist. Being a Christian, I don’t like to put myself in a box and call myself a Christian artist. If I was a plumber - and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a plumber doing this -but if I was a plumber I wouldn’t ride around in a truck that said Christian plumber. I would be a plumber, and I would have a truck that said I’m a plumber. But what I would do being a Christian plumber, or banker or whatever I am as a Christian, I would do my work as unto the Lord. I would do it excellent, to where people could see the difference in the type of work I offer, the type of conversation I offer and all that.
But with being a music artist, I know it’s a lot easier to get tagged. You look at artists like [Young] Jeezy, people call him a trap rapper. Being a Christian artist in that light it was a place where I found myself saying, “What do I really want to communicate to the world?” One of the things I felt like I couldn’t go without saying, especially in Hip Hop culture, was that the way that women usually get the short end of the stick. Not just in music, but real life from most people.
So I felt like I couldn’t go without saying something about my wife, especially with the album being Chronicles of an X-Hustler. It’s like I was chronicling my life, and there was no way I could chronicle my life without telling the story of my beautiful wife, how we met, how I fell in love with her, how she rode or died for me in every situation, how she stuck with me through all the crazy stuff I did in the street, how she waited on me making my transition to live for the Lord, how she trusts me with our family, so I felt that it was a no-brainer that I had to add that.
On the flip-side, with the Beautiful Monster album, with the song about my mother, I made about the song about my mother on this album because on the Chronicles of an X-Hustler album I had a song called “I Hate You.” I was talking about how I feel about drugs and how the situation went with me and my mom, dealing with the stuff I went through with her being on drugs, and it painted a one-sided picture of my mother.
Me and her had a talk after that album came out. I had a radio interview, and I was mentioning it on the radio and she was listening and felt like it painted her one-sided. But before she even mentioned that, I felt like that. I had called her three days before the radio interview. I was just riding listening to music. I just hit her up and was like, “Mom, I want you to know that no matter what you did and what happened in life I love you. You’re beautiful to me. I’m not embarrassed of you. Nothing you’ve done is going to change that.”
I was telling her on the phone, “My fondest memories of you is the good stuff that you’ve done.” I remember we were at home one night and we didn’t have any food, I mean nothing. Me, my momma and her boyfriend walked home. When we got home, we walked to White Castle and my mom only had five or seven dollars, something like that. I remember us getting back home and she ain’t eat none of it. I remember us having some and me saying, “Mama, here’s one for you,” and her saying, “Nah, y’all eat it.” And I remember watching my momma sit there and go to bed that night without eating no food because she gave it all to us.”
I remember when it was so hot in the house we ain’t have air conditioning. We had one fan. My mama laying on the floor with no fan on, and she put the fan on me and my brother. I remember her boyfriend saying something about getting the fan and she was like, “Are you crazy? My kids get that fan before I get anything!”
So that was a side of my mama that I wanted the rest of the world to see, too. With “I Hate You,” it painted a one-sided picture. She’s one of my biggest heroes at the same time. I get my work ethic from her.
No matter what she did when she was on drugs, my momma always went to work. If she stayed up three days, she went to work. I think a certain way because of the stuff she’s taught me, and I wanted the rest of the world to see to that I love my momma. I appreciate her and she did some great things for me in my life.
DX: It seems like every Christian Hip Hop album that’s come out lately has had a guest appearance by you. What has it been like working on so many projects?
Thi’sl: It actually helped me with the diversity of my album. I looked to see what people enjoyed about me on features, and I asked myself the question, “What is it that they enjoy so much about the features?” One of the things that I noticed that I did on most of the features is that I would ride the beat different.
Before, my focus on riding the track was always on the drums, but most of the times when I ended up on features, because the beat was so different, I focused on riding the melody. Having an opportunity to do a lot of different features, it helped me grow.
It’s been wonderful man, because when you do features with people, it usually brings something out of you that you wouldn’t do on your own. The subject is going to be something you wouldn’t have pulled out. The beat is going to be a beat you probably wouldn’t have picked. I just been enjoying it man, do all of the different features, I’ve been having a great time.
One of my favorite ones I just did is the one I just did with my boy, Pastor AD3, the intro track called “No Pain, No Love.” That and a couple other tracks but that by far is my favorite. And my homeboy Flame, he got a track on his album called “Double Back.” It’s been encouraging and challenging for me on different ways I can do stuff.
DX: You released a min-documentary. Talk about Backstage: My Life.
Thi’sl: Before my new album was about to come out, I put out the “I Hate You” video. It’s one thing to have a bio on your website where you look and you have a bio, but depending on the person the average person is trying to read through a one-page bio.
I wanted to have something that would be universal. That’s where the idea for Backstage came from. There were so many people being pulled in to what I was doing that didn’t know anything about me.
I wanted to do something that could show who I was to those people. And at the same time, a lot of people in my hometown knew about me, or know about me, but I wanted to do something that I could bring people from St. Louis that know me that are out still chopping it up with a lot of people, and we could all come together and say, “Okay, this is where this dude came from, and this is who he is.” It was put together just to show people, “This is who I am as a person, and this is where I came from.” This is what the Lord is doing in my life. The responses from it have just been crazy, just from people seeing such a dramatic change happen.
DX: In the documentary, you talk about starting off as a gangsta rapper. What was that process like going from a “Gangsta rapper” to somebody people would see as a Christian rapper.
Thi’sl: Growing up, I rapped gangster because I was gangster. I grew up in the hood, trapping. That’s what I did all of my life. I’ve always been a person that rapped about what I really, really lived. Growing up, when I rapped, I rapped about what was going on in my environment, in my community. I rapped about my partners getting killed. I rapped about my partners going to jail. I rapped about trapping. I rapped about what I would probably do to somebody, or what I probably had did. For me, it wasn’t so much a transition from a gangster rapper to a Christian rapper. The changed happened with my lifestyle. I rap about the stuff I rap about now, because that’s how I really live. The initial change didn’t happen because of music. When I first started living for the Lord, I didn’t even want to do music. I was so impressed with God that I had seen so many people in life leave me, or hurt me, or cut me down.
My daddy, before I was coming out of the streets, I had seen my dad three times in my whole life. I was 13-years-old. I seen my daddy three times. They sent me to stay with him, because I got kicked out of school. I couldn’t go to St. Louis Public Schools. When I was 13, I got suspended and the board of education told me I could never attend another St. Louis public school as long as I lived. So I get kicked out of St. Louis public schools when I’m 13, and they send me to live with my daddy. This is the third time I’ve seen my daddy in my whole life. I’m 13. We didn’t have no type of relationship.
I go do the same thing in Detroit that I was doing in St. Louis. I steal his gun. I’m outside hanging with dudes twice my age. I’m trapping. He catches me. He sends me back to St. Louis and tells me never to come back to his house again.
All of my life, people I loved were always rejecting me, because of how bad I was. When I saw God for who He really was, all I wanted to do was learn about God. I was so impressed that after all the stuff I did in my life, all the things I had done, the stuff that people didn’t even know about but I knew God knew about, after all of this stuff God still loved me enough to put His Son on the cross for my sins.
I was so gone off of that, I didn’t want to rap. I didn’t want to do nothing. When I first came out the streets, I didn’t even have the desire to rap. I didn’t even touch a microphone. All I did was read The Bible, pray and serve in my church and try help out in my community.
It wasn’t until two years later that I had learned all this stuff that I was just praying, saying, “Man, God, I need a way to communicate this to my generation,” and that’s when I started back doing music. So the transition from rapping gangster to rapping Christian wasn’t the process of me switching my music. It was the process of once my life changed, it was automatic for me. Like the Bible says, “Out of the mouth flows the abundance of the heart.”
When I was in the street, I rapped about street stuff because I was a real street dude. When I got saved, I started rapping from a Christian point of view. That’s what I believe, and that’s how I’m really living.
DX: Talk about the concept for song and the video “I Hate You.”
Thi’sl: Man, when I did “I Hate You,” I was working on the Chronicles of an X-Hustler album, which was also crazy and debuted at No. 4 on iTunes hip-hop charts in 2009.
I remember being in my neighborhood. I was sitting outside, and I was sitting in my car. My cousins is still outside, and I’m just watching what they’re doing. I’m just sitting there and I’m just getting madder, getting more and more mad. I saw and I see now the deception that greed for money does to people in our community. We’ve never had nothing, so we’re willing to get it at any cost. So we’re willing to sell drugs to get money.
When you look at the reality of it, selling drugs on certain levels is worse than a dead end job. It has no benefits. The risk of the money you’re making is one million times to what you could possibly make. You could get killed. You could die.
So I’m getting more and more mad as I’m thinking about my cousins. My cousin Worm got killed out here in these streets trying to get money, my cousin Tank, my cousin Drew. I’m looking at my other cousins out there doing what they do and my partners.
Then at the same time while I’m thinking all of this my aunt comes walking up on the car and asks me for money. She doesn’t have any of her kids. They’ve all been taking by the state, because of her drug problem. And I’m just sitting there like, “Man, I hate drugs.”
I remember riding back to my house literally mean-mugged up, ice grilling. I’m mad, the whole way home, just like “I hate drugs. I hate drugs.” I remember praying like, “Lord, let me communicate this feeling to the rest of the world.”
That’s the side of drugs that dudes don’t talk about. That’s why when I see certain dudes that never lived in the hood or been in the hood, and they get on these rap albums talk to kids like they straight hood or they gangster, and they encouraging these kids subliminally or openly to go be out in the street and try to get money in all this.
Most of the time Hip Hop music does the same thing to our culture that every other advertiser does. They see Hip Hop. They see it’s a lucrative way to make money. Hip Hop culture produces more people that are impulse buyers than anyone else in the world. We don’t really plan on saving. We not looking forward to the future. We buying what we want at that moment, and most of the time the Hip Hop culture feeds off of that, too.
So you get this dude who never been in the hood or seen none of that, but he knows that this is the stuff that goes on in the hood. And he knows that Hip Hop music is the soundtrack to urban culture, so he makes a soundtrack to this dude’s life, but he’s not really doing it.
This is the side that don’t get told. I’ve never seen a dude in the hood that’s getting money and wants to stay in the hood. Everybody’s trying to get out of there. I’ve never seen that before. I’ve never heard a dude whose mother is a drug addict rejoice about it like, “Man, my mother’s on crack. She just spent all our money. My little brother don’t have any clothes. Yes, I’m excited.”
I’ve never seen a dude who partner gets killed, because he’s out in the street getting money be excited about it. I’ve never seen someone get locked up in the feds for 20 or 30 years get excited about it.
I see these songs that are constantly encouraging this stuff, but this is the side people never tell. That’s the voice that God is giving me. I’m going to be the voice for those people.
I’m going to be the voice for the crackhead that sitting at home hurt because all of her kids have been taken. I’m going to be the voice of the dude sitting in the state penitentiary or federal penitentiary that’s not coming home for the next 20 or 30 years. I’m going to be the voice for the little kids that wake up on Christmas and don’t have any Christmas presents, because mom spent all the money on dope. I’m going to be the voice of the people that straight hate drugs. That’s the reason I wanted to make the song.
DX: In your music, you always talk a lot about St. Louis. What are some of the problems St. Louis is facing right now?
Thi’sl: I always talk about St. Louis because I love St. Louis. The Lord has given me a heart for my city. I love my city. I want to see change happen for my city. One of the biggest problems I see that gets little to no publicity is right now in St. Louis is our entire school system is not accredited. The whole system has lost its accrediation.
All the kids that are graduating from St. Louis public schools are going to have a harder time getting into college. On top of that, our high school graduation rate is 33%. Thirty-three percent of students that enter into high school in St. Louis graduate. You couple that with murder. Last year, we had like 170 murders. Inside of that, we like 3,000-and-some violent crimes.
It’s a place that needs a lot of attention. It’s not a place that’s contributing to a lot of the world’s capital, so we get looked over. It’s one of the most dangerous places to live in the world, but it’s my city and I love it.
That’s the reason I do music the way that I do it. I know a lot of people say this, and it’s sounds straight cliché, I don’t care I don’t sell a hundred thousand albums or a million albums, I don’t care.
What I’m attempting to do could be done by selling a million albums or by selling 10,000 albums. I’m looking to start a movement, a movement of people that are sick of being in the situation that they’re in, that sick of being left out, sick of being put down, and that’s looking to move forward and do something different in life. And that could be done with five people.
That’s why I put a lot of effort into my city, as far as like outreach, going to the juvenile centers to talk to kids, going in the schools and talk to kids, going on the block and talk to dudes, and I’m looking forward to putting a lot more time and money.
That’s the only reason I want to sell a lot of albums. If the Lord allows me to sell a lot of albums, it’s only going to benefit my city and my community even more.
DX: Speaking of St. Louis, just touch on the 2012 project featuring Flame J’Son and yourself.
Thi’sl: Yeah, we’re looking forward to doing the album. [Laughs] Right now we all realize that we have more zeal than time. Right now, we all looking at finding a good place with balancing everything we have going on. We don’t have a title. We don’t have a concept yet. We don’t have anything yet. We just know we want to get together and do an album for the fans, the supporters of our music, for our city to respresent God. Really soon, we should be talking and getting some ideas planned out of what we want to do.
DX: What should we expect from Thi’sl in the future?
Thi’sl: Man, I’m working man. I got a seventh-month plan, a one-year plan and a three-year plan. I’m about to start working on new music, but I’m a keeping pushing this. The Beautiful Monster, there’s like seven songs I want to shoot videos for off the album. We’re about to start shooting those in August. I’m pushing a new single, “My Radio on Drugs,” pushing that single to shoot the video for it, about to start pushing that video.
I got a project that I’m working on in St. Louis called Rebuild STL. It’s going to be a non-for-profit mentoring program connecting the dots of different resource programs for people. I’m about to do this back-to-school event where we give out school supplies, Lord willing uniforms, and all of that stuff.
So that’s my two focuses right now man, family and continuing to work on music, grinding and getting better at what I’m doing and do this Rebuild STL stuff and hopefully see a change brought about in my city, my community and even the world man. That’s my grind right now.