Incarceration, drugs and rap: all things that characterized growing up in the hood for Philly-based rapper, Tayyib Ali. Ali’s history in the Keystone State is an undeniable influence in his music from tracks like “How I Used to Live” to the smooth “Do It (High School Dropout),” chronicling the many turns he’s taken to get to his current state. He’s come a long way from being a 14 year old rapping in the lunchroom to realizing his dream of moving to California.
Time and again, Ali keeps proving that Philly’s best is a force to be reckoned with. As a breakout hit, the rapper was opening for acts like Shwayze and getting signed to Visionary Music Group before he was 18. Although Visionary Music Group booked shows and sent Ali on tours, there was a point where Ali felt that he needed to step away and reassess what it meant to be an independent artist. Not one to live with regrets, Ali is set to brand his legacy with the introduction of his new label, Keystone Records.
We caught up with Ali as he reflected on his previous lifestyle, and the future of the prodigious young rapper.
Story | Zara Hurtado
Q: In your music you talk a lot about growing up in Philadelphia and the experiences you had. What was it like growing up in Philly?
“Growing up I was in a regular neighborhood. When I was 14 I moved into the hood. It was like any other hood; my brother was selling crack, my mom was smoking drugs, my dad was locked up, I had like six siblings.”
“Rap really saved my life and played a huge part that way. When [my school friends and I] started rapping, we were just battle rapping. I realized that everyone was rapping the same. I had my vision and everyone else was too scared to follow their own because of what other people were going to say about it. One day I said, ‘I’m going to start making my own songs, with verses and hooks about actual stuff like real rappers do.’”
“I would show a lot of my raps to kids in the lunchroom. I remember one time I was rapping on the corner, and all the kids walked away laughing, and this grown man came up to me. He told me to keep on spitting, keep on rapping like that because I was saying something.”
Q: At what point did you realize that you wanted to take your rapping out of the lunchroom and seriously wanted to pursue it?
“I was listening to Nas and Lupe Fiasco so it was still new to me. When I heard that I was like ‘whoa, their rap is smart.’ I don’t want to say I was doing it ‘seriously’ because I was only 14, but when that man told me that, I said ‘forget everyone my age, all these kids being stupid and trying to be like everyone else.’ I started writing my own songs every day and taking it seriously.”
Q: What kept you motivated to keep rapping from age 14 to now?
“I remember when I used to see famous Philly rappers at Rite Aid. I’d be like ‘damn, they’re normal as hell.’ Once I realized that, I kept going.”
“I could have stayed in school and took that route, but rap is all I had and it was my only way out [the hood]. I knew I wasn’t going to go to the NBA. I wasn’t going to become a pro skateboarder because I broke my ankle and broke some bones and the best thing for me to do without breaking bones was music. My dad was always trying to rap, and I feel like I get a lot of my drive from him but he didn’t make it. I get a lot of my drive from where I come from. I’ve got so many people waiting for me to blow up. I feel like I can’t let them down so it’s what has kept me going. I just want to give a better life to my family and my little sisters.”
Q: Does that put a lot of pressure on you, knowing that people back home are waiting on your next move?
“It’s definitely a crazy feeling, but I don’t let it put pressure on me because I want the music to still be organic. I don’t ever want to go into the studio and be like: ‘this is for my family and we’re going to do this, I’m going to make this hit.’ I feel like it doesn’t happen that way, it’s not going to happen just because I say so. I just keep working at my own pace and keep trying to build.”
Q: In “How I Used to Live” you talk about growing up in the hood and the things you experienced. How does your history in Philly influence your songwriting?
“Philly made me who I am. Every artist has a different story but growing up there was like growing up in any other hood. But then when I got known and put out Keystone State of Mind I felt like no one knew because I was on a [different] label.”
“I just really wanted to tell my story, my real struggle, and where I really come from. I couldn’t do that before because of my label. I had to act a different way because it was some industry shit. Now that I have my own independent label I’m putting out, I get to have my my own legacy.”
Q: What message do you want to share with listeners that might be living in the hood or have had similar experiences to yours?
“I’m trying to tell every kid from the hood or anyone who grew up like me to follow their dreams, and never resort to a life of crime. You gotta grind, find something you really love and just do it. You can’t be scared to let other people know you love something. People on my block told me that I couldn’t even make it, they didn’t even believe that I could become a rapper. I just want to tell every kid that whether it’s rap, basketball, skateboarding, Photoshop, whatever you do, you just have to go hard.”
Q: Right. You came from Philly and now you’re living in L.A. making music, that’s just a testament of what you can do.
“Exactly. I remember when I was younger I used to make albums called like California Dreamin’ or I just wanted to come play shows in Cali. I always wanted to live out there and that’s just living proof that you can do it.”
Q: What was it about California, and Los Angeles in particular, that drew you in?
“I was at home in north Philly watching MTV and I saw this video come on and it was this black dude and a white dude on the beach. It was a Shwayze video called “Buzzin” and I’m like, ‘he’s just on the beach rapping, that’s mad cool.’ I became a fan of Shwayze, started listening to all his music and that’s when I started discovering California. I started looking up Malibu, Santa Monica, just everything he was talking about. I fell in love with it and knew that was a place I wanted to go to.”
“Shwayze was on tour. I hit him up, went to the show and he put me on the guest list. I was like 16/17 and next year he tried to sign me. He flew me up to Cali, picked me up at the airport, and got In-N-Out. I didn’t even know what In-N-Out was. We went to Beverly Hills, smoked Cali weed and I didn’t even know how to break it up. I didn’t sign with him because at the time I had a manager. I really did want to sign with Shwayze, because he was like my big brother, but I didn’t want it to be paperwork. After that I came back to Philly and I knew I wanted to go back to Cali and there was no looking back from there.”
Q: Was California the end goal?
“California wasn’t the end goal, it was just the start. I got [to California] and now I’ve got to make more stuff because Keystone State of Mind and all the music I made to get here is already old. Now it’s time to rebuild, renew, and become a better artist. When I was 17 it would take me so long to write a song or every song I wrote wasn’t fire. But now, I feel like every song I write is fire. Some of the songs I’ve been releasing I didn’t even write down. I put the mic on and got going on the beat.”
Q: Where do you see the future of Keystone Records?
“I really want it to be a Pennsylvania label. I could have country singers on my label, not just rappers but people who really represent the Keystone State. The goal for Keystone Records is to get my music out on it and have it known as my thing and have a few great artists under it that I like. I want to have an office in New York, L.A., be a real label with a big Keystone logo. I want to start putting out vinyl again, everybody will know it as this cool little Indie label. I feel like Keystone Records is something from the ‘70s. I was so surprised when there wasn’t anything called Keystone Records. It was just meant to be.”