Last month, Terrel Wallace, aka Tall Black Guy, came to Manchester to play a set at Better Days. He played an eclectic set that showcased the breadth of his output, spanning work as part of hip hop duo 80’s Babies, producer of soulful beats, and one of the most called upon remixers working right now.
Originally from Detroit, with spells in Chicago and LA, he now lives in the UK with his wife and manager, Chakka B. We were delighted and honoured when Better Days invited us to co-host a Q&A alongside Jamie Groovement the day after the gig. We sat down over lunch with Terrel, Chakka, and the twelve other guests who were quick enough off the blocks to secure one of the coveted spaces at the table.
Tall Back Guy is living proof that hard work and staying humble is what gets results, this is not a man who will ever rest on his musical laurels. I wondered at what point he realised that he might be good enough to forge a career in music and the answer came in a heartbeat. “I still don’t think I’m good enough”. In response to the murmur of dissent round the table he clarified: “I don’t think I will ever be at the point where I’m at my apex because there’s always someone out there who can do it better than you, and then I want to learn how to do it. I don’t think I’ll ever feel like I’m at my peak.” This is a man for whom music is as vital as oxygen, and his enthusiasm for seeking out new sounds, skills and beats hasn’t diminished. “I’m constantly listening to music, just searching out dope sounds”. Asked to name check some current producers he rates, he reeled off a bunch of names that had the assembled heads hurrying to make a list. (For your own lists, this included 14KT, Kenny Keys, Stro Elliot and Daniel Crawford).
In 2015, TBG was invited to attend the illustrious Playlist Retreat – a gathering of producers an artists at Jazzy Jeff’s house. The Magnificent posted a video to his Instagram feed showing a room full of luminaries including Questlove and Lord Finesse, all snapping their necks to a TBG beat.
“It was an amazing experience. You’re just in there thinking, man, this is crazy I’m in Jazzy Jeff’s house! Then you got Questlove there, and I remember, when, Things Fall Apart came out, I used to go to sleep to that album faithfully when I was in high school, I loved it so much.” He soaked up inspiration from everyone there “It doesn’t matter the age, or how far they are in their career, you can learn something from everybody; everybody has a different skill set.”
Jamie G described the current musical environment as “an age of digital over pollution”, and a large chunk of the discussion centred on how best young artists should seek to navigate a path through the vast landscape of the internet which sometimes seems like equal parts blessing and curse for the independent music industry. Both TBG and Chakka were clear that the first priority should be to concentrate on quality. She cautioned aspiring artists; “…don’t start packaging or branding until you have it down first because otherwise you’ll just get lost in the huge amount of rubbish that’s out there already. You want to stand out and want people to gravitate towards it then at least give it legs to stand on because, how many bedroom producers and MC’s put out x amount of soundcloud things, it’s like a LOT to go through.” Terrel agreed on the importance of putting the work in:
“Get the music to the point where you’re confident that you can sell it. That’s years and years of practice to get your sound up. First of all you got to know your equipment, and then practice to get the sound; don’t even worry about the money at first. You know, if you got a day job you still come home and practice. I mean, when I started out I would come home from work and stay up until the next day, or before that I’d spend the whole day, 18 hours, in front of a computer screen, just beat after beat after beat. Then, when you get the confidence to kind of play it out, one thing that was real good for me was going out to do a beat battle. It’s a way to see if your music can stand up. What I took away from that whole experience was even if you lose, somebody out there’s going to like it, because everybody’s taste is different, don’t be discouraged if you do lose and if you win, don’t stop practising. It’s an ongoing thing, I am always learning and practising. All day.”
Funeral Biz/Welcome to Detroit (feat. Malice and Mario Sweet)
TBG’s music reflects the times he is living in, as well as a sense of place, and his own state of mind:
“Obviously you’re inspired by your surroundings, when we were in LA I definitely caught the west coast vibe, but it’s kind of a reflection of where I’m at in my headspace and the environment as well, so 8 Miles to Moenart is kind of depressing because it was a depressing time in my life, all sorts of craziness, the whole city where I grew up was going downhill so listen to it and it sounds kind of melancholy, because it was sad.”
Here at Rhyme and Reason we put an enormous value on lyricism (the clue’s in our name). The band he formed with rapper Dee Jackson, 80’s Babies, had something of a reputation for being one of the very few hip hop acts whose lyrics never included cursing.
80’s Babies: I digress
We touched on the importance of the Black Lives Matter movement, which seems to have been underscored by hip hop to an extent, and which, in turn, has driven something of a shift in mainstream hip hop towards a more politicised awareness. (Check the Wu-Tang clan’s 2014 anthem A Better Tomorrow for example). TBG agreed that he feels a responsibility to utilise his platform “because people are looking at you as a role model. Not everybody feels that way but I do”. You can hear this sensibility on the 2015 80’s Babies release, Searching for Happy.
80’s Babies: 3 Fifths
I asked whether or not the lyrical content of a track was a consideration when deciding whether or not to accept a remix job:
“Very much so. I kind of had an epiphany about it in 2009 ‘cos I wouldn’t want to be one of those people who contributed to someone doing something bad to themselves because they listened to my music. Music is that powerful, it can drive you crazy insane, or it can drive you in a positive way. So I made that decision from that point on that music that I was a part of would not curse. I mean obviously I had put stuff out in the past but going forward, I don’t work with any artist that has any profanity. I gotta monitor it to see; “what are you’re saying, does it make sense”, ‘cos I’m looking down the road. When you think of Tall Black Guy, you associate Tall Black Guy with positivity; everyone can listen, kids, grandmas, women, whatever. I just want to make good soul music.”
And that is a goal that he definitely achieves.
Tall Black Guy v Al Green: Al Green’s dream
If you haven’t already, head on over to bandcamp and download the whole back catalogue. You won’t regret it.
Words by Vicky T
Big Love to Better Days and Jamie Groovement