(cover photo by Zachary David)
Tray Little has carved a lane for himself in an industry that doesn’t always properly value individuality, largely through his focus on staying true to himself and his commitment to showing love for his fans. We sat down with Tray to talk about his life, his music, and everything you need to know to appreciate his work on a deeper level. Look out for consistent drops coming soon as he plans to release new music every month, and catch him live on April 5th for The Spring Kickoff with Tray Little and Friends! Visit his website www.TrayLittle.com for more information, and check out our conversation below:
B: First, could you just say your name and what you do?
T: My name is Tray Little and I’m a rapper, entrepreneur, and vlogger.
B: Do you remember the first album that you ever purchased?
T: That’s kind of hard to remember… I feel like it might’ve been a 50 Cent album.
B: Take us on the journey from when you first started making music, up until your first EP.
T: So at first, I was living on Dexter, which was in the Linwood area of Detroit. I was probably around 13 or 14, I would try to save up some money or ask my grandad for a little bit here and there. There was this studio up the block, this guy had some OSB wood for the booth, and then he had like some stockings or pantyhose over the microphone. It was a super ghetto set up, but for only $10 that was fine, that kept me working and kept me making music.
After a while, I went over to this place called Press Play inside of the mall, and that was where I got my first really crispy recording, it sounded really good. After that I started to try to work on some things myself, and when I moved down river, I met this producer Justin Pugh who lived in that area as well. He invited me over to his studio, and for the next 3 years we were just constantly making music, knocking out tracks all the time. Pretty much every day I’d go over there, and we’d post up in the basement and just create.
Eventually we decided it was time to save up for something, so I saved up a couple thousand dollars and went to a studio in Detroit called Assemble Sound. I worked with an engineer named Seth Anderson, and he helped me put a whole project together which ended up being a 6 song EP. That really helped me move forward as an artist, having accomplished that and having something to show for it, which turned out to be my first EP From the Ashes.
B: So from that first project, what has your musical progression been like up to the current moment?
T: Starting off, I was experimenting with my sound. I was thinking about what I wanted to do, what I wanted to talk about, and the story that I wanted to tell in my music about my life. Ever since that point I’ve become a lot more comfortable as an artist, because before I was doing what i thought other people wanted to hear. I felt like I had to hold so much back, but when I was finally ready to face those things and put them out in the world, that’s when it really felt significant. Fast forward 3 years later, and I really feel like I’ve been able to express my true emotions, sharing my deepest thoughts and feelings with the world, and I feel like my audience appreciates that. They can see that I put my heart and soul into my music, and they feel more connected with me as I’ve become more vulnerable and transparent since that last project.
B: Could you talk a little more about that, the balance between making music that you want to make vs. making music that you think people want to hear?
T: It was funny because out of that, I ended with this group, it was sort of like a pop band. And we were paying for all of these camps and youth groups and things like that, even some festivals, and it was all this type of spiritual music, not too overtly spiritual, but I saw that it was a lane that a lot of these bigger names had latched on to. We were also really making an impact on these listeners; like the homeschooled kid who doesn’t listen to a lot of music, mostly just what their parents give them, but we were a break from that. So when I eventually left the band, I was just this rapper from Detroit, and I definitely wasn’t anything to do with pop, so I had to think about what I could do myself as a solo artist.
So I made a song called, “Live it Up.” I was kind of going off of this formula that we used to use with the band, we had a certain approach for trying to get on the radio, getting gigs for these youth groups, etc. The song is super catchy, it’s very energetic, and honestly there isn’t much depth to it at all. To this day, that’s still my most requested song whenever I travel, even though it’s several years old. I can go out to Colorado for example, and the kids will be out there singing along, saying all the lyrics. I know that it’s kind of a cheesy song, but I wrote it that way on purpose thinking that it might work, and the scary thing is, it actually did.
The hard part about it is, now when I try to make music with a little more depth to it, things about my life and growing up in Detroit and the struggles I’ve been through to get where I am, sometimes people will tell me that they’d prefer more of the pop vibe, more of the “Live it Up” type of music. I’ve learned that I don’t want a song to represent me; I’m always writing new material, so even if that song is getting me the most traction, I would prefer to get that traction from something that’s more authentic to me. The formula is helpful for a reason, but it’s not sustainable to keep doing that forever.
B: If you were to describe yourself as an artist in a few sentences, what would you say?
T: I’m the kind of artist that has broken into a certain lane, into a place where I’m around a lot of successful artists and a lot of people that have made it traditionally. But where I come from, I’m the independent artist that makes music in a coffee shop, and seeing it get like 100,000 streams, or you know, going from that coffee shop to stage in front of thousands of people.
My overall message is where I come from, with the life I was afforded, that all doesn’t make sense with what I’m doing right now. I want to show people that despite the lack of resources, despite the situations that we find ourselves in, we can elevate beyond that if we work hard enough, and stay focused and patient with ourselves and our lives. I just want people to know that it’s possible. I want to share this voice, a voice that represents the unheard, the people that don’t feel like they’ve had the opportunity to do what they love. My mission and my journey is to show people the power that they have, through my music and through my story.
B: Could you talk more about some of the prevalent themes that come up in your music?
T: Anything from growing up in the streets, growing up in a single parent home, and then into how I made it out of that, and also how I’ve tried to cope with how hard it was to get where I am, all the people that I’ve lost, all of that. Anything that is relevant to my own story can show up in my music, whether that’s race, class, environment, etc. My music is from my own experience and the hurt and the pain that I’ve lived through, and I hope that younger people that can see themselves in some of the situations that I describe can feel a connection and be hopeful about how things can change for them. And not only the situations themselves, but also the impacts of those situations on my own mental and emotional health, which will hopefully open the door for people that have felt these same feelings even if they haven’t necessarily lived the type of life that I’ve lived.
B: How do the spiritual aspects of your music relate to your overall identity as a person and as an artist?
T: When I was younger, before I found my spiritual calling, I was the kid on the street carrying guns, selling drugs, hanging in the trap houses, and that was everything that I knew. So when I actually found that spiritual guidance as I begin to understand my purpose for why I was here, I tapped into that energy really strong. But then, as I went further in that direction, I couldn’t help but feel like I was running away from my past, rather than dealing with it and internalizing it within my new self. I felt like I had to get away from it, because really I barely made it out, and I was scared to get caught up in that life again. But then I got to a point where I decided I didn’t want to distance myself from my past, because my past is a big part of why my music is relatable to the people who need it the most.
I had started making music just for anybody that would listen to it, but as I was travelling and playing these shows and meeting these artists, I realized that I had something that some of them didn’t have. They had a past that made sense with where they currently are, they grew up in spiritual homes and grew up in this community, whereas I was in the trenches and really shouldn’t even be alive. It was at that point when I started to embrace where I came from, and I felt proud to bring these issues to the table and to tell my story in an authentic way while still giving people the hope and energy that they were looking for from my music. The narrative doesn’t have to end in the depths, I want to bring the audience through the whole journey, from the struggles to the triumphs and back again.
B: How do you try to curate your presence to appeal to these different types of audiences, while still staying true to your own artistic identity?
T: It’s been crazy because, one big thing for me, and something that I let all artists know: When I first started on my spiritual journey, I thought ok, I’ll try to go to a church, try going to these different places, try to figure these things out. I didn’t know what any of that was like, and I quickly realized that there were certain ways that you had to be, certain practices that you had to adopt, or you would be seen as kind of this black sheep of sorts. So when I started going on tour, all they really wanted from me was this positivity. And what I learned is that it was this older generation that was really driving that, telling me I had to keep the positive spin over everything, but the younger generation wanted the authenticity. It’s like the homeschooled kid example; they don’t just want what they’re parents want to give them, sanitized and free of any sort of nuance, they want the energy and positivity that’s also rooted in reality and complex emotions. They want things that they can relate to. So I started to accept that the generations before me, at least for the most part with some notable exceptions, they would prefer for me to talk about something that wouldn’t make them feel uneasy, something that wouldn’t make them feel nervous about how kids would understand it. But the kids, they really want the the real me.
That’s why most of my audience is anywhere from highschool to later middle school, I feel like they understand my message and I’ve been able to gain their trust. I accept that there will always be a little bit of push back from that older generation, but overall I think they believe in me because I’ve been able to go through the process of finding my voice within the bounds of what they want from me, pushing the limits when I need to and also giving them the overall message that they want for their children. It’s a constant process, and I always need to be aware of it, but I feel comfortable with what I’ve been able to do, and I know that when I am my most vulnerable is when I’m able to connect most deeply with my audience. I’ll have fans inboxing me, sending me dm’s, just showing appreciation for the stories that I’ve shared with them. I’m just trying to show them who I really am, and give them some inspiration and hope in the process. I think people are aware of the good things that have happened in my life, they see me on stage and they see me making something of myself, but they don’t always see the darker side of it, the things that happen behind the scenes.
B: What do you hope fans will get out of your music? What impact do you hope to have on people?
T: I want people to hear the music, I want them to see the music, I want them to feel it. I want them to feel like they know me, I want to feel close to them through my music. I want there to be moments where it hits them, whether that’s turning up to a trap song or riding along to something smooth in the car, I want them to be like wow, this isn’t just another song. I want the music to have an impact on people, I want it to be a spark of inspiration for them, and I want my story to motivate people to make a better life for themselves. I want to make people laugh, I want to make people cry, I want to make people turn up, I want to make people think, I just want people to have an experience when they listen to my music, you know?
B: Is there anything else you’d like to say in closing?
T: Whenever people decide to follow me or follow my journey, I want them to be a part of the process. I try to stay very close to my supporters, and I try to find ways to invite them in, whether that’s through vlogs or sharing stories or whatever. I want people to know that I’m not just another artist, that I want to be someone that makes them feel appreciated and understood. It’s not just about having people that listen to the music, it’s about what I can give to them and what we can give each other.