Life or Death by Music



Editor: Tef Poe is an artist from St. Louis City. Through powerful imagery and complicated honesty, he has earned a reputation as one of the best rappers telling the story of St. Louis, which is about much more than one place. Poe has been featured in music publications such as XXL and Urb Magazine. His next project War Machine 2 was released this Tuesday, June 5th and will be followed up by a full-length with DJ Burn One entitled Cheer For The Villain. Follow him on twitter @tefpoe. Get War Machine 2 here.

Every week in I'm Just A Rapper Tef discusses modern life, hip-hop, and the deep connection between them. The boldface below is mine.

I have dedicated my life to music and the pursuit of happiness through all things that are righteous. Last year I made a ridiculous vow to myself that I would jump off a bridge if my career didn't make a turn for the better. I've always had a decent buzz and respect from my peers in the music scene. I just wanted to take it further and start seeing progress on a level that resonated with the industry.

Right now I am running a marathon in the streets of St. Louis with the War Machine 2 campaign. Originally I had no idea how we would promote this project. The War Machine 2 mixtape has been seen more places on the Internet than I can count. I gave myself 365 days to put my career on the course I believed would help me accomplish my goals and eventually spread my name throughout the region. I don't know how serious I was or if I was even legitimately sincere about the notion of jumping off the bridge.

I read a lot about hip-hop success stories. J-Kwon said something very similar about his intentions to jump off a bridge within a year if he didn't get a record deal. I always wondered what type of desperation it takes to achieve the impossible. It worked for Kwon, so I said to myself, "Maybe I need to put myself in this mode of thinking." I don't have the heart to kill myself so I doubt if I would have gone through with it, but I was hungry and needed something to move. I saw J-Kwon at Lola on 4th of July. This was actually our first time meeting. We shook hands and greeted each other as if it was a long overdue photo op. I wanted to ask him a few questions about his hunger prior to success, but it would've been weird. I'm already known for being crazy, and I just decided to shut up and act normal for the night. His story inspired me like so many other great hip-hop success stories.

I signed my management contract with Overdose Ent. in January. I can't go into the full story, but my situation with the company is more of a partnership than anything else. Typically an artist signs a contract and focuses solely on the music. My situation is slightly different because I'm as involved in the management process as the actual managers are. It's often stressful but even more rewarding than a normal artist and management relationship. I'm completely hands-on with anything attached to my name. The spirit of a hustler runs deep in my veins. There's so much I want to do in this lifetime and I feel like music is the portal to those things. I want Reggie Clemons to get a fair trial. I want to unify my city and give them something they can believe in again. I come from a small city and we've always had to fight harder than the next person for our shine. I come from St. Louis that's what we do. St. Louisans have changed the world, and by all means I intend to extend this legacy. It's bigger than a few rap lyrics for me, and I feel this in my bones.

In January I put my life in hands of two gentlemen that swore to me they would do everything possible to help me get my goals accomplished. Scariest thing I've ever done concerning my career. Prior to this I was completely self-managed with help from my trusty assistant Justin a.k.a. Macgyver. I call him Macgyver because he once fixed my bathroom sink at a house party. He also repaired my unstable ceiling fan at the same party. He signed up to help me out shortly after we released Money Never Sleeps. Tech Supreme also helped promote the Tef Poe brand as much as anyone.

We pushed the rock as far as we could push it for a year or so and found ourselves running out of options. I've worked all types of odd jobs. I've lived in places you wouldn't imagine. I've travelled across the country like Forrest Gump while attempting to find myself. I was educated at expensive private schools as a youth and often I was the only black kid in most of my classes. I don't know what the word normal means. I think normality is what you make it. I chose the life I chose because it made sense to me. I love music and this love has consumed me to the point of no return. In my young life I have seen it all, done it all. I don't know what the future holds but I was running out of tricks and this contract changed my life for the better. Myself and my longtime friend and producer Tech Supreme released the War Machine LP almost a year before this. I had a situation on the table that would give this project the opportunity to be released via 50 Cent's website It took us some time to complete the music, but eventually we got it done and everything was locked, loaded and ready to roll. I met Byron and Perry of the Urban Legendz production duo. I combined their sound with the music we were already making and made what was my best work at the time, in my opinion. These were dark times for me, even though the previous year was a great year for me. My single "Showstealers" had introduced me to new problems and challenges. We didn't have much money in the bank and we were living on a prayer for the most part. I had some relationship drama in the mix with a girl I was really digging at the time, and I just wasn't as focused as I should've been.

The song "Showstealers" was working but it wasn't working like I hoped. I discovered I actually didn't know as much as I thought I knew about the industry. The War Machine LP was supposed to drop and eliminate most of these problems in my life. The music was eventually released and everyone gravitated to a record called "Out The Kitchen". Somewhere in between all of this my crew started collapsing. The Force is still The Force but it feels more like the end of the Avengers movie. The super heros all took off their uniforms and flew back to their respective galaxies. We kind of exist now on the premise of "call me if you need me." Before it was more like, "I'm here every single day beating the crap out of Loki with you." Personalities started clashing, egos grew larger and here we are. It's more like a frat now instead of a rap crew. See you at the yearly alumni reunion, bring some T-shirts. So I kept pressing and decided to release some more music. Typically I wouldn't say something like this publicly, but I wouldn't be Tef Poe if I didn't keep it 300. There's no negativity in my heart towards anyone in the crew it's just different, either way I still ride for my dogs. Amidst all this happening I decided to keep working.

It took "Showstealers" some time to warm up but "Out The Kitchen" was instantly a smash. The legendary Chi-Town lyricist and Kanye West associate GLC did the remix for free. My friend Nato Caliph played a large role in setting this up and to him I am forever grateful. GLC is a good dude and is actually the most non-industry industry associate I have. I had a record named "Crazy" featuring Theresa Payne and Rockwell Knuckles it was also an instant smash. We released this as a warm up single but St. Louis radio didn't react to it the way we hoped. Ironically enough this record would later become one of the key reasons I impressed the assistant editor of the XXL. The "Out The Kitchen" record is hands down the most popular song I've ever released. I just left Kansas City last week and the audience insisted I perform it. I didn't even realize they knew this song in Kansas City. I remember standing at the Forest Park Metrolink in the winter listening to this song on my cheap .mp3 player thinking to myself, "Damn we have a huge record on our hands".

I said a prayer hoping this would help me get the wheels turning in the right direction. When we made the song I actually played it 34 billion times back to back. I told Tech we had something special with this one. Sometimes you just know when it's special and you don't need outside confirmation to confirm it. So basically we made "Out The Kitchen" and finally decided to turn the album into our guy at to be released. We had a coordinated released date, which we started promoting to the public. Long story short, I'm walking out the door headed to work at a temporary factory job, I get arrested by some racist cops that accused me of fitting the description. I get arrested the same day we're supposed to pull the trigger on the album. They let me go the next day after nothing turned up with my name attached to it.

To add insult to injury, the same guy rallying for my music at the website gets a job offer elsewhere and leaves. I spend the night in jail uncertain of what's exactly going on in the outside world. I just knew today was my scheduled release date and I'm sitting in a fricking cell trying to work it out. I didn't know our projected plan was pretty much sabotaged until I was released. My boss was actually the most understanding person I've ever met, He bailed me out once he discovered I had a bench warrant that would've kept me in jail even longer. At this point I was at the end of my rope and didn't know what else to do since people were actually waiting on the music. We had a decent amount of anticipation built up so I told Tech to go ahead and pull the trigger. I think we released War Machine two days before Christmas. The method of selection was far from pretty but we got it done. I was slightly depressed but happy the music was released and striving. You see I know struggle I'm familiar with it because I was born in it. I don't tuck my tail and hide when it arrives. I deal with it however I must and move on. We pushed War Machine for a year and I found myself in a weird position. I refused to release another project if we couldn't increase the push behind it. I went into a different kind of zone creatively and became more critical of my own music. We made about three different versions of War Machine 2 before it was finally released last June. I knew in the depths of my soul something bigger was on the horizons.

I sit here now with the same feeling. The next project has to be bigger and better. I have a more organized situation with a more established team. This project is arguably my best work and has spread to places of the world I've never seen with my own eyes. I worked an odd job prior to signing with the management and marketing firm. I used the paychecks from this job to pay for my Killer Mike feature. A few of my friends chipped in because they believed in me. Tech Supreme paid for the studio time at Phat Buddha. Once he discovered we were interested in a feature, my friend Trackstar the DJ vouched for me to Killer Mike's camp and helped solidify the deal. There are no smoke and mirrors involved here. I went to work everyday at a job I hated and told myself, "You're going to get out of here, you can do it." Every time I grew frustrated from the lack of personal advancement they offered me I would simply put a smile on my face and repeat those words. For about six months I felt trapped and abandoned.

I've worked horrible jobs before but for some reason I didn't believe in myself like I currently do. I was okay with settling and dealing with the cards I was dealt. I had faith in myself but it wasn't confirmed nor tested. I typically didn't get off work until 2 a. m. every day. I would clock in at the most random times of the day and work like a slave. My shifts were long and very unrewarding. It became harder for me to get in the studio but I needed the money. Prior to this job I worked canvassing gigs for different political campaigns. Political jobs only last for so long because the season isn't ever lasting. So in between the political organizing gigs I'd often find myself jobless or working somewhere I hated while sacrificing my dignity and safety.

For a brief spell in life I was homeless and hiding it. I am no stranger to moments of despair but this time something inside of me felt different. I started to remember the 365 days I gave myself and I started to ponder if I was serious or not. Here's the key that may help someone out there in a similar position. I never stopped believing in myself. I never doubt my place in the universe as a musician. I know for a fact that I am indeed doing what the creator meant for me to do. I treat anything outside of this mission as a secondary distraction. I've made mistakes along the way but somehow I've persevered through to the other side of the tunnel. Music has always offered me the chance to escape. We slept on floors as a child, bedrooms with bed frames and no mattresses. Sometimes we didn't have gas, or electricity but the music kept me sane. I didn't have many friends growing up besides my siblings. Music became a better friend to me than I would like to admit. I spent a lot of time with music and got to know it. I discovered Hip-hop and found an identity for myself. I grew older and went through hardship after hardship and I never neglected the music. We've had moments in life that didn't allow me to fully indulge in the creation process but I've never completely aborted the music. This isn't a rags to riches blog, I work my @ss off everyday and I feel the struggle trying to tie me down. I'm determined to change my life and that's what this blog is about.

So here we currently are in the heat of the War Machine 2 era for Tef Poe. I am surrounded by people who believe in me. My name is everywhere in my city. I feel the progress in my veins. I've done songs with people I idolize such as Royce da 5'9 and Killer Mike. I skip lines at the club. On a good day they give me whatever I want for free at the gas station [laughs]. I'm totally consumed by work and I wouldn't have it any other way. I am not J. Cole or Kendrick Lamar but the hard work is starting to pay off. In the midst of all these things I discovered something I never knew. The struggle never left me even though my life has improved. I'm trying to teach myself to relax and enjoy some of the small moral victories. I was booked to perform at Hard Rock Cafe in Memphis Tennessee today. I should be doing back flips on some level I suppose. My next album will be produced by DJ Burn One, I had none of this going on a year ago.

In the midst of these things happening bigger problems come to the light. The pressure to deliver becomes omnipresent. I was blessed with the opportunity to write this column every week. Right now we're doing great but the pressure to hit it out the park every week starts weighing in weekly. A few of my friendships are damaged because the workload has increased for me. Relationships with the people that are closest to me go through bruises. I miss family functions on the regular. In fact my mother hasn't seen me in months. At this point in my life I'm probably addicted to Advil. My phone vibrates all night long due to random text messages about business. There was once a time I stayed up late due to leisure and boredom. Now if I'm up late work is being completed on some front. I partially manage myself because my career isn't on auto-pilot at the moment. I'm deal with multiple personalities from people on my team 24 hours a day. I haven't written a rap song in months and I used to write a few songs a day. The team has gained and lost staff members all in the blink of an eye. I am constantly stressed out and ready to snap on someone at the drop of dime. I help stage manage my concerts. I book myself and organize the events surrounding my name. I'm deal with opinions from jealous rappers that will die here suddenly turning into the world's greatest music critics. I'm in a good position but nothing is guaranteed and I'm hardly ever content or happy. I've had convos behind the scenes that could potentially change my life. All I can do at this current moment is keep pushing. I strive on out working the competition because talent isn't more powerful than hard work. Progress prevents a artist from experiencing burn out. I'm usually in good spirits as long things are moving forward.

Here's the problem with progress: you can't control how fast it moves. You can't summon it when you want it. It doesn't bend or kneel to you. Progress often arrives when life demands it to. I don't have another year to wait and ponder on the future. As a solo artist I've never won a Riverfront Times Award. Right now I'm writing a weekly column for the RFT Music blog so I guess the universe is a comedian. Here's the truth about my life: I am frustrated 90% of the time. The wheels are moving but they don't always move in the manner I want them to. I'm not into rap music for the showboating aspect of it. In fact, that's the aspect of rap that I hate the most. I spend the majority of my day trying to find a way to get you to remember me. This is my job as an unsigned indie rapper. I don't have a gimmick and I'm not the flashiest guy around. I've always believed in myself, now the hard part is convincing you to match my level of belief.

I am an indie artist in an awkward position. I am not complaining because I am grateful. There are three million rappers in St. Louis City and all of us are fighting to get out. I often remove myself from the rat race by focusing on the bigger picture. I'd rather compete with the guy in Los Angeles or New York. I walk down the street to the corner store or go to the barber-shop, seeing the same faces on a daily basis and I feel like I'm in prison. I go home, sit on my couch, open up the MacBook and start conjuring up a plan to expand my goals. Sometimes something wonderful happens and other times nothing at all happens. I work at this every day, all day so I couldn't imagine how screwed in the game a rapper that is half timing it is.

I've learned it doesn't get easier. It all gets more chaotic than you might imagine. I feel weak because truthfully the little bit of stress I am feeling is nothing compared to the stress levels of those in higher positions than myself. I'm about to start drinking more if I don't find a remedy soon. I feel like the next step is probably making some money and hoping it eases the tension. This isn't the rap blog telling you about how awesome the life is. This is the rap blog telling you if I don't get this money I'm jumping in the Mississippi River. All of my closest friends are frustrated and in a daze. All of our families feel like we've lost a bit of ourselves. I love music but I hate the theatrics. I feel like the day I take off is the day you'll figure something out and eliminate me, so I won't stop. You reach a certain point in your career and you start changing. You don't care about the subliminals and the sub-tweets from other rappers.

You don't care about whether or not your music fits in with what every other local rapper is doing. You begin to look at the world as nothing but opposition. Yes, there are beacons of light in the midst of the opposition but overall you start seeing everything as a potential roadblock. So you shift things inside your spirit and gear up to fight every challenge before it gains momentum and derails you. You realize if you don't do it no one else will do it for you.

The problem is, all these things create different levels of frustration within you. How do you cope with knowing no one else wants this life as much as you do, but they all stand in the way as you reach for it? This is how you view the world after a certain point. It's harder for you to become a fan of new music because you've trained yourself to view any new music besides yours as the enemy. The pursuit of happiness has completely changed your life and there's virtually nothing you can do about it. Welcome to my life, a non-stop saga of personal up's and down's. The forever revolving doors of wins, losses, highs, and lows. I try to inspire as many people as possible. I love inspiration because it makes you feel human. I love struggle also because there's something spiritual about it.

My life right now is a mixture of both. I'm a fighter though, and that's just the way it is. I'm not ready to roll over and die so my only option is to endure and make something happen. I'm the underdog in most situations because typically I don't know any other way to live. There's a spirit of desperation inside most underdogs and this is the reason we succeed. So here we are, let me give myself another 365 days to get it in gear. Hopefully I'm still here next year at this time. Well not here exactly but somewhere on this planet having the time of my life enjoying the spoils of success and happiness. I'm sure by then we'll have a different set of problems and turmoils to discuss. I don't sleep for a reason. The goal is to spread this music around the world. This is what it feels like to be closer than you've ever been but not quite there. I'm learning about myself and the way I cope with the uncertainty struggle tends to produce. I tried everything else but prayer seems to work for me so I believe in it. God has bigger problems than my rap career though, so I'll have to continue doing my part.

I'm an American: we urinate and take dumps in fresh clean water. There's a water crisis taking place throughout the world but we don't give a damn. Our version of poor and is considered middle class in the third world. I have the nerve to ask God to help me out with some petty rap songs. Unfortunately, it's just one of those things, I feel like I'm special enough to send this type of request up. It's all about destiny and determination coming together to formulate the big picture. It's deeper than rap music for me personally. I'm in different zone these days. I'm ready to win and I think that's why people relate to me. We're all ready to win deep down inside.

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