Music » Music Feature

How Ty Money made one of the best rap records of the past year

By holing up in his home studio, this Harvey hip-hop hero found a distinctive voice that speaks to injustice with rare insight.


  • Ryan Lowry

On November 25, less than 24 hours after the Chicago Police Department belatedly released a dashcam recording of officer Jason Van Dyke shooting and killing Laquan McDonald, local rapper Ty Money dropped "United Center," whose video consists exclusively of edited footage from that recording. The song's instrumental track accompanies its solemn piano melody with sizzling guitars and muffled, ominous bass that booms like an underground explosives test, and in his lyrics Money mulls over the systemic injustices that afflict Chicago's black community and make the city's racial divide feel like the Grand Canyon. Animating his rapid-fire rhymes with a story­teller's eye for detail, he describes a world of crooked cops, murder victims under white sheets, and mothers with no stoves struggling to feed their children.

"Women losing kids, doing interviews on the news, whole crowd on the side," he raps. "Older folks stay inside till we lose a child, then the whole town come alive." The song packs a lot of anger and grief into its brief running time, and just past the video's two-minute mark—as Money's final words echo and fade—McDonald spins and falls to the pavement, pierced by the first of 16 shots. Seconds later, the words "Rest in peace Laquan McDonald" appear on the screen.

When it came out, "United Center" felt like such a clear reflection of the heightened emotions in the air as thousands protested in Chicago's streets that I assumed Money had written the song in a rush after seeing the McDonald footage. But in fact he'd recorded it five months earlier, drawing on a lifetime of watching kids like him die. "United Center" is vivid enough in its grasp of segregation, poverty, and racist policing practices that it works just as well as commentary on a specific, well-known tragedy. "It's like, same shit, different season—and that tripped me up," Money says. "I almost cried. I had a tear running down my eye when I first synched the video."

The power of "United Center" wouldn't have surprised anyone who'd heard Money's third mixtape, Cinco de Money, which came out May 5. (He'd released mostly freestyles in the interim.) Throughout Cinco de Money his fiery street-life stories (though less overtly political than "United Center") dig deep and hit home over and over. Andrew Barber of Chicago hip-hop site Fake Shore Drive was hooked in minutes. "After the first song, I was completely blown away," he says. "This kid is one of the most talented—if not the most talented—lyricists in the city right now. He's a high-caliber MC; he can paint really vivid pictures with his words. He brings these street scenarios to life and describes them in a way other people don't."

In just a couple lines, Money can evoke, say, the anxiety of seeing your fortunes evaporate: on "Viet Cong" he raps, "Runnin' out of money / I ain't ever seen it, like a unicorn." Raybon unloads truckloads of syllables in a fast, fluid flow that zigzags between beats. Like BB-8 in The Force Awakens, he can switch pace and direction dramatically while barely seeming to swerve at all. On "Come Again" he even holds his own next to Twista, longtime king of supersonic stanzas.

Money's savvy and style help listeners empathize with the characters in his tales of dread and misery—he seems to care about his people, despite their problems, and he can shine new light on old subjects. In "Rickey Killa" he raps from the perspective of the shooter in 1991's Boyz n the Hood who murders the golden-boy student athlete played by Morris Chestnut, granting the nameless character dimension by exploring how his horrific act of violence seeps into his life: "Try 'n take my mind off the nigga Rickey / Hit my homie, told him let's do lunch or something / Coolin' at the spot / Eyes on the watch / Eatin' in the lot / Fries in the pot." Raybon's rapid rapping underlines the killer's paranoia and guilt, and his juxtaposition of the movie's dramatically violent plot with this sort of mundane daily detail makes it easier to imagine the shooter's life and grant him his humanity.

The unprecedented attention that Cinco de Money brought Money's way—it landed on Rolling Stone's "40 Best Rap Albums of 2015" list, for instance—motivated him to change his plans for the mixtape's sequel. "Part two was done when part one was done, but now that Cinco de Money has been getting so many write-ups and so much attention, I had to go back," he says. "Two gotta be better than one. Or you're moving backwards." Before he goes public with an entirely redone Cinco de Money 2, Money will drop a new EP—he hasn't pinned down the title or release date, but he says it's imminent.

Born Tiwan Raybon, Money hails from the south suburb of Harvey, where he's lived for most of his 28 years, but he's un­deniably part of Chicago's hip-hop community. "I'm originally from the Hundreds; that's where I stayed," he says. "We didn't do shit out there, so we don't claim the Hundreds. Got love for the Hundreds, my peeps still stay out there, but we from out Sibley [Boulevard]." His father turned him onto music, playing Slick Rick and Eric B. & Rakim records at home. "I remember wearing three-piece suits at two years old, a microphone in my hand, ponytail, and just singing everything my daddy put on," Money says.

His father's house was a magnet for parties. "Like, if there was gonna be a party, a New Year's party or birthday party, it was at my crib." Extended family and friends packed the place late into the night, and Money was the only kid in the room. "I was always at these parties, bro, and always doing shit I wasn't supposed to be doing," he says. "I seen a lot."

In the early 2000s, Money would go to teenage parties at the Markham Roller Rink, taking in sets of ghetto ­house, juke, and footwork by producers such as DJ Thadz, DJ Slugo, and DJ Spinn. "If you wasn't at Markham Roller Rink on Saturday you wasn't shit," he says. Every weekend he'd head to the rink, then take the party to his mom's house nearby—usually accompanied by one of his cousins, Isaiah Driver, who raps as I.D.

Money and Driver would form a duo called FireSquad in 2005, but they cut their teeth battle rapping, sometimes together and sometimes separately. "That's back when battle rapping was heavy," Driver says. "We never lost a battle. We would kill guys on Chicago and Madison on the west side. Or my father had a restaurant on 81st and Cottage Grove—we used to battle a couple guys in the lobby of the restaurant." Driver says his father, Ralph, has owned a couple restaurants over the years; the joint on Cottage Grove in Chatham was called King's Soul Food Cafe.

Money and Driver didn't just rap at the restaurant—they worked there too. They'd open and close the place, fry chicken, bake cakes—anything that needed doing. "We used to freestyle while we was making orders," Driver says. "We listened to beats all day long. Customers would come in, hear the same record instrumentals playing over and over, 'cause we was down there vibing. We knew that the music will take us [away] from washing dishes."

Driver's older brother, Ralph Metcalfe, who raps as Marvo, was close with Driver and Money. He also had more experience with music (he's 31 now), and both younger rappers agree that his mentorship helped them enormously. "I had my record deal when I was about 15—I was with an independent signed through Universal Records," Metcalfe says. "I actually taught them how to rap—I was really their main influence, honestly."

In the early aughts, Metcalfe's star was on the rise. In 2003 he appeared on the debut album from poet-turned-rapper Malik Yusef, The Great Chicago Fire: A Cold Day in Hell, which also features Common, Kanye West, and Twista. He was also building a hip-hop infrastructure in Harvey and its surrounding suburbs, an area he calls "Harvey World."

"Whenever we put out something, our city embraced it—whenever we threw a show, people would come out," Metcalfe says. "Harvey World was very receptive to our movement because we were representing Harvey. Once you got a whole city of people, then you can take over the whole south suburbs. That kind of gave us the ammunition to get us the support from Chicago."

Metcalfe took Driver and Money into a professional studio for the first time, where they picked up skills through osmosis. "I probably engineered a few sessions for Marvo," Money says. "They used to lock me in the studio—like, lock the door from the outside. I'd be in that bitch for hours—come out with like three songs." And Metcalfe had other reasons to keep Money close. "Ty was in the streets, and so I was always trying to keep him with me, keep him in the studio," Metcalfe says. "Trouble tends to find him wherever he goes."

Driver and Money earned spots on Marvo's 2004 mixtape, Respect & Live Vol. 1. "The response that we got off of the verses that we did on that project really gave us the gas to [be] like, 'OK, we can do this shit on our own,'" Driver says. As FireSquad, they released a couple mixtapes—2006's Quit Talking Get Money Vol. 1 and 2011's Rosé, Cush & Macbooks—before Money ran into what he refers to as "some bullshit." "I caught my first felony case," he explains. "I was dumb. I didn't know the law like that—I really wasn't even supposed to go to prison." When I ask him why he got locked up, the otherwise talkative Money balks: "I'd rather not say." A search of reveals that he served time for one count of residential burglary.

Before heading to prison in January 2012, Money recorded what would become his first solo mixtape, Free Money. "I knew I had to turn myself in, so we rushed that bitch," he says. "It took probably like a week or two." He also managed to work on Free Money behind bars, writing to Driver about potential guest rappers and phoning in a freestyle that became the mixtape's opening cut, "Jail." Free Money had already dropped when Money was released in December 2012; Driver picked him up, and they listened to it on the drive home. It was the first time Money had heard the finished product. "Shit was cold, bro," he says. "I couldn't believe it. I was happy."

  • Ryan Lowry

Free Money stirred up interest in Money as a solo artist. "When I got out, I met a lot of people who was willin' to get behind and make this Ty Money thing work," he says. Through Metcalfe he linked up with local indie label Gold Coast Music Group, and in March 2013 the label booked Money on a show with Atlanta mixtape guru DJ Drama at Markham nightclub Adrianna's. Metcalfe says that Clay Evans, vice president of T.I.'s Grand Hustle label, was in the house for Money's set. "Clay saw him perform and they was like, 'Yo, this kid is crazy,'" Metcalfe says. "Clay let T.I. hear the music, and T.I. became interested."

Money didn't end up signing a deal with Grand Hustle, but the growing outside interest in his career influenced his second mixtape, 2014's stylistically broad The Turn Up G.H.O.D. The influence wasn't all good, though: "I had a lot of people in my ear," he says. "It's like, 'Man, we need this type of song, we need that type of song.' So I ran with it. And you can kind of hear it. It sounds a little more corporate. I had a lot of features on there because [the process] was a little more political." In contrast with Free Money, which he'd rushed through, The Turn Up G.H.O.D took about six months to record. It features contributions from the likes of King Louie and Chief Keef, but Money wasn't happy with how much control he'd given up—and the release didn't attract the accolades he thought it deserved.

The lengthy, tangled process of recording The Turn Up G.H.O.D motivated Money to record his next big project on his own, without a studio and with a minimum of collaborators. Last January he holed up in his home studio for two weeks to record about 20 tracks, enlisting only two guest rappers. "I just had to find myself," he says. "I had to get away from everybody, get away from the corporate people for a minute, get away from other peoples' studios for a minute, and just go into my cocoon." Money emerged with Cinco de Money and a voice that's uniquely his: he'd fine-tuned his breakneck rapping, his unorthodox, slippery flow, and his novel approach to street storytelling. "I'm a Pisces, so I be thinking differently sometimes," he says.

Money's fierce rapping and sharp lyrics on Cinco de Money work in tandem, creating so much energy it's as though he's fueling himself. His corkscrew flow lights up the percussionless opening of "Reckless," and when the track's booming bass and brittle hi-hats kick in at the 45-second mark, the transition is like a powder keg going off. The mixtape as a whole seems to have had a similar effect on its audience: "It wasn't until last year that I think everything clicked for him," says Barber. "While I thought his music was cool, it didn't really grab me until Cinco de Money."

The mixtape has earned Money praise not just from Rolling Stone but also from Pitchfork and other mainstream outlets, and it began a year that's broadened his perspective. In May he opened a Metro show for Yasiin Bey (formerly Mos Def), who invited him to London for a weekend in June to see the opening day of the Wireless Festival from backstage—Money's first trip outside the States. "I kind of had to step away from Sibley for a second and really just see the world from a different point of view," he says. He says hanging with Bey influenced the content of "United Center."

Money says that when he read Rolling Stone's list of the best rap albums of 2015, he scrapped the material he'd planned to release as Cinco de Money 2 the same day. He has high hopes for the music he's making to replace it, and he aims to draw on the same powerful perspective that informs "United Center." "I'm aware of the young and dumb motherfuckers that listen to me, 'cause I am them and they are me," Money says. "Every chance I get, I get some knowledge from somewhere that they can't get it from, and I bring it to them. That's the most I can do." [Recommended]

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