T-Bo & Witness’ Wildlife Album Release Show. Varsity Theatre. May 8th. Doors open 8pm. Show time 9pm. Admission $15.
By Justin Ivey
When casual listeners think of Baton Rouge’s rap scene, names like Lil’ Boosie, Kevin Gates and Young Bleed are likely to come to mind. But for years, there’s been a pool of talented rappers who may not have the national recognition of those men, yet have built up loyal followings in the city and throughout the south.
T-Bo and Witness (formerly known as Lil’ Witness) certainly fit that bill. The two have experienced both the highs and lows of the rap game, yet they still remain key pieces of the Baton Rouge hip-hop landscape. As T-Bo looks back at his humble beginnings, he reflects on the powerful force that hip-hop became in his life.
“When I started, I remember going through a lot of things in my personal life,” said T-Bo. “My momma passed away. I was probably 12 or 13 years old, and something about hip-hop just grabbed a hold of me. It just felt right. It started as a hobby, but the passion stayed there. Next you know, I look up one day and Snoop Dogg’s calling my phone wanting to do a song together. Like, is this s—t really happening?
Witness had dreams of being a singer in a rock band but soon realized his talent for rapping. With the encouragement of his friends, he decided to pursue his musical aspirations through hip-hop.
“I wanted to sing, and I was in a band when I was a young kid,” said Witness. “My voice never really matured and I’d just f—k around rapping. I was more or less joking back then ‘cause the idea of white rapper, Vanilla Ice kind of killed that for a while. A lot of my potnas would say, ‘You need to quit singing and start rapping. You’re better at that.’ I remember by the time I was a senior in high school, that’s what I did. I was a rapper.”
As T-Bo and Witness began their respective careers, they became aware of each other’s music and met soon after through the duo South Coast Coalition.
“I didn’t know any other white rappers around, and somebody in my class said, ‘I heard there’s some other white boys rapping from Baker,” said Witness. “I was like yeah, who? And he said T-Bo and Lil’ Mike. So that was the first time I heard of him. They were actually on a CD that was out at the time, a compilation called Gulf Coast Assassins. It was about two years later, I was 19 when I met T-Bo and them. South Coast Coalition had seen me performing and asked me to go holler at them.”
T-Bo and Witness would begin to develop a friendship as they were among the white rappers in Baton Rouge who regularly teamed up to collaborate.
“That was kind of the bridge between me and him,” said T-Bo. “And any time we were on songs together, we’d usually mesh pretty well. Our styles are completely different, but it just worked well together. We had good bond going with all of us as a whole. Instead of going against each other, we all got together. We figured we’d be a lot stronger force. And it worked out. People started paying attention.”
As the years progressed, both men became respected members of the Baton Rouge hip-hop scene and developed a loyal fan base. The two worked with some of the biggest names in and outside the city, with T-Bo even landing a deal with Master P’s No Limit Records. After working with No Limit for almost a decade, T-Bo decided to branch out on his own. When he decided to go independent and start Firecracker Entertainment, he immediately reached out to Witness.
“When I was breaking off from No Limit and Master P to do my own thing, the first person I thought of was [Witness],” said T-Bo. “I made the call and it didn’t take him long to get back say let’s go, let’s do it. I couldn’t think of a better person.”
Witness had become frustrated by his own experiences with the business side of the music industry, so the call from T-Bo could not have come at a better time.
“Having kids and everything, it was really getting to a point where the music was too hard to do,” said Witness. “Because a lot of the things T-Bo’s good at doing, I’m not, which is the stuff outside of just being an artist. When it comes to dealing with a lot of people, I’ve never been good at it. So him approaching me came at the best time, cause I was like I don’t really know if I can continue doing the independent grind on my own. He hit me up like I got the label kicking off, you can just be an artist. I feel like since we’ve been recording together again, it’s been some of the best work we’ve ever done and a big part of that is all that other bulls—t had been lifted off from me.”
T-Bo and Witness have seen their priorities change as they want to focus on making music they love with people they respect.
“We’re family men now,” said T-Bo. “We’re trying to have fun again. When the music industry bears down on you, you get pissed off at the world. The game lacks loyalty. I’ll take that any day over a check. I’ve had my taste of the money and the limelight. It’s cool, but it’s fake. That’s the music industry in a whole. Everything you think you see is not what it seems. So, surround yourself with good people. Good things will happen. If the money comes, it comes. If it don’t, we doing what we love anyway.”
Witness explained that this shift in dynamic and working with a close friend has changed everything for him.
“The loyalty is part of why I’ve been able to commit my heart to it,” said Witness. “I’ve been in situations where I knew if s—t popped off, I’m gonna be all alone. But I know with him, if something goes wrong and one of us ends up losing our life, it’s gonna be from trying to help the other one. What more could you ask for out of friendship? Behind the blood, sweat and tears in the music is real loyalty.”
As T-Bo and Witness begin this new chapter in their careers, they’re proud of what their new album Wildlife will bring to the fans.
“This is kind of our coming out party,” said T-Bo. “The title Wildlife I had planned for a solo album, but as we started laying tracks down it just sounded right for this. This industry, it’s a wild life. We’ve seen it all. It just fit. Wildlife is a lifestyle. That’s how we live. Everything you hear in our music, you can bet it’s happened. This is real s—t. It’s not a negative lifestyle, it’s just facts. Wildlife ain’t just about wilding it out. It’s about taking care of your business too.”
There’s no pressure for T-Bo or Witness to compromise what they do as artists either. Their new album represents everything their music is meant to be.
“We’re making music we like,” said T-Bo. “I use to worry about what everybody else wanted, but now I want to make something I can bump in the car. We don’t try to gravitate to what’s hot. We want to make what’s true to us.”
The two’s chemistry has also translated from the studio to their live performance.
“That’s another thing that’s really brought a lot of the love back as we’ve been making this album,” said Witness. “There’s times we’re performing, he’s doing a solo song and I just get lost in his world.
T-Bo believes the rapport they’ve developed on stage is impeccable.
“Us on stage now, you’d think we’re the Beastie Boys,” said T-Bo. “The way they sounded like they knew what each other was thinking. That’s kind of how we are now. We feed off each other.”
The two are clearly excited for their upcoming album release show at the Varsity Theatre and plan to put on a memorable performance for those in attendance Friday night.
“We look at the Varsity as one of the best venues in Baton Rouge,” said T-Bo. “We get on that stage and I feel like damn, we’re doing something right. Expect us to put on a great show. Know you’re gonna get your money’s worth. When people see us, we’ll shake hands with everybody. And that’s not politicking, that’s just who we are.”
As T-Bo and Witness contemplate their status in hip-hop, there is a pride in the work they’ve done and the reputations they’ve built over the years.
“One thing I can say today about me and Witness is we still get respect everywhere we go,” said T-Bo. “White rappers, you still get a stigma with it. But, we never had a problem going anywhere and doing what we do. That means a lot to me, still being able to do what we do for this long into the game and be somewhat relevant. We’re still here, we’re still kicking. We’re gonna end it on our terms. We’re not gonna let anyone else run us out.”