Sending a Letter

Don Trip’s heartfelt plea for his son becomes a musical sensation — and helps his own healing process.

The video clip — which now has nearly 2 million hits on YouTube — is dated September 8, 2009. In it a shirtless young man, then essentially unknown 24-year-old Memphis rapper Don Trip, is alone in a dim, unadorned, makeshift recording booth. He presses a play button, puts on headphones, adjusts the camera, clears his throat, and leans into the microphone. Then he tells his story. 

Trip — real name, improbably, Chris Wallace, which he shares not only with the Memphis Grizzlies general manager but with late rap legend Notorious B.I.G. — is speaking plainly here, from the wrong side of a contentious child-visitation battle. Addressing his son, Jaylen, then two-and-a-half-months old, Trip apologizes for his absence (“I don’t get to see you like I want to/I just want to let you know I want to”), lashes out at the mother (“To get back at me she knows she gotta use you . . . she don’t understand that this shit will bruise you too”), references potential court hearings, details the steps taken to straighten up his own life and rectify the situation, and finally howls: “I just want to see my child.”

This was no gimmick. It was an audio diary entry/therapy session — every word utterly autobiographical — that was posted online without expectation. Trip had no way to know that, two years later, the clip would be responsible for transforming both his personal and professional life. And for giving Memphis music its next potential national star.

“Letter to My Son” — which is now being added to radio and video playlists across the country with a vocal hook from pop superstar Cee Lo and with the muscle of major-label Interscope Records behind it — was recorded at a moment of personal crisis for Trip, now 26.

Financial difficulties had forced him to move back in with his mother, where he repurposed a bedroom into the recording booth you see on “Letter to My Son” and other homemade clips made in 2009 and 2010. He was taking electronics classes at Southwest Tennessee Community College — something alluded to in the song, when Trip raps, “Matter of fact I’m in school right now in case the music don’t work and I can put the work down” — and trying to keep his flickering music dreams alive. But his relationship with his son’s mother was rocky and at the time “Letter to My Son” was written, Trip hadn’t seen Jaylen — born June 26th —  in several weeks.

“I hadn’t seen him for the whole month of August or September,” Trip remembers. “And when I did see him in July it was an hour a week and it was getting to me.”

It was a moment of desperation — a grown man forced back into his mother’s house, an infant son he can’t see, a music “career” going nowhere, a tough choice between legitimate and illegitimate means of financial survival — that Craig Brewer might turn into a movie.    

“I turned my old room into a studio,” Trip says. “I didn’t have a bed in there. I soundproofed the walls and built a booth and I went and got all the equipment I needed. No matter what, I was going to have to make it. That’s all I had left.”

“Letter to My Son” was not an instant success. The song sat online for months without getting much notice. It finally went viral a year later, and record labels came calling, including a personal call to Trip from legendary Interscope Records chairman Jimmy Iovine, who has helped launch the careers of Eminem, 50 Cent, and Lady Gaga, among others.

“He was telling me his view on how he felt my music could go,” Trip says. “One of the first things he said was that it’d been a minute since he’d seen true passion in music. He said the last person he witnessed that had that kind of passion — and he kept saying he didn’t want me to feel like that’s who he’s trying to make me be — was Tupac.”

This courtship led to a deal with Interscope this February and, after clearing some legal hurdles and securing Cee Lo for a new vocal hook, the label is pushing “Letter to My Son” as a single. A video with Cee Lo is now in rotation on MTV Jams.

This unlikely chain of events has Trip on the cusp of national stardom, but, perhaps even more importantly, has helped repair the breach between him and the son and ex to whom “Letter to My Son” is directed.

“It’s not perfect yet, but it’s a lot better than it was,” Trip says of his access to his son and relationship with his son’s mother. “I get to see him now, and since September I get to keep him overnight. He’s 2 years old now, so that’s long overdue.”

There’s no doubt that Jaylen’s mother would have her own take on the situation Trip describes in the song and unsurprisingly — if a subject of great annoyance to Trip — several “answer records” from opportunistic rappers have popped up online.

“Of course she was upset,” Trip says when asked how the boy’s mother reacted to the song. “But she actually knows who I am — not Don Trip; she knows Chris Wallace. Her knowing me, she knew it was more pain than anger on that record. I wasn’t just lashing out. And I’ve never called out her name. She knew it had reached a boiling point, so from there she started slowly coming around and allowing me to see him more. We’re on better terms now.”

And, if things go well, “Letter to My Son” will only be the beginning. Trip has been working with a variety of big-name producers in different locales — Miami, Los Angeles, Atlanta, and Virginia — for his Interscope album debut, Help is On the Way, set for a release in the first quarter of 2012.

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