Three Problems are tough to reach. At first my calls go unanswered. Texts are exchanged, but quickly stop. Days pass with no word. Finally I get Swag Huncho on the phone but immediately he tells me not to use his real name, and that he has to call from a different line. I hang up, but my phone never buzzes.
A week later I manage to catch Swag, Lil Tay and their manager on an evening when they’re all together. Swag and Lil Tay boast youthful bravado, but the recent sentencing of their third member, and cousin, Terrell Brown Jr. aka Relly Rell is an elephant in the room. Since pleading guilty to distribution of heroin, armed criminal action and second-degree murder in February, Relly Rell won’t be up for parole until 2022.
“We always had an inspiration for rapping. By us being first cousins, the only three boys in our immediate family, we thought to make a group because we did everything together,” Lil Tay, who just graduated high school on June 1st tells me via Facetime. Unlike his stone-faced demeanor in the “Come Around” video, Lil Tay is quite talkative. Swag Huncho wears a tougher shell. His eyes display disinterest during most of the interview. He briefly perks up when I mention his fashion, and their seamless execution of the man bag—a European staple that I’m convinced could land them standing space in the next Skepta video.
Their sixteen-track mixtape A Problem Story narrates the necessity of growing up fast. As Ben Westhoff reported, shortly before the March resignation of police Chief Thomas Jackson, the Justice Department’s report revealed that the city of Ferguson not only boasted a rap sheet of false arrests but also a history of collecting unjust taxes and fees from residents. On “Right Now,” featuring Luh Stank and L4ass, certain lines are indicative of rage:
“Mike Brown, gunned him down for no reason, and I swear to God we gonna get even, probably load the K and just start buckin,’ and I bet them honkies gonna start duckin.”
A Problem Story loiters at the intersection of violent scenes and breezy, auto-tuned bridges that render a charm akin to early Kevin Gates. Their newest video “Welcome To Da Midwest” is a glimpse into this volatile section of North County, the collection of mostly-black cities north of St. Louis.
While the guys remember attending concerts of regional stars like Nelly, the St. Lunatics and Chingy, their songs are a far cry from “Right Thurr” or “Hot In Herre.” Given the 25% unemployment rate in Ferguson, the music of 3 Problems is both redemption and triumph, offering a localized voice to many teens that face similar struggles.
Their YouTube videos already amass hundreds of thousands of views. The question that remains is whether the group’s brazen realness will catapult them into whatever being mainstream means in 2015, or will it eventually cause their downfall?
Can you talk about the aftermath in Ferguson following Darren Wilson’s lack of indictment?
Lil Tay: Man, that brought rage! It was already riots and stuff before the verdict dropped. But it even died down to the point the riots weren’t that big. But when they said he was not guilty, it made it even worse. We ain’t even step out there though
Lil Tay: We ain’t even with all that man. We went out there for the protests involving other activities. But the looting… We ain’t with all that. People still mad though. People are still out there today.
Are they rioting?
Lil Tay: It’ll be a couple protesters out there every now and then with they signs.
So you live in Jennings. Swag lives in Ferguson. How long does it take between each city? What’s your process for making music?
Lil Tay: I’ve been in Atlanta going from the North Side to the South Side and it takes 45 minutes to an hour. I ain’t used to that! You can get anywhere in 10 to 15 minutes down here. I’m going keep it all the way one hundred, the straight way with you. We first cousins. We always together. During the day we be with each other. Then at nighttime he go home, I go home. It got to the point where we don’t even write. We just go to the studio, have them play a beat and we just go in.
Did you grow up in the same area?
Lil Tay: We from a complex. Downtown St. Louis. The original name is O’Fallon Place, but now it’s called Preservation Square.
Where does the name “Beach Boys” come from?
Lil Tay: That’s more of a street tape thing. I mean, we’re 3 Problems. But we got our entourage, it was a name for them. It’s a street we used to be on, Minnesota and Miami. On Minnesota, it’s all shells on that street and on Miami that’s where the sun shines at. So we just made it more what it was.
How has Relly Rell’s absence affected the group?
Lil Tay: Relly Rell is a part of us. But it just made us strive more. It pushed us more. It made stuff serious. Then we see, we got a talent. It’s something we wanted to do. So why not go for it?
Has he seen the “Lay Low” video yet?
Lil Tay: Yup, we just got off the phone with him like thirty-minutes ago.
Swag Huncho: He said he proud of us!
Where do you stand on drill artists like Chief Keef, Lil Durk, King Louie?
Lil Tay: They doing their thing but one thing I don’t like is that everybody is saying they started the music they’re doing in the Midwest. But I don’t think they started it. They just got noticed first. But everything they doing that’s the same thing we do. There’s a couple comments on our videos, “Oh they trying to be like Chiraq.” We ain’t trying to be like Chiraq. Like, what they was doing, we was doing. But they got noticed though. You don’t know too many people that came out of St. Louis, you know?
Except for Nelly or Chingy.
Lil Tay: Don’t forget about J-Kwon. Yeah we was a fan of him. I be seeing him. But Nelly was like the only person who was a top dog here. We trying to change that.
Is 3 Problems St. Louis’ response to Chicago drill music?
Lil Tay: One thing I’ll tell you man. A lot of people down here are on that drill music. That’s one thing we don’t do. We don’t say “opp” or “thot” because that’s not our lingo. You might hear our “vlatt” but we don’t do what they do. We try to stay in our own line and keep our own sound.
What slang do you guys use?
Lil Tay: Man, that’s why you gotta be around to see! We say crazy stuff like trees, you hear me?
Lil Tay: But in my phone that means like someone faking a line about something. They being sarcastic. Say, you in a building with no windows. And a person is just talking but you know he’s lying. We’ll be like, “Man it’s a lot of trees outside!” [breaks into laughter]. Just being sarcastic. But that’s like an inside thing.
Best place to eat in St. Louis?
Lil Tay: Well I’ll give you…the best place to eat when people come down here is Sweetie Pies. That’s where every like rapper or whoever come down here and try.
But what’s your favorite? Your go-to?
Lil Tay: Man, we still stuck on eating McDonald’s everyday [laughs].
What’s the biggest struggle as an upcoming artist?
Lil Tay: It’s always hard to get people to listen.You’ve got to have good music. You’ve got to push your music. You’ve got to sponsor yourself. I ain’t going to fake. A couple weeks ago we threw a party. But they tried to stop our party because the promoter called and said that the way we rap is violent and it promotes violence, so it will cause violence. So people be trying to blackball us, you know?
Does that concern you?
Lil Tay: We got our fan base. We can put a video out and get 20,000…40,000 views easy.
Lil Tay: Baller Blockin, Paid In Full. We like stuff like that. Menace to Society. Fresh. But I don’t too much watch movies anymore. I don’t really catch them.
What’s coming up?
Lil Tay: We’re working on marketing ourselves. More music is always going to come. We don’t stop making music. If it comes down to it we could do what Future did, drop 9 mixtapes in a year. That’s easy! We got songs. We could drop a mixtape right now with 12 songs no one has heard. With the music, it’s not hard for us. It’s just more trying to get out there on a business side. We working on a song we can put on the radio right now. That’s another reason we build our own brand. I did this song, like I messed with a person and I did the hook. Then he took me off the song, put Dej Loaf on it and put it on the radio. Then he tell me, he don’t owe me anything and my verse can’t stay on the song because I wasn’t under a label.
What’s the song?
Lil Tay: It’s called “It’s Just Money.” Listen to the radio, you’ll hear it. Down here, 1041.