“I started recording this the first week I’m home,” Tyree Colion says as he pops his recent mixtape, Back for Good Vol. 1, into a CD player, “’cause I felt like I got a lot of time to make up for.” That might sound like a cliché of a typical workaholic underground rapper, but if anything it’s an understatement—in March, Colion was released after nearly six years in prison. And he hasn’t wasted much time in picking up exactly where he left off in 2006 as one of the city’s most prolific MCs; Back for Good Vol. 2 is already out and Vol. 3 may be on the street by the time you read this.
Although Colion is now 35, and his hair much longer than when I last saw him before the prison stint, he’s otherwise happily back into his old routine. As we sit in the kitchen of the house where he’s been staying since getting out, we listen to his remix of the 2 Chainz hit “Spend It,” which has caught the interest of DJs at 92Q. The night before, Colion had been back in his favorite old recording spot, Deep Flow Studios, working on a track with Mullyman.
“Me and Mully last night, it was like I wasn’t gone,” he says. Mullyman is one of many of Colion’s peers from six years ago who’s still a heavy presence in Baltimore hip-hop, but Colion has already started meeting some of the many new names. “A lot of those guys pay homage to me,” Colion says, noting his warm welcome at a younger rapper’s recent release party. “They greeted me at the door, VIP, no patdown, no pay. It was like, ‘OK, you’re still Colion.’ That felt good. But something hasn’t happened that I wanted to happen—no one has jumped out there to battle me.”
Colion’s current career plan is another indication of his competitive spirit. “This is my idea: release a mix CD every other week for an entire year, drop one album, and retire,” he says. He’s not entirely clear about what life holds in store for a 36-year-old retired rapper, particularly an ex-con who seems happily committed to what he calls “legal hustles” in the entertainment industry. “I have almost six books written, I make board games, I can act my ass off,” he adds, while acknowledging how implausible it is that he’ll ever totally abandon music. “You know you can always talk somebody out of retirement, but that’s what I wanna do, that’s my plan.”
Perhaps Tyree Colion is just happy to be free and entertain his options, at a point when he has literally spent nearly half his life in prison: First he served 11 years for a murder committed at the tender age of 15, then six more due to a parole violation. “I don’t even like revealing what I’ve been through, because they’re like, ‘Aw, this can’t be true, is he serious?’ But I gotta tell them what I been through,” he says, matter-of-factly shrugging off whatever street cred his experiences lend his rap career. “You can literally pull my record up, my real name, Tyree Moorehead, and say, ‘Damn, he really caught a murder at 15.’
“Worst feelin’ in the world, eventually,” he says of the incident, in which he tracked down and shot a rival drug dealer his crew had been robbed by. “At the time, it’s like an adrenaline rush. He was an older guy, he did something to us. I felt no remorse. But then I started thinkin’ about it while I was locked up, like damn, somebody’s gone. I’m still here.” And though Colion’s music is often rife with violence and the ugly realities among which he grew up, he hopes his story is more cautionary than glorifying. “The biggest thing I’m ’bout now is the kids, to show ’em, like, ‘Look, I did 16 years altogether. Prison is not cool, seriously.’”
Colion’s previous stint of freedom between prison bids lasted less than three years—from 2003 to 2006—but, in that time, he quickly became ubiquitous on a Baltimore hip-hop scene that was growing and gaining attention. He performed dozens of concerts, showing up at seemingly every local hip-hop event he could find, and released hours upon hours of music through his label, Hustle Hard Blvd—first four volumes of one mixtape series, then the 2005 double album The Problem and the Solution.
In the spring of 2006, just before an altercation with security at Baja Beach Club resulted in an assault charge that sent him back to jail, Colion finished a head-spinning 60 songs for the triple CD mixtape Tyree Colion Presents Hustle Hard Blvd, many of them featuring complex flows and the rapper’s penchant for heady conceptual lyrics. Although the mixtape circulated in the local scene, it was never officially released, as his return to prison froze his career’s progress, or so it seemed.
The flurry of material Colion recorded in early 2006 included three songs with the production duo Darkroom Productions, who had recently been enlisted by HBO’s The Wire to help give the gritty Baltimore-based cable drama’s score a little extra local flavor. And one of those songs, the electric and anthemic “Projects,” ended up in the opening scene of an episode in the show’s fourth season in late 2006, and later appeared on the official soundtrack album for the series, The Wire: . . .and all the pieces matter, which was released in 2008. But of course, by then Colion was in prison and wasn’t able to enjoy the exposure. “I still haven’t seen it,” he says. “I’m gonna go ahead and get the [DVDs]. The album, I’ma have to cop that too.”
Of course, the work ethic that made Colion exceptional in 2006 isn’t nearly so rare anymore. In the past six years, the concept of quality over quantity has gone completely out the window in hip-hop as artists have turned the sheer bulk of their outputs into a marketing angle. Lil Wayne proved that a never-ending supply of mixtapes and guest verses can’t necessarily exhaust demand. Meanwhile Lil B has raked in critical acclaim and a rabid internet following by recording literally thousands of songs, most of which are more valuable as a contribution to his statistical heft than as music. Even Colion realizes there are limits: When I tell him about Atlanta rapper Gorilla Zoe, who released 28 mixtapes in February 2011 to an indifferent world, his eyes widen with disbelief, then disgust: “Are you serious? Who cares, c’mon man.”
Although he’s already recorded a few very promising singles with original production, most of the material Colion has released recently has used backing tracks from popular rap songs, a typical practice of mixtape rappers. He manages more often than most to make the beats his own, though, partly because it’s interesting to hear an MC who’d disappeared for six years fall right back into the sound of the music industry in 2012. “The industry changing and all that, I didn’t change with it,” he declares confidently in the husky bark that he knows is his music’s greatest asset. “I just did what I do on their beats.” Colion adds emphatically, “My voice is big.”