Show & Prove
Tee Grizzley's goal is to inspire people.
Words: Kathy Iandoli
Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in the Spring 2018 issue of of XXL Magazine, on stands now.

It was Nov. 7, 2016 when Tee Grizzley punctured the hip-hop sing-songy mumble bubble with his hook-free breakout track “First Day Out,” where the upstart details his ascent from Detroit hooligan to future household name. Almost a year to that date, the 23-year-old rapper is hanging out with a live bear in Bethpage, Long Island, watching it impressively shit in the corner of a room. He’s paired with the bear as part of a photo shoot and even got to feed it, unfazed by the potential danger. “I just relate to [bears],” the young artist explains. “I’ve just got some type of chemistry or connection with them.”

Born Terry Sanchez Wallace, he earned the bear-leaning moniker Tee Grizzley during an 18-month prison bid for a botched robbery of a jewelry store in Lexington, Ky. During that time, Terry grew his beard and his dreadlocks so long that he claims he was humanly unrecognizable. That and he bulked up considerably. The stint stemmed from the need to pay off attorney fees for a series of dorm robberies that Tee took part in during February of 2014, while a freshman majoring in Finance and Accounting at Michigan State University. “When I went to the [jewelry store] robbery in Kentucky, it was like, I’m about to do this for some lawyer money for the case I got in Michigan,” he recalls. “Basically, I just needed some money and had to do what I had to do.” Tee was the first in his family to attend college so a life of crime wasn’t an entirely foreign concept. Raised on Joy Road in the West Side section of Detroit, by the time Tee turned 18, he experienced two monumental losses. The first loss was his mother being sentenced to 15 years in prison for drug trafficking in 2011. The second the following year, when his father was murdered. “After so many losses, I felt like I was due for a win,” Tee says.

It wouldn’t happen before prison found him, though Tee says that’s where he sharpened his rap skills, something he dabbled in just a little, before prison. Within a year and a half, he read 600 books (“I used to read three books a day, sometimes”), and in April of 2016 wrote “First Day Out” in anticipation of that fateful day, along with the bulk of the fodder on his April 2017 project, My Moment, an ambitious debut full of cameo-free bangers. Tee was released from prison on Oct. 16, 2016, and by Jan. 2017, was signed to 300 Entertainment/Atlantic Records. “I first heard about Tee because my head of A&R, Selim Bouab, told me about this kid out of Detroit,” says Kevin Liles, co-founder of 300. “I didn’t really understand his excitement until he finally played me ‘First Day Out.’ It hadn’t caught on with the masses just yet, but I knew it was something special. The energy was there. Next thing I know, Selim was in Detroit and I was FaceTiming with Tee and JB [Jobina ‘JB’ Brown, Tee’s manager].” LeBron James gave the song a titanic nudge when he posted himself singing and dancing to the song on Instagram just three days after the Golden State Warriors clobbered the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 5 of the 2017 NBA Finals. The record sales tripled and the song went platinum in August 2017. It was later boosted again when Jay-Z said over Twitter that it was the best song out. Jay later cosigned Tee in an interview when he said, “I believe his story.”

A handful of loosies—including “From The D to the A” with Lil Yachty and “Beef” with Meek Mill—readied the Detroit native for his collaborative mixtape, Bloodas, with Lil Durk. Tee maintains a cameo-free stance on his own projects. The winter release of his follow-up, Still My Moment, substantiates that claim. “I don’t need everybody else,” he explains. “I want them to hear me when they go get my project.”

Tee’s been sharing his wins with his mother via video visits (“She’s in federal prison, so they got a little more privilege”) as he enters 2018 with Detroit still on his back. From street dudes to live bears, Tee Grizzley has survived more than most and will keep telling his story. “My goal is just to inspire,” he says. “To tell people that’s going through the same thing that I went through, that there’s somebody out there that knows…that can relate.”

Emmanuel Anderson

Check out more from XXL’s Spring 2018 issue including our two cover stories with G-Eazy and 21 Savage, Show & Prove with Trippie Redd, J.I.DCole Bennett's rise as a music video director, Evidence's thoughts on the future of hip-hop and more.

See Photos from G-Eazy and 21 Savage's XXL Magazine Spring 2018 Cover Shoot