It's 9:30 a.m. on MLK Jr.'s birthday and Pill is headed back to Pink City for another photo shoot. Although it's his third shoot there this week, he seems no less surprised upon arrival, as he stands in front of the condemned two-story building on the corner of Edgewood Avenue and Hilliard Street in Old Fourth Ward.
"I can't believe they shut this place down," he says, pointing to the upstairs unit near the rear of the boarded-up hotel from which he used to pump drugs. The Hilliard Street Residence Hotel had always been known to him by another name — one that certainly didn't come from the color of its lime-green paint. According to street legend, the motel once served as a pit stop for prostitution — hence, Pink City.
Last June, Pill brought new infamy to Pink City when he made it the central location of his video shoot for "Trap Goin' Ham." Filmed within walking distance of the King Center, the spontaneously shot, guerilla-style video shined a light on pockets of intown poverty that persist despite the encroaching land-grab of gentrification.
There, in full view, was a side of Atlanta that most of its citizens only dared to glimpse — usually from the safety of their cars as they zoom past en route to such trendy establishments as Cafe Circa, Thumbs Up Diner or Noni's Bar & Deli. A far cry from the lavish clubs, video models and A-list celebs that typically show up in Atlanta rap videos, the talent in "Trap Goin' Ham" consists of curbside dealers, crack addicts and street stragglers who happened to wander by that day.
The video resonated in unexpected ways. Within an hour of posting "Trap Goin' Ham" online, the MC's fate was sealed by two divergent incidents: YouTube yanked the video due to its graphic nature, and representatives from Asylum/Warner Bros. called to inquire about the unsigned rapper's label status.
"Trap Goin' Ham" became one of the most viral rap videos of the year, eventually garnering airplay on MTV Jams and earning a No. 5 spot on Complex.com's Best 10 Internet Music Videos of the 2000s list. While the video delighted fans thirsty for a return to reality rap (the New York Times' Jon Caramanica called it "the sort of document that was once de rigueur in hip-hop and now feels appealingly anachronistic"), plenty of critics and hip-hop fans alike cried foul. The video was downright disgraceful, blog commenters complained — so much so that Pill penned a postscript disclaimer of his own.
"I just wanted people to understand where I was coming from in that video; it wasn't meant to be any type of exploitation," Pill says. "This is just me letting people know that this is really how fucked up it is out here for some people. You'll get the wool pulled over your eyes with all the new condos, stores and businesses going on in Atlanta. 'Everyday is an opening day' is what they like to say. But where the hell do the impoverished people fit in at?"
As both a resident of Atlanta and a rapper on the rise, Tyrone "Pill" Rivers represents the last of a dying breed. And his sudden emergence heightens the otherwise disappearing sense of honesty in rap music — a genre that has experienced its own share of gentrification over the last decade.
Ask Pill where he's from and he's likely to rattle off a laundry list of housing projects in the shadows of Atlanta's skyline, including Kimberly Court, Adamsville, Grady Homes, Bowen Homes and Englewood — all of which have been demolished in recent years or await the wrecking ball. "Pretty much, I'm from all of the fucked-up parts of Atlanta," he says. "I've been house-to-house since I was 7 years old." Pill's mother was one of the only consistent fixtures in his early life, though she wasn't exactly steady. Her struggles with drug addiction meant he had to live with other family members, friends and, at one point, one of his school teachers.
"My mama tried her best, but I'd come home and junkies was always there stealing my shit," he recalls. "You'd see niggas in the house that you don't know. It would make me late for school all the time." Yet he overcame the odds to graduate from Frederick Douglass High School in 2003.
One night a few years ago, Pill returned home to his worst discovery. "I saw my mama on the floor by the bathroom," says Pill, whose mother had been diagnosed with colon cancer. "I thought she was drunk, so I tried to wake her up, saying, 'You tripping, I got company, go get in the bed.' But she never woke up."
Fresh out of high school, Pill met Killer Mike, an older Douglass alumni, who was coming off of his Grammy win at the time for his feature on OutKast's "Whole World." "My cousin Chris and [Douglass football] coach Frazier kept telling me about this kid who could rap his ass off," recalls Mike, who recruited Pill into his Grind Time Rap Gang collective. "Me and Pill are both from Adamsville. To be able to put the Adamsville experience into dope wordplay is not common in Atlanta. I saw a kindred spirit and wanted to help him."