It’s only the second day of 2016 and Torae Carr has a lot to be nervous about. Physically he is the picture of calm, dressed in dark jeans and a sweatshirt with his muscular frame pressed into his leather couch. His shih tzu named Nina Simone is pacing his Brooklyn condo and his wife busies herself in another room. But Tor braids his fingers nervously. In two days the MC born and raised in the Coney Island Projects will be making his network television debut in VH1’s “The Breaks,” playing an NRA approved battle rapper named Sig Sauer. Then just weeks after that he will be releasing his second official full length album, Entitled, his first musical offering since his tandem project with Skyzoo, Barrell Brothers, in 2014. But none of that is what has him on edge.
“My daughter went out ice skating with her friends and I’m just watching the clock,” he says like any father of a teen spreading their wings. “It’s a good thing we’re doing this because it’s distracting me. If you weren’t here…”
His voice trails off into a smile as he re-focuses on the task at hand. The MC/radio/event host has turned multi-tasking into an art. And it was a fellow polymath that turned him onto his latest opportunity.
“I definitely gotta shout out Phonte,” he says of his “The Breaks” co-star and rhyming peer. “It was like 2am and I gotta text from Te asking ‘Is this still you?’ and I said yeah and he said ‘I’mma call you.’ We talk periodically, but not on a regular basis. He was like I got this opportunity and think you’d be dope for it. I’d heard about ‘The Breaks’ and I’d read the book. He said there’s a scene where they need an MC–built, no nonsense–and I said yeah that sounds dope. He linked me with Dan (Charnas) and Seith (Mann) right then and there. They said auditions are tomorrow at noon. So I was like I got 10 hours to figure this out. I did as much research as I could, started Googling 90s hip-hop apparel. I wanted to look the part.”
Standing at a solid 6 ft with a Luke Cage build, looking the part has never been a problem for Tor. In fact, it was how he got his first real acting gig. Back in ’00 he was cast in the video to Cam’ron’s “My Hood,” thanks to a manager who had more experience with models than musicians.
“I play the boxer in that,” he reveals. “And the crazy thing was that Cam had all his homies out there, Harlem dudes. They had a scene with a bunch of dogs and Pitts. I was fightin’ and there was a lot of movement, and one of the dogs lunged at me, grabbed me right here (points to his inner thigh). Had it not been for the era that it was, I probably woulda got bitten. But because I had on the baggiest Girbaud jeans ever, his tooth grazed my thigh, but it didn’t penetrate the skin. So the video stops and Cam and them is like ‘You ok? Take my number. Make sure you straight.’”
After going to the hospital to get a tetanus shot, Tor was invited back the next day to hang with the Diplomats. Maybe because they felt bad or didn’t want him to sue, but it was one of many industry experiences he documents on a track called “The Journey Pt 1” from his first mixtape release, 2008’s Daily Conversation.
“I had no knowledge of anything. They’d call me and say ‘We in CT Friday, can you make it? Yo we about to do radio, pull up.’ They moved with a certain energy and I remember there were times we’d go in a club and the girls would run up in the VIP section. They’d say ‘We going back to Harlem, who coming?’ and all the girls would just pile in the van, they ain’t care how they were getting home. And sometimes that got met with resistance from the locals.”
Resistance of another kind made for a moment that would make for a ratings bonanza on reality TV today.
“One time Cam had a show–I’d met NORE and maybe Three 6 Mafia was on the bill. Mike Lighty (brother of the late Chris Lighty) put it on and for whatever reason, as far as I remember, Mike didn’t have all of Cam’s money. Cam had a relationship with Violator so he did the show off the strength of that relationship, but Mike didn’t take care of business on his side. Cam was like you need to go and get my money. But instead Mike came out with some dudes and heads started taking off their chains and putting away their two-ways like it was about to be on. We ended up scrapping and fighting and damn near kidnapped Mike. But he ended up squirming out the van. Afterward NORE was calling Cam’s phone like ‘What y’all do??’ It was a lot of that. But for all the craziness I love Cam. He did a bunch of stuff he didn’t have to do. I just wanted to rap.”
Like many MCs, Tor’s rap career started with a bad demo tape and a lot of confidence. Growing up in CI prepared him for just about anything the industry could throw his way.
“One block past Nathan’s it goes down. The projects is right there. If you go on the rides on Easter looking fresh someone was gonna try you. I grew up on 23rd street. Coney Island shaped me and made me who I am. The level of respect CI got from the rest of the borough shaped us a lot. People would try to little brother us and say we by the water, we ain’t Bed Stuy. So we had something to prove. A lot of artists would come out there and not leave with everything they came with. Before Steph Marbury made it we had nothing. We was cotton candy and toy giraffes. So I grew up with that chip on my shoulder.”
His friend Sylvan had a recording studio in his crib and he, along with Kil Ripkin, taught Tor how to write bars and structure songs. Tor developed a blue collar style that was as NY as the cannibalistic birds chowing down on discarded fried chicken scraps on the boardwalk. It’s from the school of MCing that expected rhymes to be read as much as performed. If the voice is an instrument in the track Tor was percussion: straightforward delivery designed for maximum impact.
Despite the demo’s roughness it got the attention of some execs at Wild Pitch records, onetime home to Ultramagnetic MCs, Gang Starr and OC. Thankfully, Tor heeded Diamond D’s advice from Tribe’s “Show Business,” and his mother scraped up money for a lawyer to look over the contract, which they ultimately declined. You can rinse and repeat with several more “almost made it” moments with Stevie J, Timbaland and Foxy Brown’s brother Ant. But Tor was not deterred.
“I always just wanted to contribute to the culture. The MCing part was the easiest because you needed the least amount of tools. All you need is pen and paper. I never got into producing because I wasn’t in a position to buy an MPC etc. I watched LL go on TV every week like ALF or Michael J Fox. Same thing with Will Smith. So I said I want to use music as a launching pad to other things. I was never nice with graffiti. I used to be able to draw but I loved music so much it took precedence. Then when I got the look behind the curtain and saw it was just the Wizard of Oz behind the curtain making noise.”
When Tor was in his early twenties he finally moved out of Coney Island and got his first apartment with his then girlfriend, now wife. His mother joked that they would be expecting soon after, and you never bet against mom.
“Now you have real life responsibilities to take care of,” he says of the birth of his daughter at 24. “So I took a three-year break from recording, shows, everything because I had to make as much money as possible. You never have enough but it was doing what I thought was right. In that three years spending time with my daughter and all those firsts, firsts steps, changing diapers, all the things that come with being a new parent…After all that I said I was going to go back to finish the music. I needed a long- term plan. You gonna end up having a mundane life doing what you think you need to do. Getting a check is mandatory but how you get that is what decides what your life is gonna be. You can do something you hate or turn the things you love into a check.”
So Tor returned to music but was still living by the beat “like you live check-to-check” stringing together MySpace features before dropping the DJ Premier produced “Click” and “Get It Done” from Daily Conversation. The street heaters lead to more tour and show money, with his phone ringing off the hook. But like the great Posdnous said: everyone cools off from being hot, and it’s about if you can handle being cold or not.
It’s a chilly November evening in Gotham and Torae is about to go head-to-head with one of hip-hop’s greatest. Jadakiss is in the midst of his promo run for his long awaited album Top 5 Dead or Alive and has brought his bust to The Tor Guide on Sirius XM’s Hip Hop Nation. Dressed in an orange and blue collage of Islanders and Knicks gear Tor dons his headphones and gets ready to quiz 1/3 of The Lox about his latest work. Both men are all business. When things get started the convo weaves from ghostwriting to the inevitable “state of NY rap” topic. Interview fatigue is visible on Jada’s face but he’s pleasant and alert. Tor’s questions snap and illicit one of Kiss’ trademark raspy cackles. You would never think that he wants to be in Jada’s chair, or has been.
Tor started out doing radio with DJ Eclipse as a co-host on his “Rap Is Outta Control” show. Tor had a relationship with the legendary DJ from his days in a group called Coalesence (comprised of Wally Suede, Vega Benetton and Kil Ripkin). Eclipse was one of the first people to play their record and sell it on consignment at Fat Beats. So when he was looking for a new co-host for this show he called Tor to see if he was interested.
“I consulted with Marco Polo, Masta Ace and my wife about what it would mean for me as an artist to be perceived as a radio personality. After going back and forth I said I’mma try it for 3 weeks.”
Three weeks stretched into four years as Tor fell in love with the payless gig. But trekking to the studio on weekends and holidays paid off when DJ Skee left to do DASH Radio and a spot opened up. So Tor approached SiriusXM PD Reggie Hawkins about getting his own show. After learning how to run the board, consolidate breaks and segway out of songs “The Tor Guide” was born and is in its second year.
“Me interviewing Jada is like when Iverson made it to the All Star game and got a chance to chop it up with all the guys he grew up idolizing,” Tor says afterward. He’s got a bag of clothes slung over his shoulder heading to his next gig, hosting the “Faces In The Crowd” showcase at SOBs. “I know my music has a limit in its reach and I didn’t want that to limit me from being able to interact with certain people. I’ve been able to do features from people that I met here. Sometimes they come in the building not knowing I’m an MC. I remember when we had the cast of “Power”–Omari Hardwick and 50–after the interview was over they said they really enjoyed it. And my man Rene who runs with 50 was like “Yeah, Torae is an MC” and they said they never would have guessed. I grew up listening to Angie and Flex. When they were interviewing people sometimes I’d answer the questions like I was being interviewed and sometimes I would ask a follow up question they didn’t ask. I’ve been prepping my whole life for this.”
And if Angie Martinez can record a rap album, why can’t the reverse be true? The lines have been blurred in media for years now with enterprising talents stacking their resumes with what would have been considered conflicts of interest years ago. Writers manage artists and even rap themselves. Radio hosts do television and host parties. So Tor continues to find ways to make music and manage his relationships to keep himself and his family in the black. There are no stones to water in his house and Nina is the closest thing to a lion you’ll find, but he does have some keys to success to share.
“I get physical money from three different companies,” he says dragging the various remotes on his table into position to illustrate his point. “I get digital money from seven different projects and I get Youtube money, and SoundExchange money, and ASCAP Money. All these different things add up to what my annual income is.”
On Valentine’s Day in 2011 Torae released a project of love songs called Heart Failure that was the direct anti-thesis of the previous release Double Barrel, a collaboration with Marco Polo that was basically the musical inspiration for every Tweet about “NY N*ggas and Timbs” you’ve ever read. So Tor recruited the beautiful and talented DJ Blazita to host and mix the collection that was tailor-made for Blockbuster and Chill. But there was a method to his not so madness.
“People don’t love the Heart Failure or Admission Of Guilt projects. Those are the two things I always get the most flack from. It’s a different sound and feel so I gave them away. I didn’t charge for it because I know that’s not what you expect from me. But those are my two most licensable projects. I did a deal with Viacom in 2012 and I still get paid to this day. I was watching the Ja Rule reality show and one of the songs played–cha-ching. “Black Ink Chicago,” “Black Ink NY,” my songs are in all these different joints. And as long as you have your publishing you get paid off that. Make sure you own your music.”
Last year Torae’s love of music and sports intersected when his man Marco Polo tapped him to record a Brooklyn Nets theme song. Marco crafted the YES Network theme music for their inaugural season in Kings County and when the station wanted a full song there was only one person he could think of.
“I grew up a Knicks fan, so as easy a decision it was, it wasn’t that easy,” Tor confesses through a groan. “But I said you better go get that check and stop actin’ crazy. I made it a dope Brooklyn anthem that the Nets could use. It’s called “Go Brooklyn.” What was dope about that is that they were looking for somebody to do the voice overs for the commercials leading up to the season. And they said ‘We need an authentic Brooklyn voice for these VO’s’ and I was like “hell-ooo!” and that turned into five more commercials. We did one for Brook Lopez, Thaddeus Young, Joe Johnson, D Will and an overall Nets one. 2015 was a dope year.”
So with his voice in regular rotation on both radio and TV, it seemed like the ideal time to come with new music. Torae launched a Kickstarter to fund his next project, Entitled, but admits that it was less about raising funds than seeing if there was real demand.
“I used Kickstarter as a marketing tool to see who was really down. It was a heat check,” he says. “I found out someone was willing to pay $600 for me to come to their house and play the album. That’s valuable.”
Torae’s music business acumen comes from a lot of trial and error. He learned some hard lessons about ownership and distribution running his own label Internal Affairs and acting as an A&R for Soulspazm Records.
“When Double Barrel came out in ’09 I was sending everybody to the Best Buy. It was distributed by Duck Down, etc. But my cousin was hitting me saying he’s in Best Buy and it’s not here. So I go to the store later that day, not saying it’s me, and ask if they have it. They pull it up in the computer and they say ‘Yeah, we got seven back there.’ I ask to walk me in the back where they at. We got to the aisle and they not there. I go back everyday for almost two weeks…nothing. What ended up happening is because we’re not household names, they came in, they sat in the back in the box and stuff started getting stacked on top of it. They never put them out!”
Tor then runs down how the store charges you to place the CDs only for you to lose the sale and then get charged on the return. Then labels keep artists recouping against physical losses eating into any digital gains.
“So I’d rather you order my CD off Amazon or FatBeats.com or let me mail it to you. If you really want the CD wait for me to ship it to you. It helps the artist so much not having to absorb the hit of being in the stores.”
Torae took this knowledge into negotiations for distribution of Entitled, having to change companies at the 11th hour and push his December release to January.
“I was never a guy to give my music to a company. That’s why Entitled took so long to come out. The distributor wanted to have it in perpetuity. That’s giving it to you! If you license something forever, I just gave it to you. It’s these little things they do because it’s getting so much harder to make money in this business. So I said no, that’s crazy. You’ve seen how these big companies are using Salt-N-Pepa and Black Sheep’s music all these years later for endorsements and sometimes you’ll miss that check if you don’t own your music. So for me it’s about ownership. Whoever I partner with you still make those checks out to my company Internal Affairs.”
But all of this acumen is for naught if the product is not up to par and Entitled is easily Torae’s best album. And it all came to fruition through the natural synergy of his radio and TV pursuits. His “The Breaks” co-stars Mack Wilds and Phonte appear along with Saul Williams, who Tor met during an interview at Sirius.
For the album cover art he took it back to the beginning and employed a tried and true standard: a baby picture. The portrait of two-year-old Tor was procured from his grandmother about five years ago. When his parents separated many of his baby pics were scattered to the wind, so this is one of about a dozen he got back.
“Every time somebody talks to me about it they like, ‘I know this album is gonna be one of those ones because all the albums with the baby pictures be the ones!’ I wasn’t trying to recreate Illmatic or Ready to Die but I knew the story I wanted to tell and this is what I want it to look like. This is the starting point. This young, innocent kid with the whole world at his fingertips, ready for it all but not knowing what it all has to offer.”
Unlike the NBA, having sound fundamentals in hip-hop will only get you but so far. So Tor has made sure that his supporting cast didn’t just provide stellar contributions, they all seem to walk that line of having mainstream reach with underground respect. Mr Porter, Nottz, Pete Rock, Jahlil Beats and !llmind are all names that will not only look good on CD packaging, but also provide superior soundbeds to narratives that run the gamut from pugilisitic linguistics (“Clap Shit Up”) and hometown pride (“Coney Islands Finest”) to racial consciousness (“The eNd”). The title track aptly reflects on his eight years in the industry and asks rhetorically if he has reached the status in his profession that he deserves.
“How entitled we are just because of the gift/ But that ain’t the half of what really making it is…”
“There’s levels. Rest in Peace to my brother Sean Price. I would sit back and be like ‘Damn, if I could just get to Sean’s level I’d be happy. But I’m sure Sean felt like he should be at another level, and you could hear it in his music. You listen to a guy like Wale saying he feels he should be Grammy nominated. So like Meek said, there’s levels. If I compare 2016 Torae to 2008 Torae, when I recorded Daily Conversation, my life has changed a lot. I’m in this beautiful condo, family is good, drive a nice car. Probably more money than I’ve ever had in my life. I’m blessed. Every year it gets better. That’s why I’m so excited for 2016. But I do feel like musically I’m overlooked or ‘underrated.’ I don’t know where the disconnect is.”
Torae theorizes that because he came in after the Dipset, Roc-A-Fella, Ruff Ryders era, but before the current Pro Era, Dave East wave of NY lyricism with a throwback feel, he’s been suffering from an artistic middle child syndrome of sorts in his own hometown.
“Because you’ve been hearing the name for so long it’s not the ‘new’ thing it’s the overlooked thing. But if you like this guy I’m in that vein. If I’m underrated for three projects in a row what is that really saying? Is it getting to the people or are you just taking it for what you think it is? I don’t want to be underrated. I want to be rated where I’m supposed to be. Rate me!”
For what it’s worth Tor has managed to walk with kings but not lose the common touch. His peers applaud his tenacity and encourage him to keep bringing the world his art.
“Tor has the hunger! I’ve seen tremendous growth in his pen game since day one. He is determined to make his mark in this game,” says rhyme legend Masta Ace. “That energy is what has gotten him to this point in his career. Most artists out here looking for handouts. Tor is making his own way, and in the process making an impact.”
At the premier screening for “The Breaks” the cast is huddled in Ginny’s Supperclub, the lower level of Harlem’s famed restaurant The Red Rooster. Torae walks the step-and-repeat posing for photos and soaking in the moment. Chef Marcus Samuelsson has prepared a divine meal of short ribs, salmon and chicken washed down with specialty cocktails. There are pillows with the show’s name decorating the room. This was definitely a step-up from an indie rap show spread.
After the screening the room fills with applause, and when they die down his co-star Wood Harris, whom Tor has admired for years, tells him not to let this be it for his acting career.
“I enjoyed the Sig Sauer thing because you look at a ‘House Party’ or ‘8 Mile’ and they have these iconic battle scenes and I’m like I got one of those now. It’s done, it’s out there and will be there forever. So like when I watch Kid N Play for the 12 millionth time, someone is gonna watch me and Antoine as Sig and Ahm do the battle and people are gonna debate who won.” While he is SAG eligible Tor doesn’t claim the title of actor just yet. “I know how to spin records but I’d never call myself a DJ. I know too many amazing DJs. When you meet people who really take the craft serious, when you look at Mack and his mannerisms you have this whole different respect for what they do. I’m an ASPIRING actor. I respect the craft enough to really hone it and crush it. To have Wood Harris tell me to keep going, that was enough for me to say I gotta do it.”
The young year has already yielded yet another opportunity. Tor’s hosting at SOB’s has lead to shooting a pilot for a hip-hop themed talk show called “Hip-Hop Today.”
“It’s like Bill Mauer’s ‘Real Time’ with a splash of Black in it. We had some amazing people come out; Karen Hunter, Combat Jack, Tyson Beckford, Masta Ace, J Alexander from FUBU, a bunch of people. So we shot a pilot and broke it into two episodes. Got some good news about it on New Years Eve.”
But no matter how many TV gigs and movies he does MCing will be his first love and the thing he wants the most recognition for. His hallway is adorned with several plaques that bear his name, but the platinum one is not for his own music. Nevertheless, he keeps it as a testament to the success of his various hustles but maybe also as motivation.
“Nothing is owed to you. I’m a good guy, I pay my taxes. [But] Sometimes you gotta make your destiny. Don’t feel entitled to anything. You gotta fight for it.”
WATCH’D is the WatchLOUD cover story. Over the course of several weeks we shadow one of our favorite artists to peel back the curtain on what it takes to make their industry dreams a reality.