Photos By Elias Tahan
A few years ago, T. Mills was living the dream—or so he thought. On his very first tour, the rapper was opening for one of his heroes, legendary R & B outfit Bone Thugs-N-Harmony’s controversial impresario Bizzy Bone. While touring with one of his heroes seemed too good to be true, Mills learned the hard way that even when you’re sharing the stage with a legend, there are pitfalls that come with being the opening act.
“Man, we were sleeping on Motel 6 floors,” the heavily tattooed rapper remembers of those early days. “It was very punk-rock. I got really lucky to get on that tour, but it definitely was a ‘pay your dues’ tour. But it was my first experience with someone I idolized so it was overall a crazy experience for me.”
Born Travis Tatum Mills, the 24-year-old grew up in a home that was filled with music, yet nothing his parents listened to—standard classic rock bands like Queen, Duran Duran and Elvis Presley—appealed to him. Instead, Mills drew inspiration from his uncle, whose interest in hip-hop and R & B was a pronounced difference from his parents’ taste.
Mills’s gravitation towards hip-hop came when his uncle, who is only 10 years older, played him one of Tupac Shakur’s final—and most iconic—songs, “Changes.” At a young, impressionable age, Mills became hooked on rap music. Some of those groups, besides 2Pac, include The Notorious B.I.G., Wu-Tang Clan, A Tribe Called Quest and, of course, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony.
“[My uncle] gave me the soulful flavor that’s still with me today,” the rapper recalls. “He gave me my first Bone Thugs CD, which was their greatest hits. I remember playing it over and over and over.”
Growing up in Riverside, California, T. Mills was part of the DIY scene in his hometown. The city, located about 50 miles southeast of Los Angeles, doesn’t seem like an obvious breeding ground for a thriving music scene, nevermind a budding rapper, but it is the place where Mills honed and crafted the sound he’s known for today. He initially played in a punk band during his mid-teens, but he would frequent hip-hop parties and freestyle on his own. When that band broke up, Mills turned his attention to production and rapping. He started making hip-hop instrumentals from his bedroom and recording music at a feverish pace.
An active force on all social media platforms, Mills started posting free music on sites like MySpace and slowly people started paying attention. After a small bidding war, the rapper joined forces with Orange County–based independent label Uprising Records. In 2009, he released his first EP, Finders Keepers, and a year later, unleashed his debut full-length, Ready, Fire, Aim! Upon the release of that initial EP, the rapper scored a spot on the 2009 Vans Warped Tour and started to establish himself as a dynamic live performer.
These days, Mills draws inspiration from a number of musical influences in addition to the hip-hop he grew up with. Saying that he hates being pigeonholed by genres, he rattles off names like Crosses (†††), Jessie J., Kacey Musgraves, Cody Chesnutt, Ty$ and Childish Gambino as the eclectic artists who are currently in heavy rotation on his iTunes playlist.
Blending West Coast flow with laidback California pop sensibilities and electronica, T. Mills’s music has a groove-laden swagger with elements that reflect his good-time attitude and fits with the current musical climate. Some may call his genre unclassifiable, but the various moving parts that comprise his sound are an important layer to his understanding of music. Fortunately for Mills, it’s been a hit with other people as well.
After a few years of touring and releasing music independently, the rapper inked a deal with Columbia Records in late 2011. What was once a project that started in his bedroom had taken to him to a place he was confident he’d eventually reach, but not this soon. Unlike some musicians who view signing with a major label as an end point, Mills harnessed his creative energy and became even more productive. He recorded over 100 songs before picking the 10 best, which were released as a free download in 2012 titled Leaving Home. Since then, the rapper has landed high-profile collaborations with the likes of Juicy J., Mike Posner, Travis Barker and Layzie Bone.
The rapper’s latest EP, All I Wanna Do, a follow-up to a mixtape that dropped last year, was released in February, and judging by its sound, it is a logical next step for a guy who has been favorably compared to Wiz Khalifa. The EP sees Mills working with Cook Classics, Boi-1da, SoulShock and Malay, the latter of which is best known for his two Grammy nominations on Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange. The common link between these producers, Mills says, is that their individual bodies of work speak for themselves and they are producers he’s wanted to work with in crafting his sound exactly to his liking.
“People seem to be responding to it really well,” he says excitedly. “They can play it in their cars, on their laptop and all of that. I’m ready for it to drop and can’t wait for people to hear it already.”
So far, 2014 is coming together nicely for Mills. He currently has a two-month, 46-show tour slated to run through the spring and is readying his major-label debut, which is slated to be released later this year. But unlike those lean, early years spent sleeping on motel floors, which he now laughs about, Mills says things are already starkly different now that he’s a more established performer.
“Now I have my own room,” he says. “I won’t have to worry about sharing floor space with anyone now—that’s progress.” R
posted by Staff