Read an Excerpt
How to Get Out of Your Own Way
By Gibson, Tyrese
Grand Central Publishing Copyright © 2011 Gibson, Tyrese
All right reserved.
Thank you to all of my loved ones and fans from around the world who have supported everything I’ve done throughout my career, from the Coke commercial when I was sixteen to all of my different albums and films. It’s also possible that someone referred you to this book and you’ve never heard of me a day in your life. If this is the first time you’re getting to know me, I just hope you will be able to embrace me for who and what I am and the things that I stand for and the way I see my life. I’m going to take you on a little journey, from my childhood to where I am now. Hopefully you’ll walk away being made aware of a few things and seeing relationships, love, and other perspectives just a little differently than the way you do now.
Although I won’t be able to control how people respond to certain things that I write or reveal, my genuine intention is not to embarrass or throw anybody under the bus. I’m putting myself out there by writing about the many things I was exposed to, my actions, and the choices I made. Although I can’t stop people from feeling a certain way, you all need to know that I’m not coming from an angry or spiteful place. I’m just speaking my truth.
Some of the conversations in this book were taken from memory and, in those instances, have been paraphrased.
I want to say thank you now for picking up this book and being willing to take this journey with me. I hope you enjoy it.
—Tyrese, December 2010
When I first met my mentor John Bryant, he told me, Most of who we are as adults is somehow directly connected to our childhood. I had to really sit with that one for a while and see if it was true for me. After I pondered on this and started making those connections, what I discovered blew me away. A lot of who I am—my habits, relationships, likes, dislikes, and motivations, the things I stand for and the way I see this world—are all connected to my childhood. Once I decided that I no longer wanted to carry those childhood burdens, my journey to get out of my own way began. They say that ignorance is bliss, but the clarity from knowing what I know has changed my life. I connected the burdens I was carrying to my childhood memories and vowed to disown it and let it all go.
I can remember always thinking and imagining my life beyond where I was. I can remember sitting on the front porch in the hood at night looking at the stars and letting my thoughts run wild. Never did I once see or imagine being a star in any form of show business. I remember once thinking to myself that if there really was a God and he was hearing all the prayers from us throughout the hood, I hoped he’d somehow hear mine. Even back then something in me believed that there was a better life somewhere out there—I guess watching Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous played a small part in that thinking. I just had no clue how I was going find it or where to start.
Throughout my childhood I was exposed to the most extreme levels of self-love and self-hate. I lived and witnessed it all—killings, gang violence, drive-by shootings, domestic abuse, drug and alcohol abuse, crack cocaine, heroin addicts using needles, prostitution, teen pregnancy, love, encouragement, sports, talent shows, good and bad teachers, hunger, poverty. It was a harsh reality. When I grew into my early teens, a wise man told me, Son, every lesson is a blessing but you will grow through what you go through. And boy did I go through some shit!
A few months ago, I went back to the park in Watts where I first performed in public. I was back in my old hood at a memorial service for Tommy Jacquette, who had started the Watts Summer Festival. He had been the backbone of the community and my high school music teacher, Reggie Andrews, and Congresswoman Maxine Waters had asked me to be there and say a few words. I didn’t say no because I had reaped the benefits from what Mr. Jacquette had brought to the community. And so I went back to the park—to the exact same basketball gym and stage where I first performed at a Head Start Talent Show when I was fourteen. I didn’t get famous from that first public performance, but I did win, and that gave me the confidence to continue with my singing when my family had told me to shut up for being too loud around the house.
At the memorial, I went onstage and started talking at the podium. I told the audience how people like myself were able to reap the benefits from the peace and harmony that Mr. Jacquette had tried his best to bring to the community. And then I said, “You know, I remember when…” and as I said those words I looked to my left and actually saw my younger self, next to me, like a vision. I hadn’t been on that stage in seventeen years. I’m taller now, so I was looking down at my old self, standing there, not moving, because I never moved when I sang at that first show. Back then I had been nervous as hell, so I just stood in one place and held my microphone while I sang. As I imagined my younger self standing there, so much was running through my mind: Look how much I’ve seen around the world. Look how much I’ve done, look how many places I’ve been, how many amazing people I’ve met, all of the movies I’ve been in and the albums I put out, the road and the tours I’ve been on, and it all started standing in this one place, right here. I started crying. I was a grown man having a meltdown in front of everybody. And when I finally got myself together, I thanked Reggie Andrews and Don Lee, the first person who had allowed me to be in that first talent show. I said, “I want to thank you for giving me permission to be great. You believed in me and I’ve been around the world and I’ve seen the greatest that life has to offer, and it all started right here, standing in this exact spot.” I was standing on the same stage but I was a different man—different than that fourteen-year-old Tyrese could have imagined. I don’t live in the hood now, but I’ll always be from the hood and I will never ever, ever not remember what I’ve been through. My journey and my perspective and what I was exposed to keep me real.
My mother and father are from St. Louis, Missouri, the city where I was conceived as the youngest of four children. My oldest sister has a different father, and my second sister and my older brother have the same mother and father as me. Since then, my father had another son and daughter.
My father is a singer, but he never really got anything off the ground. He’s a wanderer and a dreamer, an artist always searching for his next break. One day, he decided that his dream would come true in Los Angeles, so he moved the family out west. A few months after they arrived I was born in a city called Watts in South Central Los Angeles, at Martin Luther King, Jr. General Hospital.
My mother always told me that I was a hyper kid. Looking back, I think it’s because we moved around so much and never really settled down in one place, but it’s just the way I am.
When I was really young, we lived in an area south of Watts near Washington Boulevard, a bit removed from the real nitty-gritty of South Central, Compton, and Watts. Money was tight, and my dad wasn’t there most of the time. He seemed to be gone more than he was there and I was too young to understand why he would stay with us for weeks at a time and then disappear. He would come back every so often, but even when he was there, before he left for good, I witnessed a lot of what no kid should be exposed to.
When my brother and sisters and I were supposed to be asleep we could hear my mother and father physically fighting in their room, calling each other every name in the book. Being exposed to the friction and negative energy of their relationship is how what I considered “love” started to take its effect on me. One would assume that because we were young what they were doing didn’t impact us, but it did in a major way. Hearing and seeing my dad treating my mother like nothing, cursing her out, and beating her whenever the moment presented itself, made me believe that’s what love was. At some point their marriage came to a halt and my mother seemed lost and alone. Pops would come around here and there, but we all pretty much knew it was over between my mother and father.
It was during this time that I feel like my mother’s love for me and our whole family was the strongest. She was beautiful, and still is, in my eyes. If you want to know where I got my smile, look no farther than my mama. She kept her long, flowing hair in French braids that made her look youthful, energetic, and alive.
Mama would take us to church three to four days a week for services and choir practice. It was a safe haven and I was getting to know God, who was getting to know me. I loved the energy of being around a lot of people because it gave me another stage to crack jokes and do my thing. I would play around and was often too hyper during services when I was really young, because I’d usually get bored just sitting there.
Mama worked as a waitress at Jordan’s Café and Stops Drive-In, which was on Imperial and Central, but has since been torn down. She used to bring us leftover food and that was like Thanksgiving for us kids. But with all of the mouths to feed we were still broker than broke so the county helped us out with some money. We received social security, food stamps, and county checks, and started getting WIC vouchers when I was in elementary school, after my oldest sister had her first child. A couple years later, when I was in junior high, my other sister had a kid, so we qualified for more. Even back then, I remember thinking, Where is the money going? We had food in the house but there were so many of us—Moms, Pops, my sisters, their kids, my brother and me—that the food would come in and disappear almost as fast. You can’t think that the cereal is going to be there tomorrow so you’ve got to eat five or six bowls in a row to get your share. When I think back on my childhood, there were very few memories that aren’t accompanied by an overwhelming sense of hunger. We were hungry all the time.
Mornings at my house were real quiet, and some of the best mornings were when we had cereal or oatmeal, or if we were really lucky, Cream of Wheat. When I was a youngsta I used to love eating my cereal, when we had it, and watching cartoons like Tom & Jerry, Thundercats, Transformers, He-Man, Heathcliff, Duck Tales, and Inspector Gadget. I also loved playing video games on the Atari 2600, ColecoVision, and original Nintendo that we got as hand-me-downs from neighbors; Super Mario Brothers, Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!, and Tecmo Bowl were my favorites. But most mornings we didn’t have any food, so I was motivated to go to school because that was where I could escape the madness at my house and get meal tickets. Some days, if I didn’t go to school, I didn’t eat.
Gangs were all around us in that part of the hood, but there were also a lot of good people with incredible hearts, who beyond what money they did or didn’t have would do damn near anything for you. The everyday mission of most good people who live in the hood and who don’t have a bad bone in their bodies was to stay safe, to protect and take care of their kids and their families, to get to and from work or school and stay out of harm’s way, and to pray that none of those stray bullets meant for someone else would end up in them.
There were a lot of different personalities in the hood throughout all the different neighborhoods I lived in, and back then we used to talk about people who seemed like they did the same thing day after day. I remember way back when I was around six or seven there was a lady named Miss Jameson who was friends with my mother who would sit on her front porch. For what seemed like ten hours a day she would just sit there and peel her beans. Everyone loved Miss Jameson. In Watts there was a super old lady who lived directly across from us on 113th and Grape who would literally call the police if anyone stepped on her grass. Most of the people in the hood had guns and were very capable of hurting this old woman, but she was more gangsta than all of us. Directly around the corner there was the blind man who would give us a few pennies to run to the store for him because his heavy-set wife refused to do it anymore. I once asked my brother, “Why would a man be with a woman he can’t see? And why would a woman be with a man who is blind?”
He would just shake his head and laugh. It’s funny that when I look back on my life I remember never being afraid to ask questions about things I didn’t understand.
There was also my mother’s best friend, Blanche. I believe she was part Latina and part white but she had the soul of a black woman because she grew up in the hood. Blanche lived across the street from a burger stand called Lee’s that we went to all the time. Her beautiful daughters were always outside on the porch or in their front yard looking so pretty. If I had the courage to ask them out, I probably would have taken them to Lee’s. My whole family loved Lee because he let my mother keep a running tab that had to be paid at the end of the month. That didn’t last too long because she was always late in paying.
After my moms and pops broke up for good, my mother met another man who tried to do right by her, and by us. We called him Mr. Charlie and he became my stepfather. Mr. Charlie was much older than Mama—he was retired—but he was exactly what we needed in our lives at that point. He was a good man and taught us a lot. I can honestly say that a lot of who I am as a man came from Mr. Charlie, and for that I will always love and thank him.
Charlie was definitely a neat freak and was always very strict about making sure we kept things clean and organized. Whenever he had us clean up, he would tell us to get on our hands and knees on the carpet and pick up any piece of lint or dirt in the rug and put it in a trash bag that we carried with us. He had this old, antique leather furniture that was nicer than anything I had ever seen before. Everything in the house was dusted and polished at all times, which was so different from what we were used to, because before Mr. Charlie moved in with us we were just plain filthy. At the time, it seemed tedious and unnecessary, but Mr. Charlie made sure I always paid attention to the tiniest of details, and it’s a habit I’ve carried into to adulthood. He brought a much-needed sense of structure, discipline, and responsibility that we had been lacking.
We moved with Mr. Charlie to 113th and Grape, in Watts, where I met Daniel, a Latino kid who lived in the corner house right next to the projects. His house backed up on a big field filled with trash that people would just dump there to rot. There was also a huge broken-down truck and the shell of a camper that was getting rustier by the day. Daniel became one of my best childhood homeys. We would find three or four unwanted old piss-stained mattresses in the field, line them up back-to-back, and do gymnastic flips for hours and hours. To us, those mattresses were as good as any piece of real gym equipment.
Daniel, his brother, my brother, and I would run around his house and the field playing cops and robbers for four or five hours every day. My brother had a big-looking “gun,” which was really just part of a broken car jack. My weapon was not as elaborate, just a piece of wood that I found on the ground. Daniel and I would run through the backyard and into the field to get away from him. Someone would yell, “Okay, go!” and then it was a free-for-all. “I shot you first. No, I shot you first!” The truth is, we loved Daniel’s backyard and that field because we could just run free for hours playing our childhood games. It was the only chance we got to escape from the realities of our lives and the world around us. It’s funny to think about those times, because despite being poor and hungry, we were too innocent to realize how bad things were around us. To us, that was just life. We made the best of it, enjoying the good, and trying not to think about the bad.
Mr. Charlie was strict, but we were lucky enough to have him in our lives for several years until he passed away. I had never experienced death before, and it hit me hard, real hard. I vividly remember seeing him resting in his casket at the funeral, and touching his hands one last time, as they lay folded across his chest. The coldness of his skin sent a chill through my body that was unlike anything I had ever felt before. It’s one thing when you lose a childhood homey or hear that someone in the neighborhood got killed, and it’s another thing to lose someone you lived and communicated with every day, who watched television with you every night, and whose voice you can still hear ringing in your ears. I remember thinking while I was crying, When are you gonna get up, Mr. Charlie? Then turning to God I asked, This isn’t real, right? He’s not really gone, right? What am I supposed to do now? Who’s gonna teach me the things I need to know about life? I didn’t get any answers, so I just kept crying and missing him. I used to dream about Mr. Charlie a lot after he first died. We lived in that same house for several years afterward.
After he was gone for a while, I realized that Mr. Charlie had been a stabilizing influence that held our family together, and once he died, something happened that I’ve never quite been able to pin down. I think the years of dysfunction between my mother and father finally came to a boil, and took my mama over the edge. As a result, she turned to the bottle. She started drinking, and once she got going, she didn’t stop for twenty-seven years.
I was a hyperactive kid, and I’m not exaggerating. I was the funniest little dude you’d ever be around. I was just way over the top. Everything was on ten. People used to say, As soon as he wakes up he’s gonna be out of here, from the morning on, until he comes back here to take his ass to sleep. And that was the story of my life. People who knew me knew I was the kid who was hyper, funny, loud. I made it a point that everybody around me had a good time. But I had no idea when to stop. I was diagnosed with ADHD and they gave me some Ritalin to calm me down, but that stuff didn’t quite work on me. I didn’t have the radar that told me when to quit. I got kicked out of Grape Street Elementary School because of it, and was sent to what they call a “behavioral private school.”
My brother, who is a few years older than me, went to the same kind of school. We both wanted—no, needed—attention, and would do anything in the world to get it. I would just try to make people laugh, but that was enough to get me into plenty of trouble. I was the class clown, cracking jokes all day long at anyone’s expense. All I needed was one person to giggle, and I went to town.
This private school was for students who required a lot more attention to get through their studies. I never had to go to special-ed classes; instead, my classmates and I were classified as “discipline problems,” and the teachers were supposed to help us calm down and get serious about our life. They were facing an uphill battle from day one.
I was in that school for years, and I never really settled down. There were times I wasn’t sure who acted worse—the students or the staff. I remember seeing some of the teachers beat up the kids and then watch the kids turn around and beat up the teachers right back. There were nonstop fights in the classrooms because even some of the little kids were banging already. What was crazy to me was that this school was located on the grounds of a huge church. In my mind, church is supposed to be a peaceful place, but at times this was more like a war zone.
The level of dysfunction was crazy. It was like being in a giant juvenile hall, and it created more of a beast in me, because everybody at the school was messed up. Every kid who had been kicked out of public school for academic or behavioral reasons had to go to this school. I was getting good grades, but I loved attention and would get into fights with the other kids. My fighting went to a whole other level once I went to that school. I have to admit, I was bad when I was there: I fought teachers, fought other students. But I had to fight. I had to survive. I wasn’t fighting everything in sight, but if you’re a pit bull and you’re in a corner, you’ve got to fight your way out.
At this private behavioral school, the carrot they dangled in front of us was called dual enrollment. If you were doing real well academically and behaving yourself, then they gave you a chance to go to public school for half a day and then back to private school for the other half. A few students made it to dual enrollment every year, but for the most part it seemed like they didn’t want many kids to go to public school, and I felt pretty much brainwashed to believe that I wouldn’t be able to survive in public school, so academic success was never something I aspired to. Most students never made it to public school, including me. It was hard to not be bad in that school because if you didn’t step up and protect yourself, then you were looked at as a punk or like you were soft and you’d be a bigger target. In that situation I felt like there was no such thing as staying out of trouble.
Unfortunately, my home was anything but a sanctuary. After Mr. Charlie passed away, my mama met a man whom I’ll refer to as Bernard. Bernard was a total character. He thought he was the coolest dude in the hood, with his chest hair peeking out of his shirt, jewelry, and general swagger. He was the type of guy the ladies gravitated toward, and I think my mama felt lucky that he chose her, despite all the negativity that seemed to follow him wherever he went. It was tough for my mom without Mr. Charlie around anymore. She was lonely, and wanted to have a man back in her life again to fill that void. Despite his many faults, Bernard fit the bill.
Bernard was handsome and charming but I just thought he was the absolute worst person on earth. I don’t know how he and my moms met, but I think her confidence had already been shattered because of everything she had experienced, and so whatever the hell Bernard wanted to put her through she just dealt with. We came to find out that not only did Bernard drink but he also smoked crack. He would run off for a while and then he would come back and not be on crack for a while and then he’d go off and do it again. Bernard was incredibly abusive toward my mom and the two of them would argue for hours on end while getting drunk. To all of us kids, and to any rational person, it was the definition of a dysfunctional relationship on every possible level. The worst part about it for my siblings and me was that she always took his side in every single dispute, no matter how big or small. When Bernard came to visit he thought he was the king of the house, and everyone knew it. All of our years together as a family before Bernard entered the picture were thrown out the window. When I made my film debut as an actor in Baby Boy, I felt like it was everything but a movie. It was my life story being played out on film for the world to see. No, I didn’t have kids like my character, Jody, but Ving Rhames’s character, Melvin, was the Bernard of my house.
In a strange way, being so far removed from it now, I understand the role my mama’s boyfriends and ex-husbands played in my development, and I realize that I might not have gotten out of Watts without them. They became my anti-role-models, everything I didn’t want to become.
If I learned anything from those early years, it’s that within the bad, there is always the good. For me, the good was a woman named Angie, who drove my bus to private school. Angie instantly took a liking to me, and I will remember her kindness for the rest of my life. She picked me up every single morning in a big yellow school bus, the highlight of my entire day. I would tell her about what was going on in my life. Angie had kids, but sometimes I felt like she considered me another one of her children. She even brought me to church with her family on some Sundays.
There were days when Angie would feed me and bring me new clothes to wear to school. This was usually anything extra that her son grew out of, but one day she took me to the Slauson Swap Meet to buy a few things. It wasn’t much, only T-shirts and jeans, but it meant the world to me. For the first time in my life, I felt embraced. I felt loved because someone decided to spend that much time and money on me out of the blue. On a bus driver’s salary, too.
She said something to me like, “Don’t tell anybody that I’m buying you this stuff because I don’t want the other kids to think I’m giving you special treatment. I’m not supposed to give anyone my personal phone numbers, or pick you up on the weekends, but I see something in you. You’re a really smart kid and I see that you have real potential to be something in life. I’m going to help you.”
Angie recognized the good in me in the midst of all the madness. She knew what was happening in my house and I think that’s why her heart went out to me; she could have gotten fired for coming to pick me up. God has favor on some people’s lives, and I can’t explain, even right now as a grown man, why some people wanted to look out for me.
I sometimes went to church with Angie, but around the time I was twelve or thirteen I started attending Praises of Zion Baptist Church. My life was about trying to find every outlet to get away from my house, so when I heard from a neighbor that a van would pick us up to take us to the church, I grabbed the opportunity. It was at Praises of Zion that I started understanding the Word of God and lessons of the Christian gospel, appreciating it, and realizing how much it all made sense. For the first time ever the pastor’s words were having an effect on me. I was in a church with at least two hundred other people but I felt like I was the only one there because it seemed like everything the pastor was saying was directed only at me. It was almost like he knew what I was thinking and was reading my mind—and he had the answers. It was the first time God was speaking directly to me through a pastor.
Pretty much everywhere you went in the hood was someone’s territory, and they weren’t shy about letting you know. I lived in a few different parts of Watts and there were a lot of gangs dangerously close to each other throughout the hood. With all these gangs and gangstas stacked right on top of one another, it never took long for things to set off. Some images that stick out in my memory from those days are of my mother forcing us down under the table at least a couple times a week as gunfights raged in our neighborhood and sometimes right outside our door. I once disobeyed my mama’s orders by peeking out of the curtains and saw a neighbor blasting an AK-47 down the street at fleeing cars. The next morning I found a sea of bullet casings covering the street, as if World War III had taken place in front of our house.
During that time I saw a lot of drug dealers digging crack out of their asses and selling weed and dope out of their stashes to the dope fiends and weed heads. They sold pounds and pounds of weed, and some of the homeys had safes full of money from selling that shit. Cars would pull up to a well-known spot and you could drive through and get a nickel, a dime, or a dub sack worth of weed.
I never officially gangbanged, but I did a lot of crazy things that gangstas in my hood were doing. As a kid, peer pressure like that is almost impossible to ignore. I would throw up gang signs and talk the way gangstas talk. I grew up in all-Crip hoods, so every other word was “cuzz.”
As a kid, you just want to belong, and that’s what the gangs prey on. Like a drug, they hook you when you’re young, and never let you go.
When you’re in the hood and you don’t have family or even if you do have family, you can sometimes feel alone, very vulnerable, and unprotected. But when you’re in a gang, you feel like everybody’s got each other’s backs, that you’re a part of something. The streets are your family. You don’t have to run around by yourself anymore, you’ve got somebody to talk to, somebody to laugh with. I couldn’t talk to my mama and my daddy wasn’t there. I would unload on my boys and we’d swap ghetto stories about our never-ending family dramas. In a gang, you’ve got homeys to run the streets with and get into some trouble with. Everybody protects each other.
Although most dudes in the hood are making bad choices—shooting, killing, banging, dope slinging—it’s consistent that everybody loves Jesus and has a relationship with God. They may not exercise it and go to church every Sunday, but they pray and ask God for protection while they’re out there doing stupid shit. I realized this, even as a youngsta. In the hood, on every Easter, Christmas, and New Year’s we’d see all the thugs in their best suits, going to church to praise God. Contrary to what you see in the news, every thug loves Jesus.
I wasn’t too young to join the gang—kids younger than me were already banging. There are accidental gangbangers and guys who are determined to gangbang. I would have become an accidental gangsta had an OG—that’s “original gangsta”—named Dirtbike Fred not kicked me in my ass and told me to get out of there. We’d throw up gang signs and do the Crip walk and try to hang out with them, but Fred wasn’t having it. Every time he caught us trying to hang he would literally kick us in our asses. He’d tell us, This is what we do, y’all need to get the fuck out of here, go play sports, football, basketball. He wanted us to do anything that was different than what he and his homeys were doing.
Fred was trying to keep us out of the gangs. He didn’t do it out of respect for our parents, he just did it out of respect for us. Fred had to be about forty. Now that I’m older I realize he probably knew that when you’re young and trying to figure out who and what you want to be, you can be easily influenced by the glam, all the nice cars, and other stuff gangstas were buying with the drug money they were making, whether it was by hook or crook. I could have banged whether Dirtbike Fred wanted us to do it or not, and a lot of my friends ended up doing it anyway.
I never sold drugs but I was that guy hustling all across the board. If you didn’t grow up in the hood, let me explain something to you: When you’re broke and hungry, you’ve got to have hustle in order to survive. A hustle can take many forms, and it doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing. It’s just about trying to make something out of nothing any way you can. Being broke and hungry can motivate you to do a lot of shit.
When I was about ten, I started hustling for coins in a supermarket parking lot in Southgate, which was about five miles from our house. The supermarket wanted people to return its shopping carts because so many people would steal them, so they gave their shoppers a quarter to put the carts back. On a good night, shoppers at the local store would allow a starving kid to return their cart and get their twenty-five cents for the task. But on most nights people just looked the other way, thinking that I was some punk out to rip them off, or worse. There is nothing more humiliating in life than being a ten-year-old kid, and having strangers tell you “no” over a quarter. That’s pretty much as humiliating as it gets. On the bad nights, I didn’t take the bus home or eat anything at all. I walked back to Watts and went to sleep hungry.
I did anything I could to get money. Any odd job you could think of, I probably worked it. I begged at the gas station, waiting to ask people to pump their gas. I cut grass, I did landscaping. I would clean the drug man’s crib and wash his car, anything so he would give me some money. I was just hungry.
We had a neighbor who always seemed to have change in his car. Every time he pulled up to his house my brother, my boy Porky, and I had a competition to see who could open the small gates of his driveway. This guy would give us whatever change he had—seven or ten or thirty-five cents—and we’d wait for the ice cream truck to spend the money he gave us. With whatever change I had left after I bought food for myself, it all went to candy—I used to love to eat sunflower seeds, Chick-O-Stix, Lemonheads, Boston Baked Beans, Strawberry Shortcake ice cream bars, Pink Panther ice cream, ice cream sandwiches, and Red Vines.
When I was about ten I worked on an ice cream truck for a family-owned business. I rode around with an African woman, helping her sell ice cream; her husband drove one truck and had one or two of their kids with him and she had another couple of kids and me. I figured out what I thought was a creative way to steal money and the balloons they gave out to kids: I just put it all in my pockets. I thought I was being all slick, but one day she saw me through the rearview mirror. She pulled over the truck and in her thick accent she said, “Ty-dese, you steal my money! What is in your pocket?” She made me pull out the insides of my pockets and all the money fell out along with the balloons. There were so many—red, white, blue, yellow, green, and pink balloons—all over the ground so I could barely see my feet. She fired me on the spot and cursed me out while she drove me home. Before I got off the truck, I turned around and asked, “Do you mind if I have those balloons?” She yelled, “No! Get off my truck!” And I walked up to my house empty-handed.
In my early teens I did a whole lot of stealing. I stole clothing off clothing lines so I could have a fresh T-shirt, underwear, jeans, and socks. Every other night we would go five, six or seven yards over and just hop over the fence. My homeys and I jacked some Mexicans for their bikes. We used to go to Southgate, and we’d see a Mexican on his bike and just beat him up and ride back on his bike. We got caught a few times and ended up on probation.
My boys and I were just rough—with our bikes or whatever toys we had. We had one bike and would ride around on it for months. We would mess up a bike so bad that both tires would go flat and since we couldn’t afford new ones, we’d just ride around on the rims and our hands would go numb from holding on to the vibrating handlebars. We would push each other in shopping carts from the shopping center, wilding out and having fun. We did anything to have fun in the midst of a crazy situation. That’s why they say, It’s all good in the hood, baby.
In 1992, the news of the acquittal of the four officers who had beaten Rodney King enraged everybody, and they sparked the LA Riots. I was only thirteen, but I had seen on television that everyone in the hood was out looting so I went out with the rest of them, stealing shit out of swap meets and stores—I was popping. For two days I went around with my boys in a big hatchback truck. Buildings everywhere were on fire, and it was so hot that we could feel the heat off the buildings as we drove by. I was afraid the whole time we were doing it—the scene was nuts. My heart was beating hard but I stayed out because it was a free-for-all. At one point, we went into a grocery store and because of the fires, the sprinkler system had left about three feet of water on the floor, so we had to step through the large puddles as we collected some food. The riots and looting weren’t just about Rodney King. They were about ongoing racism that had been brewing for years and finally reached a tipping point and exploded on the streets of South Central LA. Mexicans were fighting with the blacks, and any white or Asian person was a target. We went to places the Asians owned, like the swap meets. They were spray-painting “Black-owned business” across their storefronts because they thought it would stop people from looting and burning down their stores, but they got looted anyway because anyone who lived in the hood knew exactly which stores had black owners. The news started reporting that the National Guard was shooting at people with dummy bullets and my moms didn’t let us go out after that.
Years later when I was in high school, O. J. Simpson was acquitted for his wife’s death. That trial was on television all day every day, and as soon as they announced the verdict my boys and a few of my homegirls went down the streets screaming because a black guy had been let off. We had all thought that if he didn’t get acquitted it would all go down again in the hood, that there would be more riots. Everybody knew that the verdict was coming in so police were everywhere wearing their riot gear. They were prepared to deal with everything just in case people started looting. But we all know nothing happened because white folks weren’t going to start burning down Beverly Hills. At the end of the day, most of the blacks and Latinos who were rooting for O.J. to get off weren’t really paying attention to the facts or what was being reported. We just all felt that this was another black man who was wrongly accused, because we were always being accused. So we wanted to celebrate his acquittal.
Living in the hood, I still had a lot of fun. We had to make the best of a bad situation and environment and that’s what we did. We had the time of our lives—willying our bikes in the streets, football and basketball games, playing baseball in the park, going to the mall, to the swap meet, running track, having water balloon fights, riding on the backs of ice cream trucks, swimming at Will Rogers Park and in Jacuzzis and swimming pools around the hood, hitting talent shows at the park, flirting, having fun with girls. One of my favorite childhood games with my boys and girls was called Hide Go Get It; when you found the girl you’d get to dry hump on her—fun times! We would take slabs of drywall from a new house they were building and with the white chalk inside it, draw lines in the middle of the street like a real football field and play for hours. We’d also draw out basketball courts in the middle of the street, and use bicycle tires as basketball hoops.
You name it, we did it, and we had a great time and I don’t want anyone to think any different. And my family still laughed. My siblings, mama, and I cracked jokes and got silly—nobody made us laugh the way we made each other laugh. I was the king of all kings when it came to anything funny in my house. Everything was messed up but every chance we got we’d just try and make the best of a bad reality. We watched Def Comedy Jam when it first came out and completely submerged ourselves in comedy shows as an outlet so that everything wasn’t as heavy all day, every day. I still have a lot of love for the hood. I don’t want to cast a cloud as if there is nothing positive about it because there is. And visually, Watts is a beautiful place, compared to some of the other hoods in the country and places I’ve been since I’ve been able to see the world.
But in the midst of all the fun my friends and I had, there were a whole lot of killings, a whole lot of drugs and gangbanging happening. My household was like a pot of stew that had every combination of emotion in it. Being hungry, seeing my mama drink and get beat, I felt helpless most of the time because I couldn’t do anything. It was heaven and hell in a pot, and it just kept on stirring. Any day you could go from having the time of your life, to coming out of your front door and seeing one of your homeboys under a sheet right there on your block—and you could have just been laughing and having fun with him the day before. It’s crazy to think that when Daniel and I played our games and used a little piece of something we found on the floor as a gun and said pow pow pow, right down the street my big homeys were using real guns, and the pow that we heard meant a bullet was shot, and that bullet was taking a life. Moments like that reminded me that I needed to get out of there. That was it. It was eat or be eaten. I would have been sucked into the matrix if I hadn’t decided there had to be something else out there better for me.
When I was a kid I sang pretty much everywhere I went, around the house, in the shower. I didn’t think for a second that I was any good because nobody in my family ever complimented me on my voice or told me I could sing. In fact, all I ever heard was, “Tyrese, why don’t you shut up?” Or, “Tyrese, why are you making so much noise?” So when my neighbor heard me singing one day when I was thirteen, the last thing I expected her to do was ask me to sing for her, which is what she did. She went nuts. She responded in a way I had never heard before. She said, “Tyrese, you can sing! You can sing real good!” Not long after that, she had a big party at her house and invited a bunch of her girlfriends and cousins over, and I sang for them in her front yard. They reacted the same way my neighbor did, but I was still trying to figure out if they were saying such nice things just because I was a kid, or because they really meant it.
I didn’t think I had any talent that could specifically help get me out of Watts until my neighbor heard me sing. She kind of planted the idea in me that music was something I needed to look into. As soon as she and her friends told me I could sing, I was going to try and go all the way—period. If singing could get me out of Watts, I was going to put all my time and energy into music and singing. The pain of being broke, hungry, stuck without a ride or any transportation, the feeling of being vulnerable and being in an unpredictable environment became my motivation.
It didn’t take long for me to be singing for my neighbor and her friends on a regular basis. To change things up I decided to do it for some different people, because I had already won those women over, and I needed to see if my singing impressed people who didn’t just live on my street. So I entered the Head Start Talent Show at Will Rogers Park with four of my boys; I sang lead vocals on a New Edition song with them doing harmony. I sang my heart out and we finished in first place.
If you asked me back then if I was going to go far with music, I’d have told you I had no idea. But I would have also said to you that anything would be better than the shit I was living in. I had decided I wanted better for my life, my surroundings, and everything else. I was always thinking, I need to get out of here. I’m broke, I’m hungry, there is nothing that I’m wearing on my back that was purchased, it was either given to me or a hand-me-down or some stuff Bernard brought home, or something stolen off a clothing line. I don’t really know if that was an epiphany or just literally knowing there had to be something else out here that was better, and so whatever the hell I had to do to get money and hustle to get out of there, I did. I would have tap-danced in front of the Cheesecake Factory.
After I won first place I was singing and practicing every chance I got. I would sing in the bathroom into a little tape recorder, because the bathroom had better reverb and echo. I was trying to figure out my voice and if I was hitting good notes or bad notes.
Don Lee would also tell me to come to the gym at Will Rogers Park and I would sing for hours along with a karaoke machine. He would play song instrumentals and record me on the other side, so technically that was my first time ever getting recorded. I was there every other day, singing and learning my first bit of choreography. Don had a little Motown going on up at the park where he had discovered and was working on developing a few other groups that were pretty big in our community at the time, like Y.N.V., J’Son, and the Fellaz. They would perform at talent showcases and the girls would just go nuts.
One night I was watching Midnight Love on BET, and I decided to write down all the record labels that the artists who appeared were signed to. I wrote down every record label, every music video, and then I wrote down all the different record labels I could think of off the top of my head. After that, I started calling every one and told them the same story. I said, “Hi. My name is Tyrese, I’m fourteen, I’m from Watts, and I want to be a singer, I want to get a record deal.” They all told me the same thing—that they don’t take solicitations over the phone and that I should send them my demo. I borrowed tapes from my neighbors or popped the bottoms off of prerecorded tapes so I could dub over them. I got ahold of some stamps, and started sending out my demo.
When I called Priority Records, Gayle Atkins picked up the phone. The crazy thing is, it wasn’t even her phone. I had called into the general line. Gayle’s friend—who normally answered the phone—had asked Gayle to answer her line because she was expecting a really important call. If Gayle hadn’t answered the phone I probably would have heard the same speech I had gotten from every other label—that they don’t take solicitations. It was by design that she was at the front desk sitting in for her friend.
Gayle didn’t work in A&R, she worked in promotions, and when she answered, I hit her with the same thing: “Hi. My name is Tyrese, I’m from Watts, I’m young, I wanna sing, I wanna be a great singer when I grow up one day, and I want a record deal. I know that Priority Records has got artists and I’m just wondering if…” And Gayle said, “Oh yeah? You’re a singer? Well, sing something.” I was shocked that she asked me to sing—that she wasn’t turning me away. That was my fourteenth phone call. I had been on the phone all day. So I ran to the bathroom and sang for her over the phone, and she said, “Wow, you sound good. You’ve got a really nice voice.” We ended up communicating. I sent her letters, demo tapes of me singing in the bathroom and lyric sheets I had written out, and I think her heart went out to me.
About two months later she ended up coming to the hood to meet me. Now, when I first talked to Gayle I thought she was a white girl. She is a really attractive woman, a black girl who grew up in the Valley, so she speaks extremely articulately. She was saying, “Oh my God, you’re so cute. You’re really talented. I was just wondering what I could do for you.” Originally she was not interested in managing me on any level. She had just figured that since she knew a few people in the music business, maybe she could help me out.
Gayle would come to get me almost every weekend. A few times she took me up to the home of Paul Stewart, one of the head guys at Priority Records, who lived in a huge house in the Hollywood Hills, right next to the piano player George Duke. I swam in his pool, messed with his turntables, ran through his house. I knew it was a big deal for me to be in this huge place doing all this stuff, because I’m from the bottom-of-the-barrel Watts. I had never been to anybody’s house that was that big, I had never met or even seen people who owned or lived in houses that big. Looking at this guy—he’s rich, living in the Hollywood Hills—I realized there was so much more to reach for. Unfortunately, when you’re in the hood you tend to want to become the things you see—the same is true for anyone, no matter where you are—but when I was exposed to this new world, I started realizing there was more out there. Gayle created a huge shift in my life. She became an important person in my formative years as a musician and as a man. Gayle introduced me to amazing people, like Greg Parks, who managed me for years and years. Like my bus driver Angie, Gayle was a supportive and caring mother figure in my life.
But I wasn’t with Gayle all the time. I still lived in Watts and went to the private school. By this point I had moved on to ninth grade in the high school section.
The principal was a kindhearted white man who I could tell cared about each and every student at the school. His door was always open, and he gave me his home and cell phone numbers in case I ever needed help. He was a good role model for me in the midst of all the chaos of school and my home. I could tell he understood the complexities of life that his students faced. He was honest and went the extra mile for me. Thinking back on it, he was the first white person who had ever cared for me, and I count him as the person who broke down my own personal color barrier. Up to that point, the only white people I had ever seen in my neighborhood were police officers, firefighters, doctors, or those guys who check electric meters. Of course, none of those people actually lived where we did. It was just the Latinos and us, for the most part, so I never experienced anyone outside of my race caring about me. But after I met him, I never saw color. I just saw people.
I remember being a little scared to go to high school, but I continued to use my power to win over people who should have been my enemies. Since I wasn’t banging, I wasn’t trying to be hard and gangsta like everybody else, and I figured if I was funny and got everybody laughing, nobody would try and beat me up or mess with me. If you’re not a threat, nobody will try to take anything from you—you’re harmless. And, for the most part, it worked. My humor became my strength against a lot of these realities, including the feeling that I was never going to get out of that damn school.
I did try to maintain a positive attitude but I still got into fights. They were a way of channeling my anger at being extremely scared and freaked out about the things I couldn’t control in my life. I had no control over what was going to happen at my house, or my day or night, but I had to go home because that’s where I lived. It was completely in their hands and that drove me nuts.
Some time in the early part of ninth grade I got into a big fight with one of the teachers who beat me up really bad. I came home with bruises on my face and knowing nothing would happen or change, I called the police on the school. By doing that I became a threat, because I could potentially expose what some of the teachers were doing to the kids, and they kicked me out. At the end of the day, I had such a history of fights like most of the kids there, so even if I had tried to go full-on and get a lawyer, nothing would have happened, because back then the school was for kids with behavioral problems.
I had been up for dual enrollment in high school as well, but I never made it because I was too bad and dysfunctional. So they never allowed me to go to public school for even half a day. Once I got kicked out of the behavioral school and knew I’d be going to Locke High School I didn’t think I’d be able to stay out of trouble. When I first arrived at Locke’s big campus, I thought I was so bad that I couldn’t believe they even allowed me to check in. I remember standing in the office with my moms, praying they would let me in, and being totally shocked when they let me register. I remember thinking, What do you mean, I can go straight back into public school?! I had been kicked out of public elementary school when I was young, went to a private school and got kicked out of there, too. My record was even worse than before I had left public school in the first place. I felt like I had two strikes against me, so it seemed crazy to me that they let me right back into public school. And because many of my former teachers had made me believe I wouldn’t make it in public school, I was worried I wouldn’t be able to survive at Locke.
But I was fine. It was like I was out of jail and able to be among society, and everything that some of the teachers at private school had told me I was or wasn’t ended up being the total opposite. There were kids at Locke High School who were bad as hell but that wasn’t me. I was on my p’s and q’s. For the first five or six months I was making good grades, going through the typical awkward stage of getting acquainted. Once I got comfortable, I started being my usual self—cracking jokes, acting all silly and funny, making friends, being the center of attention. I had always thought that the world was my stage and all of a sudden, my stage had gotten bigger. Sure, I still got into some trouble for skipping class, running in the hallways, putting up graffiti and getting into minor fights, but mentally I was in a better place.
I was able to interact and learn and readjust myself to being around regular folks and doing regular things. And I was finally able to make use of my talent. The first class I signed up for was music with Reggie Andrews. I went straight into his classroom on the first day of school and got into a friendly competition with my boy Timothy Jackson and we ended up just singing all the time. I could finally channel my energy in a good way and make use of my love for singing and songwriting. I was learning music and how to play the piano and drums.
Every morning I was desperate to get to school. I loved going because it was where I could eat, and for six or seven hours I was able to forget the reality of what went on in my house. I still hustled quarters and did odd jobs, because I needed change to take the bus to school in the morning. On the mornings I didn’t have change for the bus, I missed Angie picking me up even more.
In LA, when I was a kid, there were two types of buses. There was the RTD, which took you farther, but cost $1.10 each way. Then there was the DASH bus, which covered less ground, but was only twenty-five cents. On top of that, the RTD was more sophisticated. It had an automated change counter, which showed the bus driver how much money you put in. The DASH only had a metal tray that you tossed change into, and sometimes just the sound of coins clinking in the tray was enough to satisfy the driver and get you on board.
The problem was, on many days I didn’t have a single coin to clink in the tray, and on those mornings I would get a crick in my neck from looking for change on the ground as I walked to the bus stop. Fortunately, there was one driver who always let me on the bus whether I had the fare or not. But she was only one of many drivers on my route, and on the mornings I didn’t have any money I would have to get to the bus stop really early to catch her, because the other drivers would slam the door in my face when I told them I didn’t have any money. It was either that, wait more than an hour for her to circle the route and get to school late, or walk the three miles to school. Considering where I lived, I would have had to walk through at least ten to twelve different gang territories to get to school and that wasn’t always a comfortable thought.
I would wake up early and walk to the bus stop at 103rd and Success Avenue. Directly behind the stop was a giant tree, with branches that hung over the sidewalk and above the street. I would stand at the stop, squinting through the sun to see the early-morning bus coming down the street toward me, trying desperately to make out if my lucky driver was behind the wheel. The sun was usually so bright that I couldn’t make out who the driver was until a few seconds before the bus pulled up to the curb. If I was out of luck, the doors would swing open, and I would just stand there, head hanging in shame as the driver asked me if I was getting on. When I’d tell him that I didn’t have any money, he would close the doors without saying anything, leaving me on the curb. As it pulled away, the bus would scrape the branches of the tree behind me, so its leaves would fall to the ground. Then the bus engine would blow out a plume of exhaust, making the dust and the dirt and the leaves shoot up from the ground in the direction of anyone sitting at the bus stop. I would sit back on the bench and wait to reenact that same scene until the second angelic bus driver in my life showed up.
I would think, Getting to school should not be harder than school itself. No wonder there are so many dropouts. When it’s this difficult, how do they expect kids to show up? I wanted to go to school and get an education, I didn’t want to be a dropout. All I wanted was to escape the pain that was waiting for me back home, but the public transportation system was making that impossible. I had to miss school a few days because I couldn’t get a ride or hadn’t slept the night before. No child should miss school because they can’t get there. And there I was, standing at the bus stop, not banging, not dope-slinging, not shooting, and not killing, I was just trying to get to school and I didn’t have a quarter. Twenty—five pennies. My thinking was, I’m a good person. I’m not a killer. I’m not crazy, I never went to jail. I’m just in the hood, so why am I struggling this hard? You would think that because you’re a good person in the midst of all this madness that things would be better for you. And then you see the dope dealers driving up the street in their nice cars with a loud sound system and girls in the front seat. You know they have on the latest Nikes and the fresh white T-shirts and the jewelry, and the cell phones. Waiting for the bus, trying to get to school, you can’t help but think, Man, if I start doing some of the shit that they’re doing then maybe I’ll get some of the money they’re getting. Because trying to do it the right way is just not paying off fast enough. That’s why most of the cats in the hood jump off into the dope game. But I didn’t want to gangbang—there were too many people dying and I didn’t want to die. And I loved going to school.
I found out after I arrived at Locke that there was a great musical tradition there. Reggie Andrews, my teacher, inspired me—he fed me when I was hungry and he was a father figure because he gave me advice on some of the stuff I was dealing with at home. He was my sounding board. Reggie was also a well-known producer. He had written “Let It Whip,” a hit song made famous by the Dazz Band, and many famous musicians had graduated from my school: Rickey Minor, a bass player and one of the most famous music directors in the country; Patrice Rushen, who sang “Forget Me Nots”; Gerald Albright, the saxophone player; and the whole trumpet section from Earth, Wind & Fire. All these legends went to my high school. The music department at Locke was a testament to Reggie Andrews being a great teacher.
Because of that tradition, one day some folks called my high school and said they were looking for a male black kid for a national Coke commercial. Since I was sixteen, about the age of the kid they wanted, Reggie told me about it. I didn’t have money to take the bus across town to get to the audition, so Reggie said he would take me himself. I just had to wait for him to finish teaching and lock up the music department. When we finally got to the audition, we were almost three hours late. The woman running the auditions was still there, but she was all packed and ready to go; she was just waiting for her ride, who was stuck in traffic. When I asked her if I could still sing for her, she was very cold and firm and said, “You’re late, I’m sorry.” I started apologizing to her, explaining that I didn’t have a ride, and Reggie backed me up, telling her that we were late because I had to wait for him, that I was from the hood and didn’t have money for transportation, otherwise I would have been there earlier. She sympathized with me and with an attitude, sighed and said, “All right, just warm up.”
I started singing and she looked at me with her eyes lit up. She started unpacking her equipment; she pulled out a camera, gave me a pair of headphones, and put a backpack on me. I sang Montell Jordan’s “This Is How We Do It” so I could dance while I was singing, and then I did two or three of my favorite songs. She asked me to improvise some Coca-Cola jingles, and as I did I was smiling and laughing—I was doing pretty much whatever she asked me to do, and then some.
She told me I was amazing, but I didn’t know what that meant because it was my first audition. I had extremely low expectations because up until that point in my life, the major things I had tried to do had not happened on any level. I wanted a record deal, but people kept turning me down or weren’t returning my phone calls. I was excited that I had been able to audition, but I was still negative about it. I didn’t really believe that the woman was really going to show the tapes of my audition to her associates. I knew it would be a national commercial, I knew they had auditioned kids in all the major cities, and that Los Angeles was the last location and I was literally the last person to show up. I didn’t believe it would happen for me. As Reggie drove me home, he kept telling me that I had done a great job, but I was thinking there was no way they would choose me for it. Now that I’ve gotten older I am able to see that it was all a part of God’s plan. Four days later I found out I got the gig. The commercial was a hit and got such a great response that they took it international.
Years later, I realized how crazy it was that in the commercial that sparked my career I was singing on a bus—a bus just like the one I had to take every day, a bus I usually couldn’t afford, that represented many of my childhood struggles. Because of that commercial, I never had to take the bus again.
I don’t usually talk about my childhood because it’s mostly bad memories. I don’t want to sit up and be reminded of all this stuff that I love to forget, because you can’t get points today for yesterday’s game—whatever happened yesterday is over. Today is a new day. So many people are submerged in what was, they don’t even focus on now. They don’t focus on the future. Every time they look back they cry and have all this pain about their past.
I know that the dysfunction I was exposed to as a child made me who I am. I like to say that every lesson is a blessing. I don’t think I would be this passionate about life, and I don’t think my work ethic would be the way it is, if my childhood had been nice and peaceful. It wouldn’t have created the motivation in me to want something different for my life.
I use my messed-up childhood to keep me motivated and to keep my life and career moving forward because I know that hell is out there. I don’t sit around and dwell on my past, and that way I’m able to get out of my own way, because to hold on to the past limits your future. I’m using my past as a part of my determination to never experience my past again.
Excerpted from How to Get Out of Your Own Way by Gibson, Tyrese Copyright © 2011 by Gibson, Tyrese. Excerpted by permission.
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