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08 June 2013

True Confessions: T.C. Ellis talks 2 Beautiful Nights

  This is David Ellis' true story.
  Ellis, better known by his nickname “T.C.” is known to Prince fans for his featured role in “Graffiti Bridge” in 1990 and his album “True Confessions,” the first rap album released on the Paisley Park label in 1991. Before that he had experienced some regional success as part of the burgeoning Twin Cities rap scene in the mid-to-late 1980s with two singles he independently released: "Twin City Rapp," his homage to Prince and the Minneapolis Sound and "Bat Rap," based on scenes from Tim Burton's 1989 movie.
  He grew up in the midst of the up-and-coming Minneapolis and St. Paul music scenes in the 1970s and 1980s. He witnessed the ascent of musicians such as Prince, Andre Cymone, The Time and many others. His sister, Sue Ann Carwell, also experienced success in the music business, albeit behind the scenes. He was inspired by the achievements of those around him and pursued a career in the music business first in management and later as a songwriter, producer and artist.
  Ellis is now using his love and knowledge of the music business to give back to the community. He is the founder and program director of the High School for Recording Arts, a charter school in St. Paul, Minn., that offers students an opportunity to learn about the music business, operations and production, while earning their high-school diplomas. The students gain real-world experience through a student- operated record label, weekly radio show and marketing company, among other projects, according to the school's Web site.
  K Nicola Dyes recently conducted a telephone interview with Ellis where he discussed how his role in “Graffiti Bridge” mirrored real life, the best business advice Prince ever gave him  and being asked to present at the Oxford University Round Table:


  Growing up in Minnesota was, in a way, very eclectic. You came from a small Black community, so you're very exposed to the white community. You're not as excluded as when  you live in big cities like Chicago.
  That translated musically, too. There were a lot of great musicians coming out of Minnesota that were playing in different types of bands. Bobby Lyle, was one of the most well-known keyboard players in the world. Carl Walker, Willie Weeks, Sonny Thompson -- we were always known for having great musicians. One of them, Rocky Garrity, just passed away, he was famous in this community. He played with everybody.
  I could talk to you all day about growing up in Minnesota.

  I started in the music community at my church. I played the drums. That's how I got started, backing up the choir, playing too loud. We would get in trouble with the choir director Roberta Davis. She would say “You're playing too loud. Turn it down.”
   I played in a couple of different bands from there. Tony Walker was in one of them and we used to rehearse in his father's living room, with Andre and Pierre Lewis (who later formed the band The Lewis Connection, which also featured Thompson, who later played with Prince and the New Power Generation).
  I got away from music for a while. I got involved in aviation. I got my private pilot license's first. Then I went to an aeronautical university and got my commercial pilot's license.  I was a commercial instrument pilot and did some flying for a little bit.  I was a Golden Gloves boxer. I was also a juvenile correction worker.
  I used to watch from the sidelines as my friends were getting in the music business. My sister, Sue Ann Carwell, got signed to Warner Bros. and Prince worked on her demo. But, they said it sounded just like him. They were concerned that it sounded so much like him and to them, that didn't make sense. Lo and behold, a few years later, the whole music industry was trying to sound like Prince. It was before its time. I guess all the stuff Prince did (with Carwell) is still in the vault.
  This is before Prince was an icon. He was up and coming and had just released his first record, “For You.” He was very much in the developmental stage of his career.
  He produced quite a few songs with her,   but, (Warner Bros.) ended up guiding her in a different direction. She had the same management team as Prince-- Owen Husney and Cliff Siegel. As things developed, there was a rift between Prince and his management. She ended up with working with Pete Bellotte, a pretty well-known producer at the time, who had worked with Donna Summer.
  She also sang background on songs like “Cool” and “Get it Up.” I heard all these songs in the demo phase. She came home and said "David, I made this song with Prince and it says "Get it up, get it up, I'll f*** you all night.” I said “You can't say that on the radio.” Later, when I heard it on the radio it said “Get it up, get it up, I'll funk you all night.”
 She had more success behind the scenes. She worked with Songwriter Diane Warren for 15 years and has done demos for some of the biggest artists, including Toni Braxton and Celine Dion.
  Also, there was “Funkytown,” by Lipps, Inc. featuring Cynthia Johnson on the lead vocals. If the story's told, Carwell was actually the original one chosen to sing that song, but, since she was under contract to Warner Bros., her manager said she couldn't do it.

Sue Ann Carwell and Terry Lewis

  When I first met Prince? Shucks, to be honest, I can't even remember. I've known Prince so long...we must have been 11 or 12 years old. The first formidable memory that I have is his when dad brought him to Will's Supervalue, in Minneapolis, to get him a job bagging groceries, we must have been 14 or 15 years old. It was on the north side, over by Cymone's house. I remember that he didn't want to work there and ran off. Not long after, Prince went to live with Cymone. But, I had met him before then, because, I think he was friends with my cousin.
  Cymone's mother was like the neighborhood mother. If you were in trouble, you needed somewhere to stay, you needed some food, or whatever it was, that's where you went. Then in St. Paul, it was my mom, almost like the same thing.
  We'd have barbecues many times and Prince would be hanging out at our house. Prince was very introverted. We'd be having a barbecue and I remember going in the house and he'd be sitting in the kitchen talking to my mom while she was washing dishes. He had a mature disposition even when he was young. He was about business. He knew what he wanted to do and he was about it.
  He had that Twin Cities attitude. He was kind of "pimpish," cocky, like “we can do this.” His cousin, Darnell White, was the same way. He was a boss on the street. But, Prince was young. He wasn't down for no real “get down.” But, he knew the lingo, he knew the body language, if you watch him, he still uses it today for his shows. He gets cocky, he talks shit, you know? That's a Minnesota thing.
  A lot of people don't know this, but, Minnesota is kind of “gangsterish.” Back in the day, a lot of the O.G. hustlers, gamblers and prostitutes, who were really getting money and had experienced some success down south and in Chicago, would move and settle in Minnesota. They would come here and retire, because, it was slow. There was a concentration of people who were real entrepreneurs, real cutting edge hip Black folks. There was that element here.  
  St. Paul and Minneapolis were always   known as gangster havens. John Dillinger  and Al Capone lived here; they had homes and hideouts in Minnesota. These neighborhoods have a unique culture.

  In Minnesota, there's Minneapolis and St. Paul, two cities adjacent to each other, although you can hardly tell which city you're in.
  If you were from the Black neighborhood, you knew whether somebody was from St. Paul or Minneapolis. If you crossed over and went in the wrong turf, you could get hurt, beat up or killed. That's just the way it was.
  Girls could usually go back and forth without getting jumped. My sister had some girlfriends from Minneapolis. I started liking one of them and I was courting her, so, I would sneak over to Minneapolis to see her. You know how men are, I was getting cocky, and we went to the McDonald's right in the middle of the north side neighborhood, which was the toughest part of town.
  We were in line and a bunch of guys got off the bus coming from the roller skating rink. They were talking behind me saying (referring to T.C.)  “Isn't he from St. Paul?" I could hear them talking among each other. One of them came and got right up in my face and he said "Aren't you from St. Paul?" I said no. He said "So, where are you from?" I said "I'm from the Twin Cities." He said "Oh, you're T.C., right?" I said "Yeah." He gave me five. Then, we went and smoked some weed.  So, it was cool.
  Those guys were the hardcore guys from Minneapolis and I became friends with them. They all called me “T.C.,” so, I kind of had a "visa." That upped my value in the hood, because, I was one of the cats that could go back and forth without getting beat up. I could do business, so, I was kind of like a go-between. I was also a boxer, so, I had a street rep. That's how I got the name “T.C.” and I just kept it for my rap thing.

Cover of "Rapper's Delight," by The Sugar Hill Gang

  The first time I heard rap music was when I was exposed to it by a friend of mine, Troy. He went on a youth trip, to either Chicago or New York and when he came back home to St. Paul, he had this record.
  I was always known for having a booming stereo system. I had this Pioneer Technics with AFM speakers in my bedroom. If people wanted to listen to music, they would come over, we'd smoke weed and listen to Herbie Hancock and "Mr. Magic," (by Grover Washington, Jr.), all the latest stuff coming out, mostly jazz fusion.
  He came back and told me “David, I have this record and it's the best record that I've ever heard in my life.” I said “What?!” He said yeah. The first thing that came out of my mouth was “Better than Herbie Hancock?” I loved Herbie Hancock. He said yeah. I said “I have to hear this.”
  I put on the record and it was “Rappers Delight” by The Sugar Hill Gang. It blew me away.  It has that bassline by Chic and it was just infectious. It rocked my world.  A lot of people said they didn't like it, that they didn't like rap and that it wasn't real music. I said “It sounds like real music to me.”
  I really enjoyed it and that's where it started right there. Once that happened, it just changed my life. It changed the way I thought about music. I knew right away that it was phenomenal. I could tell. People said “Ah, that's a trend, that's a fad.”
  I (later) told Prince “This is the future of the music business.” I even told him “If we work on this together, you'll be able to affect the whole music industry, because, this is what's taking over.”
  He just didn't see it. He just kept on until it was too late.
  When he finally let me (record), the train had already passed us up. We were trying to catch on to the caboose. He really had a great opportunity to be in the forefront of hip-hop. But, for whatever reason, he didn't see it coming.
  My part in "Graffiti Bridge" is realistic in that I was constantly nagging Prince to let me do the rap thing. But, it wasn't over the course of two weeks, like the movie; it was over the course of five years. I was telling him what was coming way ahead of time.

The Main Chapter

  My experience in the music industry was really more about business than it was as an artist. Around 1979 or 1980 I started managing a group called The Syndicate. The two members of the group, who were also the songwriters, were my cousins David Connover and Gerald Benford. The tracks just blew me away. The group was made up of a “preacher,” a “policeman” and “gangster.” They were very similar to The Time.
  Andre Lewis was one of the players in The Syndicate. I think he was the policeman. He and his brother, Pierre, had (previously) had a record called The Lewis Connection (released in 1979). This was before Pepe Willie (the 94 East recordings that Prince played on were not released until the mid-1980s). They have a record company (The Numero Group) courting them right now, because, they want to re-release the record. The Lewis brothers were from St. Paul and they were phenomenal musicians on guitar and keyboards. They were incredible.
  I said “I'm going to get this to Prince.” That was always the plan. He was on the Warner Bros. label and that was a major accomplishment in the music business. I had access to him and I had a personal relationship (with him). I wanted to try and make the connection. These guys were very talented and they had a lot of potential. I thought, “If I could get this group cookin', then, with my relationship with Prince, I could get him to at least listen to their work,” which I knew was good. And maybe he could help get them signed.
  I was the major investor. I bought the equipment and I rented the rehearsal space. I was the manager and these were all the things they wanted and needed to be successful. But, when it all came together, the chemistry just never worked. Once they started rehearsing, everything just went bad. There were a lot of egos flying around. That was the beginning of my frustration. I could see what was happening.
  After everything just imploded, I just started thinking that I needed an artist that would do what I would tell them to do— like me. That was when I started taking my rap stuff more seriously.
Cover of the single "Miss Thang."

  I had access to Prince and I (later) got a record deal. I had been going after my own project for four years. I was trying to educate Prince about hip-hop. He said “I really don't like rap.” I said “Prince, you're a virtuoso, how can you not like rap? This is the future of the music business.” He kept telling me "nah" and was blowing me off.
  I had a good relationship with Miko Weaver, who was Prince's lead guitar player at the time and they were doing a project for Warner Brothers when the very first “Batman” movie came out. So, Weaver and all these guys were seeing the dailies of that movie.
  We would get in his apartment where he had his own studio. He lived in Symphony Place in downtown Minneapolis. It was a real nice luxury condominium. He had built a digital studio in his house. So, whenever I went over, he would tell me about the movie. I wrote this rap called “Bat Rap.” I laid the track, rushed it and put it out. It was the second single I released.
  The first one was "Twin City Rapp," which I had put out a few years before (in 1985). Prince knew about that song and it was what I used to try to get through to him. But, he wasn't budging. It got some regional airplay. The whole rap broke down what was happening on the Minnesota music scene. That was the first project that I put out independently. “Bat Rap” was the second and that was motivated by Weaver.
  I would tell Weaver all the old stories about when Prince first got his record deal and how he was messing around with some guy's chick. This guy wanted to beat Prince up. So, I took up for Prince one time at the Fox Trap, this club we all used to go to. I was a Golden Gloves Boxer, so, I was tough. I had a strong reputation in both hoods --Minneapolis and St. Paul-- which is another story. That's how I got my name, T.C., “Twin Cities.”
  This guy wanted to jump on Prince and I blocked him. Weaver said, "Why don't you remind Prince about that?" He knew I was trying to get a deal. I said," You know, I really don't want to bring that stuff up." This was after “Purple Rain,” so, he's like a superstar. He said, "You knew him back then, I know him now. That's the thing kind of s*** that will get to him. You need to bring that up."
  Sure enough, I saw Prince a couple of days later at The Pacific Club in downtown Minneapolis, which was owned by Walter Payton (the late football player from the Chicago Bears). He actually called me over that night. He said "Hey, T.C., come here."
  I walked over and he said "You're going to have to quit coming up to me every time you see me out and stop talking about that rap stuff.” I asked why. He said "Because, I'm going to have Gilbert (Davidson) or Hucky (Austin, Prince's former bodyguards) do something to you." I laughed and asked "What are they going to do?" He said "You know, like break your legs or something."
  I said "Man, if I ball up my fist, (Davidson) would break his porch door trying to get in the house." We all grew up together. When we were kids (Davidson) and all these cats knew me from the neighborhood. I grew up a block away from Prince's (then) main bodyguard. I had street juice over him. I was a real thug and he was a kid who played football and grew up in a nice situation.
  I said "Come on man, for real? But, Prince, do remember before you had all these bodyguards, who was taking up for you then?" He said "Oh, do I owe you? How much?" I said "You don't owe me anything, just open up the door, I can get in myself." He said "That was then, this is now." He just walked away and did his little Prince walk.
  I was kind of pissed off about that. The next time I knew where he was playing he was at this place called Rupert's Club. He was doing a special presentation with Sheila E., a marching band kind of thing where they all came out with drums. I went to the club and I just stood in front of the stage, in the middle, right in front of him. When he came out, I just gave him the finger. I turned around and I walked out. In my hood, if I ball up my fist, that's a warning, but, the finger that means I'm gonna f*** you up.
  After that, I put “Bat Rap” out. Weaver mixed it down and I put it out. Later on, as hood mythology says, Warner Bros. heard the record. KMOJ was playing it on the radio, right next to “Batdance” and they said "Who is the real Batman?" Warner Bros. asked who put out this rap record and knows all about the “Batman” movie? I guess they were asking Prince "Who is this dude? Do you know him?" I guess they were looking for me. So, rather then they get to me without Prince, he called me up and said "Hey, man, why don't you come out here and bring your music. Let's do some tracks." I said "Okay."
  I got my shit together, I went out to Paisley Park and started recording. I went out there and started working on the record. I was introduced to Levi Seacer. I thought I was going to work with Weaver; I was looking forward to it. That was who I really wanted to work with on the production.
  But, Prince has his ways and I think he found out Weaver cut the record for me. So, he kind of took the (project) from Weaver and gave it to Seacer. I didn't really have the chemistry that I wanted with him. But, I went to work, because, it was an opportunity. I've always looked at it as business.
  I started putting it down and from there Prince asked me to be in “Graffiti Bridge.”

  “Graffiti Bridge” was very exciting. It was very intriguing in that it was an attempt to bring the whole clique back together. The Time came back together with Jimmy Jam, Terry Lewis and Jesse Johnson. So, they all were on the set. Prince was on the set. There was a lot of mediation and discussion between everybody, trying to make all the different personalities work together smoothly.
  Prince had been checked a little bit by Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. He fired those cats and they came back hard as hell. They were giant bosses in the business, so, they were formidable for him. It wasn't like he was just bossing them around and running shit. They were like okay, we're going to do this and it's going to be this way or that way. They were "shot callin' and ballin'" to him.
  Prince got through it and he made the movie. But, there was definitely "sibling rivalry" going on. But, it was a lot of fun. In hindsight, when I look at it, this whole movement was part of the neighborhood-- all these people I knew and grew up with. I didn't really realize what was going on while it was happening. Making the movie was a blast, but, we all knew at the time, "This shit is corny as hell."
  We were trying to bring it together. The Time was trying to do it and Prince was struggling. But, it was still fun, because, Mavis Staples, George Clinton, Tevin Campbell, Jam, Lewis, Morris Day and Jerome Benton were there. It was really like a homecoming. 
  Prince was trying to expand his horizons: he wanted become a filmmaker and be the star all at the same time. He just couldn't do it. Prince is a remarkable, incredibly connected musician. He can do anything when it comes to music, bringing it together on the stage and in the studio. But, when it comes to making movies, he has as much to learn as everybody else.

Graffiti Bridge Movie Poster

  Recording “True Confessions” was nothing like I anticipated or wanted it to be. I went to the studio and I was introduced to Seacer. They knew (the title song) was kind of like my signature track; I had recorded it before. They started throwing tracks up on the thing. I think this version was a track that Seacer produced and he wanted me to just try it. I said “That's not the groove for this song” and he said “Yeah, I know, let's just give it a shot.”
  So, I went in there and dropped it. I did the best that I could on it. But, it was definitely not what I envisioned or what I had planned for that song. It was really not what I would've produced or even released. I was eventually convinced that it was okay, because, I had Prince and Seacer gassing me up.
  The experience recording the album was mixed. There was some creative stress going on. I already had experience and I knew how I wanted to present myself in the music industry. I think that was kind of blunted, in that Prince, but, more so Seacer, were leading the project musically.
  I love live music. I grew up playing live music. But, I had an idea of how it was going to go and they were more choreographed and deliberate with how they produced. That was tough for me. I enjoyed the time working with George Clinton, because, he was more laid back and creative. He said “Let's make it funky.”
  So, it had its plusses and minuses. It definitely wasn't what I had in mind. But, at the same time, I was in the midst of making a record and I was working with Prince. I was working with Seacer. There was a lot of stuff going on.
  I was looking at it more as a business opportunity  than the opportunity to really be creative. I thought I would have another opportunity to really show that I could put it down. It was a compromise.
  It got me paid, though. I was never mad about that. I learned a lot about the music business right then and there. When I cut that album, Warner Bros. wanted to sign me for six more (contract) options. I made the record and they wanted six more albums, so that's seven all together.
  I fussing with them about the royalties. At the time CDs were coming out, taking the medium over from vinyl. But, vinyl was still the primary seller. They were very sophisticated in their negotiations with me. They took your eye off what the real picture was. They brought something else into the kitchen that you can't see.
  That's one place where I really credit Prince with helping me out, especially with the business. We were doing the movie and Prince said “I'm trying to wrap this up, did you sign the contract?” I said no. He asked me “What's the problem, what's going on?” I said “I'm negotiating these royalties for Europe and the United States.”
  He said “Look, don't worry about all that. Just tell them you want a guarantee of three album releases and go along with the rest of it.” I said, “No man, the royalties...” again, I'm thinking about the business. He said “You're not going to get any royalties. Warner Brothers has like five sets of books.” I said “No, you can audit the books.” He said “You're not going to audit anything, they have so many lawyers. Just listen to me. Trust what I'm telling you.” I told him okay. I went back and told my lawyer “Let's just go with the schedules they have, the only thing I want is a three-release guarantee.”
  He said okay. When I did that, Warner Bros. said it was fine. Then, lo and behold, after the movie came out, it was flop. My record didn't sell. But, they had to pay me for three records that I didn't put out. They had to pay the average production value of what the album cost. Prince spent $370,000 on my first album. That's where I got my come up. If they don't put those three albums out, they have to pay you what it costs to produce those albums. You add $370,000 three times and how much is that? That's a grip. That's how I am able to do what I'm doing now.
  I've always been on the cusp of what's coming and what's new.That's how I work myself. We could have controlled the whole rap thing, because, everybody was on Prince's shit then. Anything he would've done would have had a major impact on the hip-hop community and the world. When hip-hop first started, of course, (the artists) were influenced by Prince. One of the biggest records featuring rap was “I Feel For You” by Chaka Khan.
  They were all into Prince. The whole hip-hop community loved Prince. But, he didn't show any love back. Looking at it historically, (the rise of rap) was really the beginning of his decline in regards to his sales in the music industry.
  But, that doesn't have anything to do with him doing a show or performing. I still say he's the baddest MF out here. Nobody can f*** with Prince when it comes to getting on stage and putting it down musically and rocking. He'll f*** up the baddest white boy on the guitar. He's definitely channeling Jimi Hendrix on his latest tour with 3rd Eye Girl. He's no joke when it comes to playing that guitar.

Cover for True Confessions album 

  You know, when Prince would go out on tour, he would come back, people were used to talking to Prince and engaging him. There were times when he would just bow his head, and really not talk or hold conversations. At the time, a lot of people said "What's wrong with him? He's acting all funny, like he can't talk and he's stuck up. What's up with that?" I didn't have a clue. I just said "Yeah, what's up?"
  Then, later on, I was in a situation when I was on tour and performing. My voice out. So, I had to get a shot with steroids or something to bring the swelling down on my vocal chords and the doctor told me "Listen, don't talk to anybody. Don't talk, save your voice."
   I remember going back to my neighborhood and people were coming up to me and they were greeting me and talking to me. But, I couldn't really say anything. I just did what I saw Prince do -- bow my head, smile and keep it moving. They said the same thing about me: "What's wrong with him? Does he have the 'big head''? He can't speak to people anymore?"
  People don't realize, sometimes, what an artist, or someone who is out performing a lot is going through and one thing or another may be interpreted differently than what the reality is. 

Cover for the single "Pussycat."

  My favorite song on True Confessions, that's a hard one. But, just straight up, on the hip-hop tip, it would have to be “Dope.” That was the most spontaneous, natural work I did (on the album). We all came together and just freestyled in the studio that night. There was no writing. It was all kicking it and that's really the style that I like to rap in. It was in the funk style.
  I learned so much from Clinton in regards to letting the music take on a life of its own-- keeping some parameters and guidance with it-- but, letting it do its own thing. I really felt that. I loved “Bustin',” too. Really, I like all the songs, they just weren't produced in the manner that I would have liked—except for “Girl o' my Dreams” and “Bambi (Rap).” Those were Prince's songs and they were produced the way they should have been, because, he was involved with it. He did it and he knew what he was trying to do. I was really the “voice.”
But, the other songs, I wish there had been more collaboration.

T.C. Ellis and Eric Leeds
  did a whole record release and played the album at Glam Slam, Prince's (now closed) club in downtown Minneapolis. I had my night. I preformed with Prince and a couple of times with George Clinton—we performed “Bustin'. ”It was great, I had fun. There was a lot of excitement. It was too choreographed for me, but, it was still fun. I was working with Prince and it was a fantastic opportunity.
  I'm just a b-boy, I grew up gangster in the streets. I wanted to start the show with “Dope.” I had a band and they were dope; they were the bomb. When the show was supposed to start, I wanted the music to start playing while the lights were still on. I was going to come from the back of the venue, walk through the crowd and get up on stage and say “Turn the lights down in here, it's time to get funky and bring out the dope.” Just like it said on the record. But, that was too much for Prince and Seacer at the time.

  was able to build and maintain a good relationship with George Clinton. He came out to Minnesota and set up shop. I was kind of an emissary between Clinton and Prince. I would take tapes and go to Detroit and set up shop in the studio. There is a track I liked that they did called “Soul Psychodelicide” that was never put out.
  He's a real down-to-earth cat. When I was in Michigan I would stay with him or I would stay in close proximity. I was able to spend a lot of time with him in Minneapolis and Michigan. Clinton produced “Pussycat” and “Bustin'” (on the album True Confessions) I also spent a lot of time with his son, Traylude. He's an incredible songwriter and musician.

  I always dreamed that I was going to be able to get Prince and Michael Jackson together and I was going to be the executive producer of the record.
  I always had that spirit that I could do anything in the music business. I had proximity to Prince and I had proximity to The Jacksons. I got a chance to meet Michael Jackson and I got to meet his brothers.
  Eban Kelly (best known for writing “He's Coming Back” for Al Green and as an executive producer on “We're All in the Same Gang” by the West Coast Rap All Stars) was a mentor to me and I did some writing with him in L.A. His studio was in the same building as Warren's.
  Kelly took me to the Jacksons' compound in Encino, Calif. I met Jackie Jackson, Jermaine Jackson and their mother, Katharine Jackson. They were having a showcase for a group that Jackie was producing called Mix. The group had five boys of different races: Asian; Latino; Black and white. We saw where the Jacksons grew up and where they rehearsed. I got to see the whole estate.
  I had met Michael long before that in Minnesota, when “Dancing Machine” was out. He came to town with his brothers and after the show his father threw a little party. You know how people always talked about how Joe Jackson was so bad and he was hard on the kids? Well, when The Jackson 5 came to Minnesota, his father had a party for them at the Radisson Hotel in downtown St. Paul.
  He wanted all the boys to come down and for it to be “normal,” to just have a regular party with some kids. I remember hearing the conversation. Joe said “I just want the boys to come down here and get a chance to meet the kids and have a normal get together." I always remembered that when I would hear all the bad stuff about him.     That's not how I remember him. When I met Joe, he seemed like an engaging father who wanted his kids to have some normal participation with other kids.
  Much later, I saw Michael Jackson in L.A. at the Le Parc Suite Hotel. I was there and I ran into him. He knew my sister, because, she used to go out with his security manager. I talked to him. I told him I was out there working with Prince. I always dreamed about being able to produce a record with Prince and Michael. He really admired Prince.
  It was just something that I was never able to do, but, that was my dream music project. I grew up listening to Michael and The Jackson 5. I grew up with Prince. It was just one of those dream scenarios.


  I started High School for the Recording Arts, because, I saw a need in the community. Prince's thing fell apart, he had changed his name to the symbol. He was having troubles with Warner Bros. and he wanted out of the contract. They dropped my deal. So, I went and opened up a recording studio in downtown St. Paul.
  It was on the skywalk level --in Minnesota it's real cold in the winter, so, they have these walkways that bridge all of the buildings together. You don't even have to put on your coat, you can walk all around downtown.
  All the kids that ditched school hung out in the skywalk. They knew I had a studio. They would congregate there and always wanted me to let them in to show me what they could do. I was basically doing them like Prince did me; I was blowing them off, because, I had clients coming in. I said “No, I'm busy, blah, blah, blah.” One time some clients didn't show up and these students said “See, you said you had somebody coming and there's nobody here. We could have made a hit!”
  I said “Okay, come on.” I took them into the studio and I put a beat on. They just immediately blew me away. I said “These cats are the bomb.” What it took me two or three days to do, they could do in 20 minutes. They could listen to the beat, write the rap, stand up go behind the mike and start rapping. So, I was like these kids are awesome.
  I asked “So, how come you guys aren't at school?” They said “F*** school, man, we're trying to do this music thing.” They started asking me about the business: “How do you copyright?” “How do you publish?” I explained to them how to do publishing and copyrighting. After that, they were at my studio every day, hounding me about everything I knew about the music business. That's where the idea came from.
  I said “These brothers are super smart. They're trying to get their business on and they're high school kids. But, they're not getting any credit for it.” If you can do publishing, copyrighting, go in the studio, write prolifically and perform like that, you're competent as a high school student. I know that, because, I didn't learn what I was teaching them until I was in my late 20s. If you can do all that, you have skills.
  I connected it to my own experience growing up. I was the product of an alternative school. I went to the St. Paul Open School. I was a hands-on, entrepreneurial type of leaner myself. So, that's when it all came together and I realized my whole life had really been a training ground for I was going to do for my “life work.”
  My “life work” was founding this school and continuing to provide opportunities for young people who are motivated and inspired by music, like I was. I thought this was something good. I reached out to some of my mentors who were in education and I told them what I was doing. They said “This is a good idea, we should start a pilot program.”
  I created a a pilot program and partnered with a charter school. In two months there were 50 kids on the waiting list. Then we moved to another facility and we applied for and received our official charter from the State Department of Education. We started working with Verizon Wireless, Exxon Mobile and a whole lot of companies. Recently, we worked with State Farm Insurance where we did a whole campaign called “26 Seconds.”
  We've been doing a lot of projects in the community and also with companies. Our kids do music for learning for middle school kids. We put together recording projects. It's just inspirational and phenomenal what these young people can do, while at the same time earning their high school diploma.
  We're getting recognition worldwide; people come from all over the world to see this school. We've been acknowledged in the book “Hip Hop Genius,” written by Sam Seidel. He came and spent two years in Minnesota and chronicled the school and told the story of the High School for Recording Arts. NYU has partnered with us, giving us credit for having the first hip-hop project offering a credential. We've also worked with Chris “Kazi” Rolle, of “The Hip Hop Project” a documentary, where Bruce Willis was a executive producer.
  It's been very fulfilling and it's given me an understanding of what my life is really about. I grew up tough in the neighborhood and I had a good reputation on the street. Yet, I was blessed enough not to get in any trouble.
  I had a career in the music business with Prince, I've worked with George Clinton, Mavis Staples, Patti LaBelle and Jeff Beck. I've had access to all the biggest stars in the music business. Having this opportunity and the understanding of everything that I went through up to this point was to prepare me for what I'm doing now. You know? I get it. What a blessing.
  Sometimes I go on some of those Web sites and it says “T.C. Ellis works at McDonald's.” I think  "These people are so damn stupid, do they really understand what life is about?” It's about having the opportunity to be part of a movement. Just to have worked with Prince and now, from that opportunity, have spawned all of this – I'm effecting thousands of young lives.
They don't even get that. Sometimes, I get motivated and say “I'm going to write something on there.” But, my inside tells me “Dude, don't even waste your time. It's not worth addressing. Just keep working on what you're doing.”
  I'm having business meetings, I'm raising capital, transforming facilities and dealing with lives. I just stay on track. I feel so blessed to do what I'm doing now. It really feels better than it did when I was working with Prince. This is more fulfilling, more long lasting. I try to keep the focus positive on my latest development rather than rehashing all that old stuff that went down back in the day. But, I try to keep that positive, too.
  It was really a miracle for me: growing up being a young black man, beating the odds, having the experiences I had and getting the opportunity to do what I'm doing now. How does that happen? Who does that happen to? I know it's a privilege.
  I've been on the stage and I've been in production in the music studio. So, everything that young people who are striving to be in the industry want to know, I have something to share with them. I can tell them what it's like. I can give them some insight into their dreams and an opportunity to take it beyond where I did. I get to give something back.

  People would be surprised to know I have a little four-year-old son. I'm still getting it in. I'm a boss out here. (Laughs). I have the means and the ability to provide and take care of my family.

  Being honored by Oxford University. Wow. That was exciting. That was a trip for me. I didn't even realize what it was all about until I got there and got into the debate hall and the coffee shop.
  About 10 years ago, someone nominated me and (the university) called me up and invited me to come to Oxford and present my hip-hop in education project. I said “Oh yeah, sure, I would like to do that.” But, I didn't realize what Oxford University was.
  For whatever reason, I didn't put two and two together. I told some of my relatives and different people. They asked “Wow, aren't you excited? You get to go over there and do a presentation at Oxford?” I said “Yeah, well, you know, I've been to Europe before. It's not that big of a deal.”
  When I got over there, they assigned this professor to me, some older guy and he was showing me around the campus. He said “You know, this university is four times older than your country.” He started breaking it down: “Penicillin was discovered here. The King James Version of the Bible was interpreted here.” He started telling me about how great Oxford University was. I still didn't catch on.
  He took me to the debate hall and said “This is where you're going to do your presentation.” Then he took me to the coffee shop and he showed me a wall that  had hundreds of pictures: Martin Luther King, John F. Kennedy, Desmond Tutu, Mother Theresa, all these phenomenally great people.
  They were standing in front of the podium where I was going to do my presentation. That's where they took the picture. He said “These are distinguished people who have all addressed the Oxford Round Table, such as you are going to do.” That's when it finally sank in. I said “Oh, this is Oxford University! Where these great people come and discuss ideas.” Then it hit me, “This is where I'm at. This is what it's all about.”
  I was there for two or three weeks. I settled down and I worked on my project and, when I did my presentation, I got a standing ovation. It felt really good. Then they gave me a certificate, that said I was an alumni and official member of the Oxford University Round Table. I rolled it up and put it in this tube. (For a long time), I never took it out and I never did anything with it.
Oxford was a blast, the people were incredible, it was just a tremendous learning experience. It was intriguing, because, it wasn't just about me doing my presentation. I was learning there.
  I spent a lot of time with a graduate student who was doing a project on Martin Luther King's speeches. I would meet with him in the student hall in the evening and a lot of times we would go to his room or somewhere and we would listen to Martin Luther King's speeches like “Why I Oppose the War in Vietnam” and “I Have a Dream.”
  I got a chance to analyze those speeches and understand the humanity that Martin Luther King represented and where a lot of his ideals came from: like those from Ghandi, about humanity; about being powerful and how to use that to be political and accomplish some righteousness. It was unbelievable. The whole trip was just inspirational to me.

T.C. Ellis and Antonio Fargas

  I've been recognized by NYU and Cornell University. I consult with their education and teaching departments, because, they are all embracing using and teaching hip-hop for education. They recognized what I have with the High School for Recording Arts. It is the first academic institution that offers a credential that is based around hip-hop. They (the universities) have put us in their archives and Sam Seidel, wrote a book about it called “Hip Hop Genius: Remixing Education.” it's all about the school I started in Minnesota. I have been doing this for 15 years. Without it, I don't know where I would be. It offers me so much.
  It gives me the opportunity to continue to work in the music industry, which I love so much, but, I get to work with the newest, brightest, up-and-coming talent. I'm doing something positive for the community.
  I've tried to tell Prince. When I was in Las Vegas with Carwell (for his recent show in April at The Joint in The Hard Rock Hotel). I was trying to reach him. I just got a new facility. This is a nonprofit organization, but, I'm doing a $2 million renovation. I'm basically building a mini Paisley Park that is in the community, that's accessible to our young people. These are the descendants of both our families.
  I've been trying to say “Prince, I need you to do a benefit, do a show for the school and help this thing proliferate.” But, he's not making himself accessible. But, that's okay. I'm going to keep doing what I'm doing. I keep my nose to the grindstone and I make it happen. I'm a builder; I'm a businessman.
  People get confused. I read all those stupid blogs about music, Prince and what I did. I say “They don't even have a clue of what I was really all about or how that (album) came about. They're just lost. But, then I look at it like this: small minds sit around and talk about people and great minds get busy doing something.
  I try to do something positive in the community and do something that will make a difference. I want to help our young people get where they want to be, because, they have the same dreams and desires that we had as young people. I think it's our responsibility  to help them realize that. We had an opportunity and we were able to make it. I don't believe in turning my back on that. I'm dealing with his cousins, his nephews. These are our families; these are the same neighborhoods.

  One of my best friends, Charles Crutchfield, is a world-renowned dermatologist. When you go in his office he has like 40 or 50 certificates hanging on the wall; he went to school at The Mayo Clinic; he has degrees for research science; a degree as a medical doctor. He has degrees everywhere.
  So, I was looking at all his degrees one day. I said “I have a degree that you don't have on your wall.” He asked what it was. I said “I got a degree from Oxford University, I'm an alumni of the round table.” He said “Yeah right.” I said “Yeah, I do. For real.” He said “Show it to me.” I said “Well, I have to go find it...I put it away.”
  So, the next Saturday he met me for lunch and I said I was going to bring the degree. I brought it and I showed it to him. We immediately got in the car and drove to the framing shop where he has all his degrees framed. He had my degree framed with the most expensive wood they had. They matted it and put it in cherry maple wood.
  I always give him shit. “Yeah, you went to college, you have all those degrees, but, I never graduated from college or anything like that, but, my degree for the Oxford Round Table is the most prestigious.” We tease each other about it all the time. I have one degree that trumps all of his, as far as academia. It's hanging in my office.
  I have one other thing hanging in my office that I really admire. I have this note from the desk of Prince. He wrote all this stuff that he wanted me to say. He wanted me to do some vocals. When they told me what he wanted me to do, I went up to his office. His secretary was reading the note and I grabbed it and looked at it. Then she took it back. She didn't want me to keep it, right? Prince had written it and he doesn't do autographs or anything like that. So, I said okay.
 When I sat down waiting on the side, she called into another meeting somewhere. So, I picked it up and I took it. It said “Would you have T.C. say these things?” and it's written like Prince writes where he puts “4” and “2” rather than writing the word. So, I have that in my office. I have the original and I got it framed. Those are my two little accomplishments.

  I've always wanted...that's deep. It's the same thing I told you before, that I wasn't able to accomplish: I wanted to produce a project with Prince and Michael Jackson. That was my musical coup d'etat. That was what I always aspired to do. I really wanted to do that. It's impossible now; Jackson's dead. But, hey, at least I gave it a shot.
 I just talked to Michael and talked to Prince and told them what I wanted to do. I spoke about it one of my raps that I gave to each of them. I used to have some times in the studio where I would just snap out, freestyle and just talk about what I wanted to accomplish. But, they were just disconnected.

  In the future I really would like to expand and replicate my High School for Recording Arts project to other cities across the United States and the world. That's my goal for the future, to create something that is going to bring hope and opportunity to young people. Especially young people who are from my culture and my community-- young black men.
  I think they are probably the most disenfranchised (group) and have the least amount of opportunity. I really want to change that dynamic and put some resources into connecting with them and demonstrating to them how to be productive humans and citizens. So that they can reach back and do something for their community. I want them to effect a change and take responsibility, so we can really lift ourselves up.

Stay beautiful, Kristi

Check out T.C. Ellis' Twin City Rapp here:

For more information on High School for Recording Arts visit


Lead Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. (Paisley Park Records)



  1. This is a phenomenal article! Great to hear from TC.