“No, I’m not doing that,” he recalls saying.
And why would he? As the most successful rapper to come out of Denver, he didn’t build his career preaching about Jesus — to the choir or anyone else. Christ-like language doesn’t exactly roll off his tongue when he’s performing, and between hangovers, fawning groupies, relationship drama and a career that’s broken down nearly every time it’s started revving up, he doesn’t spend much time in church.
Growing up in Park Hill at 30th and Krameria streets, he’d hear people at church preach, “Come as you are.” But he didn’t buy it. As he was bearing witness to the wars between friends in the Bloods and Crips, he had to praise the Lord by wearing a suit, cutting his hair and smiling.
The thirty-year-old rapper still grapples with the pressure to play a part.
“I have to look a certain way, I have to act a certain way, I have to dress a certain way for you guys to not look at me like I’m a thug or I’m crazy,” he says. “I’ve seen church people turn their nose up at me and what I do. I know in my heart, just being a positive person, I don’t talk about killing and drugs. I don’t glorify it. I’ve seen it; I’ve been around it. I came from it just being in this city. It’s not a thing to glorify. But I feel like people who are very, very religious in that aspect, they won’t respect who I am as a person.”
So, no, he didn’t want to make his grandma’s gospel album. He had other things to worry about, like a career swerving between lanes and two kids to support.
Rich has worked his way up from grunt jobs at Wendy’s and a Netflix warehouse to the rap messiah of Denver. Three years ago, the Denver Post dubbed him the city’s “first great hip-hop hope.” His peers said he would put the city on the map.
All that praise came from Rich inking a deal with Cash Money Records, the rap label founded in 1992 that has represented artists including Lil Wayne, Drake and Nicki Minaj.
“The second that Trev Rich signed his recording contract with Cash Money Records, he’d become something more than just a Denver rapper,” wrote Dylan Owens in the Post profile. “He was now the Denver rapper.”
Rich tells a different story: “The moment I signed, I had a gut feeling: ‘You shouldn’t have done that.’”
He knew Cash Money was in legal disputes and that founder Bryan “Birdman” Williams was squabbling with Lil Wayne. But Rich wanted a label’s backing so badly, he looked the other way.
Even though he put out an album in 2016, To Make a Long Story Short, after signing with Cash Money, he feared his music would take a back seat to the label’s court drama. All the while, he was slowing down as a writer and performer. After meeting his contractual obligations to Cash Money, Rich went to Birdman to see if he could cut ties with the label.
“I delivered everything I was supposed to deliver,” he recalls. “When I was talking to Bird at the end of it and told him, ‘Man I just want to do my own thing,’ there was no hesitation. He was like, ‘Bro, go do it. We can’t hold you into this. We can’t do what we need to do for you at this point. Go do it.’”
No longer tethered to a label, Rich started hustling, releasing the album Balance in 2017 on Denver-based DJ Squizzy’s label, and he moved from Park Hill to L.A. to make stronger connections in the music industry. Just as things were looking up, in May 2018 he came back to Colorado for a weekend and was busted for drunk driving. After losing his license and being put on parole, he quit drinking, stayed in Denver and focused on writing, taking business cues from his longtime manager and friend Francois Baptiste.
Later that year, Rich and Baptiste announced a fall concert at the Ogden Theatre that was tied to an independent album Rich had released called Clarity. The album is partially a response to backbiters trolling him after the Cash Money deal imploded. But Clarity is also a manifesto of creative focus in which Rich spells out why he does what he does: to bring hope to the young and hopeless. It’s a self-portrait of a man bruised by cynical players in Denver’s music scene who have taken to social media to mock and insult him every time he tumbles. “My life’s so full of stress, there ain’t a drug that can help,” he raps in “Roley Talk” before raging about his quest for physical, spiritual and mental health.
Clarity is a declaration of survival. It’s hopeful. But despite being loaded with smart songs, the album hardly lit up streaming platforms; Rich says he didn’t have the marketing budget to push it. Ticket sales for the Ogden show languished, so he and Baptiste canceled it.
Around that time, Rich returned to L.A., living on his brother’s couch and hoping to make moves as a songwriter. One night while he was out, he lost his wallet in a Lyft. He called Baptiste and told him what had happened. Depressed and with no money to get around town, Rich saw the lost wallet as a sign that he should give up on his rap dreams. But Baptiste encouraged him to stick it out, to make connections while he was in L.A. and to write.
“It was really just me on that couch,” Rich says. “No TV, no entertainment, no nothing. It was just you — like, this is your time to get right. That’s when I started praying a lot more, getting spiritual, practicing my obedience, started eating better. That was the turning point of everything for me.”
And he started working nonstop.
“The only thing I had was my voice. I was in studio sessions every day. I made sure I was taking every opportunity. I don’t care if I have to walk to that shit. I was making sure I was doing everything I possibly could,” recalls Rich. “That’s when shit started happening.”
Through those efforts, he got a publishing deal with Pulse Music Group and collaborated with artists on a song for the soundtrack of Spiderman: Into the Spider-Verse, which went on to win this year’s Academy Award for Best Animated Feature. He was also one of the more than 100 rappers invited to J. Cole’s prestigious Revenge of the Dreamers III recording sessions this year, a ten-day rap camp.
Through it all, he found that he could make money through songwriting and music publishing to support his family without the drama of being a rapper. He may not have a Bentley, but he’s successful. If his kids need anything, he can provide, he says. And his kids have his back.
When the Mississippi battle rapper P.G. Poetik Genius went to lyrical war against Rich in early 2019, blasting him as a fat wannabe, Rich’s eleven-year-old son stumbled across the video on YouTube and swiftly came to his dad’s defense before Rich could strike back.
“Don’t talk bout my dad like that bro because it looks like your face caught on fire and someone tried to put it out with a hammer,” Rich’s son wrote. “Also Scientists say the universe is made up of neutrons, protons and electrons. They forgot to mention morons like you and yea my dad is a lil chubby but you so fat you could sell shade and if i had a face like yours i’d sue my parents.”
Rich was mortified but amused. His son didn’t understand battle culture, and the whole thing — as cold as the attack was — was in good fun.
“I was like, ‘Yo, you gotta chill, man,’” Rich says.
At the beginning of 2019, Rich vowed not to drop any new music or play any shows. But his grandma’s pleas for him to make a Christian album nagged at him.
He prayed about it, and after reflecting on his journey and emerging spirituality, he took her up on her challenge. But his gospel album would be unlike any other. It’d be slightly blasphemous — after all, the people he reaches through his music aren’t in the pews. They’re in the streets and don’t speak the church’s language.
To pull off his gospel project, he’d dig deep into himself and his own flaws, his community’s struggles and the language his peers use, to find God in real life. He spent fourteen days penning lyrics and a month recording in the studio. He wrote about killer cops, the loss of young black men to gang violence, the perils of wealth and fame, and the futility of rapper feuds. He called the project Trap Gospel. “Trap” refers to the genre of rap that traffics in drug dealing, but also people’s everyday hustles, whether it’s that of a nine-to-five desk jockey or a drug dealer in a trap house. “Gospel” evokes Christianity and black music traditions, but also blunt truth.
When he finally decided to drop Trap Gospel in July, he had few expectations. He didn’t bother clearing samples he’d used; he’d done the same with Clarity, and since it received so little attention, rights holders didn’t notice. Trap Gospel would do worse, Rich assumed.
But the album has done far better than he expected. Fans have told him: “This is the Trev Rich we’ve been waiting for.”
“Then I wake up two or three weeks after Trap Gospel dropped, and I see the project is at a million [streams], and I’m like, ‘Oh, shit. They’re gonna come knocking soon.’ And that’s pretty much what happened,” he says.
Spotify sent him an email notifying him that the project was being taken down because he had violated the terms of his agreement with the music-distribution platform and sampled work by other artists without permission. “Those were terms and conditions that I broke knowingly, so I can’t really be mad at Spotify,” he says. He and his management appealed the decision, and at Spotify’s request, in late September Rich removed the sample from Trap Gospel’s opening track so the album could be re-released.
Still, Rich says that the album being taken down was yet another sign that he should double down as a songwriter for other artists; there were too many obstacles to being a rapper himself.
To celebrate Trap Gospel, Rich will perform at Cervantes’ Masterpiece Ballroom on September 26 with Kayla Rae, AP, Mi$fits and 100 Packsavy. Rich is preparing for the show by eating a strict no-dairy, no-meat, no-sugar, no-bread diet, working out at the gym and practicing his set. He might as well put his all into it, he says, because after the Cervantes’ show, he’s not taking to the stage again anytime soon.
“I don’t want to make it seem like it’s the last hurrah,” he says, “but it’s kind of looking that way.”
Trev Rich plays at 8 p.m. Thursday, September 26, at Cervantes’ Masterpiece Ballroom, 2637 Welton Street. Tickets are $17 to $35 and available at the Cervantes' website.