Growing up in a strict household in the suburbs of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Tedra Wilson could only wear dresses that fell below her knee. Never pants.
Secular music was limited to Disney soundtracks, at most. Nearly every day, she and her three siblings spent hours praying at the local Pentecostal church with their mother and father.
But Wilson couldn't be monitored every moment, and when she had one to herself, she sat by her radio, studying the music her church could never support: rap.
"I remember tape-recording one of Foxy Brown's songs, and I would write it word for word," Wilson, 31, said seated inside a Station North cafe recently. "I would memorize those raps. Eventually, when I got to high school, I started doing my own."
Years later, Wilson is known as TT the Artist, the Baltimore-based singer/rapper/producer meshing many genres and sounds — Baltimore club, Miami bass, electronic dance music and party-rap to name a few — with infectiously energetic results. Through collaborations local and international, she has gained admirers without a record label, and with the release of her debut album this month, Wilson hopes this is the year she breaks through to her widest audience yet.
"I got into this mode where now I'm just really focusing on my sound," said Wilson, who performs Saturday at Baltimore Soundstage. "You have to get to the point where you just develop who you are and let people buy into who you are."
Wilson's mother, Jennifer King, said her daughter was the most independent of her siblings. Even so, the children's lives reflected those of their parents, which meant devoting their free time to the church. Both Wilson and King describe the environment as "cultish."
"When I look back, I say to myself, 'How did I ever?'" King said.
In 1998, the family dynamic changed forever. First, King left the church after a business partner asked her why she allowed the church to control her. Not long after, she left her husband and their 18-year marriage after a dispute turned physical, and police were forced to intervene. She relocated with the children 20 minutes away and got divorced.
According to Florida court documents, Wayne Wilson was charged with assault, aggravated assault and battery — all dismissed not long after. Today, King and Wilson say their relationships with Wayne Wilson have improved and are cordial. Wayne Wilson said he regrets the incident and agreed that he is now cordial with King and Wilson. He also said he's one of his daughter's biggest fans.
"Life got better after that, because I allowed my kids to get more involved," King said. "She had opportunities after that she didn't have before."
To a then-14-year-old Wilson, high school represented a time of discovery and exploration. Time typically reserved for church was replaced by school dances, band practice and exploring her artistic side.
"Once my mother left that church, my whole world opened up," Wilson said. "I said I wanted to make the most of my life. It was fast. I just adapted to so many different things."
Emboldened by her rich high school experience, Wilson moved to Baltimore at 18 to attend the Maryland Institute College of Art. After graduating in 2006 with a bachelor's degree in fine arts and a concentration in video production, Wilson moved to New York City for a couple of years to pursue art.
New York was too draining, she said, so Wilson returned to Baltimore in 2008, where the Station North resident has lived ever since. (King considers Wilson staying up north another example of her independent streak; her other kids returned to Florida after college.)
Around that time, Wilson began to earnestly pursue music as a vocalist. Her Miami bass influence (think the joyful raunch of 2 Live Crew and 69 Boyz) would later meld with the feet-shuffling breakbeats of Baltimore club, but before then, Wilson was simply trying to find her sound. She tried "super hardcore rap" and dabbled in Chicago house music before finding her sound.
"Something like Naomi, she hits her model walk / A cute accent, Euro-swag when she talks," Wilson half-sings, half-speaks over a steady bass drum on the early track "OMG." You can hear faint elements of Wilson's current sound — a much more in-your-face, hyped-up take on party music — in the track's minimal drone.
In 2008, Wilson also met Baltimore club producer Marquis Gasque (then known as Murder Mark, and now as Mighty Mark) after another producer, Debonair Samir, recommended Wilson for a song called "Let Me Show 'Em."
"I thought she was very professional," Gasque said of his first impression. "She laid down the track pretty quick. She killed it."
After the two knocked out another song in an hour ("She Rockin"), Gasque knew the connection was real. (Wilson credits him with shaping her sound today.)
"She just sounded so good over the beat," he said. "Every time we'd come in there, it'd just be natural, just knocking stuff out."
In 2009, she released her first project, a four-track EP called "Kick Punch" on Chicago's Liar Liar Records. More projects followed, like 2011's "No Sleep" EP with DJ Will Eastman, her 2012 debut mixtape produced by Gasque, "Money Monsta," and last year's "Art Royalty" project. All of these releases are connected by Wilson's agile vocals and her ability to meld fast-paced flows into the fabric of the dance beats.
While Wilson credits Gasque as the person who helped shaped her sound most, she has made it a point to work with people from all over the country.
In 2013, that hungry, open-minded approach paid off when Diplo — the superstar producer with a big love for Baltimore club — tapped Wilson for a feature on his single "Dat a Freak." The next year, Jennifer Lopez sampled the song on her track "Booty," which earned Wilson her first official writing credit with the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, a milestone she is particular proud of.
Counting Diplo as a collaborator opened major doors into the world of electronic dance music, Wilson said. It also taught her to be proactive in forming relationships with other artists.
"Whenever I was in these environments with other producers, I made sure I introduced myself," Wilson said. "I realized if you don't ask, you never know what could happen. I face rejection a lot — all of the time. But you can't get let it get to you."
Rejection occurs less often lately. In February, Sam Zornow — better known as the New York City producer DJ Shiftee — released "Dope Girls," a single featuring Wilson. Part of his job is to pay attention to up-and-coming artists, and Wilson "has always been on my radar as someone who rapped over cool club music," Zornow said on the phone from the studio recently.
He was drawn to her flow and energy first, and quickly grew to appreciate her appetite to create.
"She really can rap or sing on any kind of beat," Zornow said. "A lot of times when you work with vocalists, they're very particular about what kind of beats work for them, but TT is really open and versatile."
On April 28, Wilson will independently release what she considers her debut album, "Queen of the Beat." (A release show, along with the music video premiere of her song "Pum Pum," is scheduled April 28 at Metro Gallery.)
She's still finalizing the track list (it will be more than 10 songs, she said), but many of the contributors will be familiar to fans of Baltimore's underground scene. Gasque, Michael J.R. and Thunderbird Juicebox have production credits, while rapper DDm and singer Hunter Hooligan will also appear.
Gasque said the album sounds "like a fusion of Baltimore club and eclectic sounds, kind of like if Timbaland was in Baltimore right now down at the Crown." Zornow's contribution, a song called "Art Party," sounds a lot more "bare" and hip-hop driven than "Dope Girls." He notes Wilson sings on the track, too — something she's not known for, yet.
The goal of "Queen" is to further define herself as an artist, Wilson said. While much of her material has been more about the visceral emotions songs evoke, Wilson said she's incorporating more of her life into her lyrics.
"It's going to be some fun records on there, but I also have some records where I'm touching a little more on my journey, my story and my take on what's going on in the world," Wilson said. "My goal as an artist is to make universal music where it doesn't just fit one category."
New song "God Bless the Children" questions the future kids will have growing up in such a polarized political culture, Wilson said, while "Queen" — the album's upcoming single — addresses the misogyny that she says she has faced in the industry. The latter was partly inspired by watching Viola Davis last year become the first black actress to win an Emmy for a lead dramatic role, she said.
Wilson's career has shown it takes time for some audiences to come around, and that's OK with her. Patience is nothing new for Wilson. And besides, she said, something inside her says they will all come around eventually.
"A lot of times, music doesn't even pick up until a year or two after it's been produced, so let's see what happens this year," she said. "I think it's going to be a good year for me."