TeeFLii was raised in the church yet you won’t hear his music anywhere near the pulpit. Nah. The South Central native sings about the turn up, not the testament. The 27-year-old crooner, songwriter and producer crafts tunes fit for a cookout (with no kids allowed), smoke session or bedroom rump. His ratchet lyrics have a charisma and freshness that’s his alone.
Fresh off the release of his first single, “24 Hours” featuring 2 Chainz, FLii is currently gearing up for the release of his debut album, STARR. VIBE’s BIG Cosign artist for the month of June hopped on the phone to speak about his former life as a dancer, writing for Rihanna, his new album, and why you’ll never hear his gospel tracks. —Tanay Hudson
VIBE: Tell me about your childhood. I understand that you left home at an early age. Is that true?
TeeFLii: I left home around 12 or 13. I wanted to dance. I started off dancing—my pops would tell me to go to school but I didn’t want to go. When I did, I only hung around music class. I always wanted to be a singer. My first thing to get into singing was dancing. I wanted to dance behind people to see if I could do that first. You don’t wanna just throw yourself out there. Dancing behind Omarion, Chris Brown and a lot of other people just showed me, “Damn, I could do this, too.”
Did your parents ever try bring you back home?
They knew where I was. My dad had other kids. My daddy and my stepmom didn’t really want the other kids to go the direction that I was going. [I was] running away from home and it was like, “We can’t keep him here. He don’t wanna be here and he’s not gon’ stay.” I was bad. My dad would always say “when you have your kids, you gon’ see.” And everything that my daddy told me—as sure as my name is Christian—is happening.
Was Michael Jackson is a big influence in you becoming a dancer?
I love Michael, don’t get me wrong. But the one that made me really want to dance was Usher. That 8701 tour. To see him dance live, man, dude is crazy. I think it was in Tennessee. I went with Big FLii, that’s the big homie. He danced with Tony Rich, who did choreography for Michael Jackson and all of the greats. Tony got me into the Rize movie. He introduced me to FLii and we just clicked. That’s how I became TeeFLii. Rize played a big role in opening up doors for me.
What happened after the movie, after the fame died down? You were homeless right?
Staying behind Starbucks is no fool, man. Mice come out! [laughs] I knew I couldn’t go back to the streets of L.A., because I’d end up in jail. I knew if I stayed somewhere close to where music was then I would be successful. You gotta go through something to get to somewhere.
How long were you homeless?
Six months to a year.
How did you get through that?
God. You pray. When you ain’t got nothing else you call on Jesus.
Why didn’t the movie give you ultimate success?
When God wants you to be somewhere, he puts you there. I wasn’t suppose to be where I’m at right now. I had to get more focused, more determined. I had to facilitate the right team to push me. It had to be A-1. It couldn’t be nothing else besides that.
Talk about your upbringing. Your family raised you in church, right?
My granddaddy was a preacher. He was a bishop and pastor of a church. That’s pretty much where I started playing the drums. My granddaddy would go through it with organ players, so I always wanted to take that stress of of him. So I learned how to play the organ.
Do you come from a musical family?
My grandma was a singer. She got albums, Stellar Awards, Grammy Awards. She gave me my first big start at drumming. She started paying me to be the drummer and organ player of her band. So I started learning more about music, mixing, everything. To see my granny on stage doing her thing with the lights, camera and action at the House of Blues on Sunset, or in church every other Sunday inspired me.
Didn’t you have family members that played for Elvis Presley?
My auntie and my grandmother, yup.
What would your grandfather think about your music?
[Laughs] I don’t wanna say he’d be angry. I don’t wanna say he’d be too happy, but I know he’d want me singing gospel. My mom can’t deal with a lot of the songs or what I’m saying. She just likes the melody. She’s like, “Boy, one day you’re gonna sing a gospel song!”
Will you ever sing a gospel song?
Yeah—in church [laughs]. I’ve been working with my grandmother on some gospel.
Let’s get into the album. Is there a release date?
Me and the label are fighting about that right now. I wanted to release it Sept. 30, but I think I’m going to go with January. I don’t wanna put too much pressure on Epic.
How much of the album have you produced yourself?
I’m the man on the album, don’t worry. I’m working with a lot more producers, keeping it original. It’s going to be great, I know that for sure.
Is DJ Mustard on there?
Mustard is big bro. We’re about to get in the studio after he finishes 10 Summers. When I finish STARR, we’re gonna do Fireworks 2. I worked with Mikey T, formerly known as the Futuristiks, 88-Keys, EML, my team.
How do you make your own production stand out?
I don’t stand out baby, I stand in [laughs]. This music that I come up with all starts off with feelings.
What collaborations should we expect?
I don’t wanna give too much up, but EML is on the album. Ty Dolla $ign is big bro. Of course he gotta be on the album.
You have your own terms that you use on your songs like “stern up” instead of “turn up” and calling women “Annie.” How did all that come about?
[Laughs] Me and my best friend, we’re totally idiots. My best friend, he’s crazy. I love him to death. I love his energy. Just being around your homies. We just clowns. We’re assholes. We go retarded.
What about “excuse my liquor”—you say that in the beginning of your songs.
That was the funniest night. I was kicking it with my team and got so drunk that I was throwing up outside. My little brother had to carry me into the studio and I threw up again. I was like, “Excuse my liquor” and it just stuck.
What were you drinking?
Remy. I was too sternt.
Who are some of your dream collaborations?
R. Kelly, Usher, hopefully Beyonce. Ciara, Rihanna. I’m actually about to write a song for Rihanna. That’s a blessing.
How did that come about?
DJ Mustard. She was already in the studio with Mustard and he let her hear a few songs that I had came up with. She was like she wanted to get down with me. She loved my sound. Big ups to Rihanna. Hopefully we can cook up some Grammy nominations.
You have four children. Will you ever teach them how to play instruments?
My oldest daughter is trying to sing and dance. I gotta pay for that every month for her dance [classes]; she’s not letting that go. Of course I’m going to show my kids the music and let them know the business and everything I learned. That’s what a daddy is supposed to do. I’m not gonna be their friend. I’m gonna be their dad.