Willie Terrell Wallace took the stage Oct. 6 at Gary's Area 51, a welcome home celebration for the rapper who was convicted 15 years ago of voluntary manslaughter in the shooting death of Gerald Wrice in Hammond.
Wallace was paroled from prison May 19. He continued to write songs while incarcerated, drawing from his experiences behind bars.
“I kept my sponge wet,” he said. “I always got my sponge wet from guys with knowledge.”
Wallace, now 46, is grappling with his public image as he reboots his rap career.
He's in one breath the entrepreneurial son of a blue-collar mother – “a steel-toed-boot-type woman” – who rose to local fame in the late 1990s as the rapper Will $crilla and founder of record label Ignat/Sluefoot.
He's also “the voice of the streets” in Gary, not the booming steel town of the 1960s, but a city so awash in guns and drugs in the 1990s it became the nation's murder capital.
“By the time I was out of high school, I got into the street life,” he said. “I graduated with a diploma. I went into the streets.”
Those two images — the rapper and the gangster — collided at Wallace's murder trial.
Wrice, 20, was gunned down around midnight Sept. 14, 1999, during a street fight in Hammond's Maywood neighborhood.
Wrice was transported for multiple gunshot wounds to St. Margaret Hospital, where he allegedly identified Wallace as the shooter while on his death bed.
Wallace maintained at trial he and Wrice were locked in a wrestling match when two shots were fired, which caused him to run to a nearby relative's house.
Prosecutors alleged Wallace resorted to firearms after he was humiliated in a street fight with Wrice.
The jury found Wallace guilty of voluntary manslaughter.
Wallace maintains he didn't shoot Wrice, though he pointed out murder isn't the same as manslaughter, a crime committed in “sudden heat,” without premeditation and driven by an intense emotion.
Wallace's status as a local rapper played a significant role at his trial. He was questioned on the witness stand about his profane and violent lyrics, as well as the AK-47 depicted in his record label's logo.
“Who I am in the recording studio has nothing to do with who I am as a person,” Wallace testified.
Wallace maintains that's still the truth, but admits he's not a “fairly tale kind of guy.”
Wallace was born in Chicago, but raised from age 4 in Gary. His mother was a blue collar worker in a chemical plant and his mother's boyfriend a steelworker who ran a mechanic's shop from the family garage.
He attended Williams Elementary and Pulaski Middle School, where he was first chair on tenor saxophone.
He said his interest in music started at 5 or 6, listening to the soul and pop music of the 1970s. At age 11, he became more interested in the “phonics” of language.
He was introduced to hip hop in the 1980s through Sugar Hill Gang, Run DMC, Fat Boys and LL Cool J. His own fledgling craft began during that same time period.
“In middle school, these people would call me up and ask me to rap for them,” he said. “It was about the wittiest punchlines, it was about who made you laugh. We'd talk about dudes' shoes. It was a 'fight' or a 'duel.'”
He also began scraping together his allowance to buy records from shops on Broadway, which he used to DJ after-school parties.
“I was the guy with the milk crate of music,” he said.
His first public performance as a rapper was at the now-defunct Chez Crouton, at 17th Avenue and Grant Street in Gary. He said it was a “euphoric” experience, that cemented his love for performance.
“I didn't have the butterflies,” he said. “Some people might not believe that. The only fear I had was the fear of not being believable.”
Rapping is storytelling for Wallace. In prison he kept up with hip hop through radio and magazines, and laments modern rap's reliance on glossy production and dance beats.
“A lot rappers now are mumble rappers,” he said. “You can't make out what they're saying. They're not audible. It sounds good because the beats carry you — the beats make the production now.”
That philosophy about music also explains his frustration with how he was portrayed by the prosecutors at trial. In Wallace's mind, he is a performer and Will $crilla is his role.
“I'm entertainment,” he said. “Is it because I'm black, that I can't be a person different from who I played?”
But Wallace also insists he's not a “studio gangster,” someone who just profited off the gangster persona.
Wallace said he graduated high school and moved out from his parent's home. He sold drugs, crack cocaine and marijuana, from 1989 to 1996 in Gary, which he called “The Murder Cap.”
“What attracted me to it was it was glamorized,” he said. “They were the guys that got the accolades.”
He said poverty, gangs and a lack of education were other factors that drove him and others into drug dealing.
“There were skating rinks, and Boys and Girls clubs, but they didn't prepare you for anything,” he said about Gary. “They facilitated amusement. Nothing prepared you for moving forward in your life.”
In 1997, he began performing as Will $crilla. He incorporated Ignat/Sluefoot in 1999. That same year he was featured on a compilation album released by Laidback Records and Concord Affiliated. He also appeared in “Live and Die in G.I.,” a video about the rap scene in Gary, and formed The Grind Family, a rap super group representing The Region.
“That's when I took off,” he said.
The original members of The Grind Family were Will $crilla and Soope (now Soope Da Roadrunna) from Gary, Ric Jilla from Hammond, and COB, C-Ghetto and Whissit Ave. from East Chicago.
The group released the album "In The Grind We Trust, Vol. 1," in 1999.
Wallace said he was always entrepreneurial. He cut grass and packed boxes at the corner liquor store as a child to get pocket money. He said those same skills made him successful as an adult, both in rap and dope dealing.
“I made a lot of money,” he said, adding later. “I had an accountant named Sherry. I lived in a $250,000 house.”
All that was lost when he was sentenced in April 2002 to 35 years prison for Wrice's killing. He also faced an additional 4 ¼ years in prison for a federal firearm offense filed three days after the shooting of Wrice.
He continued to work while incarcerated. He obtained a drum machine and keyboards, and estimated he wrote about 500 songs in prison.
“I had guys who were around me who helped me, he said. “I learned a lot. I came across people from all walks of life, from millionaires to the poor, the educated, the crafty, the religious.”
Wallace obtained two associate's degrees, in general science and business management, and become a licensed landscaper through the Indiana Department of Labor. He also converted to Islam.
Wallace remained a popular local rap figure despite, or perhaps, because of the crime.
A clip from “Live or Die in G.I.,” which features Wallace rising from a casket holding fistfuls of cash before launching into “Photo Album,” has more than 65,000 views on Youtube. A music video for a new song by Wallace, called “Ghost from the Gutter,” was published Aug. 9 on Youtube. It already has more than 27,000 views.
“I'm blessed,” he said about his longtime fans. “I get a lot of love.”
Wallace has relaunched his rap career, beginning with a show Sept. 3 at Club Limelight in Indianapolis. He's also created a Facebook page, using the moniker Gary Dios, to sell merchandise and promote upcoming projects, including a new album, "I/E," or intellect over emotion.
Three artists are currently represented by Ignat/Sluefoot — Isaiah "Slimmattic" Griffin, 30, Aaron "Shotta" Nevils, 30, and Roxanne "Roxsy Love" Tucker, 28.
He said Soope Da Roadrunna, a member of the Grind Family, flew from New York with recording and video equipment to help get him restarted.
“I'm still a poster boy of the streets,” he said. “I can't escape that if I wanted to. That's my legacy. But it's not just about where I began — it's about where I end up.”