Most people will recognize Tristan Wilds from his groundbreaking role as Michael Lee in HBO’s modern cult classic series The Wire. The Staten Island native is a triple threat of actor/singer/songwriter, but spent the greater part of his career acting, with music sprinkled in. He’s appeared in a slew of music videos, from Alicia Keys’ “Teenage Love Affair” to Lil Flip and Lyfe Jennings’ “Ghetto Mindstate.” His big music video breakthrough came with Jay Z’s “Roc Boys” in 2007. Wilds played the role of Colleek D. Luckie, the nephew of Jay Z who was killed in a car accident driving the car Jay Z gave him (listen to “Lost One” for the story). It was a small role in the video, albeit a poignant one. A distant cousin of Jay Z’s, Wilds has also modeled for Roc-A-Wear and appeared in the 2008 “I Will Not Lose” campaign.
Most recently, Wilds played the role of Dixon Wilson on the CW’s revival of Beverly Hills 90210 (abridged to 90210). The series ended its five-year run this May and the stage was set for Wilds to begin the next phase of his career. He aligned with super-producer Salaam Remi, known for his work with The Fugees, Nas, Miguel, Fergie and, most notably, the late Amy Winehouse. Wilds and Remi met years ago, but have finally decided to make some magic in the studio.
In June, Remi hosted a listening session for an artist named Mack, who turned out to be Wilds. He presented his debut album, New York: A Love Story, announced a September release date and unloosed the torch single “Own It.” A couple weeks later I spoke to him about his sound, his move into music and his conscious decision to not record under his acting name.
Why did you choose your second middle name as your musical stage name? That’s a surprise.
Yeah. It’s actually my family name. My family’s been calling me “Mack” since I was a kid, so I feel like with music, you’ve got to be a little more personal. You gotta really show people your actual you — no characters, no falseness. It has to be you. So it’s like, yeah, I’m making you guys part of my family. You guys are calling me Mack.
You could have easily used “Tristan Wilds,” and people would have known exactly what was going on, but in being so personal, there is a level of mystery.
Yeah, kind of. I mean, eventually people were going to find out so, it is what it is. But yeah, with the name, it was definitely — I didn’t want any connotation with the actor side of me or for anyone to think, “Aw, it’s just another role that he’s playing!” I have to show the real.
We’ve heard some music from you over the years, but why now? Why this moment?
It was just like, the perfect time. It seemed like it was perfectly set up. Between 90210 ending and the ideas that me and Salaam [Remi] were coming up with at the same time, it really couldn’t have happened at a better time.
Did you feel it was important to bring a certain sound back to New York? There’s always been this kind of argument that New York is “losing its crown” and all of that.
Absolutely. I think it’s bigger than just trying to get a crown back or anything, but I think New York is the birth place of many different and many amazing genres of music, be it different rock-and-roll genres or even hip-hop. So for us to lose the essential sound of what hip-hop was, that boom-bap, I felt like it needed to come back one way or another. So, me and Salaam really just put our heads together and crafted an album to what sounds like, to us, the summertimes that we used to have in New York City.
For me, this album is a hip-hop album with melody. It’s very based in an urban, dirty, gritty, but very beautiful sonically, New York place. That’s where the music is coming from. There’s no music that you hear that sounds like the landscape — and I guess the soundscape — of New York City. You don’t hear anything that feels like the train stations or the cobblestone streets or even playing basketball at Rucker Park. You don’t hear nothing like that.
You’re probably the first artist that Salaam Remi has co-signed since Amy Winehouse.
Yeah, which is bananas.
Before that it was who? Lauryn Hill?
You’re also the first artist signing to Salaam Remi’s Louder Than Life label [through Sony]. Why do you feel it’s you?
Man, I couldn’t tell you. I mean, I’m constantly doubting myself. I always feel like I’m good, but I always feel like I could be better. But Salaam definitely pushed me in the right direction, and made me turn into the artist that I am today. And I did the same thing with him producer-wise, and made him turn up as a producer.
Rico Love has such an extensive resume. He’s worked with people like Beyoncé, Usher, Kelly Rowland and Chris Brown. How did you link up with him?
Rico wrote a song with Salaam before. Rico wrote a song with Salaam, Ne-Yo wrote a song with Salaam and James Fauntleroy wrote a song with Salaam, and I guess it was more so at first there were tests just to see how well I’d sing. So he kind of just threw them at me and was like, “Okay, let me see what you could do with these.” And because I guess I took them to another level, he was like, “Alright, cool.” That’s when we started working on everything else that I was writing. But it went from there to where we sent it back to them and they were like, “Yo, these are amazing! Who sung these?” and Salaam would show them who it was and they’d be like, “Him?! Are you serious?!” So it just worked out, and eventually they all gave their blessings because they truly loved it and loved the sound of it.
Did people assume that you were going to be part of Roc Nation because of your tie to Jay Z?
I mean, I guess. I’m not positive what people thought, but shout out to Uncle Jay.
You’ve mentioned in the past that Jay Z is a distant cousin of yours, but you actually played his late nephew Colleek in the “Roc Boys” video. What was the set of that video like?
It was amazing. It was everything that you would expect it to be. I mean you had everybody there from Jay Z, Puff Daddy, Nas, Jadakiss was there. Like, the whole old-school Roc-A-Fella team. Beanie Sigel, and just a plethora of models, so it was literally what you would expect. What you seen in that video, I think Chris Robinson literally just turned the camera on and was like, “Go.” Like a do-whatever type thing. It wasn’t planned out or anything.
Did you have any face time to talk to Jay?
Absolutely. Absolutely. I still keep in contact with him. He’s a really dope dude. Definitely one of the guys that I look up to and I strive to be like one day.
Has he ever given you any bits of advice?
Always. Always dropping gems. He’s one of those guys that have nothing but one-liners. Seriously, he always has the perfect one-liner for whatever you’re going through if you hit him up or whatever. So he’s a really, really, really dope guy.
What are some lessons that you’ve taken with you? Be it from Jay Z or Salaam Remi or Ne-Yo, anybody that you’re bringing into this part of your career.
I think, “Don’t let the fame blind you.” It’s a great game, it’s an amazing game. But a lot of people let the excess of it all take away from what we’re actually here for, which is the artistry of the music. So stay focused, I think that was the main thing everyone says. Just stay focused.
Do you feel that artists like Drake made it easier to make that transition from actor to singing/rapping?
I mean, I think Drake did a good job with it. I think Jamie Foxx did a good job with it. Jennifer Hudson did a great job with it. I think there’s a bunch of people that did a great job for it, but it’s always going to be hard. I don’t think there’s a person who will make it easier, but there will be people who will defy the odds. I will say that.
Towards the end of 90210, your character Dixon was able to really explore his musical side. How supportive was The CW in letting you do that? Was it something that you came to them and said, “Listen, I’m getting my timing together,” or were they like, “Hey, you’ve got the chops.”
It was more so like, they wanted to work it. They wanted to figure out a dope way to work it, so they made me a producer more so than, I guess, a music artist as a whole. I was like, “If we do it, I want to do it in a way that doesn’t necessarily disrespect the real art form of my musicality and everything, but still have music in it to where it’s built in to the character.” So, having Dixon as a producer — which is something I eventually want to be, something I strive for — it was fun and definitely great to portray that, and definitely have it be different than the music that I put out.
There were one or two scenes though where Adrianna [played by Jessica Lowndes] flaked and Dixon had to sing. It was cool we got to hear your voice even then.
It was really fun. It was really, really fun and I worked with the people who wrote the songs and everything for Dixon. They were amazing, amazing guys and amazing producers, and to really sit there and watch them craft it out and really sit there and tell them how Dixon would do it and everything like that, we really came together and made magic for Dixon. I think it came out pretty dope.
What does the Arabic writing mean on your hand?
It means protection. I got it when I was in L.A. It’s basically like, you meet new people all the time, and the first place that you meet them is on the end of your hand. You’re shaking hands all the time, you just need protection from bad spirits and everything.
And what about the crown?
The crown? So, I write a lot of my own music and everything, and Basquiat, he’s definitely one of my favorite painters. When I was a kid, he was definitely one of the guys that I looked up to art-wise. So it’s basically to remind myself all the time, no matter what I write, no matter what I touch, it’s art and to treat it as such.
Now the crown of thorns on the skeleton …
Yeah, this was my first big piece.
That’s pretty intense. Why did you get it?
I just wanted to show with this one, it’s the idea that something so beautiful can come from loss or death or whatever the case may be. Jesus died for our sins, which gave us our salvation, so it’s definitely that whole idea if God can give his son away for the betterment of the people, there’s nothing that I can’t give away to better myself. Or there’s nothing that I can’t sacrifice to make sure that I could get somewhere better or get people somewhere better. So, all of these tattoos are just constant reminders or a protection of my spirit.
It’s dope that you made it a skeleton, because people kind of forget that Jesus was human.
Yeah, exactly. I’ve gotten so much criticism for this, like, “Oh my God! You can’t put a crown of thorns on a skeleton! It’s so bad!” I’m like, “I can’t put a crown of thorns on a skeleton but it’s okay to show Jesus dying on a cross?”
What’s a recent memory where you realized you were human?
Last year I had gotten really, really sick. Like, really sick. Like, close to deathbed sick. I was in the hospital for like a good month, but it took me about six months to even get closer back to where I was originally. But it’s something as small as a spore on the ground that can put you out of commission for damn near seven months of your life, and have the doctors say, “I don’t know what it was, but you were supposed to die!” So for the doctors to say that, you really sit back and just think like, “Oh snap, this could end tomorrow!”
How hard is it reliving a near-death experience on TV then, too? On 90210 your character Dixon was in a car accident and almost died.
It was definitely crazy. I mean, I took everything in stride. I’m usually — which is weird saying — I’m usually a good sport about stuff, but yeah, I was fine. When I’m acting, I’m portraying a character and that’s the only thing I’m thinking about. My life is separate from it so I really didn’t think too much of it. But watching my parents watch it after it happened was crazy for me, because my mom couldn’t watch it more than once and my dad didn’t want to see it. It was crazy.
How hard is it to escape your characters from The Wire and 90210 in everyday situations?
I feel like each character that I’ve created — whether it be Michael or Dixon — they all stem from real places. So how much of the character really is me, only the people who know me best would be able to understand that. But to run away from them, you can’t get away from them. You created them. That’s who you’re going to be for the rest of your life, so I think the main thing is just to establish who you are, rather than try to run away from who you are.