Tela Breaks From Past To Piece Together New LP

After first release, Memphis, Tenn.-based gangsta rapper dealt with fickle friends, busted romance, change of record labels.

When Tela hit the hip-hop scene in 1996 with his debut album, Piece of

Mind, he began to make a name for himself as part of a growing movement

of gangsta rappers with a conscience.

At the time, he was surrounded by a crew of devotees and was in a committed

relationship with a woman.

That's all changed.

The road to releasing his second album, Now or Never -- which

debuted at #49 on the Billboard 200 albums chart three weeks ago --

was a bumpy one. During that time, the rapper said, he experienced a

falling-out with people he had considered his friends, the ending of his

long-term romance and the leap from Suave House Records to Rap-A-Lot Records.

However, Tela said that, in the end, he's happy with where he has been and

where it has led him.

"I feel like I've grown as an artist and as a man," explained Tela (born

Winston Tela Rogers III), 27, speaking from his home in Memphis, Tenn. "I

had to make a lot of decisions, and I think I faced a lot of obstacles that

... I definitely overcame and [that] made me stronger."

On the completed Now or Never, the rapper takes listeners on a sonic

journey from the '60s-soul flavor of "Lap Dance" to a faster-paced "reality

rap" song such as "Take Flight" to the rock- and funk-fueled

HREF="http://media.addict.com/atn-bin/get-music/Tela/B.I.G.P.I.M.P.S.I.S.I.r

am">"B.I.G.P.I.M.P.S.I.S.I." (RealAudio excerpt), which features an

appearance by gangsta-rap veteran Too $hort.

But getting to this point hasn't been easy for Tela. Foremost among the

challenges that popped up between the albums was the rapper's jump from

Suave House Records to Rap-A-Lot Records.

"It was a difficult thing to do, but I had to do what was best for me and

best for my family," Tela said. "Some fans may not understand the decision,

but this is a business. We're trying to do good music for the people that

support us, but, at the same time, it's a business, and you have to support

your family and support yourself. You can only be loyal to what is loyal to

you."

The rapper said he is happier at Rap-A-Lot because he was allowed to

produce much of Now or Never himself and felt a greater sense of

freedom in pursuing his own sound. Tela was in and out of the studio for

six months, working on the album and occasionally bringing in friends and

family to get their opinions of his efforts.

According to Tela, his highest priority was to separate himself from the

current glut of gangsta rappers by filling his album with live

instrumentation. "My flutes are real, I've got a live drummer on there --

nothing was programmed," Tela said.

In fact, the rapper went as far as using an actual Hammond B2 organ,

instead of a keyboard that could mimic the sound of the instrument. "I

don't know if the fans will be able to consciously tell the difference,"

Tela said, "and I think the basic fan doesn't know the difference. Anyone

who actually has a feel for the music and true love for it, though, those

are the people who will be able to tell."

For at least one of Tela's fans, the care the rapper took in making sure

his album was free of programmed beats and keyboards really made a

difference.

"I think Now or Never stands out from a lot of Southern rap out

there right now because it has a lot of different sounds on it,"

16-year-old Tela fan Bryan Simmons wrote in an e-mail. "Tela has some

hardcore songs and some softer songs, but they're all tight."

Among the "softer songs" on the album is

HREF="http://media.addict.com/atn-bin/get-music/Tela/Still_A_Man.ram">"Still

A Man" (RealAudio excerpt), which examines the rapper's

relationships with friends who changed their colors once he found success,

with the critically ill grandmother who raised him and with the woman who

had been his long-time lover.

The chorus, "After the pain/ After the rain/ Still a man," is intended to

show that Tela was able to see himself through his troubled times and come

out stronger than ever.

" 'Still A Man' is more like a personal song," Tela explained. "I tried to

stay away from songs like that for the album, but it seems like people like

personal sh--. I tried to balance the album and not try to give so many of

those songs because I thought that ... it could be depressing. 'Still A

Man' seems to be like one of the hottest ones on there, though."

Overall, Tela said he thinks that Now or Never is a more upbeat

effort than his first album because the songs are faster-paced and the

between-song skits such as "Too Slick (The Movie)" and "Red Neck Pimp"

serve as humorous breaks in the action.

"I wanted to deal with the lighter side of things and not worry so much

about personal problems and things of that nature," he said.

"I tried to give something to people who have had a stressed day," he

continued, "something like 75 minutes of escape. Let's not deal so

much with my personal problems. Let's party a little bit, all right?"