Tallahassee Pain

A Tale of Two Brothers



Tyres Williams (left) has turned the hard life of his youth into a commitment to help youngsters by teaching them the skills and discipline of boxing. Faheem Najm (right) left Tallahassee to become hip-hop star and music producer T-Pain.

Courtesy Shaheed Najm, Chase Entertainment, Gina Hughes

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They share a father and a tough life on the streets of Tallahassee’s south side. One now uses the skills of boxing to mentor at-risk youngsters. The other became T-Pain, a juggernaut in the raucous world of hip-hop music.

“Driving drunk, selling drugs, all that is suicide. We do a lot of stuff that has only one ending.”

That’s how hip-hop artist T-Pain describes the profane lyrics of his hit song “Suicide.” T-Pain uses songs — their words and music — to make his point about the world’s dangers.

His older brother, Tyres Williams, has a similar message, but he uses his athletic prowess — throwing punches in a boxing ring, not on the streets — to keep himself, his family and other kids out of trouble.

As a youngster, Faheem Najm was bullied, but taught by his older brother to protect himself. Historical Photos Courtesy Shaheed NajmT-Pain’s stage name comes from “Tallahassee Pain,” referring to what he called his hard life growing up in Tallahassee. By the time Williams was in his 20s, two friends had died and more than a half-dozen were in prison.

“The streets are not your friend,” Williams said. “You can have prison, jail or be dead. That is not a good retirement plan.”

Their story is not unlike many who grew up on the proverbial wrong side of the tracks. What is different in this tale of two brothers is how they have remembered their pain but have not wallowed in it. They simply decided to live their lives in a way that makes a difference in the lives of others. Mega-star T-Pain is reaching kids globally through his music. Williams connects with one person at a time in the gym and the boxing ring.

 

Early Years

Williams and his little brother, Faheem Rasheed Najm, grew up on what some would call Tallahassee’s mean streets. Though born two decades apart, not much had changed for the better between Williams’ birth in the early 1960s and his brother’s in 1985. Both lived and went to school on the city’s south side, graduating from Rickards High School.

Williams worked as a cook at Fish in the Pocket, his family’s restaurant off of Orange Avenue. A preteen Faheem would come into the restaurant between his piano and violin lessons.

T-Pain at Universal Studios in Los Angeles. Historical Photos Courtesy Shaheed Najm

“Our dad had been in the FAMU Marching 100 and was grooming Faheem for a life in music,” Williams said. “He was always running him to some lesson or another.”

Along with the music lessons came the attention of young ladies and the jealously of other teenagers. Faheem, who was short and a little chubby at that age, was constantly picked on. At 6-feet, 2-inches tall and more than 200 pounds, big brother Williams had a message for his little brother: “If you are going to fight, you need to know how to fight right.”

Those big-brotherly words of wisdom came from a fighter with street smarts that were matched with training in the martial arts, self-defense and boxing. It was at about this time that Williams was waking up to what life on the streets was all about.

“It is so easy to get caught up in that life,” he said. “Nothing positive is going on in your life, and you get addicted to your surroundings. You think you are doing right, and it is really wrong.”

Williams became Faheem’s teacher. In short order, the bullying stopped and Williams found his ticket off the streets.

 

Before He Was T-Pain

A star may be born, but he or she is not often discovered overnight. And if you’re over 40, chances are you’ve never heard of T-Pain — but your kids have.

Shaheed Najm knew his son, Faheem, was going to be a musician at an early age when he bought the youngster a used keyboard for about $15. Faheem played all of the traditional children’s songs, such as “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.” After a few short weeks, the 7-year-old announced to his father, “Dad, I’m going to play your favorite song.”

“You don’t even know my favorite song,” Shaheed Najm shot back.

Undeterred, the precocious child said, “Yes I do, it is ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing,’” and he began to play it. By 10, the pint-size musician was rearranging his bedroom furniture to turn his room into a recording studio.

Julian White, the director of bands and chairman of the Music Department at Florida A&M University, knew Shaheed Najm from the Marching 100.

On the red carpet at the MTV Video Music Awards. VMA Photo courtesy Gina Hughes

“I watched (Faheem) grow up,” White said. “I always thought he was good, but you never dream he would reach the level where he is now. There are a lot of good musicians, but you have to be in the right place at the right time with the talent to get discovered.” White added that what surprised him about the young musician was his ability not only to write his own music but also to play, produce and sing it.

Trumpet player Lindsey Sarjeant was a bandmate of Shaheed Najm in the Marching 100, so it was no surprise that Sarjeant’s own son, Kevin, was a fast friend of Faheem’s. Kevin Sarjeant, a few years older, played the piano, and the two basically grew up as friends and musicians.

“He has charisma,” Kevin Sarjeant reminisced. “Every time he came into a room, he always took the spotlight.”

Sarjeant told the story of an evening when they were headed to a local nightclub, The Moon. Najm grabbed a hubcap and wore it around his neck.

“Some thought he was crazy, but he was just clowning around and having fun,” he said. “He loved to perform and dance.”

A musician himself now, Kevin Sarjeant has only praise for his childhood friend, both for his music and his enormous talent.

“His music is unique, hot and different,” he said. “That is what makes him great. I always knew he was going to be big. He grew exactly into the star I thought he would. My only surprise is that he is someone I knew.”

Faheem Najm bounced around with friends and bands from an early age, finding success with a Tallahassee group called the Nappy Headz. But his first big break came in 2002, when he did a remix of popular singer-songwriter Akon’s song “Locked Up.”

Since then, there has been no stopping T-Pain’s unique blend of rap and R&B. He is probably best known for popularizing the musical technology Auto-Tune in his song productions. Designed to make minor pitch corrections in recordings, Auto-Tune makes voices reverberate and sound tinny and robotic when tuned to a particular setting. In addition to being incorporated into the repertoire of numerous rap and pop artists, the technique became an Internet sensation, with videos giving the Auto-Tune treatment to newscasts, crying babies and the Rev. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. There also is an iPhone app (“I Am T-Pain”) that allows users to Auto-Tune their own voices, and he has even sold 5 million ringtones of his controversial hit song “I’m ’n Luv (Wit a Stripper).”

The cover of his third album, “Thr33 Ringz,” which debuted in 2008 on the top of Billboard’s Top R&B/Hip Hop Album chart. It would go on to become a gold record and be nominated for a Grammy Award. Album cover courtesy Chase Entertainment

T-Pain’s first album, “Rappa Ternt Sanga,” came out in 2005. Just two years later, “Epiphany” followed and then album No. 3, “Thr33Ringz.” His meteoric rise has included winning dozens of accolades from the music industry for his works. His first Grammy came in 2008 in collaboration with rapper Kanye West; T-Pain brought home his second this year for the single “Blame It” with Jamie Foxx. You can also hear him on this year’s release of “We Are the World 25 for Haiti.” All of this success has come before he has even turned 25.

Shaheed Najm agrees that the music his son performs is a far cry from the Marching 100 of his day, but explains, “Our parents grew up with Frank Sinatra and blues or jazz. They thought my music was strange.

Music is always evolving. Faheem hears a tree limb fall or a dog bark and he gets an idea for a beat.”

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