Tom P strives to beat underdog status

The Decatur MC busts myths and shares bigger goals

Tom P started rhyming at the age of 11, deliberately seeking out classmates with better skills to force him to step up his own lyrical prowess. The challenge paid off. He's been known to upstage more established acts, such as Too $hort at this year's A3C Hip-Hop Festival, when he gave the audience a rapid-fire spread of songs from his first two albums. As his set wrapped, host D.R.E.S. Tha BEATnik challenged Tom P to rhyme faster and faster over Edvard Grieg's "In the Hall of the Mountain King." He revved up his flow, each line more rapid than the last, never missing a beat, and scarcely taking a breath. It's just one part of his repertoire — a skill he's honed over the years that earned him the nickname, "the White Twista."

Big dreams and the desire to escape poverty shaped his attraction to the mic. Thomas Peters was born in Lexington, North Carolina where his family lived in a small house near — as he puts it ­— a "mobile home type situation." His life changed when his preacher uncle adopted him from his mother and fulfilled the role of his primary provider and father figure. "She became my aunt, he became my dad," Tom P says of the interfamily arrangement. He moved to Atlanta when he was 4 years old.

These days, Tom P's looking to occupy rare spaces like the success of his better-known peers, including Trinidad James, who makes a guest appearance on his third album, The Preacher's Kid. Instead of seeking the shine of "All Gold Everything," Tom P wants to lift his loved ones to higher ground. "Whenever you like go home for Thanksgiving and Christmas and you're seeing some trailer and your family surrounded by rats and flies and shit, you're like alright, 'I need to make it as a rapper.'"

Tom P stayed in touch with fellow Decatur High School alums that formed his initial fanbase. "You end up a part of this network of Atlanta natives and if you're cool, you're cool with a lot of people," he says.

His current manager/hype man, Paul Thomas, was sold after hearing him freestyle at a party. "He didn't look like the typical rapper," Thomas says. "It was like this little white kid who looked like a regular kid. I said, 'You're like the best rapper I've heard in Atlanta.' We've been working together ever since."

Face-to-face, Tom P doesn't look like a rapper, and not because of his skin color, but in how his confident stage presence has given way to a more anxious energy. His drawl punctuates his frustration. "It's turned into this materialism thing (he pronounces as "thang"), where if you talk about struggle you get labeled as an underground rapper," he says. "Why rap if you've got nothing good to say about your experiences in life?"

Tom P's self-titled debut gave listeners a window into his life and let them know he's more than just a "fast rapper." His second album, Root for the Underdog, dispelled the myth that he was a privileged suburbanite who only entered the game for fun. The Preacher's Kid captures a place where the turnt up party life isn't everything, rather, it's a pain reliever for a stinging reality. On the bouncy "Red Cups," he raps, "I'm one muthafuckin' curse word away from gettin' turned away at the pearly gates." Tom P reps the South, but his song stylings have more in common with the lyrical dexterity and everyman stories of better known artists, such as Kendrick Lamar.

Tom P's supporters remain steadfast. He was voted as the reader pick for Best Local Hip-Hop Act this year in CL's Best of Atlanta issue. Last year, readers chose him as the Best Overall Music Act, a distinction not given to a rapper since T.I. in 2006.

Though Tom P has yet to attain national attention, he's determined to hold on while facing an oversaturated local music scene. He appears devoid of delusions of grandeur or any sense of entitlement, but remains confident in his team of producers and collaborators. "We're not really a risky bet," he says. "We sell albums, we sell shows. People want to hear this."

Whether Tom P's career matches his larger vision remains to be seen. Deferred dreams have left him disillusioned but undeterred.