Ever wonder what happened to Erykah Badu’s ex? We called Tyrone.

OPINION: TheGrio’s Black Music Month “Ever Wonder” series imagines the other side of Black music’s most iconic songs. Today, Tyrone tells his side of the story.

(Adobe Stock Images/TheGrio illustration)

Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

What happens to a call deferred?

While investigating one of Black music’s favorite songs, theGrio discovered a surprising backstory. It’s the tale of a friendship that dried up like a raisin in the sun and sore feelings that still fester and run. It’s about a relationship that sagged like a heavy load and the failed love story that made it explode. For lovers of Black music, theGrio can finally reveal this untold, almost true story behind an iconic neo-soul anthem. 

This is what happened when we called Tyrone. 

A Broken baller

“I am tired of her sh*t,” Tyrone begins. “She didn’t even buy me nothing.” 

Tyrone Lamont Saunders is a legend. People who know him from his high school and college days recognize him as a shoo-in to become a first-round NBA draft pick. Among those who know him today, Tyrone is a successful businessman and a doting father. To underprivileged kids in Baton Rouge, La., he is simply “Coach Ty,” a passionate mentor who is always willing to share his wisdom on basketball and life. The list goes On & On

“He was always big on helping others,” explains 19-year-old Damian Johnson, who played on Saunders’ AAU basketball team. “I never understood why my mama called him a ‘stingy, broke no-good scrub.’ I don’t even know what a ‘scrub’ is – I think it’s slang from the 90s. But for some reason, all the moms in my neighborhood hated Coach Ty. Then, one day, after practice, he finally let us hear the song.”

“The song” is “Tyrone,” the 1997 Erykah Badu hit that transformed Saunders into an unwitting legend of Black music.

Recommended Stories

Released as the lead single from Badu’s sophomore album “Live,” the playful tune is written from the perspective of a woman who is fed up with her frugal, financially unstable, immature boyfriend. While the song achieved only moderate mainstream success, it quickly became one of Black music’s most beloved songs, spending six weeks atop Billboard’s R&B/hip-hop chart and lingering on the list of the most-played songs on Black radio for six months. 

As the song’s namesake, Tyrone has spent 27 years fighting the confusion, suspicion and side-eye spawned by Badu’s unexpected magnum opus. But after nearly three decades of literally trying to set the record straight, Coach Ty finally gets the opportunity to share his story. During a 2-hour phone call with theGrio, the ex-athlete-turned-African American archetype explained the Other Side of the Game.

“The song isn’t even about me, ” Tyrone explained. “That’s the first thing we need to clear up. If you listen to the lyrics, she was talking about her boyfriend, Dexter. Now, ask yourself, ‘Why didn’t she name the song after Dex?’ Is it because she knew she would have to pay him royalties? She always thought she was Cleva. Well, where’s my bag, lady?” 

According to Ty, not only did the ankh-wearing artist never ask permission to use his name, but she also twisted many of the essential facts in the song. He specifically objects to Badu lumping him in with her boyfriend’s broke buddies who “didn’t have no cars” and “hang around in bars.” While admitting that he and Dexter were friends, Tyrone insists he doesn’t consume alcohol. He still carries the title for the 1989 Isuzu pickup truck that he drove when the song was released, along with a canceled check for $87.26 – more than Tyrone’s share of the bill from the infamous night on the town when Badu claims she had to “ reach down in her purse” to pay his tab. 

“No one asked her to pay,” Tyrone told theGrio. “Had I known it was going to cause this much drama, I would’ve paid for my own shrimp alfredo.” 

To get the facts straight, theGrio spoke with multiple sources present that evening, including Jim, James, Paul and Tyrone and the song’s subject, Dexter T. Toot. Each separately confirmed that Badu was the one who crashed their boys’ night out.  In their version of the story, it was Badu who tagged along and even offered to foot the bill. At the time, Badu’s successful music career had already taken off with the release of her critically acclaimed debut album, “Baduizm. So, no one present thought it odd when Badu offered to pay Dex’s way, his homeboys’ way, and even his cousin’s way.

“It was five of us who played college basketball together, along with Dex’s cuz, Pras T. Toot,” explained Jim, who declined to use his last name because he “don’t want that smoke” from Black women. “We just wanted to hang out because — contrary to what Erykah’s claim that we ‘always come around’ — we didn’t hang out that often because it was always clear that Erykah never liked us. So why would we ask her to pay?” 

While these details may seem inconsequential, the dispute is at the heart of why an innocent celebration with the crew known as the “Grambling Five” turned into a three-decades-long conflict filled with crushed egos, shattered friendships and one broken jaw. 

So what really happened?

Crossed lines

Tyrone first met Badu during his sophomore year at Grambling State University. She was a freshman whose artistry and beauty turned every head on campus, including Saunders’. He was “Tyrone the Terrible,” the big man on campus who was destined for the NBA. After meeting Badu at a poetry slam, the star player was immediately infatuated with the eclectic theater major. 

“She was one of those artsy types who smoked clove cigarettes and was always in a freestyle cipher,” Tyrone told theGrio. “The guys on the team used to call her a “wrapper” because she only wore wraps. Head wraps. Wrap tops. Wraparound skirts. Plus she was so fine, everybody tried to rap to her. To me, she was the most beautiful girl on the campus. But to Erykah, I was just a brainless athlete, so she wasn’t interested.”

Dex T. Toot, on the other hand, was the ladies’ man of the team. Known to his teammates as “Dexter the Sexter,” his potential as a point guard took a backseat to his status as campus lothario. So when Badu started showing up at games to cheer for Dex, Tyrone’s teammates told him there would be plenty of Erykahs when he made it to the NBA. Tyrone tried to convinced them that his attraction to Badu was temporary.

“No one was convinced,” said Paul, who spoke on the condition that we only used his first name because Badu’s “vibes are too powerful.” 

The members of the Grambling Five each said it was obvious that Ty was heartbroken over Badu and Dexter’s relationship. Some even speculate that Tyrone’s infatuation doomed his basketball career. “He was a surefire NBA lottery pick until he injured his knee,” James said. “People think he injured it on a dunk in the 1993 NCAA tournament, but he actually twisted it when he turned to make sure Erykah was cheering.”

 In any case, Dexter and Erykah moved in together after college. She pursued music while Dex continued his education in grad school. By the night of the Grambling Five’s 1996 reunion, Ty was running a private basketball academy and Badu was an international singing sensation dating her college sweetheart, a struggling graduate student. It was clear that Badu wasn’t happy. There were even rumors that she was dating a rapper from Atlanta. Everyone in the crew believed the relationship was nearing its end…

Except for Dex.

“You could tell that Erykah was over him,” said Tyrone. “She was traveling the world hanging out with stars, and Dex was broke, jealous and lovestruck. Dex always had this seething suspicion that I was still in love with Erykah. But I reminded him that Miss Badu is always coming for real; we knew the deal. It all came to a head on the night she hung out with us.”

According to multiple accounts, the Grambling Five, Dex’s cousin and Badu met at Fogo de Chao. Dex returned from the salad bar to hear Badu telling Tyrone about the new Outkast album. Dex immediately grew suspicious and said, “Andre 3000? He can’t even rap that good.” Badu and Ty both burst into laughter, sending Dexter into a jealous rage. 

“He was being so passive-aggressive, I decided to leave,” explained Tyrone. “I was halfway home when I realized that I hadn’t paid. I figured one of the fellas would have my back, and I would repay them. Later that night, Dex called me asking if I was trying to steal his girl,” Tyrone continued. “I had no idea what was happening, but I could hear Erykah in the background saying, ‘Call him!” Suddenly, I heard scuffling sounds. Then Erykah yelled: ‘I didn’t give you permission to use my phone!’ The line went dead, so I rushed over to Erykah’s house.  

According to conversations with neighbors, who wished to remain anonymous because Badu “might know magic or something,” Dexter accused Badu of having an illicit affair with Tyrone, yelling, “I knew he always wanted you!” Tyrone’s arrival seemed to confirm Dex’s suspicion, and a scuffle ensued. 

“He kept accusing me of sleeping with his girl,” Tyrone said. “When I denied it, he just asked why Erykah was so adamant that he needed to call me specifically. I tried to explain that neither Jim, James, Paul, nor his cousin had a truck, but he swung on me. 

Tyrone knocked Dexter out cold.

“Erykah could have cleared up the confusion on the spot,” Tyrone added. “She didn’t even try to break up the fight.” As Tyrone wrote Badu a check for dinner, Erykah stood over her college sweetheart lying in the rubble of a ruined friendship and a broken relationship, turned to Tyrone and said:

“So… You gon’ help him get his shit?”

That was the last time Tyrone saw Dexter or Badu.

Hung up

Three decades later, Tyrone is still fighting to clear his name. While he credits Badu’s song for introducing him to another misunderstood subject of a song, the relationship ended in divorce. “Tyrone was the Love of My Life,” Bonita Applebaum-Saunders told theGrio in a statement. “He gave me seven wonderful years and two beautiful children, Honey and YeYo. I wish him nothing but the best.”

Still, Tyrone refuses to let bygones be bygones. TheGrio obtained his list of demands that he emailed to Badu:

  1. Reparations: Ty demands a 30% retroactive cut of the royalties — 10% for the use of his name, 10% for defamation and 10% for the pain and suffering caused by 27 years of defending himself.
  2. A retraction: Tyrone requests a remix to clarify that Tyrone reimbursed her for the meal. He also wants a verse clearing up any misconception that he was a broke alcoholic who couldn’t afford a car.
  3. An apology: From Badu and Dexter for involving him in all their mess.

However, the ex-baller conceded that he would drop his list of demands in exchange for one thing.

A date with Erykah Badu. 

Meanwhile, Dex T. Toot is no longer destitute. Since his broken jaw and ego healed, he opened a successful psychotherapy practice and began volunteering as an advocate for Black male mental health. “It took me years to realize that Erykah didn’t ruin our relationship,” Dexter told theGrio. “It wasn’t Tyrone. I felt threatened by their success and let my financial instability fuel my own insecurities. Back then, I saw relationships as a quid pro quo. I used to think: ‘If she could ask me for a little cash, I had the right to ask her for a little ass.’ Now she has all the cash and all the ass. I literally fumbled the Bag Lady.” 

Asked if he would consider rekindling his friendship with his old friend, Dexter paused, rubbed his healed jaw and replied:

“Are you seriously asking me to call Tyrone?”

Erykah Badu has yet to respond to our nonexistent request for comment. In a statement to theGrio, Badu’s representatives for Badu would only say:

“Y’all know she’s an artist, so she’s sensitive about her sh*t.”

Michael Harriot is a writer, cultural critic and championship-level Spades player. His NY Times bestseller  Black AF History: The Unwhitewashed Story of America is available in bookstores everywhere.