Tariq Trotter was born in inner-city South Philadelphia. His father, Tom Trotter, was a devout member of the Nation of Islam as well as a member of a criminal organization known as Philadelphia's "Black Mafia," tied to auto theft, extortion and drug dealing, among other crimes. The elder Trotter was murdered in a gangland execution in 1973. Living with his Muslim mother (who was herself a member of the Black Mafia) during the week and his Christian grandmother on weekends, Trotter had a troubled childhood marked by violence and despair, with an older brother who spent more than half his life in prison. But he was also well educated in private schools, and showed promise as a visual artist.