Yo Phillips dreams of Woodstock ’99 in technicolor.
Welsh poet Dylan Thomas died on November 9th, 1953, at 39 years old. The essayist Kenneth Rexroth reacted by writing the elegy “Thou Shalt Not Kill,” a critique against what caused his friend to be trapped in a pressure cooker of unhealthy living for cheap rewards. “They are you murdering all the young men,” wrote the critic before naming other fallen poets, citing what brought their demise, and shouting at the hyenas and vultures he sees at fault.
The 1955 poem came to mind when news broke that Chicago rapper King Von was shot and killed Friday, November 6, in Atlanta, Georgia. He was 26 years old, the father of two, and still early in establishing himself as a career rapper. Instead of further celebration over his latest album, Welcome to O’Block, the rap community that championed Von as a gifted storyteller had to bear another loss in a year of tragic losses.
Dylan Thomas and the poets of “Thou Shalt Not Kill” weren’t actually murdered, not in the way rappers are killed outside of hookah bars and clothing stores. On highways and at car dealerships, in broad daylight and under moonshine. After award shows and boxing matches. At tour bus stops, music video sets, crowded restaurants, and empty streets. Inside airports and hotels. Anywhere, anytime, anyplace, bullets are flying at rappers, aiming for their foreheads and feet.
Street rappers that come from underprivileged neighborhoods, who speak as shooters, and write of warzones have a greater risk of being shot or shot at than their suburban counterparts. Yet, there’s a cultural interest for lawless songs by lyricists with criminal personas. The audience is drawn to their heat like arsonists. The hotter a lifestyle appears, the more attention the rappers gain. Their music, like their image, can be autobiographical, true-to-life, or fictitious. No matter the story, if they tell it like it did happen, will happen, or could’ve happened, someone will listen.
King Von told vivid stories about the triggers pulled. The opps hated. Life in the trenches where you have to be armed and dangerous. Before I could write the next sentence on how rap, over the last 48 months, has felt like a wild west of guns, outlaws, obituaries, and burials, I received a text. It was a screenshot that read: “Mo3 has reportedly passed away after being shot. RIP.” I thought about replying, “They are murdering all the young men,” but I didn’t. I’m no Rexroth. If I were, I would rewrite ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill’ with rappers as the dying poets of the digital age.
But rappers like Von and Mo3 don’t need another poem or think piece. They need grandmother’s prayers and divine protection. Twenty-four-hour security and secret service. Relocation out of old neighborhoods and new mentors to keep them from senseless backsliding. A misstep is much easier to make when the camera and comments are always on you. Confrontation can begin with comment and become a diss song; a diss song into a funeral.
Even during a pandemic, rappers can’t avoid conflict. COVID doesn’t stop their beefs and the gun violence that comes with it. I live right outside Atlanta, and even before Von died, rappers have been involved in shootings or arrested for guns, living like modern cowboys. How Nas described his life when he wrote “I Gave You Power” in ‘96 is commentary on guns and rap that could be said of 2020:
“They were in my sleep, in my car, in my home, guns were on my person, guns were on my friends. That’s how much they were around. There was so much around me that I rapped about it. It’s crazy to think about that today, but it was my reality. It was in my head 24/7.”
Wanting fresh air and a Red Bull I drove to the gas station Exxon. It was 11 p.m. The usual cashier at that hour is a Black woman who plays Kevin Gates off her iPhone. She has a thick Louisiana accent and never works a night shift without her tongue ring. I walk in expecting Luca Brasi 3 to greet me at the entrance, but a man is behind the counter. Black, twenty-something, wearing a Spider-Man pullover.
I reached the counter with my 16oz can and noticed the music playing from his phone was Pop Smoke. “I know how to shoot (Oh, oh), and I know how to fight,” I heard as I paid. It had been nine months since a home invader murdered the 20-year-old Canarsie rapper. Hearing his voice, a wintry baritone cold enough to leave icicles on a Hellcat, felt like hearing a ghost. Posthumous music, no matter how alive the rapper may sound, they aren’t.
Walking back to my car, the lyrics lingered. Von was killed during a confrontation. A punch that became a fatal gun wound. “Fights Don’t Matter” by Drakeo the Ruler played in my head. I sat for a moment, thinking of rappers and how they lose their lives every year. Not only due to shootings, but all the ways their freedom is restricted. By labels, contracts, and racists prison bids. When they aren’t literally being killed, they are harmed by systems set in place to bring their downfall. America, where it’s easier to get caught and remain trapped than to escape and thrive.
Their premium trauma makes for premium art, but what good are these classic rap songs when they’re murdering all the young men?
“Hungry niggas want a piece of your pastry
I suggest you protect your bakery
‘Cause they comin’ for your head” ― Lupe Fiasco (“The Die”)
I wrote part one of this essay last November inspired by King Von’s passing. The feeling resurfaced Sunday, January 24th, after reading about the death of 18Veno. He was a 19 year-old rapper from South Carolina. A big talker with bigger threats. His gun raps and trap hustles had a contagious energy that made him stand out on tracks.
“Who at the Door,” “Cops & Robbers” and “1942” from his debut tape, Pablo, exhibit the potential that made him a candidate to be the next hot rapper out of South Carolina. Sadly, before Veno could harness his dynamite spirit into a rap career he was shot and killed in his hometown. Unable to stomach another day of R.I.P. posts next to a babyface, I signed out of Twitter and re-opened the Google Doc.
Young Thug’s “Safe” played all afternoon as I sat, thinking of street rap as a wild, wild west. Scam, street, trap, and drill music all share similar themes. The lingo and production may differ, but the language, much like the described actions, are lawless and literal. Pairing machismo and melodies. Shiesty schemes and candid wordplay. Dancing diamonds and automatic weapons.
There’s an art to the ways rapper’s portray fast-living, gun-shooting, bullet-dodging, and money-getting, making rap the best medium for a poet to be an outlaw, and an outlaw to be a poet. Veno was an outlaw. You have to be to start a verse with, “Probation? Nigga, fuck probation, bitch, I’m in the trap tryna serve all these patients.”
Chicago rapper Lil Durk is another street lyricist who depicts his surroundings precisely how they are. His verse on “Refugee,” the second track off his 2020 album, The Voice, has one line that describes exactly how this modern wild west feels: “Don’t ask me why I got a gun on me ’cause these niggas be killin’ the artists.”
Durk doesn’t rap the line in a panic, but if you take him at his word, to be an artist is a profession where you need to be armed for your own protection. After what happened to 18Veno, King Von, Pop Smoke, Marlo, Nina Ross Da Boss, Willie Bo, Mo3, Nipsey Hussle, BandGang Paid, XXXTentacion, Scarfo Da Plug, Lil John, Obe Noir, Succeed Phlyguy, Marley G, TM1way, Cutty Banks, Alwoo, Baby Boy, Channel 5 Jdub, Kevin Fret, Swizzino, Young Greatness, YNW Juvy, YNW Sakchaser, Baby Ceo, Lil Yase, Willie Addison, Jayo Sama, BCR Meezle, FBG Duck, Mac P Dawg, Bankboy Wayne, PG Krunk, Huey, TF Prophit, Kennie Lu, ATM Grinda, MMG TB, Trello, CBE Chalaka, Tripple Beanz, Blue Benji Kobe, Bandlife Birdy, KB 6ixx, Nick Blixky, Luccy2x, Bankroll Gambino, and Chucky Trill, all rappers murdered over the last 48 months, can he afford to be careless?
As stated in my previous essay, not all rappers are at risk, but the ones that are can’t pretend danger isn’t out there. Durk is aware of the worst outcomes. His protegee King Von, his cousin OTF Nunu, his manager Uchenna Agina have all been murdered by gun violence, yet, he’s also the same artist, five months before The Voice was released, that said, “I’m like DaBaby, I’m not just a rapper, you play with me, you gon’ get stretched,” on Drake’s GRAMMY-nominated single, “Laugh Now Cry Later.”
The target and the taunter is what Durk conveys in his verses on “Refugee” and “Laugh Now Cry Later.” To his point, DaBaby is a perfect example of how real that duality is. The Charlotte rapper was on the verge of his career breakthrough when an armed man, 19-year-old Jaylin Domonique Craig, attempted to rob him at Wal-Mart, while he shopped with his family. The conflict is referenced on the GRAMMY-nominated, multi-platinum 2020 single, “ROCKSTAR,” where he raps:
“My daughter a G, she saw me kill a nigga in front of her before the age of two/And I’ll kill another nigga too/’Fore I let another nigga do somethin’ to you.”
“ROCKSTAR” spent seven non-consecutive weeks at number one on the US Billboard Hot 100, along with global chart-topping success in Australia, the UK, and Ireland. It’s a pop record, far from a grimey street rap song, but at its root, the record is a melodic anthem about gun violence. The hook, “Have you ever met a real nigga rockstar? This ain’t no guitar, bitch, this a glock,” reimagines the rockstar as a shooter who will shoot.
DaBaby turned a traumatic event where he was a target into a badge of honor. It’s like when Gucci Mane rapped, “I’m just an East Atlanta nigga with a body on his belt,” a reminder of the most revered credential an outlaw rapper can have in the wild west.
Gucci was the outlaw rapper of my late teens and early 20s. He had a streak of incarcerations during his prolific rise that added to his underground infamy. The Alabama-born, Atlanta-based rap genius was at the most disorderly between the years 2009-2015, when he lived by crime and punishment. Saying what he wanted, doing what he pleased, being a Trap God, not a dope boy.
The stories are legendary. He did everything: Break laws and break artists, set trends and influence culture, start beefs and pop shit. Each confrontation added to his legend; every arrest made him more of a renegade. Even though his lyrics haven’t changed and flashes of his old self jumps out, present-day Gucci is an outlaw who turned his life around. Traded the chaos for calmness, hell for heaven. I like to think his public transformation is an opportunity that awaits all the big steppers who avoid landmines.
But landmines can detonate at any time. Baton Rouge rap legend Lil Boosie was shot in his leg last year in Dallas, Texas while attending a vigil for close friend, collaborator and protégé rapper Mo3, who was murdered in Dallas a week prior. On the same day as Boosie’s shooting, Buffalo rap star Benny the Butcher was shot outside a Wal-Mart in Houston, Texas. The song he made about the altercation, “3:30 in Houston,” gives another take on what it’s like to be a target.
“Niggas told me since this shit happened that I’m lit, I should take advantage of it,” starts the third verse, acknowledging the attention around his shooting. There’s publicity to be gained, press to be done, opportunities galore if you want to make your bullet wound a marketing tool. “That’s why I really can’t stand you suckers, go to Instagram but won’t handle nothin,” he criticizes, refusing to play social media games.
“The bullet really ain’t damage nothin’ (I’m good, nigga)
Niggas would’ve been in my position
I bet they would’ve hit the panic button, man (Niggas get shot everyday, B)
They was sent for me, my dawg in Houston got a tip for me”
DaBaby and Benny the Butcher ended up in similar scenarios, but had different outcomes. Either of their altercations could’ve been life-ending instead lyric inspiring. A more recent incident involving a famous rapper is the viral video of Playboi Carti, where the Atlanta-born artist is approached aggressively by a guy. “Put your pistol down and fight me,” the guy says.
Carti never reveals a gun, but he does look to be hiding something. “If I reach, boy, you’re dead,” the guy threatens, recording the entire exchange on his phone. He then accuses Carti of domestic abuse against his sister, the rapper denies calmly, but the guy keeps pressing. He wants a fight and he gets it.
The camera doesn’t capture the punch, but you hear it connect and the body falls. Carti, still calm, says, “So what y’all wanna do?” After the video went viral on Twitter, Carti’s next tweet said, “i KnOck br0 oUT . hE WAS bEInG TOo cRAZY!”
Playboi Carti almost smoked a goofy running up on him pic.twitter.com/vYxX3AVPWS
— protect streetjuicetv (@PStreetjuicetv) February 20, 2021
Whoever the guy was, he knew the rapper. He’s recording for a reason. “Why you pulling out the phone gang,” questioned Carti when the video started, the camera watching him. “I don’t know you gang,” he said. His posture changed when the guy made the comment about reaching. “Reach then gang,” he replied, an arm tucked behind his back, as if this was a duel.
It all happened in under a minute, and we only know because Playboi Carti was involved. Why else would the video be uploaded and shared? He’s a rap celebrity. The biggest target in music. A bulls-eye is always on their back. When these are the kind of altercations that can happen at any moment to any rapper, you realize how right JAY-Z was when he asked nearly a quarter century ago: “If I shoot you, I’m brainless, but if you shoot me, then you’re famous, what’s a nigga to do?”