Parts 1, 2, 3 and 4 of this story about an empty grave found in an under-construction Beltline where we try to ascertain whether I can write a compelling story with hip-hop as the background. We just found out the kid with a “gang tag” doing his homework in the car the night of the pot festival is an aspiring rapper with a hip-hop pedigree that connects him to Big Daddy Jay, who a decade ago was a big star, but is now a producer, and recently out of jail in New York where he took the fall for a protégé:
Richard Evans looked nothing like an English teacher. He was built like a college running back and dressed like an upscale homeless man, in old army pants and a T-shirt from a 1998 charity walkathon, stretched tight over his chest. “All week, I have to wear dress shirts and slacks; you get me here on the weekend, you get me in rags.” From where he stood atop a chair, he gestured to Diana for the stapler: with this, he attached the rest of a decorative border around a bulletin board full of different examples of poetic forms. “So what is it y’all are looking for?” He was all smiles, eyes flashing, clearly fancying Diana.
“Well, Mr. Evans, we have one question, but maybe you can help us with two.” He wasn’t her type, Mustapha thought—too beefy and too short—but he could tell she enjoyed the attention. She showed him the photo of Christopher. “Tell us about this kid.”
Evans’ face fell. “Oh, man.” He hopped down from the chair. “Tell me he hasn’t done something stupid.”
“Nothing truly felonious. Maybe at worst, a lookout, or driver. Why does he go to school here? His grandma said magnet school?”
“Sure. Tri-Cities is a magnet for the performing arts. I’ll bet even you have heard of OutKast? They went here, back in the day. So every wannabe rapper from all across Atlanta figures they can replicate that. My job is to teach them there’s more about poetry than just rhyme. Christopher? He actually listens.”
“So he’s got a future as a rapper?”
“Maybe. Good flow, decent diction, and a pedigree. His family were all real gangsters, which is the problem. They were hard and he isn’t. Which is a point in his favor as a human being, but not so much as a rapper. He tells good stories, and he’s heard good stories; but he hasn’t got the skill to front himself. And in modern hip-hop, goofball kids with a fine sense of observational humor, like OutKast, aren’t going to make it. It’s a real shame. In a perfect world? We airlift him out of that ghetto, send him to college, have him write a newspaper column or a blog or something. He could do standup comedy. But make it big in modern hip-hop? Not so much.”
“Okay. Tell us about Big Daddy Jay.”
“He’s in town. Heck, my students are over in Pittsburgh watching him right now. And he and Christopher are related. Not biologically; more like a hip-hop genealogy.”
“Pretend we’re tourists from another planet. Go back to when Big Daddy Jay was getting his start.”
“Sure. You want, I can use your iPad and bookmark sites for you.” Evans led them to his desk, pulled out student desk chairs for both of them. “Okay. Back in 1998, Big Daddy Jay moves to Pittsburgh from middle-class suburbia, hooks up with the Pirate Mafia, who were a real gang. Pittsburgh Pirates, like the baseball team, right? Jay had flow, and business skills, but zero street cred. He gets together with this guy, Sweet T, who could write, and Thirty Ought, who had a shit-ton of street cred but couldn’t rap or write. Which is strange, because it’s Thirty Ought who had the musical pedigree. You see, back when, his own daddy was big in the electro-funk scene, early ‘80s arpeggiated stuff. Nothing you’ve probably heard of, but they put out a bunch of club hits under the name Electrifyin’ Warpdrive. That money is what funded the New Pirate Mafia. Big Daddy Jay did the business end, Sweet T wrote and performed, Thirty Ought looked good in videos and cover art, also provided the seed money. Here, this is Thirty Ought from about 2001.”
Evans called up a photo of what to Diana was a living stereotype: bandanna, wife-beater, tattoos, bullet scars, grim attitude. “Keeping it real,” she said.
“That was his function. Thing is, he was real. Thirty Ought and Sweet T were no-foolin’ real gangsters. Christopher’s daddy and uncle were in the game with them. Between the two of them, Sweet T, and Thirty Ought, they probably put a dozen other players in the ground before the New Pirate Mafia got off the ground.”
Mustapha said, “So what happened to the band? Where are the other two guys?”
“Well, Sweet T’s dead. Back in… 2005 or so? Smoking weed in the tub, kicking it old school listening to a boombox. It fell in the tub, power was on, that’s all she wrote. Then there was a drive-by, and Christopher’s daddy was killed and his uncle Keith went off to jail. Y’all’s own gang unit took down what was left. Next thing, Daddy Jay is up in New York City managing other acts.”
Diana said, “What did he do time for, up there?”
“Took a fall for someone else. He’s got this protégé, Shawty G? Now there’s a real gangster. They were clubbing, someone disses them, Shawty pulls a gun, security jumps in. Shawty has a record a mile long; a weapons charge is going to send him to Attica for life. Daddy Jay has a clean record—remember, he’s from Stone Mountain, not Pittsburgh—and he claims the gun as his. Everyone knows it’s bullshit, but he goes ahead and pleads guilty.”
Mustapha said, “Protecting his investment.”
Diana said, “Giving himself the real street cred he always lacked.”
Evans said, “Y’all just went to the top of the class. Not only that, but when he was in jail, Jay met another aspiring rapper, got him a contract. Actually recorded a couple of cuts from his cell. He’s due to get out soon, and he’s got Big Daddy’s marketing machine waiting for him.”
Diana asked, “What happened to Thirty Ought?”
“He ran. Got tipped off the cops were coming for them, disappeared. Daddy Jay got a big hit off it: Miss You My Brother. He’s like a ghost, now: every so often, you’ll hear someone say they saw him at a show or a party.”
“Hologram Tupac,” said Mustapha.
“Yeah, sort of. Only we know Tupac is dead for real.”
So here’s where the story actually gets in to hip-hop. It’s easier to do because it’s at two removes: Mr. Evans is telling the story, and it all happened ten years ago. I can create a rap group without having to actually have them right there, or give you any of their rhymes: this way, the characters can sneak up on you smoothly enough without truly alerting you to my lack of acquaintance with 20-teens hip-hop.