Exposition Park is located at the northern end of South Central, the point where the city starts to be carved up into block-by-block fiefdoms. Wander a few miles in any direction and you might encroach on turf claimed by Bloods, Crips, Treces, Varrio Nueva Estrada, 18th Street, Hoover Criminals, MS-13, or one of the deputy gangs in the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, currently under investigation by the state of California.
On the cold Saturday evening of December 18, the 160-acre grounds are the site of a one-day music festival called Once Upon A Time in L.A., quite possibly the best (and likely the most expensive) concert bill ever booked within city limits. Tens of thousands gather in the shadows of the Memorial Coliseum, paying a minimum of $160 plus surcharges to see a lineup that blends the last 50 years of Southern California soundtracks: vintage lowrider soul (the Isley Brothers), ’90s G-Funk (Snoop Dogg), new millennium rap (YG), and that genre’s nascent next generation, much of which is creatively in debt to the West Coast’s most original stylist in a quarter-century, Drakeo the Ruler.
It had been a little over a year since the 28-year-old South Central rapper walked free from the Compton courthouse, swapping a black jail jumpsuit for designer clothes, dazzling jewelry, and blue-faced hundreds, having beaten first-degree murder charges that carried a possible life sentence. Drakeo and I first became close during this final, nearly three-year incarceration. At first, he kept calling in the hopes that I would tell the world about his wrongful persecution. But over hundreds of hours on the phone, the working relationship evolved into a deep friendship. Journalistic responsibilities became secondary to human ones. I’d never witnessed a miscarriage of justice so grave, so intimately.
Once Upon a Time in L.A. is slated to be Drakeo’s second official performance in L.A. since being released in November 2020. It’s the kind of dream he ritually imagined during those endless carceral midnights of the soul: a hometown show before adoring fans, a $50,000 payday, and the chance to prove that he is the best rapper in his city.
While waiting for Drakeo to go on, I watch Al Green sing about love and happiness. He clutches a red rose like a talisman, his teardrops-from-heaven falsetto fading in and out, weathered from stress and the slanders of time. It’s about 8:30 when Drakeo’s friend and producer Joog SZN tells me that it’s time to meet Drakeo and his younger brother, Ralfy the Plug, an innovative rapper in his own right.
There are two ways to get backstage. The first is an entrance within the festival itself, behind a flimsy chain-link fence manned by a lone security guard. The other is through a checkpoint just off Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., where the organizers have created a production road and parking lot exclusively for the artists. Compared to the raucous festival grounds, the all-access grounds are sleepy. Most acts are 40-plus; one can assume they’re there for the check, not to socialize.
If I want to watch the show from the side of the G-Funk stage, where only Drakeo’s personal guests are allowed, we need to move as a unit. Drakeo has only been allotted two parking passes and 15 all-access wristbands, so the entourage is smaller than usual. Six of us, including Joog and his cousin, Ron-Ron the Producer, walk toward Drakeo’s midnight $400,000 Rolls-Royce Dawn, all of us laughing and joking. It’s time for him to perform.
Lanky lamp poles splash pools of sodium light onto our heads, but large stretches in this lunar plane of asphalt remain unlit. You can see what’s right in front of you, but beyond lies glinting metal and lurking shadows. In retrospect, the lapses of organizational judgement seem flagrant. But you don’t expect to witness a murder while Al Green croons “Tired of Being Alone.”
Drakeo is accompanied by his half-dozen friends and a lone security guard. His eyes, glowing through a designer balaclava, betray genuine excitement. A half-million in ice clinks around his neck. We exchange greetings and move toward the golf cart that is supposed to be waiting to escort us across the grounds.
Then things go abruptly sideways. An unseen person shouts: “Fuck the Stinc Team, fuck Drakeo!” Without hesitating, Drakeo and Ralfy walk toward the challengers. Six guys wearing ski masks and crimson hoodies square up in a fighter’s stance. A brawl begins.
I figure it’s about to turn into a shootout. In the middle of his murder investigation, Drakeo once rapped, prodding detectives, “Judging by my case files, I’m obsessed with rifles”; the first song he recorded out of jail was “Fights Don’t Matter,” which had a hook about firing 33 shots instead of using fists. Even if his prior felonies barred him from legally possessing guns, the risks that came with being a flashy L.A. street rapper meant that he’d always rather be tried by 12 than carried by six. What I didn’t know is that he and his entourage—including his licensed and bonded security guard—had been meticulously searched and stripped of weapons before entering.
After ducking from the presumptive line of fire, I watch the mayhem from roughly 20 feet away. Flurries of punches are thrown. It seems to be a fair fight. Out in front, Drakeo unleashes jabs and uppercuts. Ralfy does the same, plus one of the Bruce Lee kicks he raps about. Several minutes pass and festival security are nowhere to be found. I’ve seen hundreds of police officers on the grounds tonight, but they’re suddenly invisible. But even without intervention, the squabble ends quickly. Drakeo and the Stinc Team turn and continue toward the stage. For a moment, everything is calm.
* * *
Calm has been a foreign concept in Los Angeles lately. It may not be the ’90s, when the city regularly eclipsed 1,500 murders a year, but homicide rates are up over 50 percent since 2019. In 2021, nearly 400 people were killed, a 15-year high. Another 1,400 survived shootings. It’s not just gangs: broader society is suffering from an excess of guns and the despairing sense that nothing matters. “L.A. is Not Safe,” goes the hook of a popular local rap song released last year. “L.A. is for the gangs.”
The hip-hop world is hardly immune. In February 2020, Brooklyn rapper Pop Smoke, only 20 but already King of New York, was murdered in a home invasion at the Hollywood Hills mansion he was renting from one of the Real Housewives. (Five alleged Hoover Criminals await trial; the youngest is 15.) A year before that, Nipsey Hussle was gunned down in the parking lot of his Marathon clothing store at Crenshaw and Slauson (a reported member of Nipsey’s own Rolling ’60s set has been charged). In the last several months, the rappers Nfant, Slim 400, and Earl Swavey, all artists of civic renown, were shot dead independently of one another. No arrests have been made in the killings, which many believe are gang related.
Over the last three decades, gangsta rap has become an integral part of L.A.’s sonic fabric. Drakeo grew up steeped in this tradition, yet self-consciously apart from it. Like Wu-Tang, E-40, and MF Doom, he’d conceived an entirely new rap language, at once flamboyantly absurd and sniper precise, what he called “lingo bingo.” To listen to Drake was to decipher a shadowland hieroglyphics of antique slang and diabolical taunts—to inhabit a tragicomic cartoon realism. He may have rapped about guns, drugs, and violence, but he did so with whimsy and literary flair. Drakeo renamed the extended clips on his rifles after Martin characters and called his rivals “Shirleys” (after Shirley Temple) or “Silly Billys.” Christening himself “the foreign whip crasher,” he alternated between Simpsons jokes and stories of Neiman Marcus shopping sprees, or from his lucrative day job as king of the flockers (local slang for breaking and entering).
Drakeo was obsessed with originality right down to the Stinc Team’s greeting—a linking of pinky fingers. Being the first to rock a line of designer clothes or purchase the newest model of imported luxury cars was a given. His idiolect was regular but not normal; his cadences and flows transformative. Drakeo oozed like mud across a codeine river, scraping counterclockwise against sinister percussion. He called it “nervous music,” describing it to me as a soundtrack for driving around South Central in a $100,000 sedan, trailed by shooters who might try to kill you at any given red light. His arrival made the previous models—the lingering hangover of G-Funk, the limber bounce of ratchet music, the khakis, Chucks, and white tees—feel obsolete. Decades earlier, Snoop Dogg liberated the West from the classical strictures and foundational rhythms of East Coast rap. Now Drakeo emerged to liberate the West Coast from the West itself. A new strain of California noir had arrived that would be imitated by street rappers from San Diego to Sacramento. In L.A, Drakeo swiftly became the people’s champ to teenagers and 20-somethings south of Pico.
I first met him in the crumbling Men’s Central Jail, just southeast of Chinatown. Shortly after publishing a rave review about his music, I’d received an invite to visit him as he awaited trial on firearms possession charges. It was late January 2017. A few weeks earlier, the sheriff’s department had raided his rented condo near LAX, hoping to find the murder weapons used in a December 2016 shooting in Carson. No dirty guns were found, but they turned up plenty of clean ones and arrested everyone on the premises, including Drakeo’s friends, brother, mother, and teenage sister.
When I spoke to him through the jail phone and six-inch-thick glass, he was still Inmate 487213, but what I most remember from that first conversation is how much he laughed. Over the years, our conversations ranged from outrage about what the judge deemed admissible at trial to his appreciation of FX’s The People Versus O.J. Simpson. For all the lyrical violence and larceny, the toughness inherent to his musical persona, there was a fundamental sweetness to him. He could be goofy and shy, rolling his eyes and raising his eyebrows like a silent film comic. For an artist so outspoken in his work, he could be oddly sheepish and reticent in person. That is, unless you caught him ranting about the things he hated: clones imitating his sartorial or rap style, the way the homicide detectives tormenting him looked like Chief Wiggum and Mr. Burns, or how the lobster pizza at Berri’s doesn’t contain real lobster.
He read the encyclopedia as a child, borrowing his alias not from Drake or the semi-automatic Draco pistol, but from the seventh-century Athenian lawgiver known for handing down a set of unusually harsh—“draconian”—dictates. Drakeo was especially amused by the legislator’s purported demise: he suffocated to death under the cloaks and hats showered on him by throngs of admirers.
* * *
The fight appears to be over. Except for a couple of bruises, nobody seems to be badly hurt. That’s when the half dozen antagonists are replaced by what looks like an army of the dead. They appear as if out of nowhere, sprinting helter-skelter in battalions of 20, mostly in red, many ski-masked, letting loose shrieks of “Whoop” and “Suu Whoop.”
It seems clear that the initial confrontation had been a decoy to convince Drakeo and the Stinc Team that their rivals would be willing to catch a fair one. Instead, this mob of 100 swarms them, sprinting nearly to the spot where Snoop Dogg is about to take the stage. This is not merely an escalation or the chaos of a smaller fight gone out of hand. This is strategic, the obvious product of careful design.
By now, nearly seven or eight full minutes have passed since the first punch of the initial, decoy conflict. Maybe ten. Maybe more. Security and police are still entirely absent. Drakeo and the few friends with him drown in a sea of bodies, a red riptide. A video of the incident shows the Stinc Team attempting to retreat behind a fence the moment they realize the depravity of the ambush. In that video, the mob circles a blurred figure on the ground. Later, a private investigator who volunteers his services to Drakeo’s family tells them that after reviewing the footage, he counts 113 people taking on seven.
Directly in front of me, I watch one of the attackers leap up on a ledge, rip off his mask, beat his chest, and screech with apparent glee. As if on cue, the attackers all remove their red hoodies and scatter. Seconds later, security and the police finally arrive, much too late. So do a team of medics, who rush up to a prostrate body writhing on the asphalt. It is Drakeo: mask off, blood pouring all over his face and neck. It looks like his throat has been slit. In the distance, I hear the wail of sirens.
Cops form to separate the Stinc Team and me from the rest of the all-access area. From what I can see, there is no attempt to secure the backstage to prevent the assailants’ escape. No arrests are made. No one else has been stabbed, although one or two people are being treated in a medical tent for minor injuries. None of us is questioned about what we had witnessed.
But for the moment, we’re not thinking about the investigation—or non-investigation—to come.
The panic mounts. Where is the ambulance? Get him to the hospital. I watch medics give him CPR, then electro cardioversion shocks. Still no ambulance. Everyone is stunned, enraged, eyes like glowing embers. Finally, EMTs load Drakeo onto a stretcher and carry him into the red truck, lights flashing epileptically, siren on, into the night.
By now, my phone has started to blow up. Someone tweeted that Drakeo was stabbed in the neck. Twitter is aflame. A few people close to Drakeo call me. I remember nothing about what I tell them. Later, they say that I was in complete shock, mumbling over and over that he had been stabbed, and that it looks “bad . . . really bad.”
Helicopters scud overheard, ghostly search lights peering into the dark parking lot. About 15 feet behind me, a DJ remains on stage, running through the Southern California songbook to appease the oblivious crowd still wondering why Snoop hasn’t gone on. Sublime’s “Santeria” plays like a primitive curse.
No one knows which hospital they’ve taken Drakeo to. I find a group of friends at a fixed meeting point outside of the all-access area: some vintage lowriders that the production towed in to add atmosphere. My brain feels obliterated, a wobbly reel of bloodstained horror. I keep repeating what I saw, over and over, as if by divining some secret combination of syllables, maybe I can reverse it.
In the distance, I hear the end of Parliament-Funkadelic’s set. They play “Maggot Brain,” a spell of supernatural grief, the one where George Clinton told Eddie Hazel, “Play like your mother just died.” I close my eyes for a second and am struck by the asphyxiating sensation that Drakeo is gone. I know. I open them again and a kid in a “Free Drakeo” shirt walks past.
* * *
Drakeo was born Darrell Caldwell in December of 1993, one week after Snoop dropped Doggystyle and six days before Ice Cube’s Lethal Injection. He grew up a few blocks from where the N.W.A. star did, in the 100s section of South Central, an unincorporated labyrinth of low-slung stucco homes, liquor stores, churches, and mortuaries. Officially called Westmont, the neighborhood had the highest unemployment rate in the county (23.6 percent) in 2009. A half-decade later, it boasted its highest homicide rate, too. One grim corridor along South Vermont was nicknamed “Death Alley.”
He barely knew his father. His mother, a warm-hearted and devout woman named Darrylene Corniel, worked as a preschool teacher. He once told me that they were the poorest family on their block, but even at 4 years old, people remember that he’d tell anyone who would listen: “One day I’m gonna be rich.”
Nothing was simple. At 12, Drakeo was arrested for taking a dollar from a tip jar in Pasadena. He was shot for the first time at 15, when he was still a freshman at Washington High. This was around the time that jerkin, a dance-rap phenomenon, swept adolescent Los Angeles, ushering skinny jeans and fluorescent hair into vogue. After a party one night, sheriff’s deputies pulled over the mohawked teenager, a member of the Action Figure$ crew, without offering a reason for his detainment. As they interrogated him for an hour, cars kept driving past. As soon as the cops left, he became the victim of a random drive-by. The shooters were never caught. Drakeo started carrying a gun after that.
Stints at youth detention camps followed, often after arrests for burglary or gun possession. Police harassment was constant. On his last mixtape, he rapped, “All my life, I’ve been running from ‘Shootin’ Newton,” a reference to the notorious police station in South L.A. At 16, he received a juvenile felony strike for shoplifting a bottle of liquor from Ralph’s. At 19, he was riding in a friend’s car when sheriff’s deputies pulled them over and discovered Xanax on the floor. A public defender convinced him to plead guilty to felony sales to avoid serving time.
Rapping offered an escape. Friends told him he had a gift, which became clearer with each increasingly original freestyle that led up to his breakout single, 2015’s “Mr. Get Dough.” YG’s brother brought Drakeo to the attention of DJ Mustard, the city’s then-reigning Midas, whose “remix” and co-sign was all Drakeo needed to become a sensation. “Presented” by Mustard, Drakeo’s stellar 2016 mixtape, I Am Mr. Mosely, codified his style, and left many claiming that the 22-year old was Mustard’s younger, improved replacement for YG. A Blood from Compton, YG had recently become a superstar and dissolved ties with his long-time collaborator. But the Drakeo-Mustard union was short-lived too—the pair would fall out after Drakeo refused to sign to the producer’s label. This insistence on total creative and financial independence would define his life.
There was no local prototype for what Drakeo was attempting to do. If you’re rapping about street life in Los Angeles—at least to the extent that Drakeo was doing it—it has historically required gang membership. But Drakeo adamantly refused to join the Bloods or the Crips, once claiming on the No Jumper podcast, “gangbanging is for losers.” By the time I Am Mr. Mosely was out, his non-affiliation had already caused him some minor problems. But for the first few years of his career, he regularly collaborated with all sides. Even though he grew up around Crips, wore blue bandanas, and made no secret to where his sympathies lay, he refused to officially join a set. One of the chief rules of banging is that you can only choose one. Understanding that he needed to build his own system lest he be confined by another man’s, Drakeo would only formally rep his rap crew. It meant that the Stinc Team would be constantly tested.
As Drakeo’s stature grew, he became a moving target—in his own parlance, a “hood trophy.” Sometimes it seemed his genius was only matched only by his stubborn pride. He neither suffered fools nor tolerated slights, a stance that left him susceptible to petty beefs that should’ve been beneath him. His loyalty left no middle ground. He was your best friend or your worst enemy, constantly enraged by the fraudulence and inauthenticity that he saw around him.
During the summer and fall of 2016, numerous Blood sets declared war on Drakeo and the Stinc Team. Unless you were involved, it’s difficult to explain exactly why it got so out of control. As the Eight Tray Gangster Crip-turned-writer Sanyika “Monster Kody” Shakur once wrote, “there are no gang experts except participants.” I was told that the Stinc Team whooped some Inglewood Bloods on camera in a boxing match that went viral. Someone tried to snatch a chain from someone else. People started talking shit back and forth online. At some point, Drakeo started exchanging diss tracks with RJ, an Athens Park Blood and close collaborator with YG and Mustard, which brought another neighborhood into the mix. Drakeo’s slang, influence, and aesthetic were starting to shift the sound of the streets, and he had no problem letting his enemies know. As he said in one of his raps, “I’m a sore winner . . . When I leave, I take the scoreboard with me.”
The Stinc Team all had their cars shot up. There were robbery attempts. Drakeo’s mother’s house was sprayed with bullets. Many of his childhood friends were Neighborhood Crips, long-time rivals of Inglewood’s Blood gangs, and by virtue of association, Drakeo was sucked into a multi-generational war. The tension exploded in the December 2016 shooting of Davion “Red Bull” Gregory, a member of the Inglewood Family Bloods, at an adult pajama party in Carson. No one accused Drakeo of actually pulling the trigger, but given his celebrity and the ongoing drama, the presence of his brand-new Mercedes SUV at the crime scene made him the prime target for law enforcement.
The actual murder indictment wouldn’t be filed for another 16 months. By then, Drakeo had served an 11-month sentence for felony gun possession (stemming from the sheriff’s raid), and recorded his masterpiece, Cold Devil, now widely regarded as one of the best West Coast rap projects of the last decade. Record label offers and co-signs from famous artists rolled in until yet another gun charge stalled his momentum. In January 2018, having been free for only a month, Drakeo was arrested for gun possession at a smoke shop at 108th and Western. Later, when he’d been convicted of this charge, he would insist that law enforcement had been targeting him. During the booking, the cops in the 77th Division bumped his music and asked about his lyrics, especially the hook for a song called “Ugh.” (“The Chopper will make him go ugh.”)
During the next 60 days, the cops indicted almost every member of the Stinc Team on charges ranging from stealing guns to credit card fraud to felony graffiti (for spray painting a wall in a music video). All faced massive sentencing enhancements due to the prosecutor’s insistence that the rap crew amounted to a gang under California law. In March, the DA’s office charged Drakeo for committing first-degree murder, attempted murder, shooting from a motor vehicle, gang conspiracy, and illegal possession of firearms by a felon. The death penalty was on the table.
This is when I started to receive frequent calls from County. At first, Drakeo didn’t even seem to fully understand what he was being charged with. His original attorney was 90 years old and befuddled by the preponderance of social media and rap lyrics in the indictment. I helped Drakeo find a new attorney, John Hamasaki, who built an artful defense in the final month before trial, and potentially saved Drakeo from serving 25-to-life.
The prosecution’s case was spearheaded by a sheriff’s department homicide detective named Francis Hardiman, who had somehow concluded that Drakeo was the John Gotti of South Central, or at least that the right jury would believe he was. According to Hardiman’s theory, which was eventually presented by lead prosecutor Shannon Cooley (daughter of former DA Steve Cooley), the Red Bull murder was Drakeo’s fault. They alleged that Drakeo had gone to the pajama party with the intent to murder RJ. When RJ failed to appear, they contended, two members of Drakeo’s entourage killed Red Bull. In the state’s rendering, Drakeo had created a dangerous environment and supplied the guns, and was therefore culpable for anything that occurred.
The story seemed fanciful. There was no evidence that RJ ever planned on attending the party (his name wasn’t on the flyer). In interviews, RJ dismissed the prosecution’s theories, and insisted the party never even crossed his radar. None of this prevented authorities from meting out punishment long before a verdict. Drakeo spent months in solitary and weeks without sunlight. Books were confiscated and phone privileges frequently revoked. His mother lost her job with LAUSD after police sent her employer paperwork claiming that she was part of a gang investigation. At another point, Drakeo told me that the prison guards purposely placed him in a module filled with Bloods, so he would get “packed out”—out-numbered and stomped.
The case came to embody the prosecutorial overreach that had become endemic in Jackie Lacey’s office. Cooley, now a judge, frequently weaponized Drakeo’s lyrics against him, a particularly egregious example of a trend that has become a nationwide epidemic. In open court, Cooley claimed that obtuse lyrical insults were evidence of a murder plot. From slang to hand signs, hip-hop and Black culture were demonized and used as prima facie evidence of gang membership. Several Black jurors were dismissed after openly expressing their incredulity at the prosecution’s case (one kept on calling Hardiman “Detective Fuhrman,” a reference to the racist O. J. Simpson investigator).
In July 2019, the jury found Drakeo not guilty on all murder and attempted murder charges, failing to reach a verdict on two counts: shooting from a murder vehicle (the vote was 10-2 for acquittal) and a rarely used gang conspiracy law (7-5 to acquit). One of the shooters was convicted. While most court observers assumed the case would end there, Lacey promptly brought in a new prosecutor—reputed to be one of the most aggressive in the office—and redoubled the prosecutorial effort to send Drakeo upstate.
While retrial dates were repeatedly agreed to and then postponed, Drakeo became something of a cause célèbre. The New Yorker described the “prosecution’s case as so nonsensical that the story could be read as satire.” Drakeo enlisted artists like Earl Sweatshirt and Danny Brown to rap on remixes of his songs, giving them a second life and exposing his struggle and style to different fanbases. He also dictated impassioned (and often hilarious) Twitter rants to Joog SZN from jail, eviscerating the flimsiness of the DA’s claims and the corruption of the local criminal justice system. It was so effective that the prosecution successfully petitioned the court to slap Drakeo with a gag order—an unconstitutional interdiction on his free speech so stifling that he couldn’t even tweet “Free Drakeo.”
Covid-19 swept through America during the first week of jury selection, postponing his case indefinitely. The judge once again refused to grant bail. Violating the gag order, Drakeo and Joog SZN recorded Thank You for Using GTL, where the rapper spit lyrics over the jailhouse phone as the producer rolled tape. Drakeo’s outlaw background was unimpeachable, but he carefully blurred the boundaries between the truth and fiction, lampooning his enemies in the state, on the streets, and those too one-dimensional to understand the difference: “If art imitates life, you should probably panic.” Pitchfork gave the album a Best New Music nod and hailed it as a “remarkable feat: a stark rebuke of the justice system and an unparalleled achievement for a rapper and his producer.” The Atlantic and GQ ran features on the artistic triumph of the album, and the injustice of Drakeo’s plight. Many regard it as the greatest album recorded from inside a jail cell. What Dylan did for Ruben Carter with “Hurricane,” Drakeo had done for himself.
He came home on November 4, 2020, the day after reformer George Gascon defeated Jackie Lacey in an underdog candidacy propelled by the Black Lives Matter protests. The prosecutors denied any political coincidence, but it was lost on no one that Drakeo was offered a plea deal right when Lacey’s loss became inevitable. His comeback single was out within days, a full mixtape in a month. Interviews and features followed in Rolling Stone and Complex.
Soon after, Drakeo introduced a San Pedro rapper named Remble, a direct stylistic descendent who quickly became one of the city’s hottest, and who quickly signed a seven-figure deal with Warner Bros. A month after that, Drake reached out to Drakeo to bestow him with “Talk To Me,” which now has 33 million Spotify streams. The Toronto pop behemoth even made Drakeo a face of an OVO Lookbook. In the 400 days that he was free, Drakeo dropped five excellent original albums. He was making $300,000 to $400,000 a month without a label or major distributor. He owned all of his masters and publishing. The deferred dreams of lavish clothes, jewelry, cars, and mansions became a reality, without any Faustian bargaining.
But hatred and seething jealousy remained a constant threat. It was partially the residual fallout over Red Bull’s murder, compounded with other perceived insults and taunts. Over the course of the last year, several different people with street ties told me that there was a bounty on Drakeo’s head. Last year, a prominent L.A. rapper, neither Blood nor Crip, told me that word on the street was that Drakeo would be dead by the end of that summer. When I asked which Blood factions wanted Drakeo dead, the rapper just shook his head at me and said, “the Bloods.”
It’s impossible to get exact counts of the gang population of Los Angeles, but most estimates maintain that there are at least twice as many Crips as Bloods. The local cliques are known to be tightly aligned; a war with one can trigger a series of interlocking conflicts, something like the invasion of a NATO country. When we discussed it, Drakeo told me that he’d tried to make peace but that his enemies had refused to accept a truce. And Drakeo was never one to back down; he had survived too much for too long, flourishing despite the adversity. If someone slighted him, he would verbally strike back. The most notable act of retribution was last August’s “IngleWEIRD.” One of the best rap disses of 2021, it disembowels local allies-turned-rivals, accuses a whole neighborhood of condoning snitching, and vows a massacre on Rodeo Drive.
The morning after “IngleWEIRD” dropped, LAPD patrol cars stopped an Uber Black SUV in which Drakeo was a passenger. In an encounter streamed on his IG Live, the officers declined to search the driver. Instead, they key in on Drakeo, who is riding in the backseat alongside his toddler son. They discover a gun in the car. Drakeo winds up once again being charged with illegal possession of firearms by a felon, his court date scheduled for Dec. 23. He wouldn’t live to see it.
Shortly after that latest arrest, we spoke on the phone. Drakeo told me that he believed it was a setup—that gang members from Inglewood had alerted the police to his location, informing them that he was armed. I didn’t need to ask why he was carrying a weapon, although we both knew a conviction could’ve triggered a seven-year sentence. People often ask why he didn’t just leave L.A., or why he wouldn’t hire a praetorian guard of armed, licensed goons to shadow him at every step. But that wasn’t his style. He wanted to be among the people. He didn’t want to be called a sellout, or risk hearing that he was too weak to face the heat in his hometown. Drakeo may have made nervous music, but he was never a coward, the embodiment of Caesar’s maxim that it’s better to die once than to always be afraid of death.
* * *
A small crowd gathers outside of the Dignity Health hospital on Grand. It’s shortly after midnight, early December 19, and no one knows anything. The Stinc Team huddles in a corner, anxiously smoking about a dozen feet from the entrance. On the other side, a line of sheriff’s deputies glare at us. Drakeo’s lawyer is here. His baby’s mother arrives. Finally, his mother appears, alerted late to the emergency.
No one is being allowed to see Drakeo. Rumors have spread online that Drakeo is dead, but most trustworthy reports say that he’s in critical condition. His mother remains a marvel of composure considering the circumstance. As she waits to see her son, hospital security forces her to walk through the metal detector three times. Immediately thereafter, Drakeo’s aunt exits out the sliding glass doors. She has no real news, but the doctors have intimated to her that he’s still alive. She heads back in.
For about 15 minutes, there is hope. Spirits lift. Drakeo being dead seems too fantastical. He had survived three years in the dungeons of MCJ, squared up with Jackie Lacey, the sheriffs, and the daughter of the former DA—and beat them all. He’d climbed out of poverty to get so rich that he drove a car that came with an umbrella. He had lost track of the times that enemies had tried to kill him and failed. This was the Cold Devil, Bruce Wayne in some Maisons, the Flu Flam champion.
Soon, the quiet is shattered. Drakeo’s aunt has returned, and this time she’s wailing. “He’s gone.” He’s gone. Bodies crumple, the mood darkens, tears are shed. The doctors performed emergency surgery, she tells us, but then he flatlined. It turns out that he was dead for three hours before they informed his family. His mother wants to give him one more hug, but that won’t be permitted; it’s an open homicide investigation. She’s forced to stare from the other side of the glass.
* * *
A memorial for close friends and family is held two days later. By that Tuesday night, December 21, the internet is already teeming with accusations of who did what and why. Hip-hop websites and YouTube channels are publishing recounts of an IG Live from Drakeo’s friend, K7, who alleged that YG “set the whole shit” because “he knew Drakeo was gonna take his spot.” According to K7, who was backstage at Once Upon in L.A., YG had been allowed to bring in 70 people, nearly five times what Drakeo was permitted. In a Rolling Stone interview, Drakeo’s mother points to a large influx of people she was told arrived with YG and “swamped” her sons. “They started trying to jump them,” she tells the magazine. She plans to sue the festival and Live Nation for gross negligence. By now, several videos have been leaked to the internet showing the attack. In one still, you can clearly see someone fighting in a “4Hunnid” hoodie from YG’s clothing line.
Few expect justice from the courts or law enforcement. The cops have already leaked that they have hit a wall in the investigation, as witnesses refuse to talk. Most of his friends and family, including myself, believe that it’s just a way for them to deflect blame, to soften the blow for when it eventually becomes another cold case.
The memorial is at Drakeo’s house. The trauma remains fresh. My sleep has been tormented; my concentration nonexistent. I keep forgetting to eat. Roughly 60 of us light blue and white candles, arranged to spell out “Drakeo.” I’m one of two people asked to speak in tribute. Whatever I say has disappeared into a mercury haze. Even if I said the “right” things, all requiems would play in the wrong key.
A sense of apocalypse loomed over everything. Drakeo was 28 with an incandescent future ahead: He was supporting his son, mother, and paying his sister’s college tuition. Whoever bears responsibility for his murder did more than kill one man. They’ve deprived hip-hop and pop culture of a rare creative vanguard pushing sound and style forward in a landscape glutted with pastiche and revival. They snatched away a living symbol, who triumphed over incommensurable abuses dealt by the system. But perhaps that was part of the point.
To begin to understand why it happened is to grapple with the most corrosive aspects of humanity: the need for revenge and hatred of the other; our capacity for rage, ego, and jealousy. It is the boomerang of racism, police corruption, and the worship of violence. Yet it is also a condition of the spiritual and material poverty that infects most aspects of modern American life. Only here, under a deranged spell of nihilism, greed, and lust for fame, can all the codes and compasses that once governed us become meaningless. It is a parable without a point, that makes perfect sense during an extended free fall in which everything seems to have surrendered to the forces of anarchy. Once again, we are reminded that even a living legend can fall victim to the death spiral that has doomed too many, their memories receding into a fog of fractured recollections, framed photos, and airbrushed T-shirts.
After we light the candles, we move into the house, a $13,000-a-month luxury rental in the hills near Runyon Canyon. In front of a 10-foot-tall Christmas tree, there is an eerily life-like cardboard cut of Drakeo, looking contemptuous and expensive. This was supposed to be his first Christmas as a millionaire; he was supposed to be vacationing in St. Thomas right now, his first trip out of the country.
Drakeo had only been living here since August, so the decorations remain unfinished; the furniture is in the baroque style that comes with a starter palace in the hills. It feels like one of the last scenes in The Great Gatsby, where Nick Carraway shows Mr. Gatz through the height and splendor and great rooms of the estate, “his grief [beginning] to be mixed with an awed pride.”
There is a wine cellar adorned with Chinese glyphs that he never had time to stock, rooms full of designer clothes—some hung up, some folded in boxes, some strewn on the floor. There are walk-in closets stocked with barely worn Jordans, and a custom-made pair of sneakers stamped with the face of his late friend and collaborator, Ketchy the Great. Another room contains nothing but hung-up skateboards, including a “Slime” one that Young Thug gave as a personal gift. There is a security room revealing multi-camera footage of practically every corner of the premises. Noel tells me that Drakeo loved to sit in here and just watch the cameras, “even though we never really had many guests.”
We ride Drakeo’s elevator up to the top floor, a master bedroom with an attached patio. Someone has figured out how to crack Drakeo’s laptop and his friends start playing unreleased songs recorded only last week. Outside, the view of the city is imperial. Sub-tropical neon lights and useless skyscrapers drone in the distance; further down the canyon, you can spy the turquoise infinity pool of a neighbor. I immediately recognize the panorama. About a month ago, Drakeo had FaceTimed me from up here, beaming with pride. “Jeff, you gotta’ see it . . . I live in a mansion now.” There’s a hot tub, too. Noel tells me that they only got to use it once: on his birthday, three weeks prior. They sipped champagne.
Before I leave, I stop to talk with a few of Drakeo’s friends who were backstage that night. Survivors’ guilt haunts everyone in one form or another. I find myself saying that no one could have done anything, it was a setup, an assassination. But it seems stupid because the mind doesn’t work like that; it is always trying to attempt a séance, no matter the improbability.
Someone who was riding with Drakeo in his Rolls-Royce tells me about those final moments before the chaos begins. A security guard who screams “whoop” as The Ruler rolls in. His friends later show me footage of the parking lot as Drakeo arrives. They point to a 17-car caravan in front of them, which they claim belonged to YG and his entourage. After all, he too was scheduled to play on the main stage that night, right after Snoop Dogg and Al Green.
Soundlessly, the Rolls slowly ambles into the asphalt expanse of the all-access area. It becomes clear that Drakeo is surrounded by enemies on all sides. Mean mugs glower through the tinted glass of the Dawn, but they all know who is in there. Drakeo’s friend describes the scene as looking like a “Level 4 Yard Lockdown,” a reference to a maximum security section in prison where stabbings often occur.
Inside the vehicle, Drakeo understands that there are only two options: he can either get out of the car and confront what is waiting for him; or he can retreat, and be subjected to slander that he is a coward for not performing. It is a trap, a dishonorable one, one that should never have been allowed to be set. But then when they ask Drakeo what the move is, he replies with a line from “Gorillas n Nuns,” one of the best songs on his last mixtape: “Roll the window up, if it’s smoke, we want all of it.”
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