Outskirts of the Southern Canon
By Will Stephenson
It was January, 1997, two weeks after New Year’s Day. At around 4 A.M., Charles Watkins, a homicide detective with the New Orleans Police Department, was driving slow circles around the Westbank, downriver from Algiers Point. It was a cool night, in the lower forties, and quiet. I imagine Watkins was bored, maybe struggling to stay awake in the dark. And then a call comes out over the radio, breaking the silence—there’s been a shooting at Live Oaks.
This wasn’t unusual. Live Oaks, which most people still knew by its former name, DeGaulle Manor, was one of the roughest areas in Old Algiers. Section 8 apartments that had been neglected over the decades, the buildings were in poor shape inside and out. From a distance, you could hardly see the complex through the trees. It was a neighborhood within a neighborhood.
Watkins pulled into the driveway on Murl Street and found two other officers already on the scene. They were standing over a young woman, who sat on the steps outside her front door with her head in her hands. Her name was LaKeisha, and she was crying. Other residents, roused by the commotion, peeked out of their curtains or leaned over the railing to get a better look. Watkins got out of his car and walked over to LaKeisha’s boyfriend, who lay on the sidewalk covered in his own blood. He wore a white t-shirt and gray sweatpants; he’d been shot three times. Robert Johnson Jr. was still alive, but you couldn’t tell it. He was bleeding from his mouth and from his nose. Watkins knelt down beside him and asked who’d shot him, but he struggled to form any words in response.
The paramedics arrived and helped the twenty-year-old into the back of an ambulance. It was an auspicious name for a black Southern musician—Robert Johnson Jr.—but his family called him Big Rob and everyone else knew him as Kilo G. He was a rapper, the first artist signed to Cash Money Records. A few months later, even the N.O.P.D. would have been impressed by this fact, but the label’s name didn’t mean much to Watkins or the other officers that night at Live Oaks. They processed the crime scene, photographing the site from different angles. They noted the blood stains on Johnson’s blue Cadillac.
When Cash Money was started several years before by the brothers Baby and Slim Williams, Kilo G had been its flagship artist. He was only fourteen when he met Baby and Slim, too young to sign a contract; they’d had to take a ferry across the river to find his grandmother, so she could sign in his place. Before Mannie Fresh, before Lil Wayne—before the fleet of Bentleys and yellow Hummers that roamed the streets of New Orleans like an occupying army—there had been Kilo G. LaKeisha tried explaining this, but the officers at Live Oaks didn’t seem interested, and it didn’t matter anyway. Johnson was dead. He died in the ambulance on the way to the hospital.
From the incident report, item # A-23642-97:
Detective Watkins then questioned Ms. [redacted]. Ms. [redacted] stated that she was sleeping in the bedroom when she heard two gunshots. She jumped up and ran to the front door. She noticed that the door was wide open. She looked out and noticed the victim standing on the sidewalk holding his chest. He was yelling, ‘Help me!’ According to Ms. [redacted] the victim told her not to come outside. ‘They’ might kill her. She did not know who he was referring to when he made reference to ‘They.’
Roland Smith—Big Ro—met Baby Williams in 1992 through a friend who worked the counter at Peaches Records on Gentilly Boulevard. Ro was home from Houston, where he’d been working with the Geto Boys, and had never heard of Williams. He was from Downtown, Baby from Uptown. But Williams loved the Geto Boys, and he was looking for a producer. Not long before, he had sketched a crude logo for Cash Money Records on a napkin. He’d gotten the idea of starting a rap label from his younger brother, Eldrick, who’d wanted to be a rapper before he was shot and killed at the age of twenty. Or that was the story. So far, they only had the one artist.
“Kilo was a quiet dude,” Ro told me recently, when I’d called him one afternoon to ask about those years. Along with his partner, Vick Diaz, Ro had produced Cash Money’s first record, Kilo G’s The Sleepwalker. They sold copies out of the trunk of Baby’s car. Their fortunes have diverged since then. Baby and Slim are multimillionaires; Ro is not. He sounded tired when he answered the phone. “What made you want to write about that?” he asked more than once. And then, pausing periodically for long, silent, inscrutable stretches, he told me what he remembered:
I was into raw rap. Reality rap. I loved him, Kilo. You’re gonna make me go back and listen to that stuff. He had a great talent. And he kept to himself a lot—he never got in no trouble. He wasn’t no bad kid at all, everybody loved him. He was blessed with talent and a great flow. He was a little different than the average rapper, his voice had a stronger presence. We really thought he was gonna blow up. We was unstoppable. But it was too gutter, too raw. We was too underground and we didn’t know no better. It was too hard, but it was dope. I can’t believe I’m talking about this.
The album wasn’t a great success. Baby Williams was perplexed, but he had a notion of what they’d done wrong. Bounce music was taking off in New Orleans at that time—it was omnipresent. And here they’d gone and made a Geto Boys album. People wanted to dance, and The Sleepwalker—with songs like “Psychopathic Killer” and “Kill His Family,” full of tape hiss and menace and references to Nightmare on Elm Street—isn’t a record that lends itself to dancing. So the Williams brothers recruited a new producer, Mannie Fresh, and Cash Money and Big Ro went their separate ways. Ro doesn’t have any hard feelings. He just misses his friend:
He got shot in his doorway. His cousin called me and people started calling me and telling me about it. I couldn’t believe it. The dude knocked on his door, asked for Kilo, and they was talking about something. And all of a sudden a gunshot went off. I can’t remember what it was about. I can’t remember—they told me. You know, I have memories that—when you love somebody, you just think about . . . he was too young to pass. And to pass like that.
Two years ago, Lil Wayne was interviewed on the New Orleans hip-hop station Q93 and was asked about his earliest influences. He first named Lil Slim, the man who introduced him to the Williams brothers and changed his life. Then he said, “I was a huge Kilo G fan.” The interviewer murmured in old-head recognition. “The Sleepwalker,” he said. “I had the wax, man. That’s how long ago that was.”
Cash Money grew slowly before it grew quickly. They became fixtures in local clubs, hole-in-the-wall spots with noirish names like Rumors and Detour and Whispers and Ghost Town. They toured Louisiana, following the chitlin’ circuit through Lafayette, Baton Rouge, and Lake Charles. And their roster began to fill out. This was the label’s forgotten first generation: Pimp Daddy, U.N.L.V., Lil Slim, Ms. Tee. Kilo was the youngest, but he had seniority. “Kilo G was a big guy,” Slim later remembered. “You wouldn’t dare think he was that young when you was in his presence.”
Cash Money headquarters was an office building on the corner of Rampart and Tulane, an area that had once been New Orleans’s Chinatown. But recording sessions in those years mostly took place at Mannie Fresh’s house on Bartholomew Street in the 9th Ward, with his young daughter wandering in and out of the makeshift studio. Fresh was a brilliant, prolific beatmaker, capable of adapting his approach to any voice or subject—he was as invested in the task of Magnolia Shorty’s “Monkey on tha Dick” as that of any of the more solemn street-rap records. He took his work seriously. He wanted to make “some Johann Bach–type shit,” as he once put it.
Kilo had grown more ambitious, too. By the time of his second album, 1995’s The Bloody City, he found himself reinvigorated by the raw material of his own life. In the years since The Sleepwalker, he had dropped out of school, moved in with his girlfriend, and had a son, his “heir to the throne.” Meanwhile, New Orleans seemed to be deteriorating around them. The year before, the city had famously set a new homicide record, with a total of 421—a figure you could learn from The Bloody City’s title track. Corruption was also rampant; ten local police officers were arrested for drug trafficking that same year. This was the world Cash Money reflected, one in which friends died young and no authority could be trusted.
Even in this context, Kilo could be distinguished for his essential sadness, for the darkness of his vision. Nearly every song on The Bloody City finds him relentlessly predicting the circumstances of his death. For the intro, he chose a clip of Al Pacino’s narration from Carlito’s Way, one of his favorite films: “Somebody’s pulling me close to the ground,” Pacino says. “I can sense, but I can’t see.” (It’s one of those ghostly, posthumous effects—it seems too specific to be accidental.) “Don’t take me to no hospital, please,” Pacino goes on. “Fuckin’ emergency rooms don’t save nobody.” Elsewhere, Kilo claims to “hear the voice of a dead man getting louder” and that “your life has no meaning to a killer.” He even anticipates the gruesome particulars: “A slug to the chest, one to the arm,” he raps, “there I was, face to face with my would-be killer.” On record, he doesn’t sound like a person likely to survive. He sounds like he’s disappearing.
But he had made something great, and he knew it. The Bloody City is a monument in the early Cash Money catalogue. At the same time, Kilo couldn’t fail to notice that he remained poor. There were lavish gifts and flattering spectacle, but no real livelihood; the business’s apparent success somehow didn’t translate into royalty checks for the artists. The Williams brothers would go on to refine this practice into a management strategy. “As time wore on,” Cash Money’s onetime lawyer later said of Baby, “I saw that he didn’t pay anybody.” Over three decades of existence, nearly every artist ever to work for Cash Money has sued or abandoned the label for the same reason.
The year Kilo died, 1997, was a molting year, in which the older generation dropped away in favor of the new. It marked the debut of the Hot Boys—Juvenile, B.G., Lil Wayne, and Turk—and a dramatic thinning of the ranks. The original roster was on its way out. “Sometimes you gotta let go to move forward,” Baby told Forbes of the artists they left behind during this period. Slim put it differently. “They wasn’t hungry enough,” he explained to a journalist. “So I just woke up one morning and told my brother, ‘You know what, I got to get rid of everybody here and start from scratch.’” Only a year later, the label would sign a $30 million distribution deal with Universal; the artists who had built the company saw none of it.
The conflict preoccupied Kilo at the time of his death. It even made its way into his murder investigation. “The detective again spoke to the victim’s girlfriend,” Charles Watkins wrote in his report, “who stated that the victim had contract problems with his record company.”
The murder investigation stalled. The police worked the case dutifully for a while, and almost immediately, within days, they got a tip proposing a suspect. His name, like most other names in the case file, is redacted, but he was said to be a person of interest in another recent murder at Live Oaks. Sources told them he lived with a girlfriend (they “only go out at night”) and it was suggested that if the police were to talk to her alone, she might confirm his involvement. She didn’t. Leads dried up, the case went cold.
Live Oaks continued to degenerate until it was abandoned. A local news station did a segment on the complex a few years ago, calling it a “dumping ground for criminals trying to ditch evidence and steal metal.” A neighbor they interviewed labeled it “not deplorable, but close to it.” You can see what looks like ancient ruins behind him in the overgrowth, along with a few burned-out cars. Not long afterward, a group of artists got permission to use it as an enormous graffiti canvas, covering the decrepit structures in spray-painted murals of Tupac and Malcolm X. The artist behind the project, Brandan Odums, called it “the largest single-site street art exhibit in the American South.”
I called Charles Watkins, one of the last people to see Kilo G alive. He’s since left the police for corporate security, but he was happy to talk about his time there. At first, he didn’t remember this particular murder—there were just so many. “He wasn’t no big-time rapper, right?” he asked. “He must have been small-time.” But as I described the details, he began to remember that night in January, 1997. Bits and pieces, anyway. I asked about the investigation, why it would have trailed off, despite having such a solid suspect:
That was typical. That was one of the most frustrating things. And of course, you know, you could feed the witnesses all the usual stuff: We’re gonna take care of you, da da da. And, to be honest with you, we had limited resources to do all that anyway. Not like you could relocate a witness. That’s just the bottom line. But that sounds like one of those type of murders—somebody saw it, but they’re scared to cooperate because of retaliation. And in the long run, you can’t blame them.
One of those type of murders. New Orleans in those days, he said, was the Wild West. He didn’t remember their clearance rate back then, but for this sort of crime, the odds weren’t great. You did the best you could, and then you moved on. Not that he forgot about the cases he couldn’t solve; on the contrary, he thought about them constantly. It was part of the job, handling disappointment. “That’s just, to me, what makes a detective,” he told me. “Sitting at the dinner table, you’re supposed to be thinking, what did I do wrong? What do I need to do? That should be your nature.”
“If you had caught me years ago, I knew everybody’s names and all that stuff,” Watkins added. “But all that’s gone now. I’m a civilian now, man.”
“Outskirts of the Southern Canon” is a part of our weekly story series, The By and By.
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