Lock 'Em Down, Lock 'Em Up

Did Lock 'Em Down Records exec Dewanzel Singleton lead a well-choreographed double life, or did the DEA finger an innocent man?

In early 2000 Singleton began taking trips to Chicago with a childhood friend, LaKeith Cross. Singleton says once or twice a month the pair would drive north to attend lavish parties hosted by Cross' cousin, Martin Caldwell. "We'd take carloads sometimes and go up there and party and whatever the case may be. That was pretty much it," Singleton says.

More than a year earlier, on August 25, 1998, Caldwell had approached the Chicago Police Department with an unusual problem: His mother had been kidnapped and was being held for ransom. But before an investigation could get under way, Caldwell decided to pay the $100,000 ransom out of his own pocket. Hours after he did so, his mother was freed. End of story. But not quite: Chicago authorities were curious as to how Caldwell had been able to produce so much cash on short notice. The DEA was alerted and a probe initiated.

Details about Caldwell's life began to emerge. He had a history of drug-related arrests and was a high-ranking member of the Conservative Vice Lords, a powerful west Chicago street gang. According to court documents later filed by DEA agent William Warren, in July 2001 an informant told the Chicago DEA that he'd bought about a kilo of cocaine a week from Caldwell for about five years, ending in 1997. The agents set up a sting, providing the informant with $2,700 to be used to buy 4.5 ounces of crack. They recorded telephone conversations leading up to the drug deal, then videotaped the exchange. Hoping to build a more wide-reaching case, the DEA orchestrated two more buys in July and August 2002, including one in which an informant wore a wire.

On October 15, 2003, Warren filed his complaint and Caldwell was arrested. On the eve of his trial in May 2006, facing life in prison if convicted, Caldwell pleaded guilty to selling multiple kilograms of cocaine, crack and heroin, and to possession of a firearm by a felon. He forfeited $2 million in cash and seized property.

In exchange for his cooperation in other cases, Caldwell was sentenced to fourteen and a half years in federal prison, where he now resides.

Miles Davis grew up in East St. Louis before moving to New York at age eighteen to attend Juilliard and jam with Charlie Parker. While living in the city, Annie Mae Bullock met her future husband Ike Turner in an east-side bar called Club Manhattan. The great Peetie Wheatstraw, a pianist widely regarded as one the most influential blues musicians of all time, honed his chops in the clubs of East St. Louis. These days, however, most of the folks in East St. Louis interested in blues, jazz and rock & roll are old enough to have seen the those artists perform in their prime.

"Hip-hop is the only music where I'm from," says L.E.D. co-CEO John Bacon, who graduated from East St. Louis High School in 1991. "The people don't really listen to nothing else."

But while its neighbor across the river has produced several hip-hop superstars (most notably the multi-platinum selling artist Nelly), East St. Louis has yet to see any of its homegrown hip-hop talent blossom in the national spotlight. L.E.D. aimed to change all that.

In October 2005 Bacon and Singleton signed Young Beano, who had a single called "Skip 2 Da Lou" that had caught on as a regional club hit. Beano says it was Singleton who approached him about joining the label.

"He was just a cool person. He was down-to-earth. And I knew he was going to do what I needed him to do, and that was push the music," recalls Beano, who explains that his stage name is an acronym for Born Eternal Angel No Other. "They didn't really offer me nothing real dramatic, but I knew they had what I needed at the time, and that was a team and money."

Shortly thereafter, Beano (given name: Joe Vence) recorded "Money Snap," a song ostensibly about going clubbing after receiving an income-tax refund. As its title indicates, "Money Snap" fits squarely in the genre of snap, a downtempo style of Southern hip-hop that's tailor-made for dance clubs, which is where the song quickly became popular.

"You can do a dance to it. Everybody can sing along. He's not rappin' too hard, he's understandable. You can relate to what he's saying, I mean everybody trying to get that money. It just works," sums up DJ Charlie Chan Soprano of Hot 104.1, who spins at several area nightspots. "You can still play it now [in the club] and they love it. It's a classic record."

L.E.D. paid several thousand dollars for Beano and another L.E.D. rapper, Dun Deal, to appear on the cover of inBox Magazine and DVD, an East St. Louis-based pay-for-coverage magazine. They booked concerts throughout the region and rented out the now-defunct downtown club Dreams for a record-release party.

"They'd give me two or three hundred dollars to throw out into the crowd when I performed 'Money Snap,'" Beano says. "I'd never really traveled with my music, I was basically just in St. Louis," he adds. "What I owe them for was taking my music to different cities and getting new fans."

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