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By Nathan Smith
Growing up in the JeffVanderLou neighborhood of north St. Louis, ten-year-old LaDon Meriweather and his friends liked to play what they called "The Dope Game," a ghettoized version of "Cowboys and Indians."
The hustlers made toy guns out of folded paper and dealt make-believe dope to the junkies while the cops tried to chase them down. Everyone wanted to be the drug dealers, which left the youngest kids to play the roles of the dope fiends and police officers.
"We were just doing what we saw," the now-32-year-old Meriweather, better known now as the rapper "Yo Banga," remembers. "Gang life excited me. I fell in love with it just seeing it out there."
By the time he reached fifteen, Meriweather graduated to the real thing, dropping out of Vashon High School before his sophomore year and spending his days on the block as a member of the JVL Bloods. His homies called him "Yoshi" — a name taken from the video game Super Mario Bros. And when his friends not in the gang would come home from football practice, Yoshi would display the rolls of cash he'd made hustling while they were in the classroom. Eventually his buddies "Brick" and "Bimp" would quit school and join Yoshi on the streets.
"Fuck football," Brick had said at the time. "That shit ain't feeding me."
Yoshi, Brick and Bimp hurried up the Blood ranks with "Jiff," who was several years younger, eventually filling out their crew. Today Banga recalls how he and his fellow gang members maintained order in the 'hood, hustled the blocks, ran a tight ship and made money. All of it to the dismay of his mother,
Donna Steele, who worked to support him and his two sisters with their father not around.
"There were shootings all the time," Steele, now a homemaker in Spanish Lake, recalls of the JeffVanderLou neighborhood. "LaDon was always asking for red-colored clothes. He didn't like the clothes I'd buy for him. He'd tell me I dressed him like Bill Cosby. He always had a good home. I don't know where his interest in the gang came from. He left at sixteen; I was hurt by it. I tried everything to stop him."
But where his mother couldn't halt his hoodlum activities, the law — and rival gang members — eventually could. At least temporarily.
Banga's is a complicated story full of violence and loss, hints of glory and even a bit of atonement. Though the latter may unravel amid a fresh round of criminal charges which could send him back to prison just as his rap career is taking off.
Every rap artist has a genesis tale, and the central date of Yo Banga's came on July 8, 2003. A gang turf war had been raging for a couple of years; Banga's JVL Bloods on one side and the 26 Mad and 20th Street Crips on the other.
"It was like Iraq," Banga says. "There was nothing you could do about it but lace up your boots."
Being the leaders of the JVL Bloods, he and his crew knew it was only a matter of time before the Crips took a shot at them, but that particular summer afternoon had been chill enough. When Yoshi stopped his Buick Regal at the corner of Natural Bridge and Fair avenues, spirits were high. Bimp, who was sitting shotgun, had just celebrated his 21st birthday two days before. The smooth R&B crooner Jaheim was bumping on the stereo, an odd choice of music for a respected gangsta like Yoshi, and Bimp was clowning him.
"Turn that bullshit off. Why you even playing it?" Bimp chuckled.
"That's just how I'm feelin'," Yoshi replied.
Bimp was Yoshi's right-hand man. A former Vashon linebacker, he was strong and thick, silly at times, but with a mean streak if provoked. His homies dubbed him "Bimp Eastwood" because he carried a gun on each hip. Bimp was always on the grind, never sleeping, taking care of business. He seemed invincible, the most feared guy in the 'hood.
Yoshi and Bimp were laughing it up when a gold Grand Prix rolled up next to them. As they glanced over, the young men in the Grand Prix stared straight ahead. The light turned green. Yoshi hit the gas. That's when the shots rang out.
Pop pop pop pop pop pop pop pop pop pop!
The bullets blasted out Yoshi's rear window; he pulled his strap, fired back. A slug struck his wrist, and he ducked as the gunfire continued. His car stalled, its engine riddled with bullets. The Grand Prix sped away.
"I'm hit!" Bimp moaned. He clutched his chest, covered in blood, already struggling for breath.
"Hold on, man! Just hold on!" Yoshi told his dying friend. "You gon' be all right! You gon' be all right!"
Two days later the police blotter noted that homicide detectives believed the shooting was gang related and that Bimp was carrying nearly $2,000 in cash.
The St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department's gang unit had long been after Yoshi but only learned his legal name when he checked into Saint Louis University Hospital following the shootout. Hearing what had happened, Brick hurried to the hospital, too. Wanted on an outstanding assault charge, police arrested Brick on the spot. Once they had him in jail, the cops listened in on his phone calls to Yoshi, who they now understood was LaDon Meriweather — a criminal they knew well.