Long before Ice Cube started taking dubious dad roles in family comedies, he was telling a mean St. Louis story. His sophomore solo effort, 1991's Death Certificate, is one of the most critically lauded rap albums of all time. Featuring "The Death Side" (the first eleven tracks) and "The Life Side" (the last ten), Certificate reaches almost Public Enemy-levels of consciousness -- without descending to that Long Island trio's brand of preachiness.
"My Summer Vacation" is one of the album's most memorable tracks. It tells the story of a group of Los Angeles gangbangers who come to St. Louis with the hope that the heat on them back home will die down. They figure they can make some money selling dope as well -- and that their St. Louis counterparts will be too country to fuck with them. But that's not quite what happens. Instead, a gangland brawl ensues, and by the end of the song, Cube finds himself in prison, facing a life of rectal probing by rival gangs and the Aryan Brotherhood.
Did Cube actually spend time in the Lou gathering grist for this song? Survey says: probably not. (Repeated attempts to contact Cube for this story were unsuccessful.) But an interview with a member of Da Lench Mob, Cube's Death Certificate-era crew, suggests that "My Summer Vacation" is someone else's account. Rapper Shorty says that he and another Lench Mob member, J-Dee, told Cube the tale that would turn into the song.
"The story that we told, he just put it on paper," Shorty said in a 2002 interview for the Web site Davey D's Hip-Hop Corner (www.daveyd.com).
No matter who authored the tale, though, local rappers Huggie Brown and Alphonzo Cowper say "My Summer Vacation" rings true. Sitting in Meshuggah coffeehouse on a rainy late-summer day, the two emcees confirm the factuality of "My Summer Vacation"'s rough outline: The LA gangbangers really did come over here. They really did try to take things over. And yeah, they really failed.
"It's not true word-for-word, but the particulars, yeah," says Brown.
It was the mid-'80s, and Los Angeles gangs were descending on various landlocked heartland locales, including St. Louis and East St. Louis. They stayed with family they had here, or maybe got their own apartments. But they stood out with their bizarre gang signs, repping places that no one had heard of, such as Inglewood and Compton.
Brown and Cowper say the action took place on the city's "west side" -- whose boundaries they give as roughly from Delmar Boulevard to Natural Bridge Road, and from Grand Boulevard to the city's western edge. Besides their colors -- Bloods dressed in red, Crips in blue -- the West Coast thugs brought a deadlier element heretofore unseen in St. Louis: drive-by shootings. That took things to a whole new level.
"What used to be just neighborhood beef turned to gang beef," says Brown.
Cowper, who goes by the emcee name Fella-G, grew up on the west side, as the W/S tattoo on his left arm certifies. He saw the action firsthand.
"I remember hearing about my first drive-by, in 1990," he recalls. "I still have the news clippings. They didn't get their target, but they killed a pregnant woman."
Leonard Hall is the longtime owner of Leonard's Barber College at Kingshighway and Natural Bridge Road, where Brown's mother used to work as a hairdresser. "Some people wouldn't wear their red smocks out, because they were worried about the Bloods and the Crips," he remembers.
"My mother was right on the front lines," Brown adds. "She would tell me stuff about those California gangs out here, selling dope. She would say, 'We seeing people around the neighborhood looking real bad.'"
St. Louis already had their own gangs, of course, with names like the HSP (Horseshoe Posse) or the Westside Mob. According to Brown, the block simply wasn't big enough for them all.
"These muthafuckers coming to yo city with dope, makin' yo money, in yo neighborhoods, talking a lot of shit?" he scoffs.
"The reason for the violence was because we wasn't [adopting] their set," says Cowper. "Other cities did, like Little Rock. But in St. Louis, we said, 'It ain't where you're from, it's where you at.' When they saw people wasn't screaming 'Inglewood,' they got mad."
In the end, bloodshed ensued, the cops got wise to the LA colors, and the west coast gangs had to retreat, says Cowper. For proof, you need look no further than the current state of St. Louis gangland. "Nowadays you don't hear nothing about Inglewood or Compton," he says. "But you do hear something about '55 Ashland Block' or '5400 A-V-E.'"
Brown says Cube's story gives much respect to St. Louis. And the feeling is mutual -- Brown's favorite album just happens to be Death Certificate. In fact, Cube's influence can be felt on Brown's forthcoming album, Hug the Block. Like Cube, Brown has an easy -- if not quite firsthand -- command of stories about death and destruction in the streets. Some of Block's songs eulogize a west-sider named Byron White, who all but grew up in "My Summer Vacation" and died from a brain aneurysm about five years ago. White was a gangbanger, a close family friend and a mentor to Brown.
"He taught me how to be a real man," Brown reminisces. "We would be ridin' down the street, and we'd see these girls on the bus stop. Byron's just like 'screeeech!' and busts a U-ie in the middle of the street. And he just looked at 'em and said, 'Get in.' It was just that easy. So, we took 'em to his house, and that was how I got my first pussy. I was twelve or thirteen."
Hug the Block is due out early this fall. Brown hopes this album will do for him what Death Certificate did for Ice Cube.
As for the west side, Brown says, the gang wars have relaxed. Leonard Hall's employees now wear blue smocks -- but they no longer fear for their lives if they step out for a smoke break.
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