St. Louis rap ruled charts in the early 2000s, with Nelly and Chingy's platinum hits revolving around hotel rooms, shiny jewels, tight jeans, slurred "rrr"s and lots of hometown pride.
But the party ended a decade ago. Chingy's fallen off, Nelly's facing sexual assault charges and today's St. Louis rappers don't have much in the way of national hits or media coverage. No one buys records anymore, and so instead the local scene is centered mostly around YouTube. It's much darker. Drenched in blunt smoke, these videos are filmed in front of crumbling brick buildings. The production values are high, the verité quality disturbing. Artists still in high school point actual guns at the camera, threatening rival gangs. The subject matter is often not fictionalized, instead depicting true-to-life neighborhood rivalries and personal beefs.
These videos lead to actual killings. "In St. Louis, when you make a diss song, you have to be ready to die off of it," says rapper Kosta Longmire, of the St. Louis group Gold Heart Family. That's a big reason St. Louis hip-hop has been without breakout stars in recent years. The good ones keep getting murdered.
After a long drought someone is finally set to break nationally, a young rapper from the city named Antonio Harris, also known as LA4SS. Growing up in a family waterlogged with despair, legal trouble and tragedy, he's found an artistic voice — equal parts brutal and enchanting — that's captivated north city, north county and beyond.
Only twenty years old, he's already done time in federal prison and seen the people closest to him murdered. Rumors abound that he's got major, pressing beefs he's not anxious to squash.
Under the mentorship of a famed local promoter, he still might have a chance. He blew the roof off of Chaifetz Arena last month, and major labels are circling. But to some observers of the scene, the most amazing thing about LA4SS isn't his rise.
It's that he's still alive.
The nickname "LA4SS" is hard to parse; it's pronounced "L.A. Fours" or just "L.A." That doesn't reference Los Angeles, but rather "Little Antonio." "He had a friend named Lil A who killed himself, so he called himself LA to keep the name alive," rapper Swagg Huncho, a collaborator, explained three years ago. "4" references his neighborhood set, and the SSs at the end are so it sounds cool.
It's a name as cryptic as Harris' own story, one he doesn't like to talk about. Though he's spoken with this reporter in the past, he declined to be interviewed for this piece. His manager says he's wary of self-incrimination, perhaps understandable considering Harris is on probation and due back in court later this month on a charge of resisting arrest. Interviews with a wide array of friends, collaborators and close observers paint him as someone who's short on trust. It makes sense; he's faced chaos since his first days.
Harris raps about the drug dealing and violence that enveloped his childhood growing up on the "West Side" near Page and Union, a part of the city known to some as 51 Skan. According to statistics compiled by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the surrounding Academy/Sherman Park neighborhood has a higher crime rate than 62 other neighborhoods in the city, out of 77, with 59 incidents of violent crime in the past six months, including two homicides. By all accounts Harris' upbringing was rough. "Unfortunately, he was exposed to a lot of criminality at a young age," his lawyer Andy Sottile said at Harris' January 2017 sentencing in federal court, revealing that his client was diagnosed with depression at a young age.
"He really come from it," says rapper Lil St. Louis, who over the years has shared management with Harris. "His daddy still in the street. Ever since I been knowing 4SS I been worried about him. The way he lived; the way he came up."
At an age when most boys are entering high school, meeting girls and studying for driver's tests, Harris was getting gold fronts on his teeth and tattoos on his chest, and engaging in caustic disputes with adversaries. He began making music in earnest around age sixteen, finding unexpected success after performing a verse posted to a friend's Instagram.
"I didn't even think it would get a hundred views," he told the St. Louis American in 2015. "But after that they were like, 'You might as well rap.' They put me in the booth. We dropped the first song, and it just got a buzz from there."
Even among hard-edged rappers, Harris stands out for his intensity. It's unnerving. Don't expect comic relief or syrupy odes to girlfriends in his songs; he's 100 percent serious, focused on life and death in the streets. And it's been that way since the start. In his 2015 video "Intro," he stands shirtless on an Illinois riverbank, the Arch in view across the Mississippi. Over a simple, naked beat, he squints in a series of extreme close-ups, pouring out his darkest agony in staccato bursts.
Have you ever seen your partner get hit with a 9?
You man's leaking everywhere, you know he 'bout to die
Have you ever seen your best friend mama cry
Because her son was the one in that homicide?
Harris' music doesn't glorify black violence for the entertainment of white audiences, a charge often levied against gangsta rap. Instead, it's an unflinching expression of the deep suffering many residents north of Delmar know so well.
Harris' manager Slim Cunningham, a veteran St. Louis impresario known as LooseCannon, has worked with the most popular rappers in the country. He says he knew immediately that LA4SS was a major talent.
"When I looked at his videos I was like, 'This dude got it,'" Cunningham says. "Some people got it in their eyes, man. It's like magnetism. The way people crowd around you. It's that star shit."
Harris' journey to the top of the St. Louis heap would not be a simple one, however. Though his charisma was never in question, a hundred other factors seemingly contrived to try to take him down. To survive he was forced to embark upon journeys both figurative and literal, descending into a pit of despair seemingly without bottom.
In 2014, LA4SS teamed up with a north county group called 3 Problems, whose local fame was already swelling. Known for street rhymes paired with melodic hooks, like LA4SS, the group's musical talents developed absent any formal training. The members also inhabited dangerous neighborhoods; one of them, called Relly Rell, would soon be sentenced to ten years for second-degree murder.
Their collaborative track "For a FCKNIGGA" is as rough and raw as its name. Though it's a rousing singalong with a video that's been seen nearly two million times, something about it is downright terrifying: young boys strutting before an abandoned, rusting shipping container, flaunting enough weaponry to take down a small infantry. Harris, who had just turned seventeen, pulls a pistol from his sagging pants with a sinister smile and points it haphazardly at the camera.
The list of murdered local rappers is too long to list here. Their deaths are sometimes rap-related, sometimes not. It's shocking, but it makes sense considering that, demographically speaking, young black men are the most frequent homicide victims (and perpetrators) in St. Louis. Notable rappers killed in recent years include City Stylez, a rising star shot dead in Baden in September 2015. One of his mentees — 3 Problems member Swagg Huncho — was murdered execution-style just a few months later. A rapper who was publicly sparring with 3 Problems named Blenda Boy Boo also went down in January 2017, the victim of a drive-by shooting outside the Hooters downtown. According to the police department's public information division and the St. Louis Circuit Attorney's Office, a suspect was arrested in City Stylez's murder, but the case was dismissed for "evidentiary reasons." All three slayings remain unsolved.
Members of the hip-hop community have long derided the local scene for its "crabs in a barrel" mentality; anyone on the rise is pulled back down before they can break out. The situation was so dire that, as soon as LA4SS began to gain local fame— as his YouTube spins rose from the thousands to the hundreds of thousands — people feared for his safety. "LA4SS is the guy everyone thought would be killed, even before Swagg Huncho and City Stylez," says rapper Kosta Longmire.
"It's terrible," says Cunningham. "His fame was growing so rapidly. You're going to have people who hate you, just because of what you're doing."
The young man still known in the legal system as Antonio Harris wasn't making things easy for himself. In December 2014 he was charged with stealing a motor vehicle (later amended to "receiving stolen property") and resisting arrest. He made bail, and Cunningham soon pulled him out of St. Louis, taking him down to Miami, where Cunningham had a place. The manager set him up in a South Beach apartment of his own, along with Harris' close friend Dominick "Boosie" Chambly.
Beyond protecting his personal safety, Cunningham believed a change of scenery would fuel LA4SS' art.
"You see the same thing, smell the same thing, look at the same thing, you can only limit your growth," says Cunningham. "In order to grow, you have to see different shit. Travel will unlock your mindset."
Indeed, it did, and Miami was the setting for Harris' star turn, "Get It In," which earned more than a million YouTube views and inspired plaudits from national rap writers. Featuring a slow, minor-key beat from St. Louis producer Brady Luciano, LA4SS' auto-tuned lyrics are particularly dark and cynical. Don't hold your hand out to me blood, you is not my friend / And please don't claim me, little folks, 'cause you not my fam, he raps.
The song's chilling power could not be denied. Its accompanying album, Hood Hottest Youngin, seemed sure to catapult him to stardom, buoyed by tracks like "Jayson Tatum," which shouted out the Chaminade alum and emerging Boston Celtics star. It was already blowing up on Spotify when Harris appeared on stage in January 2016 with Southern hip-hop kingpins Lil Wayne and Birdman in Miami Beach. Rap royalty seemed ready to crown him the next big thing.
With each step forward, however, the West Side kept pulling him back.
In July 2015, Harris was again charged with resisting arrest; the case will be adjudicated later this month. "It was an unmarked car," says Cunningham, explaining why his protege didn't stop when he was pulled over. "In his neighborhood, where you got people who don't like you, when you see a car driving fast, you gonna run."
A few months later, tragedy struck Harris' brother, Montrel "Fat Rat" Williams.
The details are murky and confusing: According to county police, on the evening of October 8, 2015, cops pulled over a car for speeding at Lucas-Hunt Road and Natural Bridge Road, only to find Williams shot in the back seat. He was pronounced dead at the scene. "An early [sic] investigation leads to a robbery and struggle that occurred inside the vehicle, which led to a shooting," reads the county police's media summary. The investigation appears to have stalled, however, and no one has been charged.
The murder shook Harris to his core. He'd just turned eighteen and returned to St. Louis to see his brother buried. And back in his hometown, he again found himself in trouble with the law. That fall, he was charged with first-degree robbery and armed criminal action, for allegedly brandishing a weapon during a July 2015 attempt to steal someone's PlayStation.
For reasons that remain unclear Harris wasn't arrested for the incident until four months later, when he was about to go on stage at the Washington Avenue club Lux. Then something strange happened: A police captain named Ryan Cousins intervened, telling city officers to remove Harris' handcuffs. "[He feared there would be a disturbance should Harris be taken away before the performance," reads an account of the incident in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
"He told them, 'Nah, let him do his show; they're going to riot in there," Cunningham recalls today. Cousins and a police sergeant began yelling at each other, but Harris was allowed to perform.
He was successfully arrested a few days later, before posting $100,000 bail; the case was later dismissed after the alleged victim "indicated he didn't wish to prosecute," says prosecutor's office spokesman Ed Magee. (Cousins, meanwhile, was fired following an internal affairs investigation mainly focused on another incident, though his dismissal was overturned in 2017 by the city's Civil Service Commission.)
Harris' life seemingly couldn't have gotten any more tragic and surreal, until it did: In January 2016, his close friend Boosie, with whom he'd previously been living in Miami, was murdered, apparently the victim of collateral damage during a shootout involving the theft of a hoverboard near Delmar Boulevard and Clarendon Avenue.
Harris subsequently plunged further into darkness. In April 2016, still under indictment on charges of motor vehicle theft and resisting arrest, he was charged with receiving a firearm — a federal crime — and promptly locked up in Clayton with no possibility of bail.
And thus concluded a year of pure hell: The horrendous murders of his brother Fat Rat, his close friend Boosie and his collaborator Swagg Huncho, along with several arrests. At his sentencing in January 2017 — in which he received ten months in federal prison, served in Marion, Illinois — U.S. District Court Judge Henry E. Autrey scoffed while displaying stills from LA4SS' videos. "Are you volunteering to serve in the military? Are you going to hunt down ISIS? Are you playing cowboys and Indians?"
"It was all a prop for entertainment," Harris responded.
"So these are fake guns?"
"No. I ain't never killed anybody. Never shot anybody. It's just for entertainment. But I realize it paints a bad picture."
"He fled the police in a car, then he fled on foot," continued the prosecuting attorney. "He had a .40 firearm and a drum magazine with 23 rounds. Why would he need that? This bump in the road is just going to be credibility for Mr. Harris — he can rap about it."
Harris was now at the pinnacle of his fame, yet he could only enjoy it from behind bars, where he sat for the bulk of 2016 and 2017 while his fans dutifully posted "#Free4ss" on social media. But despite the prosecutor's ironic suggestion that incarceration could aid his career, Harris knew full well that the shelf life of a hot young rapper is only so long.
The prosecutor at the federal sentencing noted that Harris' glock actually belonged to his manager Cunningham — who was sitting just a few feet away in the downtown courtroom. The judge seemed to slag him as well. "If you sincerely want to be an entertainer," Autrey told Harris, "you need to do it without people who want to punk you, because they will suck you dry."
The city of St. Louis, however, feels differently about Harris' manager. "[T]he illustrious James (S.L.I.M.) Cunningham has worked tirelessly to promote HipHop and homegrown St. Louis music for well over a decade," reads a June 2016 resolution presented by Aldermanic President Lewis Reed. Projects including Cunningham's celebrity basketball tournaments, it continues, "have been focused on bringing jobs and economic vitality to the City of St. Louis."
"Slim" refers both to his frame and his hometown allegiance: "St. Louis Is Mine." He's one of the most successful hip-hop promoters in the country, having thrown shows featuring Lil Wayne, P. Diddy, Drake and many, many more.
After his parents split he lived in both the city and the county at times, spending summers with his dad, who lived near Harris' father on Enright Avenue. Cunningham attended (and was kicked out of) high schools all over the metro area, which helped him amass a wide rolodex. Mentored by older brothers who threw parties, he began putting on events of his own in earnest after a stint in Atlanta. This was the early '00s; Nelly was blowing up, and they hosted parties and played against each other in Cunningham's charity basketball tournament. "It was beautiful," says Cunningham. "I figured out my niche, and everybody else figured out their niche."
The pair fell out publicly in 2011, however, with Cunningham accusing the rapper of spending his "whole fortune" on drugs, steroids and gambling. Nelly denied the charges, referencing S.L.I.M. on Twitter as a "S_hady L_ame I_gnorant M_uthaf#cka."
"He's my brother; we just don't talk," Cunningham says. "I'm just mad at him, he's mad at me. I'm over it."
Cunningham has worn many hats over the years. In the late '00s he co-owned a Midtown club called Karma and in 2011 released a rap album featuring Gucci Mane and 2 Chainz. He's thrown parties catering to women called "Slimulus" — where women receive money just for walking through the door — and celebrity affairs with basketball stars like Carmelo Anthony. In 2004, when Anthony was found with marijuana while boarding the Denver Nuggets' team plane, Cunningham took the rap, claiming the backpack harboring the weed was actually his. "Melo don't even smoke," Cunningham told Denver's Westword, in a piece that called him "either one hell of a friend or one hell of a promoter."
Cunningham's LooseCannon Entertainment still puts on big events, but Cunningham says he's bored with concerts these days — "I can do them in my sleep" — instead leveraging them to promote his hip-hop label, for which LA4SS is the main artist. This tactic was on display at Cunningham's recent Chaifetz Arena show, the fifth in a series called State of Emergency, which he began throwing as a way to bring attention to St. Louis' spiraling violence.
The show was March 14, just one month after Harris returned from prison. News of LA4SS' release spread quickly across social media. After all, when he went away he was the hottest rapper in the city; now, this "314 Day" concert would double as both homecoming and comeback attempt. It could put his career back on track, or demonstrate definitively that his fans had moved on.
They're turnt tonight at Chaifetz Arena for State of Emergency 5, all 5,000 of them — not a packed house, but loud. Cunningham promises this will be the show's final iteration, and it's headlined by two of the South's biggest names, Migos and Lil Boosie.
Still, a massive portion of the crowd has arrived specifically for LA4SS, if the amount of festooned swag is any indication — from tees shouting out his slain brother to LA4SS headbands. Whole families are decked out, not to mention packs of high school girls, guys with their girlfriends, even moms and toddlers, who shake to (and from) earth-shaking gunshot sounds played by the warm-up DJ, which double as bassy percussion.
Around 10 p.m. Cunningham takes the stage, imploring attendees out of their seats and down into the lower tiers, where they crowd the aisles in anticipation. The fire marshal is not going to be happy.
And then, he's there on stage. Louis Vuitton backpack. Diamond necklace. Balmain long-sleeved black T-shirt with zippers on the sides.
"I'm back!" says LA4SS.
The stadium roars. But they're not sure exactly what they're looking at. As he launches into his songs the video screen behind him shows old clips from before he went away, when he was still a teenager. There he is in Miami, a skinny kid with a chip on his shoulder; there he is mean-mugging before the Arch. The guy on stage now is stockier. His muscles are bigger, his youthful glow is gone.
"All my street niggas make some noise. Where my trap queens at?"
Pandemonium ensues as he plays his hits. Not radio or chart hits, of course, but St. Louis hits, songs shared on YouTube and spread across the city one phone at a time. Everyone here knows them.
Pull up, shoot, Jayson Tatum
My money talk, Jayson Tatum
I'm balling on you boys, I think I'm Jayson Tatum!
Rapping for about fifteen minutes, he's not the most seasoned performer; jail time will do that to you. Yet for a young man who has every reason to resent the world — for someone who makes his living unearthing the pain that most people like to keep buried — he's uncharacteristically elated by this moment. His rare smile delights. After everything he's been through, he's still standing.
A few days later, Cunningham notes that LA4SS has new music on the way: soon, a single called "Misbehavior" — an "apology to the city" for his crimes — and a mixtape or album this summer. They just flew out to LA to negotiate with labels. For now, they're leaning toward Atlantic Records.
"I was there through Chingy, Nelly, everybody," Cunningham says. "With Nelly, they didn't go crazy until after he got the deal. But there's never been an organic force like this in the history of St. Louis."
Cunningham gets paid to say things like this. Still, when it comes to LA4SS, it rings true.
"There's never been a vibe like this, ever."