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.