Fame Junkies (home page)
Buzz about the book
An overview of the book
Why I wrote this book
A survey on fame among teenagers
An excerpt from the book
A story that didn't make the book
A ST. LOUIS HIP-HOP STORY THAT DID NOT MAKE THE BOOK…
In the process of writing Fame Junkies, I ended up befriending a young rapper from St. Louis named J-Kwon, whose song Tipsy rocketed to the top of the Billboard charts in 2004. I chronicled my adventures with J-Kwon in an article for the New Yorker. For a number of reasons, much of my best material did not make it into my article or my book. I am now publishing the full story here on my website. Enjoy!
Several months before he became famous, seventeen-year-old Jerrell Jones visited the Black Pearl tattoo parlor in downtown St. Louis and made an unusual request. He asked to have a six-inch-long barcode, complete with a minute serial number, etched onto his forearm in dark green ink. As far as Jones was concerned, his decision to get the tattoo was just one more step on the path to fame. Prior to this, he had run away from his home in the suburbs and spent several months living the life of a vagabond on the streets of St. Louis, sleeping in abandoned cars and writing his rap lyrics by the flame of a cigarette lighter. During this time, he renamed himself “J-Kwon,” and began to brace himself for the fame that he felt was imminent. “I got the bar code because I knew that someday I’d be a product,” he told me. “I knew they were going to sell me.”
He was right.
J-Kwon eventually enlisted the help of two local rap producers known as the Trackboyz. Together they recorded his debut album – Hood Hop – and sold it to Arista Records. By the time that I caught up with him, he was not yet a star, but he was busy getting ready for the release of his album. We first met at a dance hall called Spruill’s in a bombed-out section of downtown St. Louis. Our meeting was arranged by “BD,” who was J-Kwon’s manager / adoptive father. As BD explained it over the phone, he was the one who had found J-Kwon living in abandoned car, adopted him, and begun grooming him to be a rap star. “The kid has crazy skills,” explained BD. “You’ll see when you meet him at Spruill’s.”
Spruill’s was situated amidst of a bleak landscape of abandoned homes, potholed parking lots, and weed-speckled sidewalks. One of the few surrounding buildings that appeared to be in use was a charred-out concrete bunker used by firemen in training. The lone sign of commerce was a giant billboard looming overhead with an ad for a personal injury lawyer named Charlie “Ed” Brown, a middle aged man with a pirate’s patch over his bad eye, who listed his telephone number: 231-Hurt. Inside Spruill’s, a flickering strobe light revealed staccato glimpses at a shabby dance hall with fake trees, stacked chairs, and a grimy floors. It was two o’clock in the afternoon when I arrived. The club was empty and closed to the public and still it reeked of spilled beer, heavy cologne, and the grease of yesterday’s French fries.
On stage, J-Kwon performed his dance moves to an imaginary audience. He was a rangy boy of seventeen whose excruciating thinness was camouflaged by his formless clothing that could easily have fit a man twice his size. He wore baggy black pants, an oversized black t-shirt, and a matching black do-rag on his head. Around his neck, hung a gold chain connected to a hefty, solid-gold padlock that swayed like a pendulum as he gyrated to the music. For good measure, he wore a hunk of diamond in each ear. His face was boyish, soft, and delicate. His voice was raspy, still screeching through the awkwardness of late adolescence. And his skin was lavished with faded tattoos including a large barcode on his forearm.
As I stood in one of the club’s many darkened recesses, J-Kwon pranced about the stage belting out the lyrics to his song “Welcome to the Hood”: “Do you got a gun? Welcome to the hood! / Got a pocket full of crack? Welcome to the hood!” When this song was done, J-Kwon stepped off stage and introduced himself with a complicated five or six-part handshake that I fumbled my way through. “So you are the guy that is writing the book about me,” he said casually. “Nice to meet you.”
Moments later, J-Kwon signaled to his bodyguard Rod – a muscular man with a mouth full of gold teeth – and the three of us exited Spruill’s. J-Kwon led the way across the club’s desolate parking lot to a large Chevy Yukon. He unlocked the car, got in the driver’s seat, and motioned for me to go around the other side and sit up front with him. Rod sat in back, keeping silent and looking tough. “We are going home,” explained J-Kwon as we pulled out of the parking lot. “We can do our interview there.”
As I would soon learn, J-Kwon’s “home” was currently a suburban house belonging to the Trackboyz – Joe Kent and Mark Williams – a pair of affluent twenty something rap producers who created the “beats” or instrumentals for J-Kwon’s raps and helped get him his record deal with Arista. The Trackboyz had recently asked J-Kwon to move in with them, both to get him out of the inner city and, in a sense, to begin grooming him for his imminent fame. “I’ve learned a lot from the Trackboyz,” J-Kwon told me as he navigated us onto the highway. “I even call them my uncles.”
As we sped out towards the suburbs, J-Kwon told me more about his record deal, including the story of how he’d done a showcase at Arista’s headquarters in Manhattan. “I auditioned for the Arista executive in New York City,” J-Kwon explained. “They flew me in and I performed for them.”
“What was that like?”
“Well to begin with, I had never been on airplane before, so that was pretty crazy,” explained J-Kwon. “Then they take me to this big office with the executives. There were Caucasians executives, African-Americans executives – the whole Arista urban and pop section. Basically, they put me in there with the sharks. They just threw me in there and you might as well say I was biggest shark.”
According to J-Kwon, and several others who later verified his story for me, he strutted into the office where all the executives were assembled, jumped onto a table, and shouted, “Give me my music!” After running through several of his raps, J-Kwon mooned Antonio Reid, then the C.E.O., took a bow, and thanked everyone individually for his time. “My performance was right out of the Third District of St. Louis,” J-Kwon later told me. “But it was corporate, too.”
J-Kwon’s story left me slightly dumbfounded. I always considered myself a pretty precocious teenager – at age 17, during my senior year of high school, I once mooned the principal and then talked my way out of a suspension – but what J-Kwon had done was in another league, nay, another universe. And so, as coolly as I could, I asked J-Kwon how on earth he had mustered the nerve to do what he’d done.
“Well,” said J-Kwon, “If you put a pit in a pit fight – even if he is just a puppy and he is licking you in your mouth – you are going to find out what kind of pit he is. That’s all that happened. I had a point to prove and I went there to handle business. At the end I shook all their hands. I know they were looking at my tats. They were thinking: He’s a little hood nigger, but fuck it, we can make some money with him. It was just business. That’s all.”
The Trackboyz’ home is situated in Hazelwood West, which is a suburb of St. Louis where a series manicured lawns and identical-looking Mc Mansions roll out towards the blur of the horizon and the Great Plains beyond. As we cruised through this neighborhood, a middle-aged neighbor was mowing his lawn, and a group of children were skateboarding on the sidewalks. A couple of women wearing fanny packs power walked past. For a moment, I felt certain that we must have taken the wrong exit off the highway, but we hadn’t. This is where J-Kwon now lived.
J-Kwon ushered me in the front door and through the first floor of the Trackboyz’ home. The walls were lit in red demonic light and the rooms were equipped with black leather couches, several big screen TVs, an ample supply of Grey Goose vodka, and a number of glass tanks containing a small zoo of reptiles – including two monitor lizards and two well-fed pythons.
“I never had anything like this before,” J-Kwon told me as he gave me a tour of the entire house, including the basement where the recording studio was located. “The walls are white. There is furniture in every room. Carpets in every room. Game systems in every room. Nice pictures that you can look at when you are angry. And there are cameras everywhere because there a lot of valuables in this house – including ourselves.”
According to J-Kwon, this sparkling new home also proved to be a good learning environment for him, where he came to appreciate the value of doing basic chores like cleaning the house. As it turns out, however, the only person I ever saw cleaning was a nineteen-year-old girl named Sugar. When I inquired about who she was, I was told that J-Kwon often “siphoned off” his housework to various girls whom he met. “His job is to make sure that the work gets done,” explained BD. “And it does.”
In general, J-Kwon’s living arrangements, like his family life, have been in a constant state of flux over the last few years. He started off living with his mother. He ran away from her suburban home in Bellville, Illinois, to become a rapper and live a tougher life on the streets of St. Louis. Then he met BD, who took him in and became his manager / adoptive father. Currently, he was living with the Trackboyz, who were his producers / uncles. Needless to say, this was a rather confusing family structure and one that J-Kwon’s mother, Terrie Jones, is not altogether happy with.
Mrs. Jones still holds onto the rather dire hope that her son will return home and live with her. She also tries to remind her son, whom she still calls “Jerrell,” that BD and the Trackboyz are not his real family. She made the same point to me when we met later in the week for coffee at a Denny’s. “I’ve talked to Jerrell about this,” she explained. “I’ve told him: ‘I just want you to remember that you are a pure investment to them – whereas to me you are not. You are my son. So if anything ever happens, you can always come back home. I am not saying that they don’t care about you. But they do not love you the way I do.’ And he is like: ‘Yeah mom, I know, I know.’ But I really don’t think he understands that. So I tell him again: ‘You are like a piece of stock, if you fall, you are out of there.’”
In some ways, J-Kwon’s story struck me as strikingly Faustian because of what he traded – his home, his identity, and even his original family – all for a shot at fame. To his credit, however, J-Kwon seemed to have a pretty firm grasp on the touchy dynamics of his situation, namely that his new family was in fact part of the fame machine. His “father” was his manger and his “uncles” were his producers. And on some level, I couldn’t help but wonder whether J-Kwon was playing the role of the hapless, orphaned child in order to endear himself to these men who were so well positioned to help his career.
After giving me a tour of the house, J-Kwon and I sat down in the kitchen and sipped some orange juice. We chatted for a while longer about his plans for the future, including how he planned to deal with becoming famous. “When I go out, I am a puppet for the public,” he told me matter-of-factly as he gulped his orange juice. “I always got to smile like I am happy to be there. It’s part of the deal. You sign up to give your life away and you better be happy about it, because the moment you are not, somebody else is ready to take your place.” When I asked him what would happen if his career faltered, he admitted that he might quickly find himself alone. “I am at a point where I know what I am getting myself into,” J-Kwon told me. “And I’d rather know the facts instead of being blind and when it happens – being like, Oh man nobody is with me anymore – I already know that will happen. I anticipate that.”
The way J-Kwon saw it, for the time being at least, his task was to stay focused. “Now that I am showing them something, I just got to keep showing them and showing them,” he explained. “There is a lot riding on J-Kwon right now. If J-Kwon goes under, there are a lot of people who will be disappointed. If J-Kwon goes under, there are a lot of people who aren’t going to get Christmas presents.”
“Does this stress you out?” I asked.
“I figure if I can deal with crack users and so forth then I can handle this,” he replied.
Later that night, as J-Kwon readied himself for another quiet evening at home, BD invited me to accompany him on a tour of the city. The goal of this tour was to promote J-Kwon’s new single, “Tipsy,” which had just been released. To do this, BD visited radio stations, dance halls, and strip clubs to make sure that “Tipsy” was getting played. “Sure,” I said. “I’d love to tag along.”
BD was a stocky man of medium height. He wore a scruffy goatee, a gold chain with a gold medallion that could easily have doubled as a paperweight, and a baby blue tracksuit with matching baby blue leather hiking boots. BD’s proper name, Sean L. Caldwell, was tattooed around the muscular girth of his neck. When I asked him what the “L” stood for, BD refused to tell me, because the name was “too girly.” As far as age was concerned, BD’s date of birth was a constant source of speculation. As J-Kwon put it, “Don’t anybody know how old pops is”; and as BD put it, “A man has to have his mysteries.” BD’s affinity for mysteries included a fondness for aliases and nicknames, of which he had several – including Boookie and Dough Boy. Before long I too had a nickname. “Come one Baby Boy,” BD said to me as we got his Chevy Yukon. “We got a lot to do.”
As I got into the passenger’s seat of BD’s car, I sat on something clunky that I assumed was the seatbelt buckle. It turned out be a clip for BD’s 9mm pistol. “Oh don’t worry about that Baby Boy,” said BD nonchalantly. “Just toss it in the glove compartment.” When I opened the glove compartment, a pistol and half a dozen other clips fell out. “Well, Baby Boy, I guess you’re not in Kansas anymore,” said BD with a little chuckle. He quickly assured me that the guns were for fighting crime. As BD explained it – and I later verified – he had recently gained fame as a vigilante for breaking up a notorious St. Louis car-jacking operation when he fought off three attackers who threatened him with Tec-9 assault weapons. BD was subsequently given the key to the city.
For the next several hours, BD and I drove around St. Louis visiting dance clubs where we handed out copies of J-Kwon’s single to various DJs. Among the places that we visited was the “Pink Slip,” an extremely seedy nightclub in East St. Louis that boasted a stripper with three nipples. “You’ve got to go to places where hoodlums hang out, because they are the ones who will buy the album,” BD told me.
As we made our pilgrimage across the city, BD told me more about his relationship with J-Kwon. “When I met J-Kwon…” BD paused and began again. “I didn’t meet J-Kwon, I met Jerrell Jones – okay – he was just this thirteen-year-old kid on the streets and my heart just opened up to him.”
“What did you like about him?” I asked.
“He was defying all odds!” exclaimed BD. “He was smart. He was intelligent. He didn’t have a family to call his own. He was an underdog and I always loved underdogs. He was breaking into cars and sleeping in them for the night. And it really broke my heart because he had so much together. One day I followed him and saw that he was sleeping in a car and it fucked me up...” BD paused for a moment – he was visibly choked up. “The kid didn’t let on that he was sleeping in cars,” continued BD hoarsely. “It was pride. He was a little kid but he had pride.”
According to BD, it wasn’t until several years later that he realized just how musically talented J-Kwon was. “I brought him into the studio and he ba-ba-ba-bopped the track!” exclaimed BD. “Once he did that it was a whole different game. I sat him down and asked him, do you think you are ready to run this? From then on I was like, ‘Whatever I can do, I am going to do to make sure that you make it.’ I did everything. And I’m not going to lie to you. I did some right shit and some wrong shit to create revenue. But I did it. And here we are.”
“Did you ever adopt any other kids off the street?” I asked.
“Before J-Kwon, there was another kid that I helped,” said BD. “His name was Ortega. I met him when he was exactly Kwon’s age – thirteen. I took care of him. I helped his family. I gave him money, clothing, a secure ride back and fourth to school. He was a hot rapper and he had the look.”
“You mean he was good looking?”
“For sure,” replied BD. “For sure.”
“What happened to Ortega?” I asked finally.
“He fell off the wagon,” replied BD. “Disappeared.”
“How did that happen?” I asked.
“He got shot up,” said BD.
“Literally shot up?”
“Literally shot up,” replied BD.
The following afternoon, as the sun made its descent between two identical looking homes in Hazelwood West, the Trackboyz’ home began to fill with members of J-Kwon’s entourage. This entourage included several personal assistants, including a kid known as “Versatile” whom J-Kwon recently renamed “Four” in homage to the rapper Nelly who apparently had an assistant named “Three.” Another member of J-Kwon’s extended entourage was an almost-famous rapper named 40 Grand, or “Uncle 40” as J-Kwon sometimes calls him, whose primary job was to recount his own failures and serve as a kind of living cautionary tale. There was also Rod, the bodyguard, who told me that he is always ready to take “extreme measures.” (When Rod learned that I was a journalist he proposed that we go into business together and asked for my home phone number so I could help him “track some mother fuckers down.”)
At some point, as the crowd in the Trackboyz’ home reached a critical mass, J-Kwon nodded at me to indicate that we were leaving. Somewhat discretely, J-Kwon, Rod, and I slipped out the garage door and got into one of the several SUVs that was parked in the driveway. J-Kwon got into the driver’s seat, I rode shotgun, and Rod hopped into the backseat.
“Where are we going?” I asked.
“To get some knowledge,” replied J-Kwon.
Rod nodded his head approvingly, as if this made complete sense. He then took off his black leather jacket. Underneath, Rod wore a formfitting T-Shirt that revealed two powerful arms, one of which was emblazoned with the tattoo of a scantily clad stripper and the inscription: Nasty Bitch.
Despite all of his self-professed wisdom about the workings of fame, J-Kwon apparently harbored some secret fears that he really didn’t know what he was getting into – that perhaps he was in a little over his head – and the remedy for this, he believed, was books. “I need to be reading books,” he told me as we got on the highway. “I need to be expanding my knowledge.”
I assumed that our quest for knowledge would take us to a Barnes and Nobles, or perhaps even a university library, but instead it took us to heart of the inner city where we visited the one library that J-Kwon knew from his youth. The library was housed in a rundown brick building with a sign on the front door that read: NO WEAPONS ALLOWED. J-Kwon, Rod, and I strolled into the main reading room and up to a desk where an elderly reference librarian was sitting. “I need to check out all of your books on the music industry,” said J-Kwon. The reference librarian nodded silently and began typing slowly, almost arthritically, into the dusty keys of his computer. After almost five minutes of searching, the librarian looked up meekly and said: “I am sorry son, but all of the books on the music industry have been checked out and never returned.”
The three of us returned to the car where we sat in silence as J-Kwon drove down a series of back roads, eventually ending up at a gas station with an accompanying mini mart. J-Kwon pulled a twenty-dollar bill out of his pocket, handed it to Rod, and told him to come back with a pack of Newports. According to the Trackboyz, J-Kwon wasn’t supposed to be smoking, but now that he was out of the house – with just his bodyguard and me for supervision – he obviously felt safe doing as he pleased.
“I am trying to get knowledge,” said J-Kwon calmly, revealing just a hint of frustration. “I want to know what I’m in for – what I am dealing with. I need knowledge. I can’t fully trust anybody. There are a lot of talkers out there and how can I know whom to believe unless I have knowledge?”
Moments later, Rod returned with a pack of Newports. Rod opened the cellophane wrapping and handed a cigarette to his boss. J-Kwon nodded his head appreciatively and slammed his foot on the gas.