Under Dogs

Kevin Bratton is graduating today.

The 18-year-old spent 4 arduous years sweating and praying for this moment — his moment — in the spotlight. And hell if he isn’t going to enjoy it.

Bratton is neatly shaven for the occasion. His familiar chin-strap scruff has been streamlined. His beaming smile is unfettered by twisted, black brambles of facial hair. For once, he looks his age.

“I told him,” Ben Lewis says, laughing. “All those liquor stores ain’t gonna sell him beer no more if he shaves.”

Lewis has had no such trouble. He totes a 12-pack of MGD, and his breath hints at a celebration in progress. This is a big day for Lewis, manager, mentor and surrogate older brother. The graduation ceremony is really his moment, too. But this rite of passage belongs solely to Young Kev.

Kevin “Young Kev” Bratton dropped out of Alta Vista Charter School for good last fall. But today he becomes a man. His cap is a tight weave of cornrows. His gown is a crisp, white T-shirt and a fresh pair of sagging State Property jeans. His diploma is the album — his album — Ghetto Gospel.

“You look down the block, and everybody is Cadillacs,” Young Kev says. “If you a Bentley, you gonna stand out. I always wanted to be the person that stands out.”

Young Kev is a Bentley, if only for this afternoon. This album-release party in the parking lot adjacent to 7th Heaven on Troost signifies his graduation from being just another rapper to being an artist of consequence. The KPRS 103.3 “Hot 103 Jamz” van is parked nearby. Smoke billows from a grill as volunteers serve free hot dogs off the trunk of a tricked-out Lincoln Town Car.

A light rain is falling, but few of the people sipping from blue plastic cups seem to notice. The corner of 76th Street and Troost is alive on a Tuesday evening in May, and there ain’t a damn thing gonna rain on this parade, least of all rain. And with the arrival of the Pythons drill team, it is a parade. Thumping drums. Shrill whistles. Little girls in red and silver sequined outfits dancing like it’s Macy’s Day.

The spectacle has drawn a crowd. The percentage of people here for Young Kev rather than merely for free hot dogs isn’t clear. But it’s also not important. They’re here — as are the entrepreneurs. Doe-eyed young basketball players stand sentry outside 7th Heaven in their baby-blue Tar Heels uniforms, a deflated basketball serving as their collection plate. A man in an ice cream truck makes a screeching U-turn before lurching to a halt beside his new customers. Others hand out fliers (“This shit is sick“) for their upcoming music projects. One struggling rapper hands out his CDRs straight from the Costco box that originally held the blank Memorex discs.

But today, traffic stops for Young Kev. At least it does when a photographer runs into the road — oblivious to oncoming traffic — to snap a picture of him with the Pythons. The kids beam. Young Kev smiles.

“People do look at you different,” Young Kev says later. “I’m not a role model, but to those little kids, you might be. You never know what’s in the back of that child’s mind.”

But the fame is fleeting. Tomorrow is the grind. Tomorrow is federal agents storming 7th Heaven — “Young Kev Ghetto Gospel In Stores Now” still on the store’s reader board — for allegedly selling drug paraphernalia. Tomorrow is going back to being another struggling artist.

If you stand in the middle of Prospect Avenue and toss a 20-inch rim to the wind, it’s bound to hit at least three rappers before it comes to rest. Most are mediocre. Some are talented. Few grasp the complexities of breaking into the music business. But virtually all are desperate to do so.

Their music isn’t like Ludacris’ club-thumping anthems or the mind-expanding sermons of Dead Prez or the soul-baring soliloquies of Atmosphere. These are hard rhymes and harder beats. This is what people called gangsta rap before that genre was all but buried with Tupac Shakur.

Before Eminem could finish saying Hi, my name is … , the fickle suburban audience drop-drop-dropped gangsta rap like it was hot. Real gangsta rap — not the 50 Cent version — faded from consciousness for everyone but those still living it.

In Kansas City, though, the music thrives underground. The circle of local artists churning out albums and mix tapes is ever-expanding, even as the most promising rappers wrestle to escape the ghetto within the ghetto that they’ve created for themselves.

Young Kev has graduated into the upper echelon of this fragmented fraternity with a style he describes as “gangsta but conscious.” He has moderate talent, but he’s also savvy. Ghetto Gospel is a relatively well-produced album put out by a fledgling independent label, Cheez Factory, run by Ben Lewis, the inspiration behind the dormant Kansas City hip-hop publication Mo Cheez Magazine. Through Lewis, Young Kev also is ahead of the admittedly stunted curve of self-promotion in a scene rife with bloated egos, unrealistic expectations and dangerous in-fighting.

It’s a perilous path Young Kev has taken. But no more so than the alternative.
How you gonna disrespect me when the whole city’s mine?/I’ve been grindin’ like a muthafucker, chasing my dream/No longer chasing — I’m making my green/And it seems every nigga’s talking tough shit/Not just some niggas but the hood that I grew up wit’ Tech N9ne, “Kansas City King”

Aaron Yates is the king.

At least for now. But would-be successors are eager to depose Yates — Tech N9ne — from his throne as reigning sovereign of Kansas City hip-hop. The face paint. The religious imagery. The wild red hair. The adventurous beats. The schizophrenic stage presence.

He doesn’t represent us, the subjects groan.

“I respect what he has done,” Young Kev says. “But that just ain’t playing in my speaker. And the red hair and all that? Man, you just scaring little kids. I ain’t feeling that, and ain’t nobody in the streets feeling that.”

But Tech N9ne is the most successful and — no contest — the most visible rapper in his hometown. So it’s no coincidence that he is featured in this month’s Murder Dog magazine or that “Kansas City King” is the first song on the accompanying two-disc compilation.

“We think the Midwest is going to be the next place to blow up,” says Murder Dog editor Black Dog Bone, who, like several other hip-hop personalities, declined to divulge his real name for this story. “This is going to be treated like a national release. It’s going to be in all fifty states, in all the chain stores. It’s going to be everywhere.”

The decision to make Kansas City the first in a series of compilations spotlighting Midwest hip-hop is telling in that the California-based Murder Dog — which holds substantial weight in the underground gangsta-rap community — is willing to vouch for the scene.

“Kansas City is unbelievable,” Black Dog says. “I’m a big fan. There is so much talent there. So much talent. But nobody has really noticed yet.”

Or have they? According to Jan Fichman, owner of the embattled 7th Heaven, local hip-hop albums can account for as much as 60 percent of total record sales at the Troost store, and established local artists such as Rich the Factor consistently appear among the top weekly sellers.

“The local scene is exceptionally strong,” Fichman says. “But not everybody is in tune to what’s happening in the underground. We try to be an incubator for this stuff. The music travels by word-of-mouth and guerrilla marketing. And when people respond, they know they can usually find the albums here.”

Problem is, there aren’t many other places to find them. Prominent local producer Don Juan has been pursuing a local radio show focused solely on area hip-hop since his days producing for Tech N9ne. But it wasn’t until this year (when 7th Heaven signed on as a sponsor) that 103.3 gave him the green light to cohost The Boiling Point with J.T. Quick for half an hour every Saturday night.

“At first, it was really hard to find enough quality songs to fill up the 30 minutes,” Quick says. “Now we’re getting stuff that’s absolutely amazing. Now people are really putting out some hot material. And a lot of it.”

But other than The Boiling Point and Cool Wayne’s After Spot Hip-Hop show on KKFI 90.1, almost no live venues cater specifically to the hip-hop community, let alone its grittier subgenres. A few intrepid souls, including local producer and promoter J.D. the Time Bomb, struggle to find venues for live showcases and even weekly DJ hip-hop nights.

“This city is bottled up,” J.D. the Time Bomb says. “The city needs some exposure — we need something — but young people have no outlet. Young people have nowhere to go as it is, and then you close down everything they do have. Then you wonder why they’re running all over the streets.”

Young Kev has performed at house parties, Mardi Gras celebrations, school assemblies and anywhere else that will have him. “People get to feel you, feel your vibe, feel the energy, [so] the live show is important,” Young Kev says. “That’s when you see if people are the truth, for real.”

But the truth is, Kansas City artists with mainstream aspirations probably need to go elsewhere.

“You do have the little hole-in-the-wall clubs and whatnot,” says local rapper and producer S2theB. “But if you really gonna make it — if you don’t want to be just a backyard cat — you’re gonna have to expand into other waters.”

Several locals already have. Boy Big has ventured to New York. Fat Tone has ties to the Bay area. Court Dog is connected to Master P and No Limit Records in New Orleans.

Stubborn hometown pride is a handicap that Young Kev acknowledges yet embraces under the flag of idealism.

“Everybody talking bad about Kansas City, you know — Missouri, the last state to free slavery — and people’s minds are still behind,” Young Kev says. “Kansas is behind Missouri ten times, and if you behind in Missouri, you behind the nation twenty times. We always behind. But this is my city. This is what I know. I love the ‘hood, and I couldn’t picture leaving it.”

Local artists who insist on building from within know it’s critical to follow Tech N9ne’s lead by using a fiery stage presence and relentless self-marketing to target a crossover audience. Specifically, an artist needs to capture suburban ears.

“From a record-label standpoint, it’s extremely important to break into that market,” Lewis admits. “But first the Johnson County audience has to hear you on the radio or see you on TV. Then you’re viable.”

Easier said than done. Kansas City rappers have an excruciating time getting their voices heard as it is. But then, most shoot themselves in the foot long before they reach that critical stage.

Unless somebody else shoots them first.
This shit can go down/Muthafuckas die in this KC town/I call it “Killer City,” ’cause that’s all I see/Is muthafuckas getting R.I.P., you know?Fat Tone, “Menace to Society”

Anthony Watkins commands attention.

Not that someone nicknamed “Fat Tone” needs help standing out. But people also take notice when you’re on the receiving end of an AK-47. Particularly when you survive with a scar on your chest, a chip on your shoulder and a song in your heart. Which is precisely what Fat Tone did after assailants showered an SUV in which he was riding with bullets in Brookside last October (“Who Shot Fat Tone?” November 13, 2003).

Catching lead and living to offer a retort in verse were the best things that could have happened to his fledgling hip-hop career.

I’m untouchable, you get it? Unfucking-touchable, Tone bragged on his album I’mma Get’cha.

He also has undeniable ability. But that tends to be overshadowed by his notoriety — he’s Kansas City’s most visible example of the macho (and masochistic) side of a culture that turns rappers into gangsters.

The cover of I’mma Get’cha (Tone’s first release since the shooting) depicts him sneering defiantly in a hospital gown as he lies on a gurney and flips off the camera. The album’s first song, “Off Brands,” begins with a montage of audio clips taken from local TV-news reports on Tone’s shooting, then launches into a searing anthem set to Tupac’s “Ambitionz Az a Ridah.”

So many haters on my heels/I’m strapped, ready to kill, Tone snarls. I’m living life for real/So tell me how I feel to be a soldier/Bustin’ on these niggas with ease/I give a fuck about these niggas/I’m still runnin’ the streets …

But when Tone wasn’t spitting vitriol at the recent Juneteenth Youth Celebration, he was laughing. Perhaps that’s partly because he knows he creates a ridiculous spectacle. Tone rolls thick. And soon after his five-car caravan pulled up at 20th Street and Vine for the Juneteenth show, fans began to swarm, and haters began to grumble.

Tone (who did not respond to the Pitch‘s interview requests) had two hype men welcome him to the stage — one a little Lil’ Jon shouting, “Give it up for my nigga Fat Tone! Come wit’ it, nigga!” and the other a white, middle-aged, event moderator hollering, “Hey! Come on, y’all! Holler for Tone!” But Tone didn’t come out until he was good and ready. And when he did, it was with a mob so big that his entourage had an entourage.

At first, there were six people onstage with him. Then eight. Then ten. Before long, a cacophonous, 16-member choir was shouting “Yeeeaaah!” and “It’s real!” when they weren’t sparking smokes or chatting into cell phones. At one point, the cling-ons completely enveloped the star within their ranks. That gave Tone a chance to catch his wind, which seemed easily depleted.

He continued by adding his rhymes to beats made famous by the Notorious B.I.G., Nick Cannon and Michael Jackson and singing Stacked to the ceiling to the tune of Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing.” It wasn’t completely clear what Tone was stacking to the ceiling — money, flapjacks, copyright violations — but the crowd was feeling it.

Men bobbed their heads and threw up their hands while women dipped and ground against a 6-foot-tall chain-link fence that created a 20-foot perimeter around the stage. The demilitarized zone was a curious addition, considering that the crowd was relatively sparse. But organizers obviously had safety concerns.

When Tone left the stage — only after organizers pulled the plug when his set ran long — it was clear why the fence was there. A small crowd of young men bid him adieu with calls of “Weak-ass nigga!” and “You shoot, you miss!” after one Tone stagehand pantomimed mowing down the detractors with a machine gun.

Gangsta rappers talk freely about doing gangsta shit. Tone is no different, alluding in his rhymes to selling dope and shooting those who cross him. But he also isn’t stupid. His infamy sells. And even his physical features can be explained away as another function of his thug persona.

I keep some fat to protect me/Just in case a muthafucka want to wet me, Tone raps on “Menace to Society.” The last young set that tried to run up on Tone/Caught five to his neck and one to his dome/It’s murder on these streets, fool/I ain’t slippin’.

Success in gangsta rap is often measured by status, status by stature, stature by material worth. A fact that Fat Tone was quick to remind the crowd — and his peers — of as he prowled the Juneteenth stage.

“I hear all you niggas rapping,” Tone cooed. “But you ain’t making any money.”
The block is real/And it ain’t shit for your boy to get killed/High school dropout/Pops wasn’t around/Can’t use that as a cop-out/Put lights out, get your boy stomped out/Black life has no amount/In the inner city/Young prince of the city/Come and get me … — Young Kev, “Tha Block”

Kevin Bratton is dejected.

He walked off the Juneteenth stage minutes before Fat Tone paraded on. Now Young Kev stands alone in one corner of the de facto dressing room in the Black Archives of Mid-America building. His face contorted with frustration, his eyes staring blankly. In the other corner, the Fat Tone carnival talks, laughs and jostles for room in the suddenly cramped quarters.

Young Kev was loose and confident an hour before. And then he got to the stage.

You are now about to witness the strength of street knowledge, boomed a sample from “Straight Outta Compton,” announcing Young Kev’s arrival. He had an entourage of one — 10-year-old DaJuan Cayson — to sing the hook from “Ghetto Gospel.” But Young Kev fell victim to a familiar trap — trying to rap over his actual album instead of an instrumental version — and had to battle to not be drowned out by himself.

But it was the chain-link buffer that really rattled him.

“Sorry I can’t get with y’all,” he apologized to his audience. “I wish I could vibe with y’all, but they got me boxed in.”

Young Kev continued gamely, but it wasn’t long before onlookers began slipping away to the shade. A large pack of stone-faced teens lounging beneath a vendor’s tent looked thoroughly unimpressed with the performance.

“You gotta crawl before you walk,” Young Kev had said earlier in the day. “I’m still crawling. Hopefully I can get up and walk one day.”

Young Kev could just be young, sensitive and humble. But he could also embody the conscious side of gangsta rap that turns would-be gangsters into rappers. He and Fat Tone share a common background. Growing up on rough streets. Trying to make order out of chaos. Defending their roots with vigilance.

Tone has ink to prove his love: A huge 5 tattooed on his right forearm and a corresponding 1 on his left represent 51st Street, a stretch of asphalt from the University of Missouri-Kansas City to the Satchel Paige Memorial Stadium with an epicenter somewhere near Whitley’s Mini-mart, where a sign advertises “canpop” for 50 cents and “blunts” for 55.

Young Kev has ink, too. The tattoo is a little smaller but more encompassing, an 816 etched into his right forearm. The number symbolizes a similar love for the rough environs he grew up in.

“I’m not your average 18-year-old,” says Young Kev, a product of the Guinotte housing project. “I’ve seen a lot and done a lot before it was my time. I’ve seen a lot of people die. I’ve seen a lot of people go to jail for life. People close to me, people that I grew up with.”

Resisting the temptation to make quick cash on the street is hard. Trying to make it in music — even at the shoestring level — is expensive.

“It’s real hard,” Young Kev admits. “I have a daughter. I have bills. I got all kinds of hustles just trying to stay above the water. Just trying to make it like the next man. I’ve thought about going out on these streets hard. But it don’t matter how broke I’ve been. My music always outweighs everything else.”

The same can’t be said for everyone crowded into the Kansas City talent pool. Virtually every streetwise rapper claims to have cut his gold-capped teeth as a smack dealer or stickup kid before using hip-hop as a parachute. Murmurs circulate about local artists associated with gangs from the block, from the region or from national sets like the Crips and Bloods. The affiliations are difficult to substantiate, though someone paying close attention might suppose that some rappers who have the uncanny ability to accessorize with blue or red aren’t merely devout Royals or Chiefs fans.

“Back in the day, there used to be groups singing on the corner in this city that had talent but no money,” says S2theB. “Now you have a lot of young guys who have money — some with the street gangs — but they don’t necessarily have the talent. But those cats get tapped out. The fake falls away, and the real rises up.”

No matter how many times Fat Tone gets shot, he needs skills to back up the bravado — and he has them. But even Jay-Z wouldn’t command attention rolling up in a busted-ass station wagon. Image is important, and it can come at a high cost.

“You can’t do one thing in the streets and another on the music side, because it’s gonna intertwine,” Young Kev says. “If you got enemies and you have a show you gonna be at, they gonna be there, too. You bangin’ real hard, and then you runnin’ an advertisement: ‘I got a show right here’? You settin’ up a hit.”

Which could also be the best career move you ever make. Assuming you survive.

“The controversy sells, but if I gotta get shot to sell records, I don’t want it,” Young Kev says. “If it can’t be on my pure talent alone, I don’t want it.”
[You] claiming Kansas City/But you straight outta Locash, with no class/And nah, you can’t rap with me, so don’t ask/You better hit the bricks before I put some shit on yo’ ass/You know the businessCourt Dog, “Midwest Niggaz”

Courtney Richardson II has something he wants to tell you.

“In Kansas City, we get pigeonholed into our sound, but it really isn’t even ours,” Court Dog says. “Most of these cats are really just spinning off of the Bay area. We haven’t even really found our identity yet.”

The largest hip-hop section at 7th Heaven — larger than the local displays — is labeled “Bay Area Rap.” And many artists in Kansas City are, in fact, derivative of underground stars from the Bay, such as C-Bo and E-40. Which is perhaps why every third guest appearance on a Kansas City gangsta rap album is likely to feature at least one of the two.

In underground hip-hop, you’re only as good as your last guest appearance. Fat Tone scored a coup on I’mma Get’cha with an assist from West Coast star Nate Dogg, the übermensch of hip-hop guest spots. But most local rappers rely on the usual suspects to give their albums star power. Young Kev is no exception. Although he insisted on KC collabos for Ghetto Gospel, he featured an interview with E-40 on the Street Hype DVD that accompanied the album.

When artists rely too much on others to carry their albums, it’s one of several symptoms that a scene is plagued by business ignorance and indifference. Making a guest appearance is, however, a quick way to spread your name.

“I’ve done cameos for free, for money, for Hennessey, for Gates, for whatever,” says Walter “The Popper” Edwin. “People don’t always understand that, but I knew it was the best way to get my name out.”

Boy Big (LeVar Fletcher) is becoming a coveted guest himself. His buttery vocals and gritty lyrics (is there such a thing as gangsta R&B?) have become an in-demand commodity. After all, Nate Dogg can’t sing the hook on every album. Boy Big was featured on the Gang Starr single “Nice Girl Wrong Place” and made a cameo in the subsequent MTV video. He has also done work with Wu-Tang Clan members Ghostface Killah and Raekwon the Chef (both of whom appear on his album The Playa, the Hustla and the Gentleman). But that doesn’t necessarily mean anything to the average consumer.

“That name might carry weight within the hip-hop community, but you ask the average 15-year-old who C-Bo or Ghostface Killah is, and they won’t know what the hell you’re talking about,” says producer Tom “Woo Woo” Woosley.

Woosley handles a high volume of hip-hop acts at his Woo Woo Productions studio in Olathe, doing everything from making beats and recording tracks to designing graphics and offering promotion strategies. Hundreds of musicians have flocked to his studio — more than 250 albums produced in 4 years — but Woosley rarely sees the dedication required for success.

“We could make you a record by the end of the day,” Woosley says. “It’s not rocket science. And we could go down to QuikTrip and sell them out of the trunk. But you have to put in the work. A lot of these artists put the horse before the cart. They assume they’re going to get paid just because they have a record.”

But that’s rarely the case, Woosley says. “When they walk out that door, what should they do? Get up at 9 a.m., get a box of CDs and go door-to-door if you have to. Just like any other businessperson. But a lot of these guys don’t have a simple understanding of what it means to sell a product.”

But Young Kev and Ben Lewis work hard to spread their Ghetto Gospel. The Popper undoubtedly benefits from his 103.3 connections (his brother, Gary “DJ Fresh” Edwin, has ties to the station), but he also successfully jockeyed his single “I Do” into regular rotation at 103.3 by taking the song to every club — including strip joints. Turns out, anything good enough for Trixxxie is good enough to become a regular feature on the station’s Hot 8 at 8.

“You gotta be savage in the game,” the Popper says. “If I was just a rapper, I’d be stuck here and my song wouldn’t be on the radio. You have to be a businessman, too. That’s what keeps you hungry.”

And when you’re hungry, you have a career buffet. Court Dog used his No Limit connections and album sales to finance his budding acting career. He moved to Los Angeles last year and has since scored a few movie roles. “I’m a decent rapper, but I’m a better businessman,” Court says. “You get a lot of young cats in Kansas City who don’t understand that the music business is a business. The wackest rapper might get more play than the illest rapper because it’s all about marketing and who has the machine behind them.”

But most of the artists Woosley sees, he says, give up before they even get started.
A young brother in his prime/Out on the grind/Trying to get mine/Hustlin’ all the time/I can’t help myself, but I’m still trying to help myselfYoung Kev, “I Can’t Help Myself”

Kevin Bratton is just getting started.

He has spent four years sweating and praying for a moment — the moment — in the spotlight. The real spotlight. But today isn’t it. His name has been replaced on the reader board by the Popper. Young Kev’s cornrows are hidden by a tight black skull cap. He hasn’t shaved for days. He is good, once again, to visit liquor stores.

Young Kev is sitting in the same parking lot next to 7th Heaven where four weeks earlier he was The Man. Now he is just another guy. This is a celebration for the release of the Murder Dog compilation. Young Kev has a song on the album, but so do three dozen other local artists. His Ghetto Gospel has been downgraded to a handful of copies in the new-arrivals section at 7th Heaven.

If the spotlight is on anybody today, it’s on the Popper — celebrating a new album — and Ben Lewis, who made the Murder Dog compilation a reality. But Young Kev seems content to loiter in the shadows. He sits away from the other artists, who are strutting, mingling and mugging for video cameras. He quietly bobs his head as the Murder Dog compilation thumps from the PA speakers. When the ensemble gathers for a group photo, he lingers in the back, barely visible. He is wearing a photo of his baby girl on a chain around his neck. The inscription reads: Serenity Monique Bratton born April 12, 2004.

Fat Tone has a new album out and enough fame to carry his name into his next album or shooting, whichever comes first. And even though Kansas City might be forgotten as soon as Murder Dog shifts its focus, this upswing isn’t a mirage to those on the inside.

“If you got a pinhole on a full balloon, you can’t hold it back forever,” says Boiling Point cohost J.T. Quick. “The passion people are putting into their music is eventually going to overflow. It takes time to build, but when it does, it’ll pop.”

“It’s gonna happen within the next year,” Don Juan predicts. “It’s just a matter of time. It’s all coming back to the Midwest. And anybody can break out at any time and change the world in a matter of months.”

Young Kev dreams of a label deal — a real label deal. He wants to put away $50,000 for his daughter’s college education. He wants safety. He wants security. He wants a future.

He’s not stupid. He knows his chances. And as young and promising as his career is, he knows nobody’s going to be interested in an Old Kev.

“I ain’t trying to be 40 and rapping,” Young Kev says. “I’ve been rapping since I was 14. Every year, a new door opens for me. But if I don’t keep stepping up, it’s not working. I’ll hang it up and pass it to the next little cat.”

He doesn’t want bullet wounds to be his advertisements. He doesn’t want to lean on more successful artists in more successful cities. He doesn’t want to sacrifice his creativity for the easy club hit. His identity and his ability are all he has. But he believes they’re all he needs.

“I can’t come from much worse than where I am — and I don’t have nothing now,” Kevin Bratton says. “I ain’t got nothing to lose.”

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