Jia Davis is showing me his St. Louis. And here's the weird thing: It's my St. Louis, at least geographically. The neighborhood around Tower Grove off Grand, where I live, is where the former Bits N Pieces rapper grew up. But even though it may have been in the same square mile as my apartment, Jia's city isn't even on the same planet. The street I use as a shortcut to the Way Out Club is the street where Jia saw a childhood friend murdered. The store I go to for beer is on a corner where Jia used to watch neighbors get whacked on "Boy," a.k.a. embalming fluid. His childhood home -- fourteen people in a two-story house, "a family in every room" -- almost within spitting distance of my building, is separated from it by those concrete blocks that so coincidentally separate black and white neighborhoods in the city.
"All of my friends from back then are either dead or in jail," says Jia. Not just his friends. On September 13 of last year Jia's brother (and rhyme partner in Bits N Pieces) Cornelius "Katt" Davis was shot to death by an off-duty police officer after a strange, explosive crime spree. The inexplicable day, which saw Katt getting into several auto accidents before fistfighting with the officer while attempting to steal a car, still leaves Jia nearly speechless.
"You never know anyone. You might think you do, but you don't," says Jia, who denies early reports that he characterized the episode as "suicide by cop."
"I never said it was a suicide," he says. He pauses, as he often does while discussing his brother's death. "We were going through some of the same things, but he was going through some stuff on his own. You know when you put water in a balloon? A little water is all right. But keep pouring it in and it'll pop." Then, switching metaphors: "Pressure bursts pipes."
Now, almost a year after his family and band were shattered, Jia is back with his first solo album, Experienced. Like Bits N Pieces, Jia does not make booty music: His lyrics paint pictures of his world without glorifying the drug dealing or hustling that many of his peers delved into. Katt is missed, not just literally by his brother, but on the tracks: Katt was a masterful lyricist and helped make Bits N Pieces an engaging group. But Jia has grown as an MC in the past year, pushing his grief into his words. The production, by local legend DJ Crucial, is fantastic: Spare and mellow, it sounds like it was done by a laid-back DJ Premier.
And the lead single, "Cadillac Music," is a mellow slice of feel-good music. It may not shake asses on the dance floor, but it'll be booming during backyard barbecues and slow rides next summer.
These days Jia is looking toward the future: Experienced drops November 4, and he's planning a celebration with his crew The Committee on stage at the Pageant on Thursday, October 30. He recently got a kick out of visiting hip-hop high schoolers at Vashon (he is prouder of his diploma than any of his albums, he told them), and he's thinking about getting into production.
But the past is still with him. We end our tour of his St. Louis at Iron Age so he can get a new tattoo. The design reads: "Bits N Pieces Forever."
Singer/songwriter Elliott Smith killed himself on October 21, apparently by a knife wound to the chest. Smith's neo-folk music, often compared to fellow suicide Nick Drake, was both sweet and dour, and his albums, particularly 1997's Either/Or, were a staple of college students and sensitive twentysomethings everywhere. We shouldn't be surprised by his death: As long as music fans continue to lionize those who hurt more, or more beautifully, than we do, we're going to have to deal with our artists abandoning us. From Ian Curtis to Kurt Cobain, rock fans have watched people we thought spoke for us kill themselves. It's a disturbing feeling when someone you identified with takes his own life.
Some people get into music to get rich or get laid, others because they need a release. As Jia said, "We let ourselves out through our lyrics. At least I did. It wasn't enough for Katt." Making music is hard. Making music that actually means something to yourself and other people is even harder. And the catharsis is great. But for all the labor, and the community it creates, and the people it touches, sometimes music fails.
Correction published 2/18/04: In the original version of this story, we misidentified rapper Jia Davis' crew. The above version reflects the corrected text.