Growing up in the JeffVanderLou neighborhood of north St. Louis, ten-year-old LaDon Meriweather and his friends liked to play what they called "The Dope Game," a ghettoized version of "Cowboys and Indians."
The hustlers made toy guns out of folded paper and dealt make-believe dope to the junkies while the cops tried to chase them down. Everyone wanted to be the drug dealers, which left the youngest kids to play the roles of the dope fiends and police officers.
"We were just doing what we saw," the now-32-year-old Meriweather, better known now as the rapper "Yo Banga," remembers. "Gang life excited me. I fell in love with it just seeing it out there."
By the time he reached fifteen, Meriweather graduated to the real thing, dropping out of Vashon High School before his sophomore year and spending his days on the block as a member of the JVL Bloods. His homies called him "Yoshi" — a name taken from the video game Super Mario Bros. And when his friends not in the gang would come home from football practice, Yoshi would display the rolls of cash he'd made hustling while they were in the classroom. Eventually his buddies "Brick" and "Bimp" would quit school and join Yoshi on the streets.
"Fuck football," Brick had said at the time. "That shit ain't feeding me."
Yoshi, Brick and Bimp hurried up the Blood ranks with "Jiff," who was several years younger, eventually filling out their crew. Today Banga recalls how he and his fellow gang members maintained order in the 'hood, hustled the blocks, ran a tight ship and made money. All of it to the dismay of his mother,
Donna Steele, who worked to support him and his two sisters with their father not around.
"There were shootings all the time," Steele, now a homemaker in Spanish Lake, recalls of the JeffVanderLou neighborhood. "LaDon was always asking for red-colored clothes. He didn't like the clothes I'd buy for him. He'd tell me I dressed him like Bill Cosby. He always had a good home. I don't know where his interest in the gang came from. He left at sixteen; I was hurt by it. I tried everything to stop him."
But where his mother couldn't halt his hoodlum activities, the law — and rival gang members — eventually could. At least temporarily.
Banga's is a complicated story full of violence and loss, hints of glory and even a bit of atonement. Though the latter may unravel amid a fresh round of criminal charges which could send him back to prison just as his rap career is taking off.
Every rap artist has a genesis tale, and the central date of Yo Banga's came on July 8, 2003. A gang turf war had been raging for a couple of years; Banga's JVL Bloods on one side and the 26 Mad and 20th Street Crips on the other.
"It was like Iraq," Banga says. "There was nothing you could do about it but lace up your boots."
Being the leaders of the JVL Bloods, he and his crew knew it was only a matter of time before the Crips took a shot at them, but that particular summer afternoon had been chill enough. When Yoshi stopped his Buick Regal at the corner of Natural Bridge and Fair avenues, spirits were high. Bimp, who was sitting shotgun, had just celebrated his 21st birthday two days before. The smooth R&B crooner Jaheim was bumping on the stereo, an odd choice of music for a respected gangsta like Yoshi, and Bimp was clowning him.
"Turn that bullshit off. Why you even playing it?" Bimp chuckled.
"That's just how I'm feelin'," Yoshi replied.
Bimp was Yoshi's right-hand man. A former Vashon linebacker, he was strong and thick, silly at times, but with a mean streak if provoked. His homies dubbed him "Bimp Eastwood" because he carried a gun on each hip. Bimp was always on the grind, never sleeping, taking care of business. He seemed invincible, the most feared guy in the 'hood.
Yoshi and Bimp were laughing it up when a gold Grand Prix rolled up next to them. As they glanced over, the young men in the Grand Prix stared straight ahead. The light turned green. Yoshi hit the gas. That's when the shots rang out.
Pop pop pop pop pop pop pop pop pop pop!
The bullets blasted out Yoshi's rear window; he pulled his strap, fired back. A slug struck his wrist, and he ducked as the gunfire continued. His car stalled, its engine riddled with bullets. The Grand Prix sped away.
"I'm hit!" Bimp moaned. He clutched his chest, covered in blood, already struggling for breath.
"Hold on, man! Just hold on!" Yoshi told his dying friend. "You gon' be all right! You gon' be all right!"
Two days later the police blotter noted that homicide detectives believed the shooting was gang related and that Bimp was carrying nearly $2,000 in cash.
The St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department's gang unit had long been after Yoshi but only learned his legal name when he checked into Saint Louis University Hospital following the shootout. Hearing what had happened, Brick hurried to the hospital, too. Wanted on an outstanding assault charge, police arrested Brick on the spot. Once they had him in jail, the cops listened in on his phone calls to Yoshi, who they now understood was LaDon Meriweather — a criminal they knew well.
Meriweather (whose name appears in court records as "Merriweather," with two R's, as well as "LeDon" and "Landon") had already compiled an impressive rap sheet for drug possession, dealing crack cocaine, domestic assault and unlawful use of a weapon.
A few months after Bimp's death, Yoshi arrived at court on one of his previous charges. A dozen cops were waiting for him, cuffing him on suspicion of "gang association." Later they'd show him a bulletin board of photos tracking the structure of the JVL Bloods. At the top of the chart was his pretty face.
"That was definitely a violent time," says Captain Ronnie Robinson, then the head of the gang unit. "LaDon was one of the shot callers relative to his clique. He was an OG in the gang, a leader, very intelligent. He lived the street life."
Yoshi would later be sentenced to twelve years in prison on drug and weapons charges.
Fast-forward to Banga's life behind bars inside Missouri's Bowling Green and Algoa correctional centers. Spending his idle time watching music videos on the TV he'd bought for his cell, he grew disgusted by how fake rap had become. The way he viewed it, the 'hood had been commoditized into a fantasy with no mention of consequences, the power of its cultural commentary obliterated by bling, bottles and booty.
Back in the day, Tupac and N.W.A. — his biggest musical influences — told the whole story of the streets. The guns and the caskets, the kingpins and the homeless, the good times and the blight, the thug life and the penitentiary. As a prisoner, Banga saw the influence St. Louis was having on the national hip-hop scene. But to him songs with wide popular appeal, like Nelly's "Air Force Ones" and Chingy's "Right Thurr" didn't represent the city he knew.
"Everybody that came from the Midwest was basically commercial," Banga says. "You mean to tell me this is one of the most dangerous cities in America, and nobody is talking about that? How could you not talk about it when you see it every day?"
Ironically, Banga's cellmate happened to be a rival gang member, a north St. Louis Crip nicknamed "Budweiser." It was Budweiser, an aspiring rapper, who introduced Banga to the nuances of the art, teaching him how to line up bars, structure couplets, tell stories.
When other inmates gathered in the prison yard to rap, Banga stood on the sidelines nodding his head. Finally, after three and a half years of quietly penning his own verses, he jumped in the fray, holding forth in the yard to larger and larger audiences.
As his release date neared, Banga started thinking seriously about a rap career. With the name "Yoshi" forever tainted in police files, he came up with "Yo Banga"; "Yo" for "Yoshi," and the B in "Banga" as a nod to his ties to the Bloods. But just before his 2008 release, he got a phone call that rocked him. Brick, who was already out of prison, had been murdered in front of a northside nightclub in a case that still hasn't been solved. With Jiff having two decades left on a separate gang-related murder rap and Bimp and Brick now dead, Banga realized he was all who remained of the crew.
Once home in the JVL, he found another war ravaging the 'hood. The new Bloods who'd risen up the ranks behind him wanted him back at the front.
"Fuck that," he told them. "I'm gone."
Two months after leaving prison on parole in April 2008, Banga began putting together songs. The best went on a mixtape, Bang Zone, that he recorded at the Central West End's Superior Sound Labs and sold in local barbershops and corner stores.
This past December he cut his first full-length album, Fresh Out the Blender, that features him rapping over beats produced by a slew of local artists including X Man, Tez Banga and Pyrex Beatz.
Banga estimates that he makes $300 a week hand-selling his CDs for $5 apiece. Other money comes from selling Yo Banga T-shirts and merchandise through his company, Black Path Muzic, and a part-time job he works at the Tee Shirt Shop on Natural Bridge Avenue. His long-time girlfriend, Shermaine Madison, a records clerk for SBC Communications, also contributes to the family's bills.
The couple has known each other since preschool. Banga admits that at times it's been a rocky relationship (he says police inflated an argument between him and Madison into a domestic-assault charge, to which he pleaded guilty), but they've stayed together. They have two daughters, Andrea, thirteen, and Adrean, eleven, and a son, LaDon, two.
"I don't even know another female," the rapper smiles and says of Madison.
A throwback to rap's gritty street roots, Banga doesn't spit with a lot of flash. His verses come in half-speed couplets with a Midwestern twang. His rhymes aren't preachy; he doesn't warn others to take a different path.
Banga raps about selling heroin — "dog food" — and making money:
Served every junkie, my runners never ill/ On a good day I'm giving away pills/First in the Lou to put dog food in traffic/My number did numbers from East Saint to Maffitt.
But he also raps about the horrors that accompanied gang life: Buried two brothers, caught four cases/Put the 'hood in my hand, so I gotta make it.
His verses often ooze with anger: I'm sick of songs for hoes and tight-ass clothes/ Nigga with an attitude, bitch you lookin' at one.
And at times they're laced with regret: Yeah I believe in Heaven, see Hell every day/Peripheral vision, it's hard to look the other way/I've done seen it all, why real niggas fall/They're either on a T-shirt or hit up on the wall.
Clarence Holmes, whose downtown studio, Red Room, produced Fresh Out the Blender, says of Yo Banga's music, "It's his life with a beat behind it. It's a surprise; we came up around each other, but lived two totally different lifestyles. I never thought he'd take music seriously. There's a lot of rappers who rap about the [gang] life who never lived it. His name is certified in the streets; the kids respect and like his music. Every one of his friends is dead or in jail. [Music] is like a last option."
Many of Banga's lines honor incarcerated or dead friends: Jimmy, Fat Woods, Swole, Smoky Joe, Stannie and, of course, Jiff, Brick and Bimp. Top local hip-hop videographer Block DVD's Mr. A calls the rapper the "Tupac of St. Louis."
"It's almost like watching The Wire," says Mr. A, who shot Banga's "Goon Anthem" video. "That's the grittiness of his storytelling and wordplay. When he first got out, I wasn't really feeling him because he was only talking. Now I see he brings a reality to music in St. Louis. He's bringing the heartbeat back."
Producer Tez Banga, who contributed beats to Fresh Out the Blender, says, "St. Louis is a bandwagon town. A lot of people make music that's reflective of Atlanta, Miami, New York. What Banga's saying is about St. Louis. I ain't gotta lie — he's taken off to the point the sky's the limit."
Mr. A agrees. "He's been making a lot of noise, and he's going to make a lot more."
It's not just hip-hop aficionados who've taken notice of Yo Banga. In 2010 Dr. Christi Griffin, director of the St. Louis anti-crime initiative the Ethics Project, invited Banga to participate in the Urban League's Public Safety Advisory Council's Youth/Gang Summits that brought community leaders from all walks of life to Sumner, Beaumont, Roosevelt and Vashon high schools.
"LaDon [came] highly recommended as a former gang member who holds a high degree of respect from the youth, as well as current gang members," says Griffin.
At Vashon — the school he attended before dropping out — Banga listened to students discuss the gang-related pressures they face in their neighborhoods. He talked about his past life, one that led to the tattoos covering his arms, ten of which memorialize dead comrades, including his best friend, Bimp.
"Once they took Bimp," Banga says in a recent interview, shaking his head before stopping for a moment to collect himself. "That killing got to stop. Young black men are making ourselves extinct. You can't stop everybody from selling dope. But the right people in the right neighborhoods can cut the killing short."
Yet whether Banga is a solution or part of the problem is a matter of debate. Last spring a grand jury indicted him on drug charges following a January 2011 arrest in which St. Louis police claim he was in possession of 80 capsules of heroin. At an arraignment scheduled next month, prosecutors plan to upgrade the charge to possession with intent to distribute, which could send him back to prison for up to fifteen years.
"The police snatched me out of my car, found something on my cousin, gave me the charge, let her go," Banga explains. "I pray on it, don't let it affect me, don't let it stop me from what I'm doing. The police hear the name 'Yoshi' and want me back. That's gonna be for the rest of my life."
Banga's attorney, Nick Zotos, helped him beat another drug-possession case in 2008.
"When LaDon encounters the police, they see his record and adopt a certain stance towards him," says Zotos. "It's unfair, but it's police mentality."
Community activist James Clark says he's aware of Banga's legal troubles but still believes the rapper has the potential to benefit the community.
"I am not a judge. We're more concerned about his future than his past," says Clark, whose nonprofit, Better Family Life Inc., recently tapped Banga for its anti-violence initiative, Put Down the Pistol.
"When I first saw his videos [which often feature large groups of men posturing on the street], I was discouraged," says Clark. "And then it hit me: This is who we need. He has a tremendous amount of street cred. Everybody knows Banga; everybody respects Banga. The guys committing the violence listen to people like him. The only people who can bring lasting peace are people with Banga's profile. The aldermen, the mayor, the police can't do it. To catch the wolf, you've got to send the wolf."
The police department's Ronnie Robinson agrees. "I think he has the capability of turning his life around, and [we] would love to see him help and give back. His gang knowledge, his ability to recount stories — he can make a difference as long as he steers [the youth] in the right direction."
"It's important for the kids to see somebody who looks like them, who was hands-on with this shit," Banga says. "Ain't nobody trying to hear nothing from nobody in a suit. [Better Family Life's] Mr. Clark can speak his ass off, but he can't get it to them the way I can get it to them. I just want them to see that this shit is hard. Most kids think, 'Man, the streets are where it's at.' I don't glorify what I done, but I'm gonna talk about my life. When you take a motherfucker's life, you still can't get back the partner you lost. Is it really worth it?"
On a cool Friday night in early March, Yo Banga is set to arrive at Cicero's in University City, where Reel Media — a St. Louis marketing and video production company — is hosting its monthly showcase for underground talent. The night's emcee, J-Wha, has just finished watching a nervous performer compensate for his middling rhymes by bouncing around the stage like a pogo stick. The crowd hasn't bought it and neither has J-Wha. He laughs and says into the mic, "Betta check your blood pressure!" then leads the exhausted guy off the stage like a washout on The Gong Show. But where's Banga? Suddenly, a posse files into the room, chains flashing, Redbird caps cocked. J-Wha grins and says, "You can tell Yo Banga's here because the people just came in. Banga brings the people."
The big news of the night is that Banga has been asked to open for T.I. — the multiplatinum artist who's teamed up with everyone from Kanye West to Justin Timberlake — the following evening at the Ambassador in north county. Rumors are that Nelly might be there, too. Another local rapper, Gena — soon to be known as "Fresco Kane" — has just scored a recording deal with Jermaine Dupri's So So Def/Epic Records, and there's buzz in the air about the St. Louis scene.
At last Banga struts through the door. He's not the biggest guy in the house, but with his babyface and cocky stage persona, he's clearly the most confident. He hugs the members of Downtown Taliban as they head onstage to warm up the crowd for him. Everybody's asking Banga about the T.I. show and the huge audience he'll face. He grins a high-wattage smile and says, "The more people, the more Banga."
It's not like he hasn't dealt with famous rappers before. In February he opened at the Ambassador for Rick Ross, walking out before the former prison guard could even start singing his fabricated story line about slinging coke. Of Ross, who represents rap at its most commercial, Banga says, "That shit does not impress us. I can't listen to that. I just can't."
Downtown Taliban — Lil' Bruh, 20, and Mike B., 21 — doesn't have a mixtape yet, but the track the duo flashes tonight, "My Life," promises greatness. They're hard-edged youths, Mike B. with a blinding grill and lyrics like small-arms fire:
My life, my struggle, my come up, my downfall/My robbers, my hustlers, my killers, my young'uns.
Downtown Taliban is so thug, they rap about packing ARs, AKs, Tec-9s and bombs. Soon Banga is backing them, waving a white towel as the club heats up, and then it's his turn. Everyone rushes the stage. They mouth his verses along with him as he unleashes his booming voice.
This is my motherfucking city! If you don't know who I am, you been sleeping under a rock! Real gangstas! We the type of niggas you read about. We the type of niggas you dream about. My niggas, welcome to the Banga Show! My bitches, welcome to the Banga Show!
Banga knows music is a tough game, and with three kids to think about, he says he'll "push on" with something else if things don't pan out.
"I was living in a box," he says of the lifestyle that inspired his music, led to his legal troubles and continues to cast a pall over his future. "The gang was the only thing I saw. I think more now. I don't want to leave my kids."
Banga's mother, Donna Steele, hopes music might finally provide a positive outlet for her son. "I just want him to be successful," she says. "It's better than him being on the street."
The night of the T.I. show, scores of autos are pulling into the Ambassador's vast parking lot, kicking up a fog of dust that shimmers in the headlights. Inside security is tight. Everybody's being frisked, and, backstage, local acts tapped to warm up the crowd are ducking in and out of the smoke-filled green room: Murphy Lee, Major League, City Spud, Ruka Puff, BlocknButta. Every time a cart of liquor bottles rolls in, the rappers attack it like piranhas.
In the narrow backstage hallway, busy waiters zip by like they're on roller skates. Jonathan Burns, the show's slick promoter, strides through with a handsome grin. Out on the main floor, it's starting to look like standing room only, and with the platinum VIP tables going for $1,500, Burns has reason to smile.
A professional camera crew pushes in; it's the Oprah Winfrey Network filming the St. Louis-based reality show, Welcome to Sweetie Pie's. Its stars, Tim Norman and J.R. Dot, are going to be made-for-TV rappers tonight. (Just like their stage name, the two will come off as "Bipolar.") Everybody is still thinking Nelly will make a surprise appearance — T.I. and Nelly together! — but the rumors are getting really wild: Jermaine Dupri? He just signed Gena, after all, who's somewhere back here, too.
With all these acts to juggle, the stage manager, Maurice Falls, is frustrated with only one. He ducks his head into the greenroom and shouts yet again, "Where is Yo Banga?"
That Banga's late, even for T.I., is no surprise; he's probably just taking his time, adding to his growing legend.
Back up front, tall girls in mini club dresses are dropping $15 a pop to have their photos taken with paintings of T.I. He's such a pretty boy, they can't help showing love. It's escapism. Fantasy. A dream for one night.
To get the girls ready for him, the hype man will holla, "Let me hear all the ladies in the club tonight!" and they'll scream at the top of their lungs. When he hollas, "Now let me hear all the ladies who aren't wearing panties!" they'll scream even louder. When T.I. finally walks out onstage with his huge entourage, some of the ladies will break down crying, and others in the VIP section will toss up stacks of dollar bills and make it rain.
That's T.I., a different sort of art altogether. But long before that happens, Banga will appear at last, in Blood red, just in time to step onstage and rap about the streets.
Is he nervous? Does he need a minute to get ready? Yo Banga grabs the mic and grins.
"I stay ready! I'm already thur! Go hard or go home. I'm gon' make enough noise to make it come to me!"