Young Pappy was one of two things, depending on whom you believe, and maybe a bit of both. The police say he was a gangbanger who rapped about his gun-toting lifestyle only to have it finally catch up with him in late May in the form of two bullets in the back. But his mother says her son was no gangster. Instead, Ingrid Thomas insists, her son Shaquon adopted the name Young Pappy and the violent lyrics he spat out of necessity.
In other words, it was persona as protection.
"That wasn't who he was," Ingrid said recently. "It's a mode of survival."
Shaquon grew up in Chicago's Uptown neighborhood, where he was killed by an unknown assassin early on the morning of May 29. The stretch of street that marks his murder scene isn't exactly the city's roughest territory; last Friday, kids at an elementary school on that block bought snow cones from a street vendor while a homeless woman gave away extra food she'd acquired. Meanwhile, a young woman read a book on her front stoop. Just down the street sits the Aragon Ballroom.
The area is about a ten-minute drive from my own place in one of the safest (and whitest) neighborhoods in the city.
"It's not as dangerous as they painted it to be," said Ingrid.
When Ingrid says "they," she's talking about the media, but at other times, "they" means the police. In describing Shaquon's death, and many deaths of young men in the city, Chicago outlets—like those in New York and plenty of other cities—sometimes rely solely on police versions of events. For Ingrid's son, this meant the rapper was labelled a Gangster Disciple, and that his death was at least partially attributable to a "long-running feud" between that gang, the Conservative Vice Lords and the Black P-Stones. (The latter two have deep roots in Chicago, with the Conservative Vice Lords tracing their heritage back to the infamous Henry Horner Homes projects.)
But to say that Thomas's death was directly linked to a gang beef is an "oversimplification," the rapper's friend Morocco Vaughn told me. And to point to a video in which Shaquon allegedly calls out rival gang members for their poor shooting ability (the rapper had been the target of gunfire at least twice before, bullets that claimed the life of a friend and a photographer who was following the rapper), was flat out wrong, according to Vaughn and others.
"They act like he made a video taunting a rival gang and the rival gang came and killed him. That's not what happened. That's what happened with Lil Jojo," said Vaughn, referencing the murder of a rapper who supposedly called out the Black Disciples, a gang associated with Chief Keef, and, some say, was killed for it.
"So they tried to replicate the story," Vaughn said of some media reports. "Violence in the City of Chicago is a hot topic, so they try to make things neatly fit into that box. This don't fit into that box."
Shaquon's friends pointed to jealousy over his music career as motive for the shooting. It wasn't part of a gang war, and it didn't have to do with Shaquon's supposed gun-toting ways, they say, but instead was pure, unadulterated jealousy: Pappy was on his way out, and the people who were about to be left behind didn't like that.
But Shaquon wasn't exactly a stranger to local police and, indeed, had his fair share of troubles with the law. Ingrid said her son was "no angel," and recounted how he began slipping away into the streets during his teenage years.
"He started smoking marijuana, going with the wrong crowd and getting in and out of juvenile detention," Ingrid told me.
Shaquon's troubles got worse from there. By the time of his death, the 20-year-old had racked up 11 misdemeanor cases and one felony, a gun possession charge to which he pleaded guilty and served a year in prison, according to the Cook County Circuit Clerk's Office. (The circumstances of that crime weren't immediately available, and Ingrid said she wasn't sure exactly what happened, either.)
Shaquon's problems began in eighth grade, Ingrid said, when he was picked up at school for having weed on him. A battle of wills ensued, with school authorities wanting to kick Shaquon out and his mother insisting he remain enrolled. More minor troubles followed, prompting Shaquon's entry into the juvenile justice system, which Ingrid holds partly responsible for her son's wayward path.
"If he did something wrong, then he should have been punished for it," she said.
I asked if perhaps the authorities were taking a rehabilitative route, the kind of criminal justice reform many are clamoring for as youths rack up lengthy rap sheets over bunk charges like minor weed possession and disorderly conduct. She said that's possible, but that there was no rehabilitation.
"You're not punishing him, you're not rehabilitating him, you're putting him back on the streets," she said of those who handled Shaquon's case as a minor.
When her marriage to Shaquon's father began falling apart, Ingrid said, the young man became less manageable.
"When they get to be older teenagers, it's hard to reel them back in when they get a taste of what's going on, and want to be a part of it," she told me. "He got mesmerized by how they sensationalize crime, rap, all of that."
So Shaquon became Young Pappy, and Young Pappy began to become a star. "Killa" got a half million views. "Shooters," where he called out other gangs, garnered more than a quarter million, and "Homicide" pulled over 400,000.
On the 14th floor of a Chicago hotel room, I met the rapper's friends to talk about his death. Among them was Vaughn, a hulking but friendly guy with close cropped hair who downed a plastic container full of barbecue teetering on a bedside table as he spoke. Shaquon's manager, who arranged the meeting, was there, and so was a man with long dreads and a silent demeanor who was referred to only as "The Guv." Eventually Shaquon's brothers, Budd and Trey, showed up.
"We had him to a certain plateau, but we couldn't keep him in the studio because he kept getting locked up every time he step outside." -Morocco Vaughn
They all painted a picture of a rapper on the rise, gunned down just before he was able to break away from the streets.
"We had him to a certain plateau, but we couldn't keep him in the studio because he kept getting locked up every time he step outside," said Vaughn.
According to Ingrid, all her son had hoped to accomplish when he transformed into Young Pappy was to find a path away from violence. Rap was supposed to be a ticket out of the streets, not to the morgue.
"That wasn't him," she repeated over and over again during our conversation.
But whatever Shaquon's actual identity, it was enough to grab the cops' attention. And bullets—like the ones that killed Shaquon's friend Markeyo Carr and an unlucky photographer, Will Lewis—kept whizzing by. Just weeks before Shaquon's death, police raided a mixtape release party. Initially, cops said they were fired upon by someone in an apartment located in the same building where Shaquon's father lived and where the party took place. They later changed their story, suggesting the shots came from the back of the building and weren't directed at police. Eventually, cops busted down the door of an apartment and arrested 33 people, most of whom were booked on minor charges. "They all beat they cases," Vaughn remarked during our meeting.
Ingrid speculated that police kept picking Shaquon up to send a message to other youths who might become similarly mesmerized by the gangster glories in Young Pappy's songs. He wasn't a bad guy, she insisted, despite his troubles with the law and songs that evoke images of guns, murder, and mayhem. The police contend otherwise, with one former commander dubbing his music "technological kerosene" that made an already smoldering gang feud leap into four-alarm flames.
Regardless, there's no denying Shaquon was just doing what scores of others have done before him. It began long ago, Ingrid said, back when rapping about guns and street life gave a jolt of reality to mainstream America, when guys who now make millions at the box office in family comedies had jheri curls and held Uzis out the side of drop top '63 Impalas.
"When did that ever become something new in the rap game? They lie, they build up a persona to get people to buy into the image so they can make money." -Ingrid Thomas
"When did that ever become something new in the rap game?" Ingrid asked of her son's alternate musical identity. "They lie, they build up a persona to get people to buy into the image so they can make money."
Eazy E. Ice Cube. Dre. Snoop—there's even a Hollywood biopic out about them this summer.
"They rapped about killing police and now people kiss they feet 'cause they filthy rich," Ingrid said.
Maybe Budd will get in on the action. Throughout our meeting, he didn't say much about his fallen brother, except that Shaquon was a "dynamic," funny and outspoken person, a talented rapper, and a loyal brother and friend. Budd recently dropped a new track, a tribute to Shaquon, that he hopes will be just the first of many steps in carrying on his brother's musical legacy.
While he didn't really open up about Shaquon and the feelings he must possess regarding his brother's death, he did express his mentality going forward.
"One thing about our family and one thing about Pappy is we don't fear nothing," Budd said. "We don't believe in that. Nah, we don't."
Follow Justin Glawe on Twitter.