Standing a few paces from his grandmother’s housing unit in the fading afternoon light, Lavonta’ “Macho” Crummie is every inch the project prince.
A steady procession of neighborhood kids and men amble over to the husky rapper, all smiles and fist-bumps and shoulder-hugs. Days before, Crummie, 21, printed and passed out 100 copies of his debut album, “The Project Prince: a World of my OWN.” Videos for the album’s first three singles have become YouTube sensations within Richmond’s fractious hip-hop community.
In the center of the fortress-like Las Deltas Housing Projects, Crummie is at ease. He chats with friends and fans over his own rapping bellow, which rattles from a car stereo and echoes through the cinderblock complex.
Three Contra Costa County Sheriffs Deputies lean on their cars at the projects’ entrance a block away.
“They always hang close when it get thick out here,” Crummie says, his face impassive. “It’s no thing.”
It’s a murky line between art and life.
Crummie’s album is a grim, buoyant, defiant and solemn jaunt through the neighborhood he calls home: North Richmond.
In his songs and videos, Crummie is “Macho,” the North Richmond everyman who sneers at his harrowing surroundings through jaundiced eyes. But despite the overt bravado and taunts toward rivals, the real Crummie is hopeful, witty, and funny, like an overgrown kid, if calloused by a life suffused in tragedy.
Crummie lost his father, Howard Crummie, when he was eight months old to a neighborhood beef that turned deadly.
“It was over a girl or whatever,” he says. “Things got crazy and somebody wound up dead and (my father) wound up with 19 to life. He’s in Vacaville (prison) now.”
Howard Crummie is 39 years old today. His son has seen him three times.
“I got love for him, but it’s like I am looking at a stranger when I see him, you feel me?” Crummie says.
Crummie came of age in a North Richmond gripped in decay, deluged with guns and pocked with violence. He was born in the remnants of a historically African American community, a place hastily built on a flood plain to house WWII shipyard workers who migrated from the Deep South. After the jobs and energy dried up, the vacuum left by shuttered factories and canneries was filled with street-corner drug sales and bitter turf battles. The blues clubs and restaurants that made North Richmond a draw for musicians had gone dark long before.
Since the 1990s, Crummie’s neighborhood has been roiled by sporadic, internecine conflicts between rival drug pushers and frequent infiltration by multi-agency law enforcement operations. The perpetual tensions between rival factions in other neighborhoods -- central and south Richmond -- began before Crummie was born.
“How many I know who’ve been killed? How many nights I shove a pillow over my head to block the (gun) shots,” Crummie says. “I don’t know. It’s a big number.”
Since 2005, at least 31 people have been killed in unincorporated North Richmond. At barely one-square mile and comprising less than 4,000 people, the per capita homicide rate makes this one of most dangerous slices of urban land in the country.
The milieu is an undeniable force in Crummie’s music.
“I just look at this as crazy,” Crummie says. “I’m adapted to it.”
A few weeks later, the carefree gloss of his album’s release has faded. Crummie wears a heavy flannel shirt and house slippers. He helps his grandmother, Joan Williams, prepare dinner by snatching canned food from the top shelves of her small pantry.
Minutes later, he pads around the dead grass in front of a boarded-up apartment unit. He talks in-between deep drags on a finger-thick marijuana joint, which he passes to an angular teen who wears a black New York Yankee cap and sparse fuzz on his chin.
“It’s what I see everyday, people crazy, people fighting, drug abuse, I’m exposed to all this,” he says. “I grew up out here, this is me. It’s the hood man. There ain’t no big mystery to it. When I speak on the mic, I’m trying to expose you to my lifestyle.”
Riding Crummie’s casual flow, the songs on “The Project Prince” are simultaneously charged and resigned, an unsettling dichotomy of cocksure bravado and dim melancholy.
On the track “Ride Wit Me,” a champagne fantasy of infinite credit cards, diamond rings and gulf stream jets, the kid from the projects whose out-of-state travels can be tallied on one hand daydreams about changing scenery.
“You know man, some days I be just out riding you know,” he raps. “Just wanna get on the freeway and start riding.”
But Crummie knows little beyond these blocks. His experience outside of North Richmond amounts to a trip to visit family in Atlanta. He sheepishly admits he’s never been to Los Angeles. (“I am, like, ashamed of that,” he says.)
A six-inch scar runs across his face, from his ear to just before the corner of his mouth, still fresh and plump, like the stitches were removed too soon.
“I got in a fight around the corner,” Crummie says, deadpan. “Got into a little altercation and dude pulled out a little pocket knife, came at my face with it because he didn’t like how things were going.”
Crummie says friends took him to the hospital. No police were involved.
“That’s not the way to handle it,” he says. “It’s over.”
But Crummie acknowledges that his rising prominence in Richmond’s testosterone-laced hip hop scene could draw more flak. His songs are produced in a makeshift studio in a project apartment unit by local beatmaster Damian McGee, 29, who goes by the rap moniker “Kleat.” Crummie’s videos, also shot and edited by Kleat, feature legions of project-raised youths and young men in familiar North Richmond settings.
Although Crummie says he is not a gang member, his home is a place known throughout the city as the North Richmond Projects. Contemporaries in central and south Richmond flood YouTube and other social networks with their own videos, often bristling with gang signs and brandished firearms. Crummie says his growing fame may put him in danger.
“I’m not trying to be part of all that drama,” Crummie says. “I’m trying to take care of my family and my neighborhood. I know not to go to some other spots (in Richmond), yeah.”
Crummie pauses, then continues.
“I know I may be a target. You have to understand that you don’t even have to conduct yourself a certain way to become a target out here.”
In a dark skit that opens “The Project Prince,” a fan leaves a voicemail message complaining that he was met with gunfire when he played Crummie’s album too loud while driving through south Richmond.
But Crummie is at his most affecting when he’s not sipping the elixir of faux fame or menacing rivals.
On “I Hustle,” Crummie raps over a claustrophobic beat, building a soundscape of undercover cops, street codes and omnipresent danger.
“All I know is the streets/some nights I be fighting my sleep/Little Erv was my dog so I’m playing for keeps/never faking or perpetrating/knee deep in these streets.”
Little Erv is Ervin Coley III, Crummie’s lifelong best friend who worked in a county program as a community gardener until he was gunned down in March, just a few blocks from the project apartment he shared with his mother. Coley was 21.
“I cried puddles when Ervin died,” Crummie says, glancing across the street toward the drab tan unit where Coley lived. Crummie wasn’t in the neighborhood the night of the shooting. He was staying with his girlfriend. He got the call the next morning.
“He was like my brother, and to get it like that, it wasn’t even meant for him. It wasn’t meant for no one,” Crummie says. “That’s what people who ain’t from around here don’t understand. When it goes off out here, everyone, anyone is a target. Erv had the biggest heart, man.”
With a wave of his hand, Crummie signals that he doesn’t want to talk about his fallen friend anymore. He shifts to his hopes. He says he has never been more excited about the future. He wants to travel, to see new places. He veers back to regrets. Dropping out of Richmond High School, he says that gnaws at him.
“It was a tough time, and being from north (Richmond) and going to school out there you face a lot of stereotypes, but it was my fault,” he says. “I was dumb.”
A friend walks up. It’s Bobby Moore, another young rapper. Crummie’s face lights up and they exchange handshakes.
Moore’s name carries cache here.
His father, Bobby “Butter” Moore, was handsome and dapper and had a sense of humor so sharp it still conjures vivid memories among those old enough to remember. Everybody in the neighborhood admired Butter.
When he was killed in 1997 in a high-profile shooting outside a central Richmond nightclub, it triggered an especially bloody volley in the decades-old North-central feud.
Now, Moore and Crummie, two young men who lost their fathers to these streets, chat about raps and studio time. Crummie’s grandmother pushes open her creaky screen door and hollers at him to come help in the kitchen. Moore flashes a big smile, smacks hands with Crummie and shuffles off.
“If I was to get a million dollars tomorrow,” Crummie says, “the first thing I would do is get (my grandmother) a better place for us right here.”
Read part one in the series, "Cyber-Banging": When Gangs Take It From the Street to the Web.
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