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Inside of a sweltering Landover, Md., nightclub, rapper 20Bello is the only dude wearing a jacket. While awaiting his turn to grace the stage at a weekly rap showcase at Studio 54, 20 just mops his brow and occasionally ducks outside to catch some breeze and smoke a jack.
Only when it’s time to perform does he peel off his top layer. He takes to the stage and starts rapping—performing a song called “SOCRANKTIFIED,” the title track of his soon-to-be released sophomore album.
While 20 jumps around, in a T-shirt, under the bright yellow lights, a mark on his neck becomes visible. Just under his neckband is a large horizontal scar. Hidden underneath his clothing are two other body dings—one where his chest and abdomen meet, another under his left arm. Many rappers talk about weathering gunfire, but 20Bello, aka Gene Cobb, is one of the few with a trach hole and bullet wounds to corroborate his story.
In the era of 50 Cent, a couple of shots to the body is pretty much all a rapper needs to establish his credibility and take talk of hustling, robbing, and killing out of the realm of fantasy. It’s easy, and lucrative, for a rap artist to exploit such an unfortunate incident, but 20 says it’s not the most responsible route to go. “I think with 50, it may be because he hasn’t grown,” 20 says. “He hasn’t gotten to the point where he realizes his voice is in control of millions. You gotta give ’em something.”
After getting shot, 20 left street life alone, started rapping and producing, and hasn’t looked back. He doesn’t boast about his shooting in his music because he’s not proud of the circumstances surrounding it. He may talk about it, but it’s typically to caution others or from a point of remorse. Through his rhymes, 20 tries to give listeners something better than vivid descriptions of felonies—his hard-core lyrics are always tempered with reality checks.
On his 2003 debut, If I Die B4 I Wake, killers, hustlers, North Face stealers, and cheaters all receive comeuppance. 20 says actions in his past brought consequences and so the characters in his music are similarly dealt with. Someone who robs goes to jail; someone who kills is, in turn, killed. Or at least maimed.
But the 30-year-old artist is in a tough position. He’s a gangsta rapper with conscious-rap tendencies, and he has to work to keep both in check. Too much talk of robbing and killing is gratuitous. Too much finger-wagging comes off as soft. “The majority of my songs, people hear it—they know the message. I’ll never do a whole album of gangsta songs,” he says. “But you have to have some level of street cred for a young’un to even stop and listen to you.”
20 almost never feels compelled to boast about his past, but sometimes his environment tugs him in the direction of 50 Cent’s business model. In a rap scene filled with rivalries, albeit mostly friendly ones, the tradition of pulling out the street résumé to quiet detractors can be hard to resist. But despite all influences, 20 works to maintain what he has deemed the correct ratio of gangsterism to education.
“Some people take it overboard: ‘kill, kill, kill’ and ‘bitch, bitch, bitch,’” 20 says. “I only use the word ‘bitch’ one time on my album, and I’m not talking about a woman, I’m talking about a dude.
“Some people will say, ‘That’s gangsta,’ and I don’t care what you call it, but are you really listening?”
There are countless ’hood-noir rapper bios floating around, and 20’s is no exception. “I’ve shot at people, been shot…sold drugs. My father murdered someone; my mother was on drugs; I was raised by my grandparents,” he says. “Everyone says it’s the same old story. Of course it is, but what are you gonna do with it?”
With his father locked up and his mother battling substance abuse, 20 spent most of his childhood scuttling between the homes of his grandmother and grandfather. His first charge, he says, was at the age of 12. “Grand larceny,” 20 recalls. “I was riding with someone else—I didn’t know how to steal a car. I went to juvie in Manassas, then Danville. I came back, and after that, I started hustlin’.”
Although 20 was selling drugs, he says, he never dropped out of school. After junior high, with a guidance counselor’s help, he enrolled in the Duke Ellington School for the Arts. He studied visual arts and calls the school “a miracle,” but says he hit the block after classes ended each day and toted a gun to school regularly. He says he racked up various charges as a juvenile but still managed to graduate, on time, in 1994. He applied to various art and design schools and continued to get locked up for small charges the summer after he finished high school.
Then, on Sept. 10, 1994, in need of money, 20 says he got a tip from a friend that he could easily rob some people up near the Eddie’s Carryout on Marlboro Pike. He and three friends got a car and headed up to the spot.
The men posted up at the intersection of Southern Avenue and Marlboro Pike, says 20, right on the D.C./Capitol Heights line, and waited for their marks to emerge. When they did, takeout containers in hand, the robbers approached.
“There was a lady and a man,” 20 says. “I’ll never forget—I was telling the lady to give up the money, and she went in her purse. Normally, I wouldn’t let a woman go in her purse—I’d take the purse. Next thing I hear—BOOM!—gunshot. I realized I got shot.”
20, then 18, was shot by the woman, an off-duty D.C. police officer who pulled her department-issue gun from her pocketbook. After that shot, 20’s story and that of the victims diverge.
According to charging documents, the officer “was able to reach for her issued service weapon, discharged several rounds where the above defn. was struck and fell to the ground, and was apprehended….The above defn. was then taken to the Prince George’s Hospital Center where he was treated for the gunshot wounds.”
20 says that after he was struck, his friends ran away. Fueled by adrenaline, 20 ran a bit down Marlboro Pike, then collapsed. “I laid in the street,” he says. “I was laying on my right side. I was wearing all black in the middle of the street—not one car came down. Otherwise, I would have been run over.
“Then I seen dude from where I was shot, and he said, ‘Gimme my money.’ I said, ‘I can’t—I don’t have your money.’ We made eye contact and he shot me again, in the chest.”
According to 20, he partially blacked out at that point. He couldn’t see but was able to hear everything around him. “People were standing around saying, ‘Let him die! He shouldn’t have been out here robbing people.’ But one lady came down, held me in her arms….She kept saying, ‘God loves you—don’t die.’”
For the next two months, 20 was cuffed to a bed in an intensive-care unit, unable to talk because of a breathing machine. After he was deemed well enough to leave the hospital, he was transferred to the Upper Marlboro detention center, where he says he had to learn to walk and talk all over again. “I was just off life support, with no pain meds, on a thin mattress. If it wasn’t for the inmates in the block, I would have died,” he says. “Dudes in the block were telling me, ‘We’re not gonna let you die,’ giving me extra pillows, mattress—they gave me whatever I needed.”
In the meantime, 20’s mother, Mozell Brown, who 20 says is now sober, shared her son’s story at an AA meeting and was given the name of a pro bono attorney who would deal with the robbery and handgun counts her son was facing in Prince George’s County. “The court wanted me on eight counts—five to 20 years on each count,” he says.
20 claims the facts that emerged during court proceedings supported his version of events: that he was shot by the female officer, who then gave the gun to her companion to shoot him again. He says 911 transcripts identified a man as the shooter. To help matters, court documents report that 20 was wielding a replica .45, not a real handgun.
20 says the .45 was not a fake gun, but it lacked a firing pin and wasn’t loaded. Although he says he carried a .380 with him to Duke Ellington every day, the gun he had access to on the night of the armed robbery wasn’t operational. “I’m glad,” 20 says. “Because deep in my heart, I didn’t want to shoot anybody—I wanted the money.”
But, because 20 did attempt to rob the man and woman, he eventually pleaded guilty and signed something saying he wouldn’t sue the D.C. police department for the shooting.
Before his sentencing, 20 began writing to the judge, asking for leniency. Even though he was scribbling out the most utilitarian form of prison prose, 20 still managed to impress the judge with his words. During his sentencing, the judge called 20 an “exceptional” writer.
“The judge said, ‘Mr. Cobb, I hope you become an author after you get out of jail.’ Then she sentenced me to 10 years,” 20 recalls. “I said, ‘How I’m-a be an author when you just sentenced me to 10 years? I’ll be old when I get out!’”
Eight years of that 10-year sentence, however, was suspended. Because of some outstanding charges in the District, incurred while 20 was a juvenile, he ended up serving four years. He spent his time at the Lorton Correctional Complex doing exactly what his judge told him to do—writing.
He turned from legal correspondence to journals and poetry, at first. Then, encouraged by the men on his cellblock, he started writing rhymes to pass the time. “I had cellies and every night, there’d be banging on the wall and everyone would freestyle,” 20 recalls. “We’d hang out—well not hang out, there were bars—but we’d all start rappin’.”
When 20 was released in 1998, his first job was at a Rite Aid. One day, after leaving work, he says, a voice told him to start a rap group, and he decided, no matter what, he had to pursue a musical career. 20 eventually began working and got married to a software engineer. They have two children and live in a big house out in P.G. County. Even with a family and a comfortable suburban life, he continued to build on the musical skills he’d picked up while incarcerated.
He started recording some of his travails as a collection of cautionary tales. The first attempts weren’t great. “I was just learning to put it together—it was kinda wack,” he admits. “I was doing gangsta rap and spiritual rap. As time progressed, my style evolved.”
In 2003, around the same time 20 began working on his debut album, he started volunteering with WECAN, the Washington Enrichment and Cultural Arts Network, a group that instructs kids in theater, music, and the like. He started teaching visual arts to children living in and around the Mayfair Mansions apartment complex in Northeast Washington. Working with kids helped him shape his musical mission of using his past to warn about street life rather than to glorify it.
Baheil Dargan, 14, and Dalonte Jackson, 15, are students in 20’s Saturday visual arts class. They do projects such as T-shirt and CD-cover design and, oftentimes, listen to their instructor’s music. “He sounds like an average rapper—not someone sitting right across the table from us,” says Dargan. “His music talks about what’s really happening in the world,” says Jackson.
Although 20 doesn’t sit down before writing and figure out the exact ratio of message to massacre, there is a naturally occurring formula. For example, on the song “Images,” which will be on 20’s upcoming album, he decided he wanted to tackle perceptions about young black men. “The first verse says, ‘See me on the block/Posted up/Stop/You think I’m sellin’ rocks/So you watch me/Hopin’ the cops a-come and stop me/Chain me/Clink me/Lock me/Maybe they’ll pop me.’” On the same disc, however, is the song “Stomp,” which 20 says is “straight gangsta” and is all about putting a Nike boot to the heads of foes; he says it can be taken as a metaphor.
“I’m not telling people to stomp someone to the ground—it’s about life’s obstacles,” he says. “I have a young audience listening. I have to sneak some kind of message in. Some people might say it’s hypocritical, but the gangsta is part of my fabric. What I do is for me—what I tell them is what I tell them,” he says.
“You’ll never hear me talking about robbing someone, although I’ve done it, because I don’t want anyone to go out and do it. But I will do a song about a dude trying to rob me and defending myself. I just try to balance it—the music is never too much of anything.”
But 20 says his method isn’t entirely dictated by a sense of responsibility—it has the side benefit of giving him a niche. “Songs about niggas robbin’, shootin’—there are already too many rappers doing that,” 20 says. “If I just do that, what will set me apart from other rappers?”
Every Friday, or almost every Friday, 20 attends his regular P.T.A. meeting—not a parent-teacher get-together but a gathering of Phamly Tize Affiliated, a collective of artists based in the D.C. area with ties to various groups and labels who frequently collaborate and motivate one another. Their motto is “We Grind 2gether, We Shine 2gether.”
The P.T.A. is roughly 30 strong, but today’s meeting consists of eight members: 20, Hevewae the Underground Beast, Draus of SonicScore Music, Gizz of the rap group Dark Alley, Prowla Records producer Trippz, rapper/rap critic Multiple Man, J-Gutta of No Ordinary Thugs (N.O.T), and Méhdena aka Misery, a solo rapper and first lady of the P.T.A. They meet at ESPN Zone and then walk to Freedom Plaza, where they sit on benches and talk shop while skateboards click on the stone steps behind them.
The idea for P.T.A. came from Gizz, but 20 took the concept and brought it to life. He’s the unofficial chair—presiding over proceedings such as the inclusion of new members. Today, Whitefolkz, who, along with 20 and Hevewae is a member of Dem Re-Up Boyz, a side-group on 20’s SkinnyFatz Entertainment label, is accepted into the group in absentia. “All those in favor say ‘yay,’” 20 instructs. “Yay like a muhfucka,” Multiple Man replies.
Next order of business is discussing each artist’s upcoming projects and needs. Some say they need production or guest verses or help with promotion. Others say they just want encouragement from other P.T.A. members. When it is Multiple Man’s turn to speak, one of the new projects he mentions is a role in an upcoming local movie. 20 says he wants to connect with the director so he can steal a couple scenes.
“I’m a good-ass actor,” he says. “Let me show you.” He sets up a scenario in which he is a man who is washing his car in front of his house when a guy who has fucked over his sister happens to walk by. Heve is tapped to play the sister’s ex-boyfriend. “This dude right here is messin’ with my sister, and I’m washing my car,” 20 explains.
After calling action, 20 makes circular waxing motions in the air. Heve approaches.
“What’s up with Kia, man?” 20 says.
“Fuck her,” Heve replies.
20 shouts “Fuck her!?” and then lunges at Heve’s chest. Everyone laughs.
“See? I’m a good actor!” 20 says.
Before the meeting ends, with its usual freestyle cipher, Heve brings up a nonfictional beef that has been bugging him. “There’s a war going on right now,” he yells. “We’re not out to look for a fight or beef, but when someone takes what’s yours, you have a right to step up.” The speech is a vague reference to a rapper on the D.C. scene who has been dubbed the “King of Crank,” which is viewed as pretty much a direct bite off of 20’s title, the “Crank King.”
“Don’t think we’re violent,” 20 says.
“We just fight for what’s ours!” Heve chimes in.
Although it’s nothing compared to the real-life high-stakes street squabbles he’s seen, 20 says he has been involved in a few scuffles on the D.C. rap scene. “I’ve gotten into a couple of beefs in the D.C. rap game,” he says.
The swipes at him have gotten through on some level—he describes his second album as “angrier,” directed at both his critics and those outside of the D.C. area who look down on our regional gangsta, saying all our mouthpieces simply mimic Pac and Scarface. “I’ve got some scores to settle,” he says.
At his home studio on a recent Tuesday evening, 20 is working on new tracks with Gizz and Trippz. His home is a huge new build-out in Prince George’s County with an expansive lawn that he maintains. He says he picked up landscaping tips while in prison, when he tended the grounds and surveyed his handiwork from a tractor. “I used to tell [other inmates] ‘Aha! I’m driving! Y’all won’t drive until you get home!’”
The studio is in the house’s basement. Behind a heavy bag, a treadmill, and various artworks done by 20 himself, is his setup—a computer outfitted with Pro Tools, some big speakers, and a microphone and stand.
The trio drops some freestyle verses over new tracks: Trippz does a little free association, Gizz goes off of his surroundings, and 20 lets loose some violent yet comical boasts. They also scan through some of 20’s previous works and upcoming ones.
The title track from his first album basically tells his life story:
Eyes covered with my cap/Robbin’ me a dude/Carry guns to school/Laced with the street dudes/Placed with the street dudes/Hate for the laws and rules/Headed straight to prison/With my pops/What could I do?/Lord take my mess/Clean up all the dirt/I’m struggling on the inside so much that it hurts/I’m ’bout to put in work/Lord forgive me for my crimes/God you know in life I had some hard times/How you ’spect for a man just to fall in line?/No money no food/A young’un had to grind/I had an attitude like what’s yours is mine/And if I die tonight let me live through my rhymes.
There are other similar autobiographical tracks, such as “It’s Alright,” which starts off with 20 talking about trips to visit his father in prison. Work such as “The System” is more political—it takes on the justice system and prison industrial complex. And there are a couple of party tracks as well, such as “Let Them Tats Show,” which is about, well, letting them tats show.
SOCRANKTIFIED will have plenty of tracks for the clubs and for the girls, but its gangsta tracks seem less repentant than those on If I Die B4 I Wake, perhaps because they speak of new conflicts rather than old ones.
“Wut He Say,” for instance, is an all-out declaration of war on foes.
“Who the fuck wanna really fight?/Hit you with the 50 cal/Turn out your fuckin’ lights/And anybody might want it with the Crank King/It ain’t a dance when your body starts to rock and lean.”
The song could easily be about some street dispute in the past, a sort of stop-snitchin’ warning—maybe even directed at the friends 20 says left him to die in the street on the night he was shot. But chatter after the first verse suggests the song is directed at the MySpace character assassins present in the D.C. rap community and in just about every other insular music scene.
“This nigga called us Internet thugs, man,” 20 says on the track, half-laughing, half-snarling. “Check my record, nigga—what, you need my social, nigga?”
“The thing is, some of the music is gangsta, but it’s not from the point, ‘Man, I’m-a kill you.’ It’s from a point of self-defense,” 20 says. “I’m doing me—you want to come rob me, beef with me—I’ll protect myself.”
Before the NVUS Entertainment Showcase at Studio 54, Dem Re-Up Boyz, Whitefolkz, 20, and Hevewae—and other P.T.A. members and D.C.-based rappers hang out in the parking lot, talking about what they’re going to perform.
Whitefolkz has decided to use his set to try out some new material on the audience of insiders—a dis track directed at someone in the local rap community. “I had some shit on my mind, so I wrote something this evening,” he says.
When Whitefolkz hits the stage, with Heve and 20 acting as hype men, the crowd approaches and he launches his verbal assault, ending with a taunt that the entire club repeats with him: “I’m outside! I’m outside!”
20’s set follows the same tone—he speaks on the fact that he’s the real “Crank King” and blasts the “King of Crank” and anyone who dares to believe that another artist could take his title. He performs “Bamma Niggas,” which has a chorus of, “If you see a bamma nigga/Hit him with the hammer, nigga!” He dedicates the track to “all the bammas who don’t support local artists.”
Although 20’s second, rawer album is filled with such jabs, he sees it as fun—a marketing tool. “There is definitely rivalry in the rap community, but it’s not so serious that if I see someone on the street I’m gonna say, ‘Let’s get him,’” 20 says.
Outside after the showcase, 20 and Whitefolkz talk about the issue of D.C. rap rivalries.
“We can’t let it spill out into the street,” 20 tells Whitefolkz. “This is not Biggie and Tupac.”
“I don’t know,” Whitefolkz says, laughing. “Say what you want, but that New York–L.A. shit was famous! It sold a lot of records!”
20 says that D.C. rap beefs change and shift focus all the time—they are not permanent enough to get into real battles over. “It comes and goes—it’s sporadic,” he says. “One day it’s ‘Who you talkin’ to?’ The next day, we might do a collabo. I’m not gonna shoot you. Neither one of us are platinum—why are we shooting?”
“I might do a dis track about someone and then see them in the streets like, ‘Yeah man—I’m-a kill you on the mic tonight!’” 20 says.
“Some people who’ve come at me, it’s the most important beef of their life,” he says. “But they’ve never been in real beef.”CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Charles Steck.