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Rob Stone, Lemon Grove's Soulja Boy

I want to be a legend

For a rap song coming from San Diego, a platinum single is a thing of fantasy. - Image by Matthew Suárez
For a rap song coming from San Diego, a platinum single is a thing of fantasy.

Rob Stone twisted his neck to reveal a tattooed pair of lemons, accented with citrus blossoms and lush leaves. I had asked the 22-year-old rapper from Lemon Grove how he hopes to stay connected with his community as his fame grows. “Look at my neck, dude,” the Lemon Grove rapper said.

Rob Stone's jewelry and tattoos reflect his Lemon Grove pride.

The tattoo was inked on Stone’s neck summer of 2016 while his single, “Chill Bill,” had entered Billboard’s Hot 100 chart. Before our meeting, I had seen Stone’s tattoo dozens of times in photos, music videos, vlogs, and live streams. So had his hundred of thousand of followers and subscribers on Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube.

Javan Davis. Stone and J. Davis had been eyeing a house to rob.

“Chill Bill” drew a million online plays in a little over a year with no formal promotion, save for a bunch of tweets on Stone’s account. Within the next year, major record labels came knocking — Stone eventually chose RCA — celebrities were featuring the single on their Snapchat videos, and Stone was featured on a national tour as an opener for ASAP Ferg.

Malik Burgers: “It’s all marketing.”

“Chill Bill” peaked at 26 on the Hot 100, and in December 2016 the Recording Industry Association of America announced “Chill Bill” as certified platinum.

For a rap song out of major hip-hop cities like Los Angeles, Chicago, Oakland, Atlanta, or New York, a platinum single is an achievement, though nothing extraordinary.

Mitchy Slick: “Stone created something that made it possible to jump over the San Diego market.”

For a rap song coming from San Diego, a platinum single is a thing of fantasy. While the underground scene here has been alive for decades, the list of rappers who have grown beyond the city is short.

Jayo Felony (James Savage) emerged from the underground in the ’90s and signed with major labels Jam Master Jay Records where he was label-mates with 50 Cent, then with Def Jam where he rapped alongside Jay Z.

Though Stone still lives in San Diego, he moved out of Lemon Grove in March. “I don’t want people to know where I’m at.”

A series of feuds and disagreements with Jay Z and Def Jam landed Jayo back in the underground scene finishing his career with a few gangsta-rap anthems.

Out of Solana Beach’s Colonia Eden Gardens, Lil Rob (Roberto Flores) is known for his single “Summer Nights,” which peaked at 36 on the Billboard charts in 2005.

Mitchy Slick (Charles LaSean Mitchell) was in a hip-hop group with Xzibit in the early 2000s and has collaborated with bigger names like Lil Wayne and E-40. He continues to work at his own label Wrong Kind Records and is set to release a new album that he promises will “change the game.”

Video:

Crank That (Soulja Boy)

Single released in 2007

Single released in 2007

During a phone call, Slick paints a grim picture of San Diego’s hip-hop scene: radio stations denying airplay for local talent, no influential hip-hop clubs or publications that are partial to San Diego hip-hop, a fan base that lacks “patriotism” and looks outside of the city for its music, police officers arresting hip-hop artists for rapping about the gangs in their community through a statewide gang conspiracy law. “I’ve always said that it was gonna take an artist that was outside the conventional street home of most San Diego street rappers,” he said while getting a haircut at a barber shop in Oakland. A gang injunction makes it difficult for him to come home to Southeast San Diego, spawning ground of most San Diego street rappers.

Video:

Chill Bill video

Got 90 million views

Got 90 million views

Southeast San Diego is the racially diverse community bounded by Interstate 5 to the west, state highways 125 and 54 on the east and south, and 94 along its northern border. The city of Lemon Grove occupies the northeast corner of this freeway box. Dr. Carrol W. Waymon, a local civil rights activist once wrote of Southeast San Diego, “It is split up and boxed in by cemeteries, junk yards and four major freeways. Whites build the freeways, blacks live under them.”

Video:

LA's Fonda Theater

Stone and Ski Mask entangled on stage

Stone and Ski Mask entangled on stage

Long the the heart of the San Diego’s black community, Southeast is where Mitchy Slick and Jayo Felony were raised and began their rap careers. For the past two decades, hundreds of aspiring rappers from the community have attempted to follow their path. None have yet been able to replicate the same level of success, until “Stone created something that made it possible to jump over the San Diego market,” Slick explains.

Video:

Video posted by Stone

Showing Ski Mask down

Showing Ski Mask down

In November 2015, Stone wrote on Twitter: “I’m not content just being a San Diego legend. I want to be a legend, world fucking wide.”

The Soulja Boy formula

For a rapper trying to build a career, the online toolbox is Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, and SoundCloud — the music-streaming site on which artists share their music and users can listen for free.

Video:

XXXTentacion

Gets taken down at Observatory

Gets taken down at Observatory

“Internet rapper” used to be a label for artists who existed on the fringes of hip-hop. Soulja Boy, a Mississippi rapper, was the first to do it. He paved the way by releasing his single “Crank That (Soulja Boy)” in May of 2007, going on to top Billboard’s Hot 100 chart and became the first single to achieve three million digital sales. At 16, Soulja Boy was also doing what few rappers at the time were doing, using YouTube as a platform for their music.

Video:

Stone talks about making "Chill Bill"

After being arrested

After being arrested

He created an account in January of 2006, when the website was only 11 months old. Soulja Boy posted an instructional video for the “Crank That” single’s dance to YouTube in early 2008. It received instant viral fame. Though popular, the artist drew ire from old-school heroes like gangsta-rap pioneer Ice-T, who is now known for his role as Detective Fin Tutuola on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, and was recorded saying, “Fuck Soulja Boy! Eat a dick! This nigga single handedly killed Hip Hop.”

Video:

"Chill Bill"

Inspired by run-in with cops

Inspired by run-in with cops

Digital sales were still in their infancy, accounting for only about six percent of album sales in 2006. For perspective, in 2016, the Toronto rapper Drake’s album “Views” sold 1.2 million digital albums. To reach that amount in 2006, you would have to combine the top eight best-selling digital albums of that year.

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Video:

Rob Stone

Fight video

Fight video

In March of this year, the recording industry reported that for the first time, streaming accounted for the majority of revenue in the music industry. Stream sites and applications, such as Spotify, Apple Music, Tidal, and Soundcloud generated $3.9 billion in 2016. Nielsen reported that in 2016, streaming music grew by 76 percent. The most-streamed genre in 2016 was R&B and hip-hop.

This year of online growth is where Stone’s career fits in. His single, “Chill Bill,” has been played 196,059,840 times on Spotify and an additional 77 million plays on Soundcloud. His music video on YouTube has been viewed more than 90 million times.

Released in 2014, “Chill Bill” evolved over the span of three years, from an underground favorite into a hit played internationally. By December of 2016, it became San Diego’s first platinum rap song and thereby a local anthem and source of pride. “Now you can go somewhere outside of San Diego and you can reference [Chill Bill] and people know it. That’s dope!” said J. Smith of NBC’s SoundDiego, a music TV show and blog. I asked Smith what he thought about social media’s influence on the rap game. “It seems like it levels the playing field,” he said. “The internet, in a lot of ways, is something that the artists can control.”

Yet the theory fails to acknowledge the darker aspects of viral success and social media: its volatility, its omnipresence — smartphone cameras, prepared to capture and post any moment candid or staged — and its role as a constant venue for publicizing personal disputes.

By April of this year, Stone’s career was succumbing to the dark side of the internet. For the first time, social media seemed to be functioning to the rapper’s detriment.

San Diego vs. Miami

When I met Stone on a gloomy Wednesday in May, he should have been recounting a weekend spent in Miami, performing at the Rolling Loud hip-hop festival headlined by Kendrick Lamar and Lil Wayne, which drew 40,000 fans. Instead, Stone was removed from the festival lineup and performed at the College of New Jersey, a public school with an enrollment of 7000, for their annual “Funival,” set with a Ferris wheel and bumper cars. Stone was supposed to be crowd-surfing later that Wednesday evening in Norfolk, VA, then in Washington DC on Thursday, Philadelphia on Friday, and New York on Monday. Instead, he sat across from me in a Los Angeles Airbnb condominium, stuffing a bong with weed. In between hits, he told me he was bummed about missing Rolling Loud. “What rapper wouldn’t want to perform at Rolling Loud?” Stone said. “I ain’t ever been to Miami, nigga!”

Stone, who was in Los Angeles to work on his forthcoming debut album, was enveloped in an online war with two South Florida rappers and an army of internet trolls. It was a war that blurred the line between the digital and the physical, where Tweets became blows and bruises, where the blows and bruises were captured in a viral video, and the video became fuel for death threats from trolls and severed ties from distressed tour promoters. The war had cost Stone a spot at Rolling Loud, as well as 19 tour dates and an untold sum of money that would have been generated from ticket sales. Social media had helped make the Lemon Grove rapper. On the day we met social media threatened to tear him down.

“I had to bring it to you, nigga.”

The online war was already raging as the lights began to fade inside the Fonda Theater in Los Angeles and a constellation of cell-phone flashlights illuminated the stage. Ski Mask the Slump God, a rapper from South Florida, was closing out his set with the song, “Take a Step Back.” While jumping to the beat and spitting the furious hook —“Fucked up! Fucked up! Fucked up!”— from backstage, Stone charged toward Ski Mask and pulled on his right arm, trying to rip the microphone from his hand.

The previous night during a performance at the Observatory North Park in San Diego, Ski Mask interrupted Stone’s performance. Both were openers for Desiigner, a rapper from Brooklyn who was headlining the nationwide tour. Due to a disagreement with the tour management, Ski Mask had missed his set and was unable to perform in San Diego. He wanted to notify his fans about the cancelation. He asked Stone’s touring DJ, Malik Burgers for the microphone during Stone’s set. The performance had already begun so Malik did not let up, and neither did Ski Mask. He awkwardly stood onstage during the set with his arms crossed. “I fuck yo bitch like goddamn,” rapped Burgers as he glided across the stage his lanky arms bending toward eager fans. The microphone never came to Ski Mask, but Stone’s personal bodyguard who they call “Jack Attack” did, trying to pry him from the stage. Ski Mask resisted, pushing him away. After a few moments, the venue’s security escorted Ski Mask offstage.

A fan in attendance captured the ordeal on video and quickly posted it on Twitter. The next morning the fan’s video reached one of Ski Mask’s close friends and fellow South Florida rapper, XXXTentacion. He retweeted the fan’s video and added: “let them know whoever the fuck that is getting fucked in they mouth when I go on tour for putting they peasant hands on my brother.”

Stone shot back on Twitter, “Don’t come around here with that bullshit.”

Without context of backstage issues, the video seemed to show Stone denying Ski Mask his chance to perform. The Twitter users took notice and sides were formed. “Why this nigga rob acting like he ain’t a 1 hit wonder lmao,” commented one user.

Stone carried this baggage with him from San Diego, up Interstate 5 on his way to Los Angeles, into the Fonda Theater, and onto the stage during Ski Mask’s set. The online war of words would turn into blood and bruises.

As Stone and Ski Mask were entangled on the Fonda stage, the two were pushed from behind by several other men and fell toward the crowd, slamming into a metal barricade. One Twitter user filmed the incident, showing Ski Mask climbing back on stage, and running outside with several men following behind. “Where’s Ski Mask?” one bewildered concertgoer could be heard screaming in the video.

What happened next, outside the doors of the Fonda, lay beyond the reach of cell-phone cameras. Ski Mask later told XXL, a hip-hop news publication, that he tried running to his car, which was locked. At that point, Ski Mask said a group of men, presumably with Stone, began to assault him: “They had me down, had a nigga winded, and I got 10 niggas kicking me in the chest. I couldn’t breathe.” Ski Mask added that one of the men stabbed one of his companions in the mouth.

Stone told me he just wanted to grab the microphone, take over the stage, and perform his songs. “That was my plan. But we…” he paused, then continued, raising his voice and shrugging. “Dude, they just a bunch of street niggas man! They didn’t know what to do. It just happened like that, you know?”

The following evening, Stone posted a video on his Twitter and Instagram account. It displayed the sole unarguable conclusion: Ski Mask was on the ground beaten, lying motionless on his side, his shorts pulled down to his ankles. The video includes footage of Ski Mask disrupting the show in both San Diego and several days before in a Seattle performance, as well as the moment Stone ran onstage to grab the mic in Los Angeles. One of Stone’s songs, “Don’t You Dare” is edited into the video, from the moment Rob tries to grab the mic until Ski Mask is shown on the floor:

“I be like whoop I’ma hop out at you niggas at the light

I caught ya disrespectin’ now it’s obviously on sight

I be like don’t ya dare

I know you scared and I ain’t come to fight

My pistol’s better

Never cared if niggas think it’s right.”

Beneath the video, part of Stone’s caption read, “You wouldn’t come to the green room and talk so I had to bring to you nigga.” The final shot of the video showed two ambulances with red sirens spinning under dim streetlights.

“Nothing but hate”

AEG, who was responsible for promoting and overseeing the tour, removed Stone and Ski Mask from the national tour immediately following the incident at the Fonda Theater. There were 19 shows left on the schedule. The conflict reverberated into the next several weeks. Many fans anticipated seeing Stone in South Florida, the home of XXXTentacion and Ski Mask. Some felt violence was imminent, perhaps retaliation for the assault in Los Angeles. One person wrote on Twitter, “Rob don’t show up to Rolling Loud bad things will happen if you do.” Another wrote, “Start writing your will.”

Several days before the Rolling Loud festival, the event representatives announced, “Due to recent events, the festival has decided that the safest course of action is to remove Stone from the Rolling Loud Festival 2017 lineup in order to maintain a safe concert experience for fans and artists alike.”

Stone said they paid him not to show up. He declined to divulge the amount, but apparently it was enough for him to buy a diamond studded pinky ring that he flashed to his followers on an Instagram livestream: “You’ll never see these kind of diamonds on your body in your life!” XXXTentacion and Ski Mask, who replaced Stone’s vacated spot, were centerpieces at the Miami festival.

“My fucking social media is just nothing but hate everyday, you know what I mean? All day long,” Stone said. His diamond ring glistened on his left pinky.

It’s true. Fans of XXXTentacion and Ski Mask have raided comment sections of every song, music video, or picture on Stone’s accounts with flurries of a single letter: “L,” meaning, loss. The “L” comments are left consecutively, forming a wall of “L’s”, and intermittently, the wall is interrupted with sharp jabs: “fuck Stone,” “You have more haters than supporters damn fag,” “Bro you fucking trash.”

Some artists and public figures hire a public relations person to handle their social media accounts to avoid the stress. Stone maintains control over his Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat, and he often engages with fans. A Twitter user tweeted to Stone shortly after he was dropped from the Rolling Loud lineup, “lmao hahaha literally the best lineup you would have ever been on in your entire career. And they replaced you wit Ski.”

Stone responded, “You will always be in the crowd…”

On May 31, XXXTentacion embarked on his nationwide tour with the ominous banner, “The Revenge Tour.” The tour date that drew the most interest from onlookers was June 7, a performance at the Observatory in North Park. During Stone’s Instagram livestream after the Rolling Loud Festival, as he flashed his new diamond ring, a user left a comment, asking Stone if he was going to “slap” XXXTentacion at the venue. His response: “No, I won’t be the one to slap him, but know he’s gettin’ his ass slapped, he think he about to come to San Diego and perform a goddamn thing. I’ma just say that. It ain’t gonna be me. But just know he ain’t gonna be able to touch that stage.”

On the night of June 7, XXXTentacion stood barefoot onstage performing the first song of his set titled, “Garette’s Revenge,” a rock ballad written amidst news of his friend’s suicide, a departure from his more provocative songs, “Look at Me,” “Gnarly Bastard,” and “WitDemDicks.” As XXXTentacion sang the first verse of “Revenge,” a man wearing a hoodie ran from stage right, lunged at the rapper, and landed a punch against the side of his face, knocking him to the ground. The moment was and posted to Twitter and Instagram. As the pre-recorded music continued to play, security guards quickly subdued the assailant. But he escaped their kicking and punching and fled. Several fans crawled on stage and exchanged blows with security. XXXTentacion was carried offstage by one of his companions.

A chant began to build among the crowd, bursting outside of the venue as crowds gathered along 29th Street, “Fuck Stone! Fuck Stone!”

YouTube vloggers that had been following the conflict were quick to place the blame on Stone. According to Fox 5 San Diego, police were unable to identify the attacker. XXXTentacion said a day after the assault that the man who attacked him was not Stone. Stone quickly deflected the speculation with an apologetic Instagram livestream, saying, “None of this is my intention. Like, I’m trying to make music. I’m trying to live my life and do my career.”

He added that during the performance, he was home watching the NBA Finals. Two days after the assault, Stone appeared on a Los Angeles radio station, 92.3, where he reiterated his innocence. “It was a San Diego thing,” he said. “It was bigger than Stone.”

“Bablyons can’t crack the code.”

I was there during the San Diego show on April 9. Stone’s set began with Ski Mask’s awkward appearance and carried on with an inconsistent response from the crowd. Some songs failed to capture the energy of the crowd while others brought forth a sweaty mosh pit of mostly under-21-year-olds, male and female, slamming their bodies against one another, hats and glasses flying into the air. Stone played a song with a low melody, asking to cut the stage lights, calling on the crowd to hold up their cell-phone flashlights. The crowd raised their phones, but by the middle of the song, they retracted, and Stone was alone, holding his lighter into the air. His solitary flame flickered and the crowd was left shuffling about in the dark. After dragging through three more songs, the crowd began to disperse, some wandering toward the bar area of the venue. Then with little introduction, Stone spoke into the mic, “San Diego, let’s get it.”

The platinum single, “Chill Bill,” sounded off through the speakers, and the Observatory crowd rushed forward toward the stage hollering and once again holding their cell phones above their head, ready to record. The once confused, lethargic crowd began to dance, bouncing with the bass and shoving to get closer, clinging to each word, rapping the lyrics from memory.

“I knew it was a hit as soon as we made it,” Stone told me, speaking about the song. Perhaps he envisioned the infectious way the song would coax a crowd into a trance of unruliness. The song, after all, was born from resisting the law.

Stone, whose “government name” is Jaylen Robinson, sat handcuffed in the back of a law-enforcement officer’s cruiser after a failed robbery attempt in Lemon Grove. Javan Davis, known as J. Davis, and Antonio Carrillo, who goes by Spooks, remained outside of the cruiser with the officer for questioning. The three Lemon Grove–based rappers are members of the Lemon Grove hip-hop collective, 1207 (pronounced, “twelve-oh-seven,” which stands for “L.G.”—“L” is the 12th letter in the alphabet, “G” is the 7th). None of them knew it yet, but for this group of then-unknown rappers, this is what the beginning of their fame and fortune looked like.

It was a warm morning in May of 2014. At around 7:00 a.m., Spooks woke up to a tapping sound on his bedroom window. He pulled back his white blinds, eyes squinting, and peeked out, finding Stone, J. Davis, and a few other friends on his driveway. Spooks threw some clothes on and ran outside to join them. For the prior few weeks, Stone and J. Davis had been eyeing a house to rob. The day for their plan had come.

Stone and the group drove to the house of interest. They sent Spooks to knock on the front door to check if anyone was home. No response from the first knock. A window was wide open and Spooks peeked inside. Nobody. He ran back to the car and said, “Yo bro, it’s an easy lick. Let’s fucking do it.”

As the group prepared to rush the house, law-enforcement cruisers galloped into the scene. Some accounts say it was the San Diego Police Department, some say the United States Marshals, others claim both arrived. It was likely to have been the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department since they have jurisdiction in Lemon Grove. Stone and another friend were handcuffed, searched, and placed in the backseat of the cruiser. The officers searched their car and found a pre-paid flip phone hidden beneath one of the seats. They had already confiscated Stone’s iPhone — a second phone led to suspicion of drug dealing.

Spooks and Davis were questioned outside of the cruiser. The officer claimed he knew they were going to rob a house. Spooks played dumb to the officer and said they just parked their car to smoke. Spooks told me the officer ended the exchange with a threat, “If I ever catch you in someone’s house, just know I’ma kill you.” And that was the end of it. They had no evidence of attempted robbery, no evidence for drug dealing. The officers let the group go and drove off in their cruisers.

The group headed back to Spooks’s house and into his room. Vintage Chargers and Padres jerseys hung in his closet. Old Wrestlemania memorabilia and a Will Smith “Big Willie Style” CD lay in the corner. While smoking several blunts of weed and listening to music, Davis had come across a beat on SoundCloud. The beat was called, “Watching the Clouds Go By,” produced by Purp Dogg, an Albany, New York–based producer. The beat uses a portion of Bernard Herrmann’s whistling theme from a 1960s thriller, Twisted Nerve, also made famous in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill. The catchy whistling melody loops continuously throughout the beat, first floating naked and alone, then clothed with the tapping of a synthetic hi-hat, and then finally a rumbling bass line from an 808 drum machine drops in and shakes the speakers. “This slaps. We all gotta hop on this,” J. Davis recalls the moment. Stone, Davis, and Spooks each wrote a verse, and with $20 in their collective pockets, they rented a one-hour recording session at a San Ysidro studio.

The morning’s incident left a stain on the song, aiming coded lines at law enforcement,

“Stone, two damn phones,

Babylons can’t crack the code…”

“Two cell phones, Mr. Mothafuck-A-Thot,

Mr. I-Be-On-That-Block, 1207 fuck an op,

They hear my name, they see my squad,

Rolling dope up on the spot.”

“Op” and “Babylons” are labels for the police — precarious lines to rap after flirting with arrest and jail time. On June 10, 2014, the song, “Chill Bill” was shared on Stone’s SoundCloud under the banner of their independent label, 1207 Worldwide. Within its first two weeks, the song was played more than 3000 times. This moved Stone, who had just started rapping six months earlier, to post on Twitter, “I just wanna thank my Mom, Dad, all my Bros, my squad for staying Lemony, & all my Fans. NIGGA WE MADE IT.”

A viral fight video

The nearly criminal backstory is now well documented by hip-hop blogs, magazines, and radio shows across the nation. Though run-ins with the police are hardly unique, Stone and 1207 did what any savvy entrepreneur would do: they turned their experience into profit.

The reporters and radio personalities asked Stone the question — “Talk about Chill Bill. How did that come about?”— and Stone supplied the story. In return, the blogs and radio personalities passed the story along through click-bait headlines: “Stone Talks Making ‘Chill Bill’ After Being Handcuffed,” or “Stone Turned a Robbery Attempt into 2016’s Biggest Unknown Single,” or “Stone’s ‘Chill Bill’ Was Inspired By a Run-in with the Cops.” It was advertisement for a tale of urban, ghetto intrigue — edgy street rappers doing edgy street rapper things.

The music industry has a long history of using criminal activity as a selling point for hip-hop artists. Media sources have grown accustomed to framing a rapper’s narrative in this context of breaking the law. “It’s nothing new,” said Delores Fisher, who teaches courses on African-American music history, including “History of Hip-Hop Music,” at San Diego State University, and also runs three blogs that discuss pop culture. “Our society has been going that direction for a very long time.”

During a phone conversation, she pointed as far back as 1985 when Schoolly D’s single, “P.S.K. What Does it Mean?” became the unofficial start of gangsta rap and commercializing the theme of crime in hip-hop.

The media overdressed the situation for profit, and Stone willingly wore the costume and played the part.

On Vlad TV, an online hip-hop news source that boasts more than one million YouTube subscribers, one user caught on, commenting beneath a video of Stone describing the story of the failed robbery attempt: “Vlad. Ever talk about anything positive? I mean I know negative shit sells but damn.”

The news media, along with the rest of social media, remained as Stone’s megaphone as his legend, his online persona, continued to grow.

I asked Stone if there is a difference between Jaylen Robinson and Rob Stone. “Jaylen’s a lot calmer and focused on his family. You know? Stone is macho man,” the rapper answered, grunting and puffing up his chest when describing the latter.

In July of 2016, Stone added to his macho persona by starring in a fight video.

The video was filmed outside of Belmont Park in Mission Bay, and runs at about two and a half minutes. It is a tornado of warring sides, insults, flying fists, and bodies pounding against cement pavement.

Standing on one side is Stone, Malik Burgers, and other members of 1207. On the other side, a man with a sunburned face dressed in a white T-shirt and a khaki Ralph Lauren baseball cap is stepping forward toward Stone, launching insults — “Fuck 1207! What’s cracking?” or, “You soft homie, and you know it,” and the breaking point, “I got my own crib. You got your own crib? You still staying at yo mama’s, right? We know where that’s at.”

After each insult, the sunburned man fades backward into a group of three other men who stand like a silent wall. He does this several times, and the final time, after the “mama” comment, the sunburned man steps forward to wind up another insult. But before he opens his mouth, the man is hit with a sharp punch to the chin launched from one of Stone’s friends. The sunburned man collapses to the floor while both sides begin to throw punches. While the fight ensues, the sunburned man lays on his back, arms raised. The fight ends with the sunburned man’s silent crew backing away, dragging the man’s motionless body.

At the end of the video, Rob smiles into the camera, pulls out a wad of cash and yells, “And I got money!”

Stone and his friends hopped into an Uber car and drove off. Moments later, the group decided to post the video online, editing the knockout punch to coincide with Stone’s first verse in “Chill Bill.”

The video was originally posted the next day, on July 23, 2016, to the 1207 YouTube channel, but due to legal concerns, the group took it down. The fight video had already spread to a Twitter account, Thirty Sec Fights, where it was retweeted 42,398 times, to Worldstar Hip Hop, where it was viewed 1,439,836 times, and was re-uploaded to YouTube by an anonymous user, garnering another 1,070,052 views.

In the minds of the online audience, the fight needed a hero and a villain. Stone was the clear hero, while the unknown man was the vilified loud mouth.

“That’s what they get, talking all that shit,” wrote one user in the Worldstar comment section.

“Keep putting on for your city bro. Those dudes were clowns,” a follower wrote on Twitter.

“Legend,” another follower tweeted.

Stone became synonymous with “the guy in the fight video,” which became synonymous with “Chill Bill,” which provided a major boost for the single’s streaming performance.

Throughout the summer of 2016, the song took on a life of its own throughout social media. Skaters used the song to dramatize a video that mixed the water-bottle flipping challenge and landing several skateboard tricks. It was featured in a video showing a group of men pouring gasoline on a basketball, lighting it on fire, and then shooting it into an outdoor hoop. YouTube users laid the track over 2016 NBA highlight reels for players like Lebron James and Russell Westbrook. A rapper named Machine Gun Kelly recorded a remix and shot a music video, which has three million views.

During the same week of the fight video, the hit single reached the ears of the Kardashian-Jenners, prompting Kylie Jenner, who is reportedly the most followed person on Snapchat, drawing more than eight million people each day, to share a Snapchat video of her applying mascara with the track whistling off in the background. Stone and 1207 were in Los Angeles at the time, preparing for a show and Malik Burgers recalls hearing Stone screaming and then running toward him holding his iPhone playing Jenner’s “Chill Bill” snap video.

After posting the fight video and Jenner’s Snapchat post, Stone looked at the numbers for “Chill Bill,” which already had around 15 million plays. “You could see the spike. It’s, like, July, we drop the fight video, and it just went through the roof,” Stone said.

“It’s all marketing,” Malik Burgers told me. “There’s different ways to put yourself out there. That was just kinda one. It’s fresh, too. No one’s done or seen anything like that.”

Some thought the video was staged, a mere publicity stunt. This prompted one user to comment on YouTube, “Stone did… great marketing, this is all fake y’all funny.”

Neither fake nor funny, there is also an unquestionable cruelty about the fight videos. For instance, even while lying on the floor, motionless, each of the men are hit; the man at Belmont Park was kicked in the head while lying on the ground, and Ski Mask, while on the floor, was punched in the face.

“They’re living by different rules,” Professor Fisher said. “I don’t condone violence, but these two knew the language they were using. If you step over a line, you should know. You should be ready.”

Though Stone still lives in San Diego, he moved out of Lemon Grove in March. “I don’t want people to know where I’m at,” Stone told me. He receives death threats online every day. Stone’s one-year-old son, about whom he often posts on Instagram and Snapchat, is often the target of the online threats. During the height of the online war, someone posted an address on Twitter, claiming it was Stone’s. XXXTentacion who has nearly half-a-million followers on Twitter, retweeted the address. One user tweeted a photo of Ski Mask posing with an assault rifle and pistol, repurposing the image as a threat, “everyone gon be at [Stone’s] front door like…”

It turned out to be a fake address.

Three days after the Belmont Park fight video, Stone tweeted, “Damn the Internet a cruel place when you get poppin’.”

“I put that on my soul”

Accustomed to seeing Stone through the lens of social media, Instagram pictures, videos on Snapchat, music videos on YouTube, I was surprised at some of his human idiosyncracies when we met in person. He walks with his shoulders slumped and slouches when he sits. His head tilting forward. He ends most sentences with “You know what I mean?” He talks while eating a meal, but courteously covers his mouth during each response. His face is expressive, showing the extremes of emotion. One moment he is smiling large, narrowing his eyes, and flashing rows of impressively white teeth with silver braces on the bottom row. The next moment, when bothered, or focused, his face crumples and creases his forehead and the space between his eyebrows. His eyes become round like black sapphires.

As I sit across from Stone, the veneer of the edgy street rapper that blogs and YouTube interviews have constructed begins to fade. I realize that attempting to rob a home and sitting handcuffed in the back of a cop’s car are nothing glorious. Stone told me, bringing his voice low, close to a whisper, “I feel like for all of us involved, we was just kind of lost — didn’t really have direction after school, after high school. We were just kind all there. All we had was each other and the music. You know what I mean? We was just bullshitting all day.”

But Stone feels he’s gone from bullshitting all day to something of a banner carrier for rap in San Diego. “I was just in the studio in San Diego,” he said, “and somebody said, ‘Bro, if somebody takes you out, we ain’t got no shot, bro. We gotta stand behind you. We gotta support you.’ Being from San Diego, it’s not only the pressure to put on for my family, to take care of my family. I feel like the whole damn city is depending on my success.”

In a song released in late 2016, “On Me,” Stone raps a hook that seems to boast and lament, all at once:

Walking living legend,

through the Grove, through the streets.

I put that on my soul that’s on me, on me.

Life get kinda reckless

in the Grove in the streets,

I put that on my soul, that’s on me, on me.

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The Wilma to Power

Woo-ten waves goodbye
Cassie and crew at the Las Vegas Sphere.
Cassie and crew at the Las Vegas Sphere.

Basketball great and San Diego icon Bill Walton died on May 27. The next day, sports commentator John Canzano posted an interview clip on TikTok in which he asked Walton how many Grateful Dead concerts he had attended. “Not enough,” replied Walton, before recounting that his first Dead show had been when he was in high school. “I was 15. I’m listening to FM radio and the disc jockey, it had to have been Gabriel Wisdom, that was the guy that everybody listened to, and he said, ‘Boys and girls, that last jam you just heard, that was a new band from San Francisco, and they call themselves The Grateful Dead.’” Wisdom then said that so many people had showed up to the Dead’s recent show in San Francisco that everyone got in free, and that maybe the same would hold true for their upcoming show in Los Angeles. “We said, ‘Yeah, that’s us, let’s go chase the dream!’ So one of the guys stole their parents car for the weekend, right? Nobody had driver’s licenses, nobody had any money, we just went up there in our shorts and our tennis shoes and a T-shirt. We just went up there, got in free somehow, went right to the front, and our lives were never the same.”

“Not enough” Grateful Dead concerts translates, in Walton’s case, to somewhere north of 850. Many of the stories written after his death made mention of his devotion, sometimes to the point where his storied basketball career seemed to be secondary. What were two decades on the court compared to more than five decades in the stands — and on the stage? (Walton famously joined the Grateful Dead offshoot band Dead & Company onstage as a white-bearded, rose-crowned Father Time for its 50th anniversary celebration in 2015.) Drummer Mickey Hart recalled that his dear friend Walton would “regularly send messages that said, ‘Thank you for my life.’ He was the biggest Deadhead in the world and used our music as the soundtrack of his life.”

Three days after Walton’s death, Dead & Company paid tribute to him during a performance of his favorite Dead song, “Fire on the Mountain.” The biggest Deadhead got the biggest sendoff: his image, name, and player number 32 splayed across the gargantuan curved screen of the Las Vegas Sphere, where Dead & Company are in residence until August 10. They started their run in May, after finishing their farewell tour in July of last year, and my wife was in attendance opening night. When she returned, she insisted that she needed to go back — this time, with me. She insisted that Dead & Company was not simply a glorified cover band, rehashing old favorites with the help of relative youngster John Mayer. She insisted that the band was revitalized, in an almost literal sense: the Grateful Dead were alive again, somehow, lo these 30 years after the death of founding member Jerry Garcia.

She knew just what to say. Like many fans, I had thought the Grateful Dead era ended when Garcia died. My wife understood my feeling, if only because she was a little like Walton and other devotees who talked about the Dead — and Garcia in particular — in tones that bordered on the religious.

Garcia was a reluctant high priest — he saw himself as a working man — but that didn’t stop the true believers, even if the best they could offer to explain themselves was, “They are a band beyond description,” one that provided, through their music and the community that formed around it, the closest thing to a religious experience they had ever found. “I am the human being that I am today because of the Grateful Dead,” Walton once said. And like converts, it wasn’t enough for them to attend; they had to tell the world, convince them to come along. “You’ve got to get on the bus, man!” They were friendly, wide-eyed, hopeful you’d join them. But for many, including myself, it felt like they were trying to describe a rainbow to a blind person.

On May 5th, 1990, I got on the bus — or tried to. My best friend at the time was a drummer named Steve Harris. He know I was into progressive rock: polished bands delivering tight performances of frequently complex music. He did not care. He insisted that the Dead were something I had to see, “a band beyond description.” He bought me tickets to see a set of weekend shows in a field at Cal State Dominguez Hills. He proudly declared that these were his first Miracles. I had no idea what he was talking about, but he had a sincerity that was hard to resist, and it seemed important to him that he share this experience with me. Besides: free tickets.

We wound up sitting on the grass, fairly close to the stage. It was extremely hot. A lady seated in front of us said, to no one in particular, “I wish I knew somebody who was at their first show.” Steve quickly let her know that I was just what she was looking for. “Here,” she said, handing me a tiny square of colored paper. “Eat this.” I looked at Steve for reassurance. He was happy to provide it. That set us up for a 16-hour psychedelic ride. But before the acid kicked in, the band strolled onstage and spent what seemed like five minutes tuning their instruments. I had never seen that before, or heard it. It sounded…disorganized. And when they started playing, they kind of fell into the song. The vocals seemed sloppy. I didn’t hear any of the songs I had heard the band play on the radio. The rest of the crowd seemed to approve, but I didn’t get it.

Then they took a break, and when they came back, well, only the drummer came back. The drummer played for what seemed a long time, and when the rest of the band came out, they started doing the strangest thing I had ever heard musicians do. It seemed like they were playing badly on purpose, making sounds that did not link together in any discernible way. By this point, I was thoroughly altered, and the discord sounded weird and even ominous.

By way of consolation, Steve leaned over and said simply, “Space.” I was not consoled. I was annoyed. I had heard so much hype about how good these guys were. Then, finally, they started in on a song that the crowd seemed to recognize, and it was like the whole audience exhaled and relaxed in unison. Then this guy who looked more like somebody’s grandfather than a rock and roll star started to sing something about needing a miracle every day. Steve leaned over again, and explained that a miracle wasn’t just a free concert ticket — it was a gift.

By this point, the LSD had taken hold. I had never experienced it before, and after an hour, I found it close to overwhelming. When we left the venue, we were in no condition to drive. So we sat in Steve’s car, and he played his current favorite Dead song on his car stereo — a slower number called “Box of Rain.” He explained that the song was about the bass player’s father dying of cancer. I remember still not getting it. I remember saying that they sounded like a low-budget Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, with passable but loose harmonies.

Later, my friend Steve died of cancer. Now, when I hear the song “Box of Rain,” I am taken back to the good times we shared before the sickness blossomed in him like a poison flower, and invariably, I will weep. The song has become a time stamp for a moment in my life. It hits deep. But even so, and even though I saw the Dead again a year after that first “miracle,” I did not become a Deadhead until I saw the band’s current iteration at The Sphere. The Dead are an acquired taste; it took me three decades to acquire it.

My wife kept showing me videos taken of Dead & Company at The Sphere. She told me it was a must-see event, that the venue was as much a part of the show as the band, and the internet seemed to share her opinion. Okay then. But our flight out of San Diego was delayed, and despite skipping dinner and making a mad dash to the venue, we arrived after the show started. I should have been soured on the whole experience, but the experience was too sweet for that.

Trying to describe The Sphere makes me sympathize with Deadheads trying to describe the Dead. I will say this: it feels like the future. There are something like 40 individual speakers per seat, and the sound is focused like a laser beam. One section might receive audio in Chinese and another in English, and there would be no confusion. Despite the sonic excellence, it was hard at first to judge the band’s music, because the visual experience was placing such a massive demand on my attention. The curved screen behind the band was enormous; the graphics, all but overwhelming.

But as I settled in, I found I couldn’t help but be impressed by the musicianship of John Mayer (and the rest of the Dead’s new blood). He was doing Jerry Garcia’s guitar licks, but taking them further. And while he got all the words in all the right places, he wasn’t trying to sound like Jerry. He was doing his own thing, and it was working. In short order, I was dancing along with the rest of the crowd.

Back in my younger days, when the band did their “drums and space” thing, that was bathroom and beverage time. No longer. This giant contraption with dozens of drums and assorted instruments was played by three members of the band — and that’s when I noticed the haptic seats. When the drums hit certain notes, I could feel it through the chair. The sound seemed to be three-dimensional, at times bouncing noticeably off the front, back, and sides of the Sphere. But it wasn’t like panning a speaker left and right; it was all around me. And then Mickey Hart did something with an instrument called The Beam that triggered light effects that were unlike anything I had ever experienced before. A one-hundred-and-fifty-foot brain appeared on the screen, the nerves pulsating as if stimulated by whatever it was he was doing. It was incredible! I would pay the ticket price just to see that one aspect again.

As it was, we came back for the Friday show with better seats, and again on Saturday. Each night, the emotional impact grew. The old favorite songs were new again. I started to get it, to understand why the Dead got so big, so ongoing, and why the scene is still so vibrant today. It’s something profound, something beyond music. After the last show, while we were doing the exit shuffle, riding the escalators down, we found ourselves face-to-face with people on another escalator. Our eyes met, and we started cheering, not for the band, but for each other. That’s the kind of love and goodwill I encountered.

Back home, I sought out the local Dead cover band scene. To my amazement, I found around a dozen. Does any other band have a dozen cover bands in one town, or 1800 nationwide, with at least six being full-time touring acts? Dead & Company called their Sphere residency “Dead Forever;” given what I saw and felt, it does seem like the long, strange trips will be going on for a long, long while.

— Albert Barlow

In 2023, Dead & Company announced that their current tour would be their last. They hadn’t played San Diego since 2021. I had to travel to Los Angeles to see the second show of that last tour at the Kia Forum and then to San Francisco to see the very the last one at Oracle Park. But just because they’re no longer touring doesn’t mean they’re no longer playing, which explains their residency at The Sphere. Or helps to explain it.

I frequent a bar in Coronado. One of the bartenders there is Cassie. She’s tall, with dusty blonde hair, the most beautiful brown eyes I’ve ever seen, and she’s drop dead gorgeous. That aside, she’s got heart and soul and is a Deadhead. One day, I went in for a beer. Cassie gave me a wide smile; her eyes sparkled. “I just got a bunch of tickets for Dead & Company shows at The Sphere.”

My interest was piqued. “How do I get in on that action?”

“I got tickets for the first weekend and second weekend. I think we’re going on the second weekend.”

“That’s the weekend I want to go!”

Buzz began to build within the local Dead community; people wanted to know who was going to which show. It intensified when the first clips hit the internet after the opening show on May 16. I didn’t want my experience to be spoiled, so I resolved to avoid them. But the thing about spectacles is that you want to look at them. Happily, they didn’t lessen my excitement about the real thing.

Cassie, her friend Fil, Evan and I were the Coronado Tribe, headed for the May 24 show. Unlike Raoul Duke and Dr. Gonzo in Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, we opted to fly instead of drive. (Cassie let me know which flight to book and already had a hotel lined up.) Like Duke and Gonzo, we had plenty of drugs to keep us company: eight hits of LSD (4 microfiche and 4 liquid gels), five infused joints with kief and rosin, one pressed Ecstasy pill, sixteen Molly caps, four cannabis pens, one bottle of 1000 milligrams of THC tincture, and a quarter of mushrooms.

That Friday morning, Evan came to pick me up in his golf cart. Golf carts are not uncommon on the streets of Coronado. Evan is 26, and is in the Navy. The Navy promises one sort of adventure; our journey promised an entirely different sort. We met Cassie and her roommate Luke at their place to catch a Lyft to the airport. (Luke was heading to London and his flight was around the same time as ours.) Fil was already inside the airport bar, waiting for us and drinking a beer. Cassie and Evan opted for Starbucks, but I stayed with Fil and ordered a $14 Tito’s & soda on the rocks. I’m not a big fan of flying, so a stiff drink was in order. Fil is 43, svelte, and has eyes that pierce into one’s soul. That gives him authenticity.

We arrived at our hotel around 1:30. Fil had arranged for a suite at the Hilton Grand Vacations Club. After unpacking, it was time to change into our Dead attire and head out to Shakedown Street. For non-Deadheads, Shakedown Street is the designated vending area set up in the parking lots of Grateful Dead concerts. Vendors sell clothing, jewelry, arts and crafts, food, drinks, and illicit items. In this case, Shakedown Street was at Tuscany Suites & Casino, less than a mile away from The Sphere. We arrived at 4 pm, and after we had taken a couple of laps around the lot, we concluded that it wasn’t as robust as others we had visited. (I recently learned that the vendors eventually moved inside the hotel due to the heat.) Fil noticed something odd: “I don’t hear any tanks or see any balloons! Headshops sell tanks here in Vegas, though.”

Cassie bought a hoodie and we decided to walk towards the Sphere. Along the way, we passed by Lawry’s Prime Rib Steakhouse on Howard Hughes Parkway. I was telling my crew that the place was an iconic restaurant when I noticed something else: “There’s a headshop!” Inside, we learned that 2.2-liter nitrous oxide tank prices ranged from $45-$99. We all pitched in for the $45 tank and some balloons. People sell nitrous balloons for up to $20 at shows.

We found a staircase at a shopping center across the street from the Sphere to do our balloons. But we got kicked out by security immediately after doing our first round. We decided to head into the Sphere parking lot to see if there was a space for us to do our thing. First thing we saw were police officers getting ready for their concert shift. We needed a different spot after that encounter. We looped around and found an abandoned parking lot. There, we were free to do our derelict activities: inhaling balloons, smoking joints, and playing music.

After our frolic it was time to march to the Sphere (but not before hiding what was left in our tank in the bushes). We found the line to the entrance. While in line, I saw fellow wordsmith Emily Elizabeth Allison from San Diego. I went to say hello and get her thoughts. This is what I got.

Dead Forever

Giant round belly

against the sky,

an egg, giving birth

within itself

to itself.

Outside-in

swirling dervish

calling across dry sun,

an unforeseen spectacle

so full of nothing

but offering something…

spiraling dreams

in a bubble

that no dawn can burst.

You are a memory

of past desert days

and simpler times.

You are the magic ball

of the future

telling fortunes

in rapid blinks,

sensory reminders

of parts of ourselves

that had been forgotten

and now beg to be

remembered.

You are a balloon

with its exhale

catapulting itself

against hopeful blue

sky water.

You are my bucket of joy

and then my hollow of grief.

I never could have known

how I would be swallowed

into your orbit

and spun within your cycle

of a million stars.

You remain for me

a single planet

unmoving

like a gift

with no corners

or ribbons

and seemingly no end.

Perhaps,

like Christmas,

your smile will subside

and you’ll start a new list

of naughty and nice.

But for now,

you are the wizard

behind the curtain

showing all the love

and unexpected tears

are my own.

Decades ago

I never could have imagined

you are rolling up to my gaze

like God’s spaceship,

offering a portal

that demands no vehicle

but breath.

You, round star,

watch my arrival

then spin behind me

as life pulls me away

back to the sea.

You are indifferent

to my comings and goings

and still, I see your wink

inviting me back

each week

to swim in your sphere.”

Our seats were in the 300 section. Once at our seats, we ingested our LSD. The information I was getting on social media was that the 300 and 400 sections were the best for catching all the visuals of the show, and the floor was good for dancing, spinning and being up close to the band. I haven’t experienced the floor yet. (I stress “yet!”), but confirmation can be provided that the 300 section is good for the visual aspects. Viz: the doors opened to the Grateful Dead House in Haight-Ashbury while the “Music Never Stopped” and then everyone was floating up into outer space. Not to mention standing underneath a waterfall, letting the water run between my fingers and catching the rain with my mouth, only to arrive at that cathartic moment viewing Jerry’s silhouette during “St. Stephen.” The crowd on the floor looked like amoebas moving in their pseudopodal state.

The show ended and it was time to find our tank. Cassie had a pin on it, but wasn’t confident one of our brains would work enough to get us there. Good thing I’ve had children, because my fatherly instincts for finding the child kicked in, and we found our parking lot and continued our derelict activities. There was enough in the tank for two more balloons, and we smoked a joint. That was night one.

Next day was recovery by the pool, drinking beers, hitting the vapes, putting tincture under our tongues and relaxing. At one point, Cassie sat up from her lounge position and declared, “We fucking deserve this! I know all of us work so hard!” After sufficient relaxation, the plan was to get cleaned up and head to the Venetian for the Dead exhibit they had there. When we arrived at the Venetian, we learned the exhibit was (and is )at the Palazzo. Exhibits about the history of the Grateful Dead; I probably don’t need to recommend that. Cassie, Evan and I started eating mushrooms at a microdose pace; we didn’t want to trip out too hard before the show.

The Palazzo connects to the Venetian, and the Venetian connects to the Sphere. Because we were in Vegas with some time to kill before the show, we all splintered off to do some gambling. We set a meeting spot, and after meeting at our designated rendezvous location, we shared our stories of being up and down and happy to lose only around $60. We all considered that a win.

Time to go to the show. Night two was not as intense and I was able to grasp and capture everything better because I was in a more stable state of mind. We all opted to head back to our hotel after the show because we had to wake up at 7 am for a 9:30 flight. Our flight back only took thirty-six minutes, but we were stuck on the tarmac for over an hour because there was a plane with maintenance problems stuck at our gate. That was the worst thing that happened on our trip.

There were firsts for each one of us. It was my first back-to-back shows. It was Cassie and Fil’s first indoor show. It was Evan’s first Dead show ever, and the first time he did LSD. He had moments of going deep inside himself, trembling and being confronted with moments from his youth. He made it out with enlightenment. None of that can explain, nor can anyone explain what happened. As Cassie said, “It’s inexplicable!” Our own experience is the one we have. I got to share and rejoice with my sister and brothers.

As the late Bill Walton (Rest In Power) once said, “We all won, and everybody wins.”

Gabriel Garcia

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