Midway through Seattle rapper Young Soprano's performance at Chop Suey on Capitol Hill on January 4, just after midnight, someone started banging on the club's backstage door. "We always assume it's somebody trying to get in," says rapper James Jones (known as Trama), who was also backstage. The show's host, Avery Turner (who MCs under the name 1st Black Prez), opened the door. Instead of another rapper, soundman, or security guard, Turner stood face to face with a young black man, dressed in black, wearing a black bandana.
"[Turner] opened the door, the gunman asked us [if] the club [was] packed, and we said yeah," Jones says. Then, he says, the suspect—identified in court records as 18-year-old Carlos Bernardez—opened fire into the dim hallway of the crowded club.
One bullet hit Turner in the chest and went out his shoulder. Rapper Joseph Ryan (known as 29-E), also backstage, was struck several times in the torso. Jones, the apparent target of the shooting, took off running toward the club's bar.
Another man, identified in court records as 25-year-old Roger LaBranche, allegedly approached Jones in the bar and fired two shots, striking Jones in the thigh and arm. "When he started shooting, it was so fast," Jones says. "It was a split second. I just know I turned around and I got shot." Several of Jones's friends grabbed LaBranche and held him until police arrived moments later.
Ryan died at the scene, and Turner was rushed to Harborview in critical condition. He went through surgery at the hospital and, at press time, remained on a respirator. Jones was taken to Harborview and released shortly after the shooting.
According to police, Bernardez confessed to shooting Turner and Ryan, and said LaBranche handed him a Colt .45 outside Chop Suey and told him he needed his help shooting someone. Bernardez also claimed LaBranche threatened to shoot him if he didn't help, records say.
LaBranche has no prior record except for a few traffic tickets. Bernardez was previously charged with assault and harassment, and for possessing a stolen .45 handgun, although that charge was later dismissed.
Although the exact reason for the dispute remains unclear, rumors are reverberating through the local hiphop community. "I felt like something was going to go down," says Jennifer Petersen, of Seattle-based Sportn' Life Productions, which manages Fatal Lucciauno, one of the artists scheduled to perform at the Chop Suey show. Petersen, who was at the show, says she got a bad vibe from some members of the crowd. "You knew there were people there not to do hiphop—they were there to do business," she says. "[That night]... was not characteristic of hiphop shows."
The show's promoter, who asked not to be named, says he was warned the show might attract gang violence. "There were rumors circulating about the show, and people told me not to put it on," the promoter says. "Some of these [performers] are from [South Seattle] and some of them are from the Central District." The promoter says one of the performers even brought his own security.
Some of the perceived tension at the show may have been because a number of well-known members of the Blood and Folk gangs were in the audience, according to people who were at the show. Two members of Seattle's hiphop community say at least two of the performers are associated with gangs; however, says one, the two gangs are not rivals.
According to King County court records, the shooting was sparked by a long-running feud between one of the shooters and one of the victims. Other members of the hiphop community—who asked to remain anonymous, they said, out of fear for their safety—confirm this theory. LaBranche, they say, believed Jones was involved in a robbery several months ago, although no one had details about the purported robbery or how it was connected to LaBranche.
Police records do not detail the nature of the dispute, and Jones denies he was part of any robbery. However, Jones did tell police he had been involved in a dispute with LaBranche for the last several months. Jones also told police he believes LaBranche was responsible for a recent drive-by shooting at his apartment.
"In my judgment, it happened because of a great deal of jealousy," Jones brags. "People who are jealous have a tendency to do things to people of our stature. I wear a lot of jewelry [and] drive nice cars. We [his group Black Senate] are very successful at what we do."
Whether the shooting was motivated by revenge, jealousy, a robbery, or gang rivalries, the local hiphop community immediately went to Defcon 1, fearing that the violence would be attributed to Seattle's hiphop scene. The day after the shooting, a group of about 25 Seattle hiphop artists, promoters, and producers called a meeting to discuss how to respond.
In the back booths of Moe Bar on Sunday, January 4, after an hour and a half of deliberation, the group decided to hold off on issuing a statement. "Essentially, we decided to be prepared for a backlash, but also to be ready to intelligently respond," says Wyking Allah, founder of the Seattle Hip-Hop Summit Youth Council, a youth advocacy group promoting hiphop culture.
The hiphop community's fear of a backlash is hardly unfounded. After a series of shootings and violent incidents at nightclubs in 2007, Mayor Greg Nickels, City Attorney Tom Carr, and the Seattle Police Department formed a nightlife task force and carried out stings on numerous bars and clubs, which drew claims of harassment from club owners and employees.
So far, no one at City Hall is talking about shutting down hiphop in Seattle, but members of the community still fear a crackdown could be coming. "The worst thing that could happen is what happened to the Las Vegas hiphop scene," says Logics, a producer for Street Academy. Following a 2005 shooting at a hiphop show in Las Vegas, Sheriff Bill Young launched a crusade to ban hiphop shows from casino nightclubs, and a college regent sought to ban hiphop shows from college campuses. "That would just be terrible here," Logics says.
"I have one friend who is dead and one in critical condition," he says, "but I'm not blaming it on hiphop."
After leaving Moe Bar, a small group huddled around a long stand-up table at Pike Street Fish Fry next door. In somber tones, they described steps that the local hiphop community, clubs, and the city could take to make shows safer—including increasing security, providing a stronger police presence, and holding promoters accountable for violence at their shows. G. Prez, president of Sea-Sick Records and the Black Teamsters Union, suggested opening lines of communication with the Seattle Police Department's gang task force.
It shouldn't be long until the fallout from Sunday's shooting becomes clear. Several nightclubs—including Sugar on Capitol Hill, Level 5 in Queen Anne, Tabella in Belltown, and Tommy's in the University District—all shut their doors following shootings at hiphop nights. Others, including the Baltic Room and Studio Seven, have carried on. Whatever happens to Chop Suey, it'll certainly be harder to book a rap show in Seattle for the next several months. And in an election year, there's always a chance that Mayor Greg Nickels could make Seattle's hiphop scene the next target for another misguided anti-nightlife crusade.