Just about this time last year, life got very messy for Richard Morales. It all started on a Friday afternoon in April (the 13th, incidentally) when the 33-year-old rapper — better known as Gunplay — walked into his accountant's Miami office, The Tax Place, wearing a black tank top, black jeans, black boots, black sunglasses, and a black beanie over his scraggly dreads. After a brief conversation with his accountant, a man named Turron Woodside, Gunplay whipped a gun out of his back pocket, grabbed Woodside by the throat, and shoved the weapon in his face.
The confrontation was over inside of two minutes, with Gunplay stomping out of the room in possession, the Miami Police Department would later allege, of a gold chain and a cell phone belonging to Woodside. He was charged with aggravated assault with a firearm, and armed robbery. "That's 10 years mandatory regardless of priors," Gunplay tells me while ashing a blunt into the cup holder of a derelict transport van parked outside a Tampa, Florida, strip mall. "But with my shit, it was life."
For his entire career, Gunplay has been a part of superstar Rick Ross's crew. Early on, that meant Triple C's, a group dismissed as a rap leitmotif older than time: Rapper gets famous, quixotically attempts to shovel fame over to questionably talented friends. Later, that meant Maybach Music Group, a mercenary unit Ross assembled by recruiting already-established MCs with far more name recognition than Gunplay.
And at any given time, it has meant understanding Gunplay as a "weed carrier" — the colloquial term for the goons rap stars tend to keep around.1 Which meant no one knew Gunplay could actually rap.
Belatedly, gradually, the truth leaked out. For many, the first inkling was Kendrick Lamar's "Cartoon & Cereal," on which Gunplay punched in a throat-scarred confession: "I ain't seen the back of my ahhhhlids / for about the past 72 ouuuwwas."2 Next came MMG's "Power Circle," constructed as a showcase for crew priorities Meek Mill and Wale. Gleefully, Gunplay stole the scene. "I'm at the round table, where ya seat at?" he yelps. "Where ya plate? Where ya lobster? Where ya sea bass?"
Then there was "Bible on the Dash" — over the Morris Brothers' elegiac minor key synths, Gunplay gets wistful about the drugs he sold and the lies he's told. And, almost bashfully, he flexes a little hope. "I asked the pastor, 'What's the fastest way to Heaven for a bastard with a tarnished past?'" he rattles off in one mesmerizing string. "'Give me ya honest answer.'" It's his best work to date.
In 2009, Def Jam released Triple C's Custom Cars & Cycles. As expected, it was largely ignored. Since then — and, presumably, on purely vestigial grounds — the label has been the de facto home for Gunplay's solo career. But as he's emerged over the last year, Def Jam has taken an interest in him. All of a sudden, Gunplay took on a most unlikely transformation — from weed carrier to vital MC. And as he worked, a question presented itself: Can Richard Morales keep it together long enough to pull this off?
After the charges were filed in May, Gunplay went on the run. He shacked up at a property in Atlanta — "my little honeycomb hideout," he calls it — and contemplated his next move.
I meet Gunplay3 on a balmy Thursday night in April, outside a Sheraton Suites in Tampa. He's in Jordans and a T-shirt that reads "Turn the Fuck Up," and he's rolling — along with his manager, Kente Getter, and some friends — to the club. Waiting for the cars to come around, he runs to two parked hotel shuttle vans, lifts himself off the ground by balancing in between, and yells, "Y'all drive to the club — I'ma hover over there!"
Downtown Tampa seems deserted. On the highway off-ramp, a pair of black men's dress shoes are ominously scattered. But at Club AJA, there's a Miami-style, purple-fluorescence decadence. Upstairs there's dancehall playing as patrons dry-hump. Downstairs is hip-hop and girls in skintight all-black outfits who know every word to every Meek Mill song. The club can't be more than a quarter full. Only the diehards are still here.
At 1:30 a.m. Gunplay ascends a platform in front of a Panama-hatted DJ. A phalanx forms, through which girls swarm to snap Instagram photos. One yanks a reluctant friend — "Monica! Monica!" — through three layers of the horde, accidentally bouncing Monica off a little old white woman trying to sell roses. Every 30 seconds a new girl appears, and Gunplay leers devilishly for every snap.4
At last call, the DJ calls out "arrivederci, do svidaniya, sayonara," and the crew files politely through the kitchen. Word is, everyone's heading back to the hotel. But when I get there, it's just me and a couple of young kids. They have some vaguely defined familial connection to Getter, and they maybe just had the best night of their lives. "I was on that kush," the taller one sings out. "Kush and Henny! Hadn't had kush that good in a while. Oooh, there were bad babies there." I ask the shorter one if he makes music, and he says no, he works at Red Lobster. He tells me about the new shrimp items on the menu, and boasts that women love Red Lobster. This latter point his friend readily seconds.
Eventually, Gunplay arrives, with a particularly eye-catching companion — in giant heels, snaking leg tattoos, and Mohawk-modified Bo Derek cornrows — and an oversize bag of Waffle House takeout. He grunts at us, not unfriendly, and heads to the bedroom.
It was while on the lam that Gunplay recorded "Bible on the Dash." Frantic and scrambling, he took pen to paper.
"Literally, in my mind," Gunplay says, "was, 'You gon' kill this n---- that called the police on you, and you gon' go to jail the rest of ya mothafuckin' life? Or you gon' let go and let God? So I was going through" — and here he sing-talks the song's hook — "'I got a problem and a plan. Revolver in my hand. Trying to keep it cold, but ya'll don't understand. That's how I roll.' You know what I'm saying?"
Eventually, taking his lawyer's advice — "He said, 'You'd rather go in with your hands cuffed in front of you than behind you'" — Gunplay turned himself in to authorities. He was granted a $150,000 bond, and freed on house arrest pending trial. And for the next three months, he sat at home and waited for his court date with the possibility of a life sentence hanging over his head.
In interviews he gave while on house arrest, Gunplay presented himself as carefree, bragging about all the free time he had to play Call of Duty: Black Ops and have sex. To me, he describes a more stressful scene. "You can't leave to make money," Gunplay says, "and your label's stressing for a single, and you don't know if they might drop your ass " He has an 8-year-old son, also named Richard Morales, whom he'd see regularly while stranded at home, fearful that every time would be the last time he'd ever see him: "You already program in your mind that you're not coming back." As he pulls on a blunt, I ask if he managed to sleep much during this time. "Shit, no. Shit, no."
"When everybody sleeping, I ran," he explains. "Just get on Molly, stay up writing for two days straight. And then maybe sleep for one." Like a college kid on Vyvanse, Gunplay swears by the mental sharpening Molly provides. "If you function creatively sober," he says, "more power to you. I'm not that lucky." He'll wake up after a binge, shuffle through output he doesn't remember producing, and be astounded by what appears on paper: "They'll be words I make rhyme 'cause the Molly said so. And all of a sudden, when you listen to it, it actually fucking rhymes!"
Gunplay was locked up for the first time when he was 13, after retaliating against a bunch of "dirty white kids" hiding in a tree, pelting him with professional-grade slingshots.7 By 15 he'd dropped out of high school, too discouraged when he was told he'd have to repeat his freshman year. That's when he started dealing cocaine, "here and there, to pay bills. No kingpin shit." Realizing he wasn't particularly good at it — "I'd fuck up my re-up" — he started robbing dealers instead: "You can't call the police and tell 'em you got taken for a brick!" That's when he started using coke, too. "All my homeys sold it, nobody really did it," Gunplay says. "But [I'm] young, don't give a fuck — I'ma try it."
His lifelong love affair with drugs began the first time he smoked weed with his childhood friend Buck Carter.
"From that day on everything was different," he remembers, his voice rising with excitement. "I said, 'Oh shit, I'm high. Buck. Dawg. Boy. I'm high. Dawg. Boy. I'm high.' I said, 'I wish air was weed smoke.'" The only drug he says he'll never try again is heroin; he unwittingly snorted too much once and ended up vomiting convulsively. His best-ever drug experience came during a photo shoot for Ozone Magazine: "I was on Ecstasy, I was on syrup, I was on my weed, my coke, and some Xanies. Everything was so balanced and perfect. That day, I told myself my new name is Five-Drug Minimum."
He met Ross, "through friends in the street," around the time he dropped out of school. "I thought Rick Ross was the hardest rapper in the fucking world," Gunplay recalls. "And I wanted the fucking world to know. I'd have the CDs — new Rick Ross! Future of the South!" He was there for the lean years: driving up and down I-95, sleeping in $30-a-night motels, pushing mixtapes. In 2006, "Hustlin'" broke and Ross began his bumpy, unlikely climb to the A-list. One entourage member told me it was around this time that he finally, after 10 years, got to quit his day job at KB Toys.
But by late 2010, Ross began to roll out his plan for Maybach Music Group. Triple C's was, in effect, unceremoniously dissolved. Of the juncture, Gunplay says, "Some people might see a Meek Mill coming in the play and say" — and here he moves his voice to a high-pitched squeal — "Oh my god, oh shit, who this new motherfucker?" Gunplay chose to keep working.
"I felt sooner or later they'd come around," he says of being embraced by fellow rappers8 and critics alike. "I felt, one day, somebody gonna smoke a joint and be riding in the car with somebody else that happened to have a [Gunplay] mixtape in there, and they gonna be like" — and here he affects a nerd voice — "'That's Gunplay? That's the fucking crazy guy? I didn't even know that guy could fucking rap!' They sleeping on you. And by the time they do wake up, they got a double-barrel shotgun to they face. One for each eyeball. You done."
If you're rocking with the Click Team, show some love!" Slick Worthington says halfheartedly. WBUL 1620 AM, the University of South Florida's radio station — a small, cramped space overlooking a Beef 'O' Bradys — is hosting Gunplay tonight, live on "Pirate Radio Invasion." Also in the room is a coterie of Tampa locals hoping to squeeze in a plug for their YouTube channels. So we are already dangerously beyond capacity when a very tall, very thin man — in black, fringed cotton pants and a black, fringed cotton T-shirt — named Creme de la Creme enters the room, a small harem trailing behind him. I know his name is Creme de la Creme because, as he walks in, most everyone happily yells out "Creme de la Creme!"
The good-natured Slick — along with his sidekick, Bobby Treacherous, a befuddled bro in a backward baseball cap, and his DJ, I AM, a portly fellow in his late 40s — is failing to maintain order in the booth. "It's looking like a celebrity-filled event! It's looking like a party!" Slick yells, over the room chatter, into the microphone. And then: "We are going to have to ask you to keep it down, though." Meanwhile, Treacherous and I AM are bickering. I AM makes fun of Bobby's botched "P-p-p-p-i-rate Radio!" drops; Bobby shoots back at I AM for unconvincingly shouting out "all our peoples that's locked up."
Gunplay, keeping it light, saves the day. He guffaws, he riffs, he makes explosion noises. Asked what the future holds, he says, "I'm selling out right now. I'm only gonna make pop music. Bye, I'm gone." Asked to freestyle, he demurs. "I can't even remember my written shit!"
The evening's next stop is a club in Palmetto called The Hall, a corrugated tin box that doubles as a Mexican restaurant, El Sombrero. Outside, chicken and beans are being served out of tinfoil heating trays to the club spillout in the gravel parking lot. Inside, the booming sound system and MMG posters uneasily coexist with cacti props and a row of creepy, life-size mariachi-band dolls. Gunplay takes a quick snort off a folded-up piece of paper, then hops out of the van and leads the cavalcade inside.
The VIP area, which is just the open floor space to the left of the stage, comes equipped with a couple of ratty corduroy couches and one bottle of Hennessy. Onstage, local rappers and bored young women in bedazzled jean shorts mill about. "Knock out, knock out," raps one, in a rugby shirt. "All these bad bitches wanna see me with my cock out!" One guy in a yellow polo shirt, holding a sad stack of singles, briefly makes it rain.
I chat with Gunplay's business manager, who identifies himself only as "Rob," a fortysomething man in an extra-large Ecko T-shirt. He's smoking a blunt. When he got the job, he says, everyone expressed concern: "'You manage Gunplay's money? You saw what happened to the other dude!' Told Gunplay that. He was laughing, boy!" And then, quickly, Rob adds: "I make sure to e-mail him everything right away. Receipts, everything. I send it right away."
After another snort, a few sips, and a few puffs, Gunplay hops up onstage. The club, again, is far from capacity; when he goes on, the pool players barely look up from their games. Gunplay couldn't care less. He robot-walks and zombie-lurches, growling and sneering. "Make some noise if you just happy to fucking be here!" he yells. "Fuck gettin' money!" Within a few minutes he's shirtless and sweaty and panting. A small but eager group has huddled around the lip of the stage. If The Hall didn't know who Gunplay was before, they're learning. And so he kicks in, with another scene-stealing verse, this over Lil Wayne's "Beat the Shit": "I'm a knuckle-throwing knucklehead / what that mothafucka said?"
What kind of person handles a dispute over money by pulling a gun? It's hard to imagine. But maybe not that difficult to understand. Gunplay had been living recklessly, living desperately, since he was 15. Only now, with more people paying attention, he had more to lose.
He was also, consciously or not, playing to type. Hip-hop desires an extremist, a wild man, unapologetic and ruthless. The more an artist like Drake expands into a mannered, nuanced icon of the genre, the more we'll crave bluntness, the more we'll crave id. Ol' Dirty Bastard is the greatest madman in hip-hop history, and since his premature death, a succession has proceeded steadily, with Waka Flocka Flame the most recent carrier of the title.
If Gunplay is to be the next great crazed vigilante, we want him capable of violence, but not actually violent. We want him self-aware, but not too consciously crafting image.9 He has to be real, but not too real. It's an uncomfortable, almost slimy sentiment. But, in that context, putting a gun to your own accountant's head, though not pulling the trigger, is exactly the sort of act that satisfies this desire.
As much as Gunplay is about fetishizing some concept of unvarnished, ugly truth, it's also about fetishizing a quick snap of greatness. Listening to, say, Kendrick Lamar, you think of career, stature, his ultimate standing in the annals of music history. Listening to Gunplay, you think not much more than "This. Now." On any given verse, on any given bar, Gunplay can thrill as well as anyone. He may never release that debut album. He may never finish it. But we'll always have a YouTube link to "Cartoon & Cereal."
On Saturday, we start in the afternoon, with Gunplay recording promos for local DJs. CJ, a veteran MMG affiliate, rattles off a list of names, and Gunplay fires off the plugs. But when CJ gets to DJ Motherfucking Sunflower, everyone cracks up. CJ insists this person is real: "She used to be a stripper! Her thing is she went 'from the pole, to the radio.'" Gunplay, game as usual, shrugs and drops it: ""Braaaaat to ya fitted cap! Shoutout to DJ Mothafuckin' Sunflower! I'm Jupiter Jack! I'm outta this world!"10
Next, Gunplay and his team head to University Mall. Before entering, Gunplay exchanges his MMG chain for an angel necklace. (Getter keeps the whole neckwear collection stuffed in a white tube sock inside his backpack.) Then it's upstairs to the food court, where things get hectic. A local crew, in matching T-shirts that read "Green Eyes Music Group," arrive. One of them happily explains his own giant chain: It's a frowning anthropomorphic bag of money. Gunplay's companion from Thursday night, Bo Derek, has materialized as well, this time with a friend dressed like a swagged-out Cleopatra. Penny's BBQ has never handed out so many orange chicken samples so quickly.
On a whim, Gunplay decides he wants to shoot a music video for a new track, "Pyrex." He lays out his needs for CJ: a "dope car" and a "dope little hood spot." Calls are made. The Green Eyes Music Group, delegated to automobile duty, returns quickly, a giant, shiny red Buick in tow. The sound system is deafening, the rims raised so they appear to lift the thing five feet off the ground. Gunplay hops in and peels out. The entourage scramble to their cars — all of a sudden there's a car chase out of the parking lot.
A collection of cars drive for a few minutes — past picturesque boughs garlanded with Spanish moss and spotty yards where men in shower caps tend to charcoal grills — until we arrive at our location: a house in the hood, as requested. As I park, nose-first, one of the cameramen calls me over: "See how everyone's backed up?" I look around at the other parked cars, and note that it's true. "See, you're in the trap. First rule? When shit pops off? You wanna be able to split." Begrudgingly, I turn my car around.
The camera and the Buick have been set up, and now Gunplay, his shirt whipped off,11 is shepherding locals to stand behind him in an alleyway, looking menacing. With the music on a loop, a lady in pink sweatpants and a giant box of laundry detergent comes down the stairs. She immediately starts grooving, then yelling. First: "Got that Gain! Got that Gain for the low low!" Next: "Forty-five years old, can you drop it like it's hot?" And finally, just: "Gunplay! Gunplay! Gunplay!"
Her energy is infectious, and now she's not only been moved front and center for the video, she's got everyone behind her cooking, too. She's relentless, slapping the floor, shadowboxing with Gunplay. "Everyone do what she doing!" Gunplay yells out. On the street, neighborhood kids practice their bike skidouts. Above, on the landing of the water-damaged wood staircases, men with tool belts slump home from work. Onlookers gather, at least one of them in a neck brace. In the alley, we've got a verifiable dance party. "I'm next, jumping out the Pyrex," Gunplay screams along to the track. "I'm crooked! / I'm cooking up a cookie!" The woman in sweatpants is a star. She certainly didn't leave the house expecting to become the breakout of a Gunplay video. She was just doing what she could with the situation she was handed.
When Gunplay's trial date came, on February 25, Woodside didn't show. According to CBS Miami, he was served with a subpoena, which he ignored, then "managed to avoid a State Attorney's Office investigator who camped outside his home" trying to serve him again. But without the victim and their only witness, the prosecutors decided the security video that captured the event12 wasn't enough evidence, and dropped all charges.
Gunplay's crew confirmed the obvious: Woodside stole money from the wrong guy. As for why Woodside decided not to testify, you can probably draw your own conclusions. When I ask Gunplay if he knew whether or not Woodside would show, he clams up: "It's just he just didn't come to court."
The show at The Hall, his first since his house arrest, was a year to the day after the incident. Afterward, the eerie timing had Gunplay thinking about how different things could be. He's grateful. As for whether he's changed, that's unclear. "You can't beat the shit out of everybody," he says about what he's learned. "You really wanna choke motherfuckers, but you can't." He has his quiet moments, too. At one point he mentions that he has only now begun to sleep regularly again.
Gunplay says Def Jam is eyeing a third-quarter release for his album, but nothing will really happen until a single is identified. That has no timetable. Right now, Gunplay holds a rite-of-passage title: your favorite rapper's favorite rapper. But famous rappers are a niche market.
For now, he seems content with his current schedule: a couple grand a night on the DIY grind, more or less the same one he and Ross spent years on together. "I'm in no rush," he says. "'Cause once you get there, and you blow your load, what happens? You blow your load, you go to sleep."
I see Gunplay one last time, after a show at Club Envy, a small space choked with cigarette smoke. With girls sporting angel wing back tattoos and mustachioed NASCAR fans in camouflage baseball caps, this does not appear to be a Gunplay crowd. But they are primed, and the low-slung stage is perfect for his mania.
Back at his hotel room afterward, Gunplay is high and giddy. Bo Derek is coming over, with her friend Cleopatra this time. He's putting away the ironing board in their honor. "Gotta have the room clean for the guests," he mutters in a patois. "For de guests, for de guests. Clean de room for de guests." A few minutes later, he boots everyone out before the girls show up. "Unless you wanna shoot this porno?" He cackles. "I'm porn again! I'm porn again!"