When night falls on Underwood Hills, silence usually comes with it. This northwest Atlanta neighborhood is where upper middle class families come to escape the hustle of Georgia’s downtown capital. The houses line up along quiet streets, surrounded by trees, gardens, and parks where children frolic when not at school. A peaceful community, where the lights are usually out by midnight.
But the night of March 4, 2016, the night came alone. A burst of voices was heard just outside sleepy residences on Defoor Plaza. Outside the entrance to Street Execs Studios, men crowded in front of a roadside car, whose headlights were still on. The sound rose between the passengers and the group, whose backs were turned to the recording studio. From the studio came colored lights and a deep bass. A choir of barking joined the men’s shouts, coming from Dog Days Westside, the neighborhood boarding kennel.
Underwood Hills had welcomed loud neighbors since the beginning of the 2000s: it was in a quiet street in this neighborhood that “Hey Ya,” Outkast’s global hit, was recorded. Usher, Gnarls Barkley, and Akon have also produced hits there, all contributing to the world-renowned cultural influence of the city. Street Execs Studios is, for its part, the parent company of rappers 2 Chainz, Young Dolph and Bankroll Fresh.
This night, the latter had reserved the studio to record tracks for a new mixtape. Made famous by his single “Hot Boy” in 2014 and backed up the following year by the hype for the release of Life of a Hot Boy 2: Real Trapper, Bankroll Fresh was ready to strike again. But at the moment, he was at the center of the chaos that raged outside, the atomic core of a rage of electrons. The tension was at the point of rupture. Shots were fired, a body collapsed, tires screeched. Bankroll Fresh was dead.
But who killed him?
The death of Bankroll Fresh plunged the Atlanta hip-hop scene into affliction. Hours after the announcement of his death, 2 Chainz was among the first to express his pain on Twitter. “Man I’m a fan of Bru and always will be , I’m in shock at the moment !!” he wrote. Jeezy, Zaytoven, Meek Mill and many others joined him, adopting the hashtag #LongLiveBankroll.
“they took my brother Fresh and I’m hurt right now. very hurt” posted his friend and beatmaker Metro Boomin on Instagram, devastated. “I miss recording songs at the house all night and u would just stay and sleep on the couch because you wanted to win as bad as I wanted to win. (…) Fuck all that sad shit tho man I love u bra and will always appreciate your love and support from day1.” Hundreds of condolence messages came in response to these homages, many fans unable to believe he was gone. Weeks later, his name was spread across a billboard at the gateway into Atlanta. “Long Live Bankroll Fresh,” a tribute from photographer Cam Kirk and producers Metro Boomin, Southside and Sonny Digital.
There was a reason for this mark of respect. The general public didn’t know him yet, but everyone in the Atlanta music scene knew Bankroll Fresh was the next big thing. “He was about to explode,” said his uncle and manager Marvin Shadi Powers. “Bankroll was the heir apparent to T.I. and Jeezy.” Powers is part of Street Money Worldwide, the label that had seen Bankroll Fresh grow. More than a label, it was a family business.
Trentavious Zamon White Sr., alias Bankroll Fresh, was born August 2, 1987 in Atlanta. He was still an infant when his mother Teresa separated from his biological father, Matthew White. He was raised by his stepfather, Ken Rich, and grew up in Mechanicsville on the Southside. The neighborhoods south of Atlanta are known by the name “Zone 3,” because the city residents are used to designate them according to police patrol zones. “Trent grew up in a family of hustlers. His father, Teresa and I, we got our money from the street,” Marvin recounts. In 2001, he and Ken made the most of their small-time traffickings and founded a label, Savoirfair Entertainment. They started collaborating with a young Gucci Mane. Trent was 13 at the time.
“He used to follow us everywhere with his teddy bear. That’s why his close relatives called him ‘Bear,’” he said. Trent wanted to be a rapper, too. With his childhood friend David Smith, alias Montana Da Mac, they taught themselves using a beats compilation that Ken had lent them. “Montana had a natural gift for it. Bear had nothing, but he worked very hard to get better,” recalled Marvin. The adults encouraged them to train, but were too busy trying to make money with the label to pay attention to their first raps.
Until 2005, when the young duo forced them to listen to a mock-up of “Da Bunny Hop,” of which they’d composed the music themselves. Won over, Marvin and Rich decided to manage them and their crew. They formed the Get Rich Clique, and Trent took the name Yung Fresh. Although not a hit, the track gave them a small reputation in the then-underground Atlanta trap scene.
For a while, Trent was seen as Montana’s sidekick, who toured the region with his hit “Rock On (Do Da Rockman).” Then the streets caught up with them: a member of the group, Spider, was killed in an altercation. The Get Rich Clique never recovered, and each member went his own way.
Around Trent, Ken and Marvin built Street Money Worldwide around Trent, a family business that would later hatch young rappers like Boochie and Bankroll PJ (Trent’s cousin and nephew, respectively), who didn’t transcend the local scene. After his first mixtape, Street Motivation, released in 2012 under the name Yung Fresh, Trent was reborn as Bankroll Fresh and recorded Life of a Hot Boy, whose single ignited enough enthusiasm to be remixed by three well-renowned New Orleans rappers: Turk, Juvenile and Lil Wayne. The young MC’s future was bright.
“But you gotta understand something. The music industry in Atlanta and the streets are one,” Marvin said solemnly. “It’s an unnatural marriage.” A medal that the ATL rappers wear proudly around their necks. But every coin — be it copper or gold — has a flip side. This trap is what the trap in trap music refers to. Walking the line between artist and criminal, “trappers” sometimes burn their wings and pay the ultimate price. As Trentavious White did.
It was 11:00 pm on March 4, 2016 when the shots rang out, leaving Trent to bleed out in the parking lot of Street Execs Studios. The young 28-year-old died later in the hospital, at around 2:00 am. “The body arrived here at 2:40 that night,” said Dr. Jan Gorniak, chief medical examiner of Fulton County. “There was only a single wound: he received a ricochet bullet in the abdomen, which lodged itself in his stomach.”
At the crime scene, however, the Atlanta police gathered proof that many shots had been fired. “We found around 25 shells in the area,” explained Major Adam Lee, who directs the department of fatal crimes in the Atlanta Police Department (APD). “But counting the impacts of bullets left on the cars and around the studio, we’re guessing more than 50 shots fired.” The difference can be explained by the fact that part of the shots were fired from inside the vehicles: many shells probably fell on the passenger seat.
To understand what really happened that night, the police investigators relied heavily on images from a surveillance camera on the studio roof. Ever since the opening of the investigation on the night of the murder, these remained confidential. But a few hours after our interview on February 22, Major Lee decided to make them public. From the black and white images, one can see several armed men outside the studio, several taking cover behind parked cars. They turned toward a vehicle stopped en route, headlines on. Screen right, one can glimpse Trent, armed with what appears to be an AK-47.The images revealed by the police end before the start of the gunfire, but according to Major Lee, he falls to the ground a few seconds later. The investigators started the search for the shooters immediately. They didn’t search long: one week after the tragedy, they turned themselves in to the police.
VladTV is for urban American culture fans. Launched by DJ Vlad, a Ukrainian producer living in the US, its YouTube channel has more than 1.6 million subscribers and has carved out a reputation as the “TMZ of hip-hop,” with its interviews and reports on industry rumors.
On July 7, 2016, four months after Trent’s death, an interview broadcast on the channel went viral. Its title is evocative: “No Plug Details Killing Bankroll Fresh in Self Defense: ‘He shot at me first.’” Of the video’s 1.8 million viewers, the majority probably had no idea who No Plug was. And for good reason. Née Mendez Owens, No Plug is not a rapper, although he’d profited from his sudden notoriety by releasing a mixtape – he confirmed in the interview that Trent had advised him to start rapping.
Sitting on the leather black couch where DJ Vlad’s guests always appear, Mendez Owens has a big smile on his face. He’s wearing a washed-out jean shirt, gold “No Plug” chains around his neck and fat diamonds on his ears. Piled at his side is a thick wad of cash: a custom among this generation of trappers, who never go out with their “street money”, supposedly the outcome of their hustler’s routine. Vladimir Lyubovny invites Owens to explain what happened that night. A shrewd move benefiting both parties. The way DJ Vlad prods his guest in order to move the interview forward, you understand that the unfolding of events was repeated. In the 25-minute interview, Owens carefully chooses his words. No doubt his lawyer helped.
“Mendez Owens contacted me a week after the shooting,” said Ash Joshi, who was Gucci Mane’s lawyer in 2005, when the rapper killed one of five men trying to rob him. He and Owens already knew each other. “I was representing some of his friends,” he said. Owens has no shortage of compliments for Mr. Joshi, who he claims to have paid $10,000 for his services. His story of the events on the surveillance camera is the same one he gave to detective Summer Benton, responsible for the investigation at the time. He’d be out of the interrogation room in 12 minutes. Free.
Mendez Owens confirms that he and Trentavious knew each other since they were 10 or 12. “He was my boy, we were super tight,” he says. If Trent grew up in Zone 3, Mendez came from the Westside — Zone 1. Geography takes on a particular importance in the case, which is in part an issue of territory. The confusion would have begun in November 2015, during Thanksgiving. By then, Mendez and Trent had drifted apart, Bankroll Fresh’s career having started to take off.
As is Thanksgiving tradition, he made the neighborhood rounds to hand out gifts and food to kids. According to Mendez, Trent had gone out of his territory and entered his without being invited to, the 9th Ward. Properly speaking, the 9th Ward is not an actual Atlanta neighborhood. “It’s just the name they give to some buildings,” Mr. Joshi explained. It’s a reference to the 9th Ward in New Orleans, an east side neighborhood particularly devastated by Hurricane Katrina. In Atlanta, the area comprises a simple apartment complex on Delmar Lane on the Westside. Trent was not welcome there. According to Mendez, he paraded in front of the cameras, acting like he was from the neighborhood. That did not please his friends. “He was escorted out of the 9th, that’s all,” he said. “He didn’t get robbed or anything, I wouldn’t have let that happen.” (Trent’s relatives Marvin and Boochie recount precisely the contrary, but we’ll get there.) But that wasn’t the end of it. Even if the situation supposedly calmed down that day, Mendez nonetheless implied a latent beef between the two. Trent had hit on girls Mendez had gone out with, and he asserted during the interview that Trent was jealous of him.
That doesn’t mean Mendez Owens is in the clear.
Which leads us to the night of March 4, 2016. Mendez says that he stopped at the recording studio on the way to South Carolina, where one of his friends was playing a concert. That friend had asked him to detour to Street Execs Studios to pick him up. When he arrived, he had no intention of confronting Trent. “I was with one of my hoes on FaceTime, just chillin,” he said. Five minutes later, Trent, alerted to Mendez’ presence by a female friend, came out to ask him to explain what had happened four months earlier. Mendez replied that he didn’t want to talk about an old beef, and Trent, beside himself, tried to “mush” him. The two jumped on each other, falling backwards down the stairs. Separated by a mutual friend, Mendez left the building to return to his car.
That’s when he realized he’d lost his two phones in the fight and went back in to get them. Trent was there to welcome him, Kalachnikov in hand, backed up by a dozen men with pistols. Escorted to the exit, Mendez returned to his car, in which at least one passenger – Mr. Joshi refers to him as “AJ” — had taken out his gun. The situation went downhill fast: Trent fired one or two times at the car, two shots were fired in return, one ricochet bullet hit Trent, he collapsed, and the car peeled out, under fire from Bankroll Fresh’s men.
This version of events, sharply refuted by the entourage and fans of Trentavious White, is plausible in the eyes of the police. Interrogated by DJ Vlad, the rapper 21 Savage, who is close to No Plug, also believed it happened like that: an unfortunate case of self-defense without hate. In Georgia, you don’t need a permit to carry a gun, which explains why the two men weren’t worried by the police.
That doesn’t mean Mendez Owens is in the clear. The investigation is still ongoing, and there remains one mystery: that of the second car.
The second car
A few minutes after the rushed departure of No Plug and AJ, another car stopped in front of the studio, where Bankroll Fresh’s friends were gathered around his body. From the side of the car, several people opened fire at the group before driving off. No one was injured in the drive-by, but this second outburst of violence explains the number of shots fired in total. For now, the identity of the shooters remains a mystery, and only the police could see the images captured by the surveillance camera.
“As far as I know, they have nothing to do with my client,” Mr. Joshi said. “Neither the phone lists, nor the rest of the investigation have revealed any connection between them and Mendez Owens.”
Major Adam Lee seems to confirm this, although with a different choice of words. “They don’t seem to be with Mr. Owens, and they arrived after the initial shots were fired,” he said. “We still don’t know who these people are.”
He added that if the theory advanced by Mendez Owens and his lawyer is realistic, given what the investigators currently know, it would be impossible to confirm “100%” that Trent had really fired the first shot. Regarding what happened inside the studio, testimonies from witnesses don’t converge on a single version of events.
According to Major Lee, the investigation is still open, and it’s up to the Fulton County district attorney’s office and its investigators to take charge of the case. Asked to comment on its advancement, the investigator in chief Cynthia Nwokocha replied that she couldn’t provide any information concerning the events of March 4, 2016. The investigation is still ongoing, and no charges have been pressed. After the broadcasting of part of the video, the authorities hope that new witnesses will help close the case.
For Marvin Powers, “the street knows very well what happened.” “It’s human nature,” he said, in a disillusioned voice. “The same story repeated millions of times, over and over. Some succeed, others don’t. Some people envy the success of others. Most of the time, when a young man is killed on the eve of being famous, he dies in the street. By the hand of someone he knows well.”
For Boochie, Trent’s cousin, No Plug came to the studio that night to provoke Trent. Inside, Trent had given him a beating, sending him out humiliated. When he came back in the studio, the gang was armed for a reason: In Atlanta, when someone goes out with his tail between his legs, it’s not rare for him to come back in with a cannon in his hands. All of this, for Boochie too, is an affair of jealousy.
According to Powers, No Plug was never known as a rapper in Atlanta. He had a reputation as a day-to-day hustler. “Everything he brags about in front of the camera is self-proclaimed,” he said. “Atlanta is a big city. He was only known in his ‘9th Ward’.”
But 21 Savage is not unknown. In three years and four releases, including his notable EP with Metro Boomin in 2016, the 24-year-old rapper has become Drake’s protégé. Born Shayaa Bin Abraham-Joseph, he confirms that Owens is his “bru” and that he tells the truth. But it takes more than that to shake Marvin Powers. “They’re just scratching each other’s backs. On one hand, No Plug buys himself some credibility in the rap game by parading around with him. On the other, 21 Savage consolidates his image of a bad guy by parading around with the presumed killer of Bankroll Fresh.” For him, 21 Savage has filled the gap left by Bankroll Fresh in the scene and has now positioned himself to be the heir apparent to Atlanta trap.
“21 Savage comes from Zone 6: neighborhoods east of Atlanta,” Powers continues. “That’s the opposite side of No Plug’s neighborhood. The distance is enormous. Believe me, they’re only playing around together for opportunism.” Difficult to verify these claims, though.
And yet, Marvin Powers wouldn’t confirm that Mendez Owens killed his nephew. According to him, the confusion in the shooting was such that it’s impossible to say which shooter had hit him. Especially as the bullet had not directly hit its target. His truth is entirely other: Owens deliberately let it spread that he was responsible for the death of Bankroll Fresh. The entire thing, in his eyes, was a set up. After a moment of silence, I asked if he really believes that’s what happened. His conviction did not waver.
“I don’t think. I know. And you have to understand something: this is a murder investigation. And in America, a case is never closed until it’s resolved.”
For the moment, only the street knows what happened.
Translated from the French by Robert Langellier for Ulyces.co.
Cover : Bankroll Fresh by Cam Kirk. (Design by Ulyces.co)