Martez Little doesn't look like a guy who's just hit a new career high. Sitting on an old couch on a porch in Cleveland Heights, the Cleveland rapper known as "Tezo" is hanging his head, swinging through emotions.
"It depends on the day," he says, squinting against the afternoon sunlight pouring out of a cloudless sky. Streetwear-stylish in a designer T-shirt and jeans, the 21-year-old rapper absentmindedly adjusts a rubber bracelet inscribed with "I Am Too Much." "Sometimes I hear that shit and it makes me cry. Sometimes it makes me feel good as fuck. Sometimes I hear that shit and it makes me mad."
Little is talking about "Dinner Date," a song he recorded earlier this year. With a tinkling piano line falling as quick and even as rain matched with footfalls of bass, it's menacing but catchy, a slasher-movie soundtrack domesticated for the club grind. All summer, the track has been on repeat at local hip-hop stations and clubs. Although Little should be poppin' celebratory bottles over the viral spread of his most popular song so far, he's still going head-to-head with the hard facts of what it all cost.
"That shit was fucked up," he says, the words bobbing on waves of checked tears.
The track was pieced together only a few steps away, in a makeshift studio in the family room. After first hearing the beat, Little quickly penned the hook and verse, then realized there was elbow room for another rapper to add an additional verse. He decided to reach out to Kenny Smith, a younger friend from Euclid who rapped as Kenn Ball. Though Little, a more established artist, hadn't yet collaborated with Smith, he had watched the 20-year-old work through his artistic growing pains over the past year and liked his work.
"I called him that morning and he came over," recalls Little. "He wrote his verse that day, and he knocked it out. It was a wrap. I knew it was good enough for people to hear it. We were talking about the video."
But by the time Little filmed a video for the song, Smith wasn't sharing screen time, at least not in person. Before "Dinner Date" even had a chance to shake a neighborhood from the booming stereo of a passing car, Kenny Smith was dead, killed in a police shooting that is still under investigation. While Cleveland has spent the summer nodding its head to the MC's work, Smith's family and friends have been mourning and waiting, their questions unanswered.
When Kenny Smith walked into Euclid Central Middle School in 2005 as a new kid transferring from South Euclid, Julian Ferguson and his friends took notice. Though he was small and quiet, Smith was decked out head-to-toe in trendy clothes. Ferguson and company were also into looking good, and the new kid quickly became part of the crew. He also showed a knack for music, piping out Charlie Wilson songs for friends at lunch.
By the time they were in Euclid High, the group's universe was bookended by sports and music. Thanks to computers and the popularity of rap, everyone was at home honing their inner Jay-Z. "It was the thing that everybody in the area was doing," says Ferguson. "Everybody had groups, everybody was rapping and recording at home, then putting it up on Myspace. We started like that. [Kenny] was just one of the better ones."
By the end of high school, Smith had decided to devote himself to a music career. The plan wasn't a tough sell to his mother, Shauna. Smith was her only child; whenever he was out, his phone would buzz with calls from Mom keeping tabs, not because she figured he was knee-deep in trouble, but because of how close they were. When her son announced he wanted to rap, Shauna wasn't about to run a lot of parental interference on his play.
"I told him, 'If you want to focus on your music, I'll support it. But I have to see you waking up every day writing, making things happen,'" she says. "I'm the kind of person that believes you should wake up doing something you enjoy every day. If that's something you truly enjoy, you have to make it happen. It isn't going to come to you."
The road to becoming a rap star was paved with work, and Smith set about learning the trade. He turned out his pockets for money toward studio time and beats; he would call up friends, leaving voicemails with his latest rhymes. Soon Smith developed a unique style, thanks largely to his voice, a high-pitched space-invader drawl with shades of Lil Wayne that stood out against the usual mumblings of newbie rappers. He began working patented phrases into his work, like "I am too much."
And most importantly, he came up with his own rap name. Inspiration struck while he was delivering a line, cleverly morphing a chest-bumping verb into a new moniker.
"It wasn't on purpose," recalls Ferguson. "He said a line like, 'Everybody knows Ken ball. Kenn Ball. I think I'm gonna run with that.'"
In the meantime, Smith's friends were making their own moves. Like a lot of young kids, they sought strength in organized numbers, bonding together as an entertainment group called Aviator Lifestyle, or AvL$ in Twitter shorthand. The plan was for the group to throw parties, put out T-shirts, and – as he rode to a high profile – promote Kenn Ball's music. "He was the backbone, pretty much," says friend Armanti Claggett.
"It was a thing where we wanted to live an aviator lifestyle – a more elevated, lavish kind of lifestyle," explains Ferguson. "Like pilots, we were going to control our destiny."
In the year leading up to his death, it seemed Smith had in fact punched his ticket for better things. Through a friend, he hooked up with Euclid High alum and current Chicago Bears linebacker Thaddeus Gibson, who regularly flew Smith to Houston to work with producers. Eventually the material he created there would go into a debut mixtape, titled in homage to his Euclid friends: Birth Place of Aviation.
Earlier this year, the Aviator Lifestyle crew decided to throw a party. They tag-teamed the event with two other promotional groups and reserved the night of March 9 at Wilbert's Bar, located on Bolivar Avenue near Progressive Field. The groups had collaborated on two previous events, each besting the attendance of the last. With the date timed to coincide with college spring break, everyone expected a high turnout.
Smith's friends had to dangle a carrot to entice the rapper to join them – he rarely went out at night. "He only really came out because I told him we were going to play his songs," says Ferguson, who was at Wilbert's that night with the rest of the group, including Martez Little. "He had just made 'Dinner Date.'"
Before leaving home, Shauna Smith made sure her son had a ride and enough money. Lately, friends had encouraged her to put some slack in the leash now that her son was 20. So that night, she resisted the urge to call him.
The party was as packed as everyone expected, with familiar friends from Euclid mixing with an assortment of people from all over Cleveland. Although it started problem-free, as the party chugged along fights began to break out. Little faced off against another set of Cleveland rappers before Smith stepped in to defuse the tension. Then Claggett was cold-cocked in the face, lighting the match on another scramble. One fight bled into another.
"Who the fuck knows, some bullshit," Little says when asked what caused all the mayhem. "That's how this shit be at these urban clubs, with all these young kids. But Kenny didn't fight, Kenny didn't lay a hand on nobody. Kenny wasn't like that."
As the party cleared out, shots were fired in the parking lot. Ferguson and Claggett thought it was a security guard, though Wilbert's management tells Scene that the club had no security working that night. Whoever fired first, the shots set off a chain of gunfire in the street outside the club, with trigger-happy revelers emptying their clips into the night air, scattering the crowd into the surrounding area.
At some point in the confusion, Smith broke away from the friend he'd caught a ride with downtown. Instead, he hopped into a gold Saturn with two guys from the neighborhood, Devonta Hill and Kayron Purdie.
As everyone hauled home, Smith's friends began swapping texts and phone calls about rumors of someone getting hit by gunfire near the club, possibly involving the police. Like a schoolyard game of telephone, the info was smudged into illegibility as it made the rounds, the details muddied. Eventually everyone wrote off the rumors as unsubstantiated bull.
Back at his house in Cleveland Heights, Little rolled awake around 4 a.m. and instinctively reached for his phone. Sitting in his inbox was a mass text message from a friend reporting that Kenny Smith had been shot by the Cleveland Police.
"Kenny?" Little recalls thinking before bursting into tears. "Kenny didn't do nothing to nobody."
As soon as the shooting started outside Wilbert's, calls began pouring in to the Cleveland Police dispatch center. One came from an off-duty police officer who identified himself as Jones and said he was following a suspected shooter who had jumped inside a gold Saturn.
"I'm still looking at him, he's looking for his boys. He's still here," Jones told the dispatcher, according to a copy of the 911 tape provided to Scene by Shauna Smith's attorney, Terry Gilbert.
When the dispatcher asked if Jones had approached the suspect, he said, "I will as soon as the zone car gets here. I'm all by myself. I'm off-duty. I was at the bar having a drink."
"Oh yeah, I hear you, man," the dispatcher replied sympathetically.
According to a Cleveland Police press release, after phoning the dispatcher, off-duty Officer Roger Jones moved in on the Saturn on foot. At East 9th and Prospect, the five-year police veteran, with assistance from a zone car carrying uniformed officers, stopped the car. All three riders were ordered out of the vehicle. Hill and Purdie complied; Smith did not. The officer spotted a handgun near Smith and broke out the window, ordering Smith to put his hands up. Smith reached for the gun, and Jones shot him in the left side of the head.
Cleveland Police spokesman Sgt. Sammy Morris declined to answer additional questions about the shooting which is still under investigation. He also declined to guess when the results would be released. "Once the investigation is completed, it will all be part of the public record," he told Scene.
Morris also could not comment on whether Jones had been drinking the night of the shooting, or if a blood alcohol content was taken after the incident. The blood alcohol content of officers involved in shootings is taken depending "on what the investigators see and detect, so I couldn't tell you until the investigation is completed," says Morris.
Officer Jones is currently back on the job after a period of time on desk duty. Repeated calls for comment to Cleveland Police Patrolmen's Association President Jeffrey Follmer were not returned by press time. But following the shooting in March, the union president told Fox 8: "The officer was in fear of his life. There were no ifs, ands, or buts, he was in fear for his life, he acted as a hero."
But the prospect of a police officer possibly under the influence at the time of a deadly shooting doesn't sit well with Smith's family and friends – especially considering that so much of the official story runs counter to the Kenny Smith they knew.
In particular, they have trouble digesting the idea that Smith would make a grab for a gun on a police officer. Friends note that he stayed out of trouble and had a clean record, and say he was more likely to avoid throwing punches than turning violent. "He was more cautious than anything," says Ferguson. "I'm sure when he saw someone coming up he was scared. Especially if it was a police officer."
Smith had no interest in guns, even though his mother tried to outfit him for protection. Shauna Smith had recently obtained a conceal carry license, but when she suggested to her son that he do the same, he shook off the idea. "He just said, 'No, I'm not into guns,'" she says.
Devonta Hill was known to have a gun, friends say, although both Hill and Purdie were released the morning after the shooting. Neither were charged following the incident. Attempts to contact both for this story were unsuccessful; friends say neither Hill nor Purdie have consistent phone numbers.
In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, Smith's death was largely written off in media accounts as another street hood getting his due, with "aspiring rapper" used as shorthand for "thug." Not so, Shauna Smith maintains.
"I know my son."
Smith's early passing left behind not only a knot of unanswered questions, but a body of musical work. A decision was made to release Kenn Ball's output, not as a free mixtape as originally planned, but as an actual album on the Rbc Records label. Thaddeus Gibson helped finalize the project and prep the release. In June, the Aviation Lifestyle crew threw a party for the posthumous release of Birth Place of Aviation.
Little was left to tend the flame for "Dinner Date." Thanks to the catchy hook, the song shouldered its way into regular radio rotation. A video was the next step. Still shell-shocked from the younger rapper's death, Little was clueless about where to start.
The clip that Little eventually put together rearranges the standard nuts and bolts of a hip-hop video into a fitting memorial: MC rapping into the camera? Check. Bouncing booties? Of course. Chugged champagne? Absolutely. But when it's time for Kenn Ball's verses, the screen becomes a montage of still photos and video clips of the dead rapper. Toward the close of the track, a stenciled silhouette of Smith's face appears above the word "Forever" pressed onto T-shirts – actual clothing that Smith's friends and family wear around town to this day.
The song took off, eventually finding radio play in markets outside of Cleveland. By August, sitting on his porch, Little marveled at the reaction it got the previous night at a concert in Toledo. "Everybody knows that song. It's crazy," he says. "Every time I perform that, I let the crowd rap Kenny's part. I don't even got to say shit."
But a higher profile brings detractors. Little says he fields a lot of accusations that he's trying to use Smith's death for his own benefit. The suggestion, stirred in with the obvious grief, sets him off.
"This ain't no music shit. Fuck the music, fuck all this rap. I would give that song back any day to give Kenny back to his mama. Not even for me, just for everybody who loves Kenny, I would . . . give Kenny . . . what the fuck . . . fuck that song, dude."
After waiting a beat or two, he calmly adds: "But the case isn't over yet, so I'm not tripping."