The Rapper Huey’s Murder Eerily Echoed My Friend’s Death on the Same Bloody Streets

·17 min read
Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Twitter/Associated Press
Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Twitter/Associated Press

When the well-known rapper named Huey was murdered outside St. Louis, on June 25, 2020, there were many witnesses, yet no one was charged.

Like most people here—or, really, anyone who listened to pop radio in 2007—I was familiar with Huey’s song, “Pop, Lock & Drop It.” Irrepressibly bouncy, full of video game bloops and bleeps, it riffed on a West Coast dance move called the pop lock and combined it with a “drop”—a quick squat. It’s fun to watch, if hard on my forty-something knees.

Its title also refers to gunplay.

Huey, born Lawrence Franks Jr. and originally known as Baby Huey, wasn’t exactly a gangsta rapper. Instead, he employed the template of St. Louis’s biggest star at the time, Nelly, who debuted at the turn of the millennium and sold a bajillion records by appealing to the ladies, while also dog-whistling his street credentials. Huey steered himself into the same commercial lane, crafting dance floor hits featuring videos of bouncing women and shiny jewelry.

“Pop, Lock & Drop It” ascended Billboard’s heights, peaking at #6. He recorded an episode of MTV’s Cribs and began calling himself “Hue Hef” after getting his photo taken with Hugh Hefner at the Playboy Mansion.

“You can’t talk about St. Louis hip-hop without talking about Huey. You just can’t,” says journalist Toriano Porter. “For him to come from where he came from and get to a major level and be on a major stage, it gave other kids hope.” Huey had defied all odds, a success story from one of the poorest places in America, the destitute St. Louis suburb of Kinloch.

Ferguson Feeds Off the Poor: Three Warrants a Year Per Household

If he were a pop star, his killing would have been major news. But, aside from a flurry of social media activity, Huey’s death barely registered. Considering that the murders of the two most famous rappers in history—Biggie and Tupac—have never been solved, one more hip-hop death was little more than a passing curio to most.

For me, however, Huey’s slaying was of keen interest. That’s because it bore striking similarities to the killing of someone very close to me. In 2016, four years before Huey’s death, my longtime mentee in the Big Brothers Big Sisters program, Jorell Cleveland, was killed just blocks from where Huey died. In fact, Jorell had passed in front of the very same spot where Huey died, just moments before being shot to death himself, at point-blank range.

Jorell and Huey weren’t close friends, but they ran with the same people, and inhabited the same milieu.

And as I came to learn, their tragic fates were intertwined.

Jorell lived in Ferguson, the city famous for sparking the #BlackLivesMatter protests following the killing of teenager Michael Brown by a white police officer in 2014.

Huey hailed from the adjacent city of Kinloch, just a short walk away. It’s about thirteen miles northwest of St. Louis, but a world apart. Parts of it feel more like the countryside. Kinloch’s population has fallen below 300, with trees growing inside abandoned apartment complexes and whole blocks gone back to nature. The residents who have hung on live in terror, as Kinloch has become one of the poorest and most violent municipalities in the country.

And yet Kinloch nonetheless retains great historical importance, as the first city incorporated in Missouri by African-Americans. It fostered entertainers and activists including Dick Gregory, and during the mid-20th century it was the largest Black city in America, perhaps 6,500 people, and completely self-sustaining.

Huey was born in 1987 in Kinloch but left during his childhood. Meanwhile, buy-outs for a planned expansion of the nearby airport decimated the population, and by the time Huey returned as a teenager it had almost fallen off the map. “There was always a lot of drugs going on and, of course, a little bit of violence,” Huey told the Riverfront Times. “But when I came back the airport thing came about, and the police was real bad. County police was coming out there, chasing people and shocking them with Tasers—all kind of stuff happened. Before you knew it was like a ghost town.”

Huey’s 2007 debut album Notebook Paper tells dark tales of his upbringing in Kinloch. A stand-out track titled “My Zone” references the local gangs and drug sales by his brother, whom I’ll call Tori White. At 17, White was charged with first-degree murder, though he was convicted only of involuntary manslaughter. In 2003 he was sentenced to five years in prison for conspiracy to distribute crack cocaine, and after a massive federal drug sting received another five-year sentence in 2013.

<div class="inline-image__credit"> Book jacket </div>
Book jacket

This drug money financed Huey’s early rise in the music game, according to sources close to the situation, and Huey stuck close with his brother at a time when their family was falling apart. Their parents had drug abuse problems, and Huey’s grandmother saved him from the foster service system. She was active in church, and Huey attended regularly.

Huey was kicked out of his high school after being “escorted off the premises in handcuffs because of a fight over a girl,” he told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Around this time he received a gun charge and spent time in jail, his bond set at $100,000.

But in the meantime music began paying dividends. He started making beats for other rappers and soon began rhyming himself, mentored by his aunt Angela Richardson, a music manager who built a studio in her house.

He wrote “Pop, Lock & Drop It” in an hour, and soon local radio caught the fever. “I’ve never had so many requests for a song,” said one DJ. In August 2006 the St. Louis Business Journal reported Huey’s signing of a $2.5 million record deal with the iconic hip-hop label Jive Records, a subsidiary of Sony BMG.

This didn’t mean two and a half million went into his pocket; some of it went to his lawyer and manager, and some of it funded the production of his debut album. But Huey was ecstatic. What 17-year-old wouldn’t be? Working with a producer named Mickey “Memphitz” Wright, Huey recorded in Atlanta, recruiting stars including T-Pain, Lil Bow Wow, and the producer Jazze Pha.

Huey came home to film the “Pop, Lock & Drop It” video with a hundred of his closest friends. And even as his fame grew, he continued hanging out in Kinloch with notorious characters selling heroin, fentanyl, crack cocaine. It’s unclear if he himself was involved in his brother Tori White’s drug business. Yet, in Kinloch, drugs are almost impossible to escape. Local dealers just assume any outsiders passing through are looking for them.

That’s why I was so surprised that Jorell was killed there.

Jorell and I were extremely close. He was only eight years old when we were paired by the Big Brothers Big Sisters program in 2005. We explored St. Louis together, trying new restaurants and seeing bad movies. We came from completely different backgrounds; my mother was an entomologist, and his mother was in prison. Yet we introduced each other to people and places we would have never known otherwise. When I married my wife, she said she understood that Jorell and I were a “package deal.”

But Jorell hid the darker aspects of his life from me. “He felt like he had to put on a fake persona for you because he didn’t want to ever let you down,” his friend Mike Fuller later explained to me. When Jorell was killed, I had no idea who could have done it. The police didn’t either; eventually his case went cold. But his family and I remained desperate for answers, and so in 2018 I began employing my skillset as an investigative journalist to find the truth.

I learned that Jorell regularly passed through Kinloch, as a shortcut on the way to his girlfriend Danielle’s house. On this shortcut he’d encounter Kinloch residents including Huey’s nephews, who looked at him curiously, considering that Kinloch and Ferguson had a long-running gang rivalry.

“They were like, ‘Who’s this young kid who don’t even live in Kinloch, walking by like he own the place?’” Mike told me.

Impressed with Jorell’s chutzpah, they got to talking, and before long Jorell took his place alongside them on the steps of a Kinloch home notorious for selling black-market guns. I had no idea that Jorell was into guns, but they spoke for hours, bonding over their mutual fascination. Whenever Jorell put together a few dollars, he’d buy a new firearm, and he was carrying his favorite, a 1911, on him when he was killed. Yet police never recovered it.

Jorell also began buying heroin. He had taken some just before he died. Though it’s not clear if he bought it from anyone in Huey’s family, he almost certainly bought it in Kinloch, and it likely dulled his reaction time when someone came up on him and pulled the trigger.

Many of Jorell’s friends believed the killer was Huey’s nephew, a young man I’ll call Leron White. But Leron strongly denied the allegation. In fact, he claimed to be Jorell’s close friend.

When Huey signed his $2.5 million record deal in 2006 and traveled to Atlanta to record, his manager and aunt, Angela Richardson, came with him and ended up staying there. Often referred to as the Black Hollywood, Atlanta was the epicenter of the hip-hop scene. Richardson urged Huey to move there permanently as well, not just for networking, but to escape the violence of Kinloch.

“I was trying to take him out of the hood,” she said. “Some people can never see the light, even with money.”

Instead, Huey returned to St. Louis, getting a loft downtown near the ballpark where the Cardinals play. He also lived in exurban St. Charles at one point. But trouble quickly resumed. One late night in May 2009 he left a party and was driving his Jaguar downtown, behind an SUV full of his friends from North St. Louis, when a car pulled up and unloaded on the SUV, killing three people inside.

Huey made it out safely. He denied the bullets had been intended for him, but the incident had repercussions for his career. He was soon dropped from a big show he was scheduled to perform with Nelly; organizers worried he might inspire violence at the event.

Huey never had another hit as big as “Pop, Lock & Drop It.” His 2010 follow-up album Redemption didn’t get much traction, and a new deal he signed in 2013 with a label owned by rapper Waka Flocka Flame didn’t amount to much either.

Huey’s descent from the heights of fame happened gradually; as the years passed, he was less like a superstar, more like a regular guy. Still, things were better in his personal life. His mom stopped taking drugs, and he got back in touch with his father, from whom he’d been estranged.

In the ensuing years he largely disappeared from the public eye. That is, until the night of June 25, 2020, when he was congregating with his nephew and others in front of his home in Kinloch.

Everyone knew something was amiss when a vehicle drove slowly by. Its occupants unloaded multiple shots. In the hail of gunfire, Huey was hit. He was rushed to the hospital. His nephew Leron White also took a bullet in the chest. His cousin put him in his car and drove him to the Ferguson police station, where EMS was called. Leron made it to the hospital and survived.

Huey was pronounced dead around eleven o’clock that night.

St. Louis cried out in anguish. “They killed my lil cousin,” wrote Bruce Franks Jr., a popular former Missouri state representative, on Twitter.

“My dawg Huey is gone forever,” lamented Jaylien Wesley, a collaborator.

“It wasn’t god it was the gunman [who] took his life,” said the rapper Chingy.

Huey’s memorial service was packed with admirers. They put carnations atop his casket, which was wrapped in life-sized, full-color images from his life.

No motive for the shooting was given, and police were stymied in their search for Huey’s killer, despite the fact that, according to a press release, “investigators believe as many as ten other individuals were present in and around the crime scene.” A law enforcement source told me that one witness even took video footage of the shooting.

It was hard to believe that a man so famous as a rap artist wasn’t insulated from neighborhood chaos. But what concerned me most were the similarities to Jorell’s death.

Huey’s nephew Leron White was at the center of both casualties, it turns out. As I learned from my investigation, Leron came upon Jorell’s body immediately after he died, and took his gun off of his body.

For this reason, many of Jorell’s friends suspected Leron White killed Jorell.

A year younger than Jorell, with hazel eyes and a penetrating stare, Leron was a stand-out basketball player at his high school, before getting caught up in a cycle of shootings and retaliations.

“Stalked by demons, guarded by angels,” read his Facebook page.

When it came to Huey’s death, everyone agreed on one thing: Huey hadn’t been the intended target of the shooting that killed him. He was simply collateral damage.

“The word on the street is that the bullet wasn’t for Huey, it was for Leron,” Jorell’s sister Iesha told me.

“The hit wasn’t on Huey,” his aunt Angela Richardson told my research assistant Noah Brown. “He was in the wrong place at the wrong time.” Instead, Richardson agreed, the target was Leron, who had been shot in the chest but survived.

Leron was close with his uncle; he can be seen in the “Pop, Lock & Drop It” video, wearing a comically-oversized t-shirt. But Leron had been in lots of hot water over the years. He’d been charged in gunplay crimes and had been shot “a half dozen times,” according to a law enforcement source.

In November 2017, Leron went to jail for allegedly non-fatally shooting three people outside a funeral reception north of St. Louis. Though he was acquitted, other charges kept him behind bars until early 2020. Shortly after his release he was hit in the drive-by that killed Huey.

To me, it almost seemed as if someone were waiting for Leron White to get out of jail, so they could try to kill him.

After a years-long investigation I finally determined who killed Jorell, which is the subject of my new book Little Brother: Love, Tragedy, and My Search For the Truth. This person, I concluded, was not Leron White, but rather a different adversary with whom Jorell had an acute, pressing beef.

Still, there were whispers that Huey’s murder and Jorell’s murder were related. One of my sources suggested that the 2020 Kinloch shooting—intended for Leron White, but resulting in Huey’s death—may have been attempted payback for Jorell.

Wait, what?

“Yeah, it could be,” my source said. “Most definitely, yeah.”

I was stunned.

“Jorell was well loved,” the source continued. “A lot of people still thought Leron had something to do with Jorell’s killing.”

My source speculated it was a friend of Jorell’s. This person is someone I know. I’m not going to say who, because I don’t have any proof, and because it’s just too heartbreaking to bear.

My head was spinning and I felt deflated.

Meanwhile, however, the pent-up negative energy on the streets seemed to be gaining momentum. “All I know is Jorell was murdered in Kinloch, and Leron was the last person to see him,” another of Jorell’s friends told me. “So he will see me!”

Jorell’s friends weren’t the only people upset with Leron White.

“There’s a lot of attention on him right now,” another source told me. “He might not live to see next year.”

I tried my hardest to discourage any attempts at retaliation. Particularly since I believed Leron hadn’t killed Jorell.

Meanwhile, Leron was hell-bent on “trying to get revenge for his uncle” Huey, my source said, riding around Ferguson and Kinloch carrying two Dracos, semiautomatic pistols known as baby AKs, which are small but possess incredible firepower. The gun is manufactured by the Romanian company Cugir, and its nickname comes from the country’s famous villain, Dracula. They’re ubiquitous in rap videos.

I worried that Jorell’s friends could be in Leron’s crosshairs. The situation was depressing beyond belief. Jorell’s killing seemed to have begotten another killing, which could soon beget another, like a mandala of mayhem.

Jorell’s close friend Mike Fuller heard these rumors in prison, a place where the deadly drama of others’ lives was a topic of everyday conversation.

“A lotta folks are saying, ‘Somebody gotta pay for that,’” Mike told me. On May 7, 2021—five years after Jorell’s killing, and nearly a year after Huey’s death—Leron White’s cousin Godrell White was shot down in Kinloch, during a neighborhood block party. It was still daylight in the early evening when a “full-out gang war” broke out. Hundreds of shots were fired; people ran for their lives, and two men including Godrell were killed. Leron was shot during the melee as well, according to a source who asked not to be named. It’s unclear if either Leron or Godrell helped initiate the violence, or if they were simply attending the party. It’s also unclear if Godrell’s death was related to Huey’s or Jorell’s.

And then, in mid-October 2021, the hammer fell. Following a nearly year-long investigation by the ATF—including raids on 14 homes and businesses—Leron White and two of his associates were indicted. Investigators used “wiretaps, GPS tracking devices, hidden cameras and drug buys using confidential sources,” according to a news report, and Leron faced drug distribution and firearm charges, similar to those of which his father Tori White had been convicted. At a court hearing, the assistant U.S. attorney referenced Leron’s family’s drug trafficking organization and called Leron White a “very dangerous individual” who had been seen “randomly firing guns” while walking through a North St. Louis County neighborhood.

Leron White pled not guilty to the 2021 charges, and his case had not been adjudicated as this story went to press.

The violence wouldn’t cease. No one seemed to know how to stop it. Some didn’t even seem interested in trying.

Mike Fuller told me Jorell had recently appeared to him in a dream.

“He was talking about that I need to get out of prison and do right, stop getting high,” Mike said.

I was happy to hear about this good influence from beyond the grave. But that wasn’t all Jorell told him, Mike went on.

“He was telling me that we need to get even,” he said, adding: “Because, if something happened to me, I know Jorell would have done something about it.”

This rattled me. I told Mike my fears that, if Jorell’s killer was murdered, Mike himself would be a prime suspect. I again made my case that perpetuating the cycle of violence was a terrible idea for everyone involved.

“You gotta promise me you aren’t going to do anything,” I said.

“I’m not,” Mike said, after a pause. “I promise you.”

I wasn’t completely convinced. But there was nothing more I could say. Mike clearly wanted his own kind of justice for Jorell, someone who never received any sort of justice from anyone.

I wondered silently if my involvement in Jorell’s case was helping anything, or if it was only making things worse.

My initial intentions had been pure, I believed. My love for my mentee, my friend—my brother—had spurred me to great lengths to find out about his dark past. But it was now clear that his killing was only one small cog in this ever-turning wheel of violence. The socioeconomic factors that led to his death appeared long before his birth, and the repercussions of his death, it seemed, would continue long after he was gone.

Was the story over, or was it only beginning?

From Little Brother by Ben Westhoff, copyright Ben Westhoff, courtesy of Hachette Books.

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