The first thing you see is a van, covered in pink and pale blue polka dots. Its back hatch promises “WE TURN 5’S INTO DIMES ONE WEAVE AT A TIME.” It’s parked in an alley beside the house. Out back and across a short patch of concrete is what looks, from the outside, like a modestly sized shed.
The house and the shed, and presumably the van, all belong to Ellay Khule, a sturdy, black Angeleno in his mid-40s better known as Rifleman. The battle rapper and recording artist was a member of Project Blowed, the revolutionary open-mic night and extended network of eccentrics that dominated the city’s underground rap scene for much of the ‘90s. At the moment, however, Khule is the second-most famous rapper who lives here.
This is all a few Expo Line stops west of USC, near Crenshaw and Jefferson. The shed is actually a home studio; it’s littered with flyers from old shows, rare records in fraying sleeves, a recording setup, a thesaurus. On the ceiling you find a grim collage — funeral programs and those human-body targets you see at shooting ranges. But the centerpiece, nestled atop a giant speaker, is a painted rendition of the Rifleman logo, which is itself a warped take on the Oakland Raiders insignia.
This past summer, Khule was shot, and now his face almost perfectly mirrors the altered Raider’s, with its eyes hidden by sunglasses, the left side of its mouth drooping down in a scowl.
As Khule grins and recalls how annoyed he was the first time a friend pointed out the similarity, the new celebrity of the household ambles in, carrying his young, sleeping daughter, his impossibly slim frame draped in a blue tracksuit. This is Khule’s 21-year-old son, Beron Thompkins. On the back of the jacket, ironed on in white, block letters, is the first half of his assumed name: ALMIGHTY.
It would be one thing to catch these two figures, a founding member of L.A. rap’s ‘90s avant-garde and a leading figure in its current renaissance, in the same room at the same time. The fact that they’re father and son — and that so few of the city’s rap fans realize this — makes it altogether perplexing. But in the last two years, Almighty Suspect has distinguished himself as an artist on the rise.
He has a shimmering sense of humor that colors his music, even in its would-be meanest iterations, and he’s a studied professional at the ambling, off-kilter flows that define the current crop of young stars.
Though he has few overt stylistic ties to his father’s music, Almighty, as the friends and photographers who drift in and out of the home studio invariably call him, leaves no question as to DNA’s role in his rise. “My pops like an underground rap legend, bro,” he says, smiling, like always.
“We’re in different worlds and I don’t wanna ride that wave, but he’s a real underground, West Coast legend. He is Leimert Park, you feel me? Growing up with a dad like that, there’s nothing else I was gonna do but rap.”
He says it like it was a foregone conclusion, but the path here was circuitous.
Almighty’s youth was marred by stays in juvenile hall and the sort of grave danger that simmers just below the surface throughout the southern half of L.A. County.
While two eager videographers, who drove here from Phoenix for the opportunity, try to capture still photos of Almighty and his daughter, Khule recounts in his stern, untheatrical way the trouble his son got in during his high school days.
You ask him, when he was a child, what did you think your son would be when he grew up? Both men burst out laughing, and Almighty shouts from the other side of the room: “Dead!”
Beron Thompkins was born during a war of sorts. While his mother was in labor, his father was battling Eminem. Really, it was five-on-five: Rifleman was teamed with Blowed mainstays C.V.E. and the Rhymin’ Riddlore, plus P.E.A.C.E. and Aceyalone, who together accounted for one-half of the four-piece group Freestyle Fellowship. (Fellowship’s sophomore LP, 1993’s Innercity Griots, is a knotty, jazzy masterpiece.) The Angelenos faced off against Eminem, Juice, Wordsworth, Thirstin Howl III and a Rick Rubin protégé named Kwest Tha Madd Lad. This was the 1997 Rap Olympics. “His mama was calling me,” Khule remembers. “I was at the battle. ‘You gotta get here.’ ‘I can’t leave yet.’ He was born that day. That type of energy — what you expect?”
When Thompkins was young, he lived with his parents between Broadway and Hoover, off 112th Street, near the 110 freeway. He remembers his dad bringing him alien gifts from foreign tours: European bikes that were unlike any others on the block. After his parents split up, Thompkins moved north, to the Valley, with his mother. That’s where he spent most of middle school, until — as he says — he “started getting a little chest hair, getting a little too much for my moms.”
Everything Thompkins says has a bit of a jokey lilt to it; you could overread this and come to a quasi-academic conclusion like “he’s faced such grave danger in his life that he’s no longer afraid of its starkest realities” or you could just assume he’s a little bit high. As he shifts his weight, his jewelry jangles, like Cam’ron in that famous Rap Basement freestyle. The audio of this conversation sounds as if it were recorded inside of a giant wind chime. And so he moved here, to this house with the shed that became a refuge and a playground, and got well-acquainted with the two things that would become constants of his adolescence: rap music and the penal system.
The fixation on music dated back to the European bikes and soon developed into a slew of formative, Rick Ross-type beats that an adolescent Thompkins made by himself, in the shed, on the recording software Reason.
As a young child, he’d been steeped in true-school ‘90s rap, but by the time he was in middle school, the raps he was gravitating to were markedly different. “I ain’t gonna lie, I was a huge Lil B fan,” he says, grinning, like always. “Sixth to eighth grade, Lil B was the shit, bro.” From there, he latched onto the early stars of Chicago drill rap — like Chief Keef, months before he exploded nationally. Thompkins had been cramming raps into his school notebooks for as long as he can remember, but as he entered his teenage years, he realized his style wasn’t clicking with his peers. “I had to teach myself how to rap slow,” he says. “I had to teach myself to rap how I rap now. Nobody was listening to my shit.”
His high school experience — he attended Dorsey but didn’t graduate — was frequently interrupted by the cops. “I got into the streets heavy,” Thompkins says of the period beginning when he was 14. He was arrested numerous times, for things like burglary and gun charges, “and one GTA.”
It’s worth noting that, during this period, Thompkins became something of an activist. His father says, proudly, that he was “meeting with mayors and all types of shit”; a 2015 article in the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange centers on Thompkins and his experience in an alternative education environment designed to provide leadership opportunities for young black men in otherwise undeserved pockets of the city. He’s quoted throughout about the systemic forces driving his peers into the school-to-prison pipeline and about the absurd practice of stationing armed police officers in schools. The latter is a topic he still speaks on emphatically, although it’s now in that characteristic lilt.
Eventually, Thompkins was sent to juvenile hall. It was there that he met another young man, about his age, who would soon be known throughout the city — and to rap fans nationwide — as FRosTydaSnowMann. “I already knew most of the people in the unit,” Thompkins says of his first meeting with Frosty. “He was talking to one of the niggas that I already knew.” The two had a quick rapport, though their conversations in jail were not particularly expansive, and never included plans to record rap songs on the outside. But on the day he was released, Frosty scribbled his Instagram handle on a piece of paper, and when Thompkins was finally out, they reconnected and began recording. Thompkins describes it as a marriage of convenience (“He kinda had a buzz, I had the studio — we [were] both using each other”) but expresses a real affection for Frosty. Songs from their very first session together quickly garnered buzz on SoundCloud.
The first half of Thompkins’ rap name came from Def Jam: Fight for New York. The second half came after his friends noticed the cops were always looking for him.
After Khule was shot, his friends and collaborators acted quickly. Almost one month to the day after the shooting, the “Celebration of Life & Survival,” a benefit show, was held in Leimert Park, the Blowed’s old haunt. Nearly 50 performers were listed on the bill. Abstract Rude was there, posing for pictures next to Khule, who was wearing a crown and scowling gamely; 2Mex was there, too, minus the leg he lost a couple years ago to diabetes. Fans poured inside, shoving handfuls of cash in indeterminate amounts to bouncers and drifting toward the stage, reverent.
But the thing about Kaos Network — the endearingly cramped venue, which overheats as a matter of course — is that there’s no bar. So a group of us walked up the block to a liquor store and were browsing it quietly when a sort of chaos burst through the entryway: Almighty Suspect, in red, branded sweat wear, trailed a group of friends laughing loudly at the new star’s jokes and angling their frames to fit in the Instagram live shot. With a nod to the proprietor, he shouted into the front-facing camera: “I love seeing black-owned businesses!”
Almighty Suspect songs lurch and careen; he delivers his vocals in something like an exasperated bark — as if the scariest kid in your class just sprinted up a flight of stairs. His best recent cut, “WhereYoSafeAt,” is almost unbelievably sparse, with pledges to dodge district attorneys and abstain from face tattoos left more or less alone in the mix. It’s only 100 seconds. “Him and the youngsters, they’ve gotta blaze their own trails,” Khule says, noting that in the Blowed’s heyday, he and his peers might have sounded as foreign to their elders as Almighty and Frosty do to rap fans who remember Reagan.
In the good times, the arc of Almighty’s young career seems propelled by the same sort of breathless momentum. December’s Almighty is lean and purposeful, and that ambling flow marks Almighty’s music as typical of (if more obviously effortful than) that of his contemporaries at the forefront of L.A. street rap’s current explosion. It argues for him as not only a distinct voice in his hometown, but as one of its creative drivers.
But life here is not an unbroken string of good times. While it seemed, at first, like Almighty and Frosty had found in each other perfect foils and dependable allies, they had a public (read: captured on Instagram) falling-out, and at the time of this writing are not on speaking terms.
There seems to be little, if any ill will — Thompkins says he makes an effort to check in with the currently incarcerated Frosty’s loved ones to make sure they’re doing OK, and sounds as if he’s tired of the drawn-out feud with a former friend. And then there’s the lingering threat of neighborhood violence: Thompkins and Khule both lament that the former can’t walk his daughter down the street in front of the house, van, studio.
And yet that lilt never leaves the voice. For someone who has been dogged by police officers and witnessed so much carnage in his life — his dad was shot six months ago! — Thompkins is an unwavering, almost perplexing optimist.
He says he hopes to establish an empire-like label full of young talent — that is, after the superstar career of his own which feels, when he describes it, as if it were preordained. The only time Thompkins is unconvincing is when he says that he hopes to say what he has to say in his first few albums before bowing out of the vocal booth for good.
Khule smirks, then rattles off a list of accomplishments, the way fathers do: he says a prepubescent Thompkins was the youngest person to ever rap onstage at the now-defunct hip-hop festival Paid Dues, an unverifiable but admittedly impressive honor.
“He would squeeze his way into cyphers,” Khule says. “I would be like, ‘You sure? These are legendary-type dudes.’” But Thompkins was sure, then as he is now.