King of the Norf

Rucci has survived the death, deportation and displacement of his family and friends. Now the Inglewood rapper is ready to take over the world.

Rucci. Photo by Gustavo Turner.

722 W. Beach Ave. The address sounds like it comes with a suntan.You’d expect white sand coastline, skyscraping palms and sparkling azure sea. The Southern California paradise of peroxide hang-loose myth. But that dream is permanently waterlogged, the real estate too pricey for all but a few. Besides, 722 W. Beach is nowhere near the ocean.

2Pac said that Inglewood was “always up to no good,” but it’s unclear whether Suge ever brought the late, great Makaveli around the Bloods who ran the blocks between Centinela and Florence, La Cienega to La Brea. Nonetheless, “California Love” offered the state an official anthem and the city of champions a battle cry. That was 1995; Rucci was a toddler, and North Inglewood was a war zone.

Nearly a quarter-century later, this lopsided rectangle of color-coordinated asphalt, strip malls and tribal pride has slowly begun to gentrify. Billions of dollars of NFL and Madison Square Garden Company money have poured into the area, leading to the usual cycle of displacement, creeping rents and artisanal Bloody Mary bars on Market Street. But a mile or two away, you can still find Rucci, 24, who survived biblical trials and tragedies to become the neighborhood’s biggest young rap star since Mack 10 first backyard boogied. And if you want to understand Rucci, you need to start at 722 W. Beach Ave.

This was his father Big Tako’s spot. Well, technically, it belonged to Rucci’s grandmother, a domestic worker who fled the apocalyptic violence of the Salvadoran Civil War around the time that death squad demagogue Roberto D’Aubuisson ordered the assassination of Saint Óscar Romero. The murder of the beatified priest sent the Central American nation into chaos so grotesque that Joan Didion shrugged that “terror was the given of the place.” In response, refugees streamed north into the arrogant dawn of Reagan’s America. This torrent included Rucci’s grandmother, who survived a brutal journey full of mercenary coyotes and border control agents, to wind up working from sunup to well past sundown in the mansions of monied Angelenos — including Matthew McConaughey, if Rucci’s memory serves him right. ‘Pac wasn’t exaggerating. By the time the Martinez clan made it to Beach Avenue, the crack era was aflame and fast cash could be reaped if you were willing to risk running afoul of rival sets and the Inglewood Police Department, who were never too far away. Rucci’s father was born in El Salvador, where he lived with his grandparents until finally reuniting with his mom around his seventh birthday. She’d settled in the turf right near Rogers Park — a territory historically controlled by the Neighborhood Pirus (NHP) — an almost entirely black gang until Juan Martinez started wearing a red rag sometime during his later years at La Tijera Elementary. The alias, Big Tako, came almost immediately, a nod to his Latin American heritage. The spelling, well, that’s all Norf.

Racial tensions were rife between the NHP’s and the neighboring, mostly-Mexican Inglewood 13s. During a stint in Folsom, a rival gang member cut Tako’s scalp open. But in the North, the Martinezes’ and their new extended family lived harmoniously.

“I was raised around all black people,” Rucci explains. “Both of [my dads’] baby moms is black. My auntie’s baby daddy is black. My uncle’s baby momma is black…”

Shortly after dropping out of Inglewood High, Tako met Rucci’s mom, Angela, a Palmdale native who moved to Inglewood in her late teens. Rucci, née Juan Martinez Jr., was born in 1994. The joke was that his mom’s water broke at Rogers Park. One of Rucci’s first memories was going to Disneyland, age 3, standing up on one of the picnic tables in Mickey Mouse’s kingdom and rapping the lyrics to Suga Free’s, “Fly Fo Life.” “My mom didn’t know what to do!” Rucci laughs. “She was like, ‘Oh hell nah!”

Back then everyone called him “Midget,” a nod to his almost identical resemblance to his father and his uncle, Anthony “BD” Martinez, who rapped and made beats under the name, P-Funky.

“All the Martinezes look alike,” Rucci says. “Light-skinned and chubby with long hair.”

Last May’s “El Perro” opens with Rucci rapping: “I remember running around bad as fuck/only five but it ain’t seemed like I’d had enough/my pops put me in the corner when I was acting up/but that was so I ain’t see him sniff that line before he bagged it up.”

This is the residue of 722 W. Beach Ave. Rucci was roughly five when the Cashploitation opus Baller Blockin became the most influential straight-to-VHS film of the new millennium.

“We wanted to be like the Hot Boys so we turned Tako’s house into the projects,” remembers the rapper 2Eleven — a neighborhood hero close to Rucci’s father and uncle. “Rucci witnessed it all, but wasn’t old enough to be in the streets like that yet,” 2Eleven continues. “We knew not to have Midget on some crazy shit or else Pops was gonna go up. And none of us wanted that; his reputation was solidified. Rucci and his little brother Angel really were project babies.”

If you pulled up to 722 W. Beach, you had to be prepared for any outcome. Picture Pinocchio on Pleasure Island banging Piru. Girls in the back, dice games, brown-bagged 40s and backwoods. Homies crashed there for days, sometimes weeks. On the front porch, neighborhood sentinels sat on a couch, straight military, sometimes shooting at the encroaching enemy, sometimes heading out on retaliatory missions. Everyone sold dope back then, so crackheads staggered up and down the block. The candy spot was next door and they weren’t selling Now & Laters.

Other NHP nerve centers existed, but this was the only one that never got shut down. It wasn’t from a lack of police effort, either. There were too many raids to remember. Armed with automatic weapons and barking, drug-sniffing dogs, they’d break down the door and aim the barrel at Rucci’s grandmother, cussing her out, and screaming at everyone to hit the floor.

“You can’t be someone who just blossoms and wants to be from over here. I took too many losses for this shit,” Rucci explains. “As a baby, there’d be guns and bullets in the house. At age three, I knew to tell my dad when the police was coming.”

He depicts his father as an Italian mobster type, obsessed with valor and loyalty above money — someone for whom the code of omerta reigned absolute. His little brother, P-Funky, was an aspiring rapper and producer who once battled porn-star-cum-rapper Brian Pumper. Roughly a decade younger than Tako, he became Rucci’s best friend and helped nurtured his innate musical talent.

Photo by Gustavo Turner.

“I don’t like to brag,” Rucci says of his lyrical approach. “I just like showing people what’s going on.” Gangsta rap has long been demonized by those stressing the vulgarity of the hit singles over the agonizing consequences examined on deep cuts. Shrill outsiders who key in on “Nuthin’ But a G Thang” but ignore “Lil Ghetto Boy.” Like his stylistic predecessors (Snoop and Dre, 2Pac, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, Westside Connection, Cash Money, Baton Rouge’s Boosie and Webbie), Rucci artfully hedges Hennessey-swilling, molly-popping bangers with mournful anthems consecrated by the struggle.

There are artists who swerve so far from tradition that decrypting their influences is like deciphering how sacramental animal glyphs cropped up in the sands of Southern Peru. Rucci isn’t one of them. If you listened to Doggystyle in 1993, closed your eyes, and imagined West Coast rap a quarter century later, you’d inevitably get something like Rucci’s 2017 mixtape, Dawgystyle.

It pays homage to the title and anthropomorphic canine lechery of the original cover, and swipes a hook from a Y2K-era Snoop and Kokane collaboration (“Pump Yo Breakz”). A G-Funk baby, Rucci mashes DJ Quik’s “Tonite” and Keith Sweat’s “Twisted” into an auto-tuned post-ratchet slapper built to raise the teen pregnancy rate within a five-square-mile radius of Randy’s Donuts. But like YG, 03 Greedo and even Kendrick (“Bumping Jeezy’s first album, looking distracted”), the slippery bounce and gelatinous shake of Southern rap unmistakably factors into Rucci’s DNA.

His honking “Hahhh” ad-lib comes from Juvenile and Cash Money; he brags about “gold in my mouth like a nigga from New Orleans.” When he shouts “Ayyy,” it smacks like a sinistral jab. There’s an almost Kobe Bryant-like ability to absorb the go-to moves of his inspirations and perfect them for the Instagram-snippet era. His voice bristles with a subtle volatility indebted to Boosie, mutating into a bayonet snarl, a high-pitched yawp, or an unleavened spitting-that-real rhythm.

The sound is raw, but the hooks are built for hollering at shows, twisted fingers optional. “That’s Norf” is a big-glock battle cry built for blood walking, but what makes Rucci special is his gift for conjuring songs like the tear-jerking but triumphant “Bodak Rucci.” The freestyled finale from last year’s El Perro starts with revelations of familial substance abuse before Rucci offers a bone-chilling confession about seeing his first dead body at age six. Many rappers have made similar admissions, but few would follow it up with visions of watching his father wipe off his brand-new shotgun. Or his uncle numbly explaining the need for self-defense to the first grader (“They was out of bounds, plus they don’t really like your daddy”). Rucci hears their laughter, calls them stone-cold killers and calmly goes back to sleep as though nothing happened.

“He raps about what he’s been through growing up over there,” says Big Tako. It’s not easy to get Tako on the phone. Real gangsters rarely do interviews and his reputation precedes him. He’s an outlaw shrouded in mystery and street lore. A rare triple-certified O.G. from his generation who remains alive, free, and without dirt on his name.

“Back then, gangsterism was at its peak,” Tako explains. “He saw a lot of things, but he also understands the concept of right and wrong. He stayed out of stupid shit, but knows that he represents Inglewood… where his family is from… the culture and history of what we represent.”

It’s something much more deeply rooted than an address. For much of his childhood, Rucci’s father cycled in and out of prison.

In an effort to protect her son from the chaos of the North, Rucci’s mother ensured that he went to Hawthorne elementary schools. He was extremely close to her and his stepfather, but ultimately, the siren lure of Beach Avenue remained too strong. Midget couldn’t help but want to be in the mix.

“I’m just here to put my name in the pavement, bro. It’s about being different and confident and real.”


When it came time for high school, Rucci’s mother wisely sent him away, this time to Santa Monica, where he followed his older sister, an all-state softball player. It wasn’t like he was welcome in Inglewood anyway; his father’s reputation with school administrators was so bad that Rucci claims he was preemptively banned from enrolling. So the younger Martinez went from Beach to Ocean Avenue, which only sounds inconsequential if you’ve never been to L.A.. The project baby was suddenly playing defensive line on the well-funded football team, attending proms in lavish oceanfront hotels, befriended by rich kids. In the hopes that he’d stay out of trouble, his mom gave him $50 a day. Sometimes, he’d skip school and hang out at the Promenade or just take the Big Blue Bus up north past Montana to see what life was like among the real housewives of Brentwood.

“I had a bunch of white and Persian friends,” Rucci says, beaming. “Moms with fake titties in huge houses, not even tripping that we weren’t at school. It was like a movie.”

But the film’s first act ended abruptly in 2010. By then, Rucci’s grandmother had moved from Beach to nearby Victor Avenue, but trouble still followed. The Piru’s turned the new home into the second projects (“PS2”). With the NFL eyeing relocation and real-estate developers circling, the Inglewood police ratcheted up the injunctions and the intensity. Early one morning, a SWAT team ransacked his grandmother’s place, arresting Rucci’s father, uncle and several other NHP members on attempted murder charges. Rucci watched the handcuffs go on and heard the police sirens vanish in the distance.

This was around the time SaMo expelled the future hometown hero for carrying a gun to school. A day earlier, members of Santa Monica 13, a Sureño gang known as the Treces, had jumped him.

“The next day I saw them in the hallway and showed them the gun,” Rucci says. “I wasn’t gonna’ do nuthin’, but they told on me anyway.”

Meanwhile, his father, facing the traps of the system, copped a plea deal for five years in the penitentiary. Dead set on proving his innocence, Rucci’s uncle — the good son with no priors — took the case to trial. But this is America. Unless you can afford Johnnie Cochran’s holy ghost, good luck trying to beat a murder rap when you’re covered in tattoos and the prosecutors tar you as a sociopathic menace. The judge condemned him to 35-years-to-life, a state prison sentence that Rucci’s uncle still serves in Lancaster. In Inglewood, from that moment on, everything started to change.

For as long as anyone could remember, Inglewood was the red-bandanna’d stepchild to South Central and Compton. Outside the City of Champions, people really only knew Mack 10, the chicken hawk stomping from the Queen Street Bloods, longtime allies of NHP. On his debut single “Foe Life,” he boasted about putting “Inglewood on the map,” which he attempted to make a reality with his own Hoo-Bangin’ Records. His artists, Allfrumtha I and the Road Dawgs, earned local love, but little more. Later, the Westside Connection alum briefly signed to Cash Money, solidifying Birdman and Lil Wayne’s alliance with the Bloods.

Inglewood’s rap moment never materialized. Compton sustained its iron grip with The Game, somehow the only star to emerge from the land south of the 10 Freeway during the ‘00s. With many ‘90s gangbangers dead or in jail, a new generation emerged. Black and Latinx teenagers ditched low riders, Chucks and size XXL Dickies for skateboards, Vans and jerking. You might catch a Tec in their skinny jeans, but the hustle had evolved.

In the waning years of the last decade, rap group U-N-I earned heavy blog buzz and toured nationally but got lumped into the passing hipster rap fad and dissolved. There was 2Eleven, whose street cred was unimpeachable, but who got lost in the quagmire of Jeezy’s CTE imprint. The all-female jerk-rap quintet, Pink Dollaz, produced some of the best singles of the Myspace era, but never signed to a major. Skeme collaborated with TDE, ghost-wrote for Iggy Azalea, and built a sterling reputation, but never became a national phenomenon. Out of nowhere, the flamboyant FRosTydaSnowMann set the city on fire with a few 2016 singles, but quickly vanished into the Los Angeles County jail system. Amateur Twitter A&Rs often forget that rap is an inherently regional art form. In the clout-scrambled calculus of first week sales and streaming numbers, no Rap Caviar placement can match the respect of the blocks that raised you (although it might allow you to afford a house in the hills). Local legends are legends nonetheless. But you can’t ignore that Mack 10 is the only Inglewood rapper with a platinum plaque — which was all supposed to change with Sean Mackk.

“He was our 2Pac,” Rucci says about his former rap partner. “That was my big bro. He was the best scammer in the world, always coming around with these big-ass Cuban [link chains] on… fresh as fuck always…. always with 10 bands or more in his pocket.”

We’re inside 2Eleven’s Level Up store on Centinela, which everyone around here just calls “the Nela.” It’s a small streetwear boutique adjacent to a dry cleaners and a soul food restaurant. In the store window, there’s a mannequin in a tracksuit and a “Grind Till We Rich” jersey. Inglewood hats are next to “Bitch Relax” T-shirts and apparel from the Norf Clothing line that Mackk co-founded.

Rucci resembles a distant cousin of one of his original heroes, Bizzy Bone — his wavy hair pulled tight in a ponytail, beard and mustache carefully clipped. He wears a white and red Norf thermal and navy blue shorts. Crucifix earrings stud his ears, matching a cross tattoo on his left cheek. A tiny heartbreak symbol and a paw print linger next to his right eye.

The door is open and during a pause in the conversation, a man in a Panama hat loudly yells into his phone: “I’m from Detroit, baby, I know all about fish bones.”

Walking up to the mini-mall from the Centinela side, a narrow vertical banner advertises obituaries. Around the corner, a storefront next to Level Up has black and white obituary pamphlets scotch-taped inside a glass case. Teenagers martyred for causes that appear senseless and alien to outsiders, but depressingly familiar around here. Business doesn’t seem booming, but you don’t see these spots in Bel-Air either.

This corner was a safe haven to collectively mourn the tragedy of July 7, 2017. Early that morning, Sean Mackk was shot dead on an Inglewood cul-de-sac – an end like Mitch in Paid in Full. The flashy hustler, allegedly double-crossed by those close to him, dead at 24. No arrests made. “Sean was a leader to all the young homies,” 2Eleven says solemnly. “Always popular… getting all the girls. If someone asked who was who, you’d have pointed to him.”

Rucci and Mackk dropped solo music separately, but their lone MackkRucci album established them as the most ferocious L.A. rap duo since Tha Dogg Pound. Cameos came from nascent South Central stars G Perico, Drakeo and AzSwaye and a SuWoop Justice League of Joe Moses, 2Eleven and FreeAckrite. MackkRucci attacked like a two-headed Cerberus unchained, barking bloodthirsty murder raps over sinister minor chords that sounded like they were played with a scythe. Think Boosie and Webbie if you swapped out Waffle House for Roscoe’s House of Chicken and Waffles.

Destiny doesn’t exist but inevitability does. Rucci and Mackk first met when the latter got put on the hood in Tako’s backyard around the time that “Wipe Me Down” dropped. A year older than Rucci, Mackk moved fast for his age. At 15, the Inglewood native was incarcerated in the same gang sweep that locked up Tako and his brother. After a short bid, Mackk, the son of “Getto Jam” rapper Domino, spent a year on the road as an affiliate of Waka Flocka’s West Coast Brick Squad. When he was finally back home, he reunited with Rucci, who had just taken his rap name to honor a paralyzed O.G. rolling around in garish wheelchair rims.

“I’ll never forget the first time Sean brought him into a session and I was like, ‘Oh nah, his dad is gonna call us out,’” 2Eleven says, laughing. “Rucci went the fuck off, and usually Sean was the type of nigga try to take over the session. He’s like, ‘This nigga’s name is Rucci.’ I was like, ‘No! His name is Midget!’”

“My dad used to get mad at me because I’d be hanging out with his homies, but I was always like, ‘These are my friends!’” Rucci counters. “All of us grew up together.”

For the last four years of his life, Mackk and Rucci were practically inseparable – a studio chemistry that could only come from fraternal kinship. For a while, they lived in a MackkRucci mansion in Westchester. If Mackk went out of town to hustle, they’d talk on the phone multiple times a day, right up until the very end.

“Even now, over a year later, I swear to god, I still don’t believe he’s gone,” Rucci shakes his head. “He used to be out of town all the time. I always feel like he’s about to call me and be like, ‘What are you doing?’”

Rucci’s creation myth begins when his father and uncle were taken from him. After the targeted killing of his surrogate brother, he became the Jon Snow of the other North, out for vengeance, governed by honor. The story might start with Beach Avenue, but Rucci always ends every interview with the same answer. Ask him if there’s anything that he wants to add and he’ll inevitably reply, “Sean Mackk forever.”

The cops have known Rucci since he was a baby, but that doesn’t mean that they’re friendly. They’ve memorized all his rap lyrics, but that doesn’t mean that they’re fans. Rogers Park is different now. Panoptic cameras survey almost the entire nine acres, including the baseball field and the basketball courts. There’s even a skate ramp where a white dude with dreads does a frontside 180 while a sleeveless bro walks a golden retriever past. In the ‘90s, both would’ve been terrified to head even a block south of Hollywood Park (RIP). But some things will never change. Rucci has just finished explaining why he rarely comes here anymore when, as if on cue, an Inglewood PD squad car slowly cruises into the parking lot where Rucci and a half-dozen friends are talking to the photographer and me. Had they arrived three minutes earlier, there might have been a major problem. For the purposes of high art, Rucci has been posing underneath the “No Smoking” sign, ripping the matte black plastic bong that he never leaves home without. It started as a way to conserve weed during times of scarcity, but now it’s evolved into aesthetic necessity. The police do not usually agree. The days of hanging out in the park without police persecution are long gone. Last month, they asked for his ID, snapped it in two and handed it back in pieces. No reason given.

“As soon as the police see me they’re going to start rapping my lyrics and throwing up a B,” Rucci sighs. “They’ll look out the window and say ‘Neighbors!’ If we say anything back to them, they’ll stop and get out. If we say nothing, they’ll keep driving.”

“Damn, they got the runner with them,” someone behind me says, as he points out the third police officer lurking in the backseat. “That’s when they bring a guy in the back to chase one of us down if we run away. Motherfucker looks like he be running marathons and shit.” The cops couldn’t look more out of central casting if they tried. The pair in the front seat sport sandy-brown mustaches and eyes like burnt quartz that make them look like pallbearers at Daryl Gates’ funeral. The runner looks like he owns every season of Cops on DVD.

I’d bet on Simi Valley home addresses for all three. Everyone looks around at each other, attempting to figure out the best plan of action. Wordlessly, confidently, Rucci strides over.

“They assholes,” someone mutters quietly. Everyone alternates between staring at their phones and monitoring the situation. If Rucci can’t defuse it, they’ll start searching us and none of this ends well.

This time it ends well.

“Man I’m the savior over here… they like me” Rucci says, half-sarcastic, but with a game-winning, buzzer-beater smile, as the cops leisurely exit the lot. Everyone congratulates him. “I swear to god, I’m Norf!” he crows.

“They was waiting for someone to run, too,” someone chimes in. “I ain’t gonna lie… if you run towards me I’m going to run away from you. Natural instinct nigga, you just go!”

“They’re looking for people that they don’t like,” another bystander says. “If they saw one of them, it would be over.”

“You probably saved us,” Natural Instinct tells the photographer. “They saw those cameras and don’t want no problems with the camera rolling.” Someone tells Rucci that they’re going to eat at Chili’s. He tells them to hold up for a minute. There’s still more left to say.

Winter is coming but it’s still hot out here. The adjective has been used multiple times this afternoon and it’s no weather reference. The war with the Treces rages unabated and it’s wise to keep a low profile.

“I didn’t ask for this shit.” Rucci flashes a resigned look. “My mom gets mad at me sometimes because I can’t go a lot of places with her, but I’m like, ‘It’s not because of the music! It’s because there are people who don’t like me.’”

These are the realities of being a North Side baby. The allegiances are generational and irrevocable; the consequences of betrayal are lethal. Peace might take hold, but it hasn’t yet. No margin of error exists when the other side is heavily strapped and you’re a prime target. And at this point, Rucci can’t afford to fail. He isn’t merely doing it for himself.

He’s doing it for the whole North, the team that surrounds him, the soil that raised him and those spirits at rest. Sean Mackk forever.

There are those still breathing, but scattered to the winds. Rucci’s uncle may spend the rest of his life locked up for a crime that he swears he didn’t commit. About a week after Mackk’s murder, Rucci’s brother Angel was shot in the head – but somehow survived. To complete this season in hell, ICE agents swarmed Big Tako’s house earlier this year and hauled him off to El Salvador — a country that he hadn’t visited since his childhood.

This is California, but the draconian policies of the Trump administration are everywhere. Tako, a legal American resident, tried to fight the deportation order, but as a convicted felon, his options were limited. As soon as he touched down in San Salvador, his troubles only multiplied. There are no Pirus there, just MS-13 and 18th Street, L.A. gangs re-formed by those condemned to a nation that they never knew. They start recruiting new members as soon as the bus pulls into the station, and you know they don’t take kindly to Salvadorans repping the wrong side.

“I have black gang tattoos, so as soon as I got there, the MS-13 and the 18s tried to kill me,” Tako says by phone. “It’s murderous. You look down the block and you just see death.”

After 30 days, Tako fled in search of refuge, traveling north through Mexico, winding up in Tijuana. He’s selling insurance now for Allstate, living close to the beach. There are worse outcomes, of course, but he’s barred from returning to America, where his children and entire family still reside.

“I’ve been shot, I’ve been in prison. I lived that life and escaped without getting killed, life in jail, or having smut on my name,” Tako adds. “My son looks at all these things and raps about it. It makes me feel good, even though I was portraying something that was wrong.”

If Tako is ever allowed – or able – to return, Rogers Park won’t even remotely be the same. They probably won’t be selling Moon Juice on Centinela anytime soon, but art galleries keep popping up on the perimeter of the set. Rents are growing exponentially.

In 2020, the Rams and Chargers start playing in Los Angeles Stadium at Hollywood Park, a $5 billion development that arrives with an 8.5-million-square-foot entertainment center for business parks and condos. There’s going to be a 6,000-seat music venue, ballrooms, an outdoor movie screen, a lake with a water fountain, a luxury hotel, casino and an upscale shopping center. That’s Norf?

“The cops keep telling me, ‘The Bloods gonna be gone!’” Rucci says, his smile still bright and fixed. “I be like, ‘We gonna have a house party with the white people. I’m going to be at the Rams games with ‘em!’”

In the interim, Inglewood is still Inglewood. A short scrunched-face guy in a red “Dam-U-niversity” shirt walks up to Rucci, greeting him, filming him for his Instagram Story.

“You see what’s going on homie… what up Rucci, Norf… you know what time it is Blood… Woop woop… We in Rogers putting on for the city.” Rucci throws up the set for the camera and keeps talking. There is a certain preternatural wisdom to him, the sort that you can only get from seeing too much too young, and recognizing the ability to separate what’s crucial from what’s mere posturing. He’s a natural peacemaker, handling the politics between sides, carefully navigating the myriad sects and affiliations of L.A. gangsta rap – a labyrinth unto itself, but one Rucci was born into and seems destined to conquer.

If Rucci writes songs that transcend the regional vortex of Southern California gangsta rap, everything figures to fall into place. Hood politics have forced him to be around here less, but his career has begun to ignite nationally. He recently completed a U.S. tour with Shoreline Mafia and followed it up with spot dates up and down the West Coast. He played Rolling Loud too. Over the last 13 months, he’s released four projects (three solo, one in collaboration with 1TakeJay and AzChike), with more on the way. The labels keep calling, but no deal is yet in place. If you ask those close to him, they’ll tell you that something changed in Rucci when Sean Mackk died. No one wants to lapse into spiritual clichés, but the gist is that Rucci absorbed an even greater intensity, an awareness that he has to make it for both of them now. He’s become equally adept at writing fun party slappers and ferocious pain rap dirges, gangsta rap indebted to history but hounded by the demons of the present.

In person, he’s sanguine, determined not to let his enemies get him down. He still dreams about Sean Mackk all the time, but insists that what’s most important is staying positive – never letting anyone think for a second that he can’t cope. He didn’t survive all this just to lose.

“I’m just here to put my name in the pavement, bro,” Rucci says, his voice rising above the din of the airplanes on their flight path to LAX. “It’s about being different and confident and real,” he adds. “I’m doing it for everybody around me and I want to let people know that I’m here to stay. Of course it’s on me to keep growing and to get there, but I got so much confidence in myself.”

His last syllables linger like a smoke ring. Silence screams for a few seconds, until someone mentions Chili’s again. Time to go eat. Goodbyes are exchanged, daps, pounds, etc. And as soon as Rucci and his crew get in the car to leave, the cops pull into the parking lot. Back like they never left.