Growing up in West Baltimore, Tyriece Watson used to stay up late, working on rhymes and filling notebooks with lyrics. His older brother showed him how to record over old cassette tapes.
While Watson was close with his mother, he didn't share his music with her — until she popped a favorite Patti LaBelle cassette into a player and out came the rapping of the boy who, as Lor Scoota, would become one of Baltimore's best-known hip-hop artists.
With his heavy-lidded eyes and a style that was by turns intense and vulnerable, the slender Lor Scoota, 23, had begun to attract attention beyond Baltimore. Then, on June 25, he was gunned down as he drove from a charity basketball event he had hosted at Morgan State University to rally youth against the kind of violence that peppered his lyrics — and to a certain extent his own life.
"He wanted to be a role model so they wouldn't have to go through what he went through as far as getting in trouble," said his mother, Leta Person, who raised the two boys on her own. "He was focused on trying to make it and be successful."
Scoota's killing stunned his family, friends and those in Baltimore who heard their lives described in his songs. His YouTube videos, with their shout-outs to "The A," as he called Pennsylvania Avenue, and familiar scenes of dirt bikers and rowhouses, reflected a reality shared by many of his peers — the drug dealing, the loss of friends to violence, the often-heartbreaking yearning for something better.
"This the trenches," his friend Darrell Morton, 28, said recently as he hung out on the 1500 block of "The A" that Scoota considered his home turf. "All his songs, he had nothing in them that was fake."
Balloons were tied to some of the trees in his memory, and everyone seemed to have a story — of Scoota putting their kids in a video, or coming to their grandfather's funeral. Someone hooked up her phone to a car's sound system, rolled down the windows, and Morton and other friends start swaying and rapping along to Scoota's song "Intro."
Everybody who hating
I wanna see your face when I make it
Take a Twitpic
Shirley Jones, 26, flicked through pictures on her phone of Scoota with her. She and Morton grew up with him. While Scoota was always serious about rap, she said both he and his music became more mature and wiser around three years ago.
A close friend was murdered, and Scoota's lyrics about his sense of loss and a new urgency to do more for children "really started touching people," Jones said.
His social media handle made clear his larger aspirations: ScootaUpNext. And those who follow the local music scene, including other rappers, believed Lor Scoota had a shot at national fame.
"Without a doubt, he had the most potential to be the one star to break out of Baltimore and be a staple in hip-hop," said rapper Ellis Hopkins Jr. of Randallstown.
"The honesty of the music, fearlessness of it — it really represented the youth of Baltimore, for good or bad," said Hopkins, 34, who performs under his first name. "His music was such a microcosm of what's going on in Baltimore, for good or bad — he spoke his truth."
Although the city has a vibrant — if still emerging — hip-hop scene that's rivaling the more dominant Baltimore Club dance music, it has yet to produce a mainstream star. It remains to be seen, for example, whether the rising Tate Kobang will be Baltimore's breakout hip-hop artist and represent the city in the way Drake is linked to Toronto or Kendrick Lamar is tied to Los Angeles.
Scoota was on the radar of Meek Mill and other high-profile rap stars. He had worked with The Game and met with record labels during a recent trip to Los Angeles. "Just last year the lil homie @scootaupnext was over my left shoulder in the huddle working on #TheDocumentary2 everyday in Los Angeles," The Game posted on Instagram, referring to the album he released in October.
After his death, Scoota's national profile rose, and his core fan base in Baltimore came out in force.
As the news circulated, family and friends organized impromptu vigils and elaborate commemorations, including a wake followed by rap performances and funeral followed by a block party. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake noted how beloved he is locally, saying her teenage daughter followed him.
"The thing with Scoota is he shows love," said John "Jay Feddy" Addison, 28, a hip-hop producer in West Baltimore and friend of Scoota's. "Before I met him, people said he was arrogant and cocky. I met him, and he had an open heart."
"Losing Scoota for Baltimore was equal to losing B.I.G. for Brooklyn," Kobang told The Baltimore Sun through his publicist.
The Notorious B.I.G., also known as Biggie Smalls, was fatally shot in 1997 in what was viewed as part of an East Coast-West Coast rap battle, the same feud that claimed the life of Tupac Shakur, who spent some of his teenage years in Baltimore before his family moved to California.
Scoota was embroiled in local beefs that played out online, with not-so-veiled threats made in "diss videos." While it is unclear whether the videos are simply posturing or ultimately led to actual violence, rumors spread so pervasively after Scoota's death that another rapper felt the need to disavow any responsibility.
"People talking like I had something to do with his death," the rapper said on social media. "I know we had our little falling out, you feel me — our little trials and tribulations — but I never want to wish death on Scoota. … To the fans, his fans, my fans: I aint do that."
The Baltimore Sun is not identifying the rapper because police have not named any suspects or determined a motive in Scoota's killing.
Police have released security footage showing a green Nissan Quest in which they believe the shooter was riding. Police said the gunman got out of the vehicle and shot Scoota, whose car was stopped at a traffic light.
Friends say they find consolation in the music Scoota left behind. Most widely known is the catchy "Bird Flu," in which Scoota, wearing an Orioles jersey and hat, sings and dances about "selling scramble, coke and smack."
Lester Spence, a Johns Hopkins associate professor of political science who has written about hip-hop's influence, said he sees no disconnect between Scoota's songs and his activism for peace on the streets. Rappers, he said, are unfairly singled out for this supposed duality.
Actors and artists in almost every medium depict violence while likely wishing it didn't happen, said Spence, author of the book "Stare in the Darkness: The Limits of Hip-hop and Black Politics."
"Robert De Niro, Al Pacino to a certain extent, they play a range of violent parts, but no one would think that's what they want," Spence said. "I never thought KISS were actually Satanists."
'Why do we have to die?'
Some of Scoota's fellow rappers are grappling with frustration as well as grief, wondering why radio stations and community leaders don't support their music. The attention Scoota's music has gotten since his death feels belated to Delando "DBOI" Johnson, 33, a well-known West Baltimore rapper.
"Why won't they support us now when we're alive? Why do we have to die?" Johnson said. "Scoota's dead. Why couldn't he have been a king while he was here?"
While friends and family don't offer specifics, they say his aspiration to reach a broader audience and the recognition he received from high-profile hip-hop artists made him a target — of jealousy, and perhaps of violence.
His friend Shirley Jones remembered him telling her, "I can't hang out with you like I used to." At the time, she didn't understand why.
"I get it now," she said, sadly.
John Mosley, 28, Scoota's older brother, said Baltimore has a way of quashing those who reach for more.
"Nobody trying to build nothing," Mosley said. "Everybody just take here. They hatin' and they shootin' people around here."
Mosley, a professional mixed martial arts fighter, and other family members describe Scoota as devoted to his mother. Mosley said he still feels guilty for leaving his then-teenage brother to fend for himself when he was imprisoned for 31/2 years for an armed-robbery conviction.
"With my little brother not having that around him," he said, "he turned to what he know, what you see in your city."
Scoota wrote a regretful song, "Letter to Mom," in which he raps about her sending him to a group home for his misbehavior, and how he once stole money from her to buy the name-brand stuff she couldn't afford.
When his mother heard the song, she cried.
You wanted me to stay a baby
I was trying to become a man
But I'm thankful for what you taught me
It made me who I am
"He was there when I needed him the most, when I needed help financially," Person, 59, said on a recent afternoon, sitting in the dining room of her home in the Mondawmin neighborhood. "He was able to come through for me."
A Baltimore life
His stage name came from his mother. The rapper said in an interview posted on YouTube that she started calling him Little Scooter after she put him in the crib one way and he scooted another way. Lor is slang for "little" because that's the way people in Baltimore pronounce it, he explained.
Scoota graduated in 2012 from Frederick Douglass High, having also attended Westside and Robert W. Coleman Elementary, Lemmel and Dunbar Middle and Harbor City High School, a public schools spokeswoman said. He had his troubles with the law, though several charges were dropped and he never served prison time.
Shortly after his 18th birthday in 2011, he was charged with second-degree assault, accused of trapping an instructor in her seat between a file cabinet and a wall. The charge was not prosecuted. In December of that year, he was arrested after undercover officers spotted what looked like a drug deal occurring on a street in Sandtown-Winchester. An officer found 25 vials of crack cocaine on him, and he was charged with possession, court documents show. He received probation before judgment.
In April of last year, Watson was about to board a flight to Los Angeles when agents at a BWI Marshal Airport security checkpoint found a loaded Smith & Wesson handgun in his carry-on bag. The gun's serial number had been removed, according to court documents. Watson pleaded guilty and was sentenced to probation.
This past week, though, friends and family described a gentler man, someone that city officials, including Councilman Nick Mosby, sought out to speak to youth in the wake of the violence that followed the death of Freddie Gray last year.
"Growing up in West Baltimore makes you feel like you can go through any situation and make it through," Scoota told students at his alma mater, Douglass High, at a May 15 panel discussion.
He also told them his dream was to "get my mother settled. Get my auntie settled.
"Once I can do that," he said, "that means I'm a man."
Baltimore Sun reporters Maya Earls, Quinn Kelley, Justin Fenton and Jonathan Capriel contributed to this article.