For the photo on their first cassette, the aspiring Baltimore ra musicians needed an image that would appeal to a young, urban audience.
To them, the choice was as natural as the rattle of gunfire in the city night or the wail of ambulances carrying off its victims.
In the picture, taken last spring, Icy Ink points a silver-plated .45-caliber handgun. T-Nice sits on the ground, holding a 9mm handgun. MAC-10, who takes his nickname from another kind of gun, aims a .45 topped with a laser sight, glowing red. Fat Cat has a two-handed grip around a Calico 950 assault pistol.
"To have a gun is to have power," explains Tony Lee, also known as Double G, pictured on the cassette holding a portable phone. The lyrics spit out threats of violence in the angry voice of a gunman who doesn't care "who I hit or who I kill."
Today, the musical career of YBM -- the group's name stands for Young Black Mafia -- is on hold. The gun as marketing device has been overtaken by the gun as murderous reality.
Since the picture was taken, Fat Cat, a.k.a. Steve Oglesby, 22, has been charged with ordering the murder in May of a 16-year-old boy who owed him money. Michael Hope was gunned down as he stood at a phone booth near the Pimlico drug corner police say was controlled by Mr. Oglesby and some of his YBM companions.
The same month, MAC-10, whose real name is Jerome McCardell, 18, was himself shot and seriously injured in a drug-turf dispute near the same intersection, Park Heights and Woodland avenues. In October, T-Nice, whose real name is Tarika Hood, 21, was charged with the fatal shooting of another 21-year-old man on an east side drug corner, Greenmount Avenue and 20th Street.
YBM's story is not an isolated tale of a gang of self-promoting thugs. The music and the photo symbolize the way guns, for so long a macho talisman in American popular culture, have penetrated the minds and the lives of young Baltimoreans.
Themselves the product of the teen-age gun-and-drug world, the gunslingers of YBM are now the role models for younger kids who have sold drugs for them or bought the 4,000 cassettes Tony Lee says they have sold.
On streets where the narcotics trade rules, children as young as 11 or 12 see guns as fashion as well as protection, both everyday equipment and unrivaled status symbol. Firearm brand names are flaunted as casually as those of tennis shoes or sports cars.
Guns are embedded in youth culture, from rap groups such as YBM, to T-shirts emblazoned with handguns, to a small dictionary's worth of specialized slang: A gun is a piece, a jammie, a tool, a biscuit; to kill someone with one is to bust them, buck them, smoke them.
The peak age for homicide arrests in Baltimore is 20.
But by the time a person is arrested for a gun murder, he has usually been carrying guns and shooting them for several years. It is in the teen-age gun culture that the origins of the city's murder rate must be sought.
With 298 murders reported in Baltimore so far this year, two-thirds of them committed with handguns, the city is on its way to setting an all-time record in bloodshed.
Gunplay has made homicide by far the leading cause of death for young Baltimore males and transformed some neighborhoods into free-fire zones.
'You get happy'
Listen to Michael Taylor, a shy 16-year-old from McKean Avenue in West Baltimore whose mother gave him the nickname Oony" because she is a fan of Loony Tune cartoons:
"I was like, 10, the first time I held one. It was a .32, from a guy whose family had a lot of guns. I shot it in the air in a lot on an alley off Fulton Street.
"It was fun."
He rises from the sofa of a friend's house, extends his arms and locks his fingers in an imaginary two-handed grip. "Pow! Pow! Pow!" he exclaims, smiling. "You get happy when you get a gun."
Michael spent much of last summer in jail, charged with an attempted armed robbery he says he didn't commit. The charges were dropped when the witnesses refused to cooperate, and Michael says he's through with guns. But he talks about his past experiences with childish excitement.
"All the guns I've ever had?" He ponders, then lists carefully: ".32, Glock 9, 12-gauge, 10-gauge, pump shotgun, 30-30 rifle, German Luger, .357, .25." He stops, then remembers more: "That's right, one MAC-10. And a .22-long handgun."
Michael says he usually got the weapons from some older acquaintances who were dealing in illicit guns and let him borrow one from time to time.
He kept them hidden under an oil tank in the back yard of his house. "Not in my house. My mother would get mad," he explains.
To a kid with little going for him -- no school success, no hobbies, a single mother struggling to support the family on a $5-an-hour job -- a gun offered instant gratification, the illusion of importance and control.
Carrying a gun "became my nature," Michael says. "Sometimes you get nervous, that's true. Sometimes you carry it with pride. I'd say, 'I'm dirty.' They'd say, 'Drugs or money?' I'd say, 'I got my gun.' "
Police Agent Timothy Devine, the sole officer assigned to investigate non-fatal shootings in the city's Western District, is exposed daily to kids who, like Michael, are immersed in gun lore.
"They start playing with guns early on," he says, "and some of these teen-agers know a lot more about guns than I do."
One result is that nearly half of the shooters and half of the gunshot victims in his district are under 18, Agent Devine estimates.
"I no longer take real note that it's a 13-year-old shooter or a 13-year-old victim," he says. "Not that I'm not compassionate, but I'm just not surprised."
Shootings in the Western District occur about once a day.
Of those not solved immediately, Agent Devine says, he manages to make an arrest in about one shooting a month. The vast majority of gunmen go unpunished -- unpunished, that is, by the criminal justice system.
"There's an ethical code on the streets among both juveniles and adults: Not snitching. Not telling who did it. 'We'll handle it ourselves,' they say," Agent Devine relates.
In this way, every shooting begets another, a revenge shooting. The bodies accumulate. The police become bystanders, a mere nuisance, increasingly irrelevant in an atmosphere of lawlessness comparable to the wildest era on the Western frontier or the peak of Prohibition-era gangland mayhem.
'It's to protect the corner'
There is no mystery about the immediate cause of the proliferation of guns among juveniles. The influx of teen-agers into the street cocaine and heroin trade in recent years has given thousands of youths both the means and the motive to acquire a gun.
According to both young dealers and the police, a street dealer ** in Baltimore must have a gun to stay in business, to protect his turf and to deter the stickup men who target his earnings. Those same earnings make even the finest guns affordable.
"The gun's not there to protect the corner from the police," says Sgt. John Tewey, head of drug enforcement in the Southeast District. "It's to protect the corner from the people who are going to stick them up and kill them. The dealers are easier targets for robbery than, say, a grocery store. They have a lot of money. They're probably not going to call the police."
Ask Larry Phillips, 16, a veteran drug dealer from the intersection of Monroe Street and Ridgehill Avenue in West Baltimore, who recently was released from the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School for juvenile delinquents.
"I got stuck up on Ridgehill for money and drugs. I think it was like $400 in cash and $200 in drugs. I said, 'That's not happening again.' I went and bought me a gun, a .22 [caliber] derringer," he recalls.
In Larry's world, buying a gun on the street was never a problem. The junkies he was selling to often had handguns to sell or trade for drugs. Usually the weapons were cheap, but suspect, because they were stolen, or because they 'had charges" -- had been used in a serious or fatal shooting that might be pinned by police ballistics experts on the new owner.
From the time he bought his little gun, Larry says, "I had it with me all the time. It would fit right in my hand in my pocket, or it would be nearby -- under a tire [of a parked car], or under a flowerpot on somebody's steps, or in a brown paper bag on the sidewalk."
In 1989, his territory was hit by a rash of holdups that has never subsided.
Soon, Larry says, "wasn't nobody out there that didn't have a gun. It was stickup season. . . . Everybody was getting stuck up, so everybody went out and got guns. We would blast off, maybe 30 guys at a time. Blast off means you shoot in the air, you empty your clip."
Eight powerful guns
When the two-shot derringer began to seem inadequate, Larry turned to a drug addict and customer named Mark, a former prison guard. Despite his drug habit, Mark had a clean criminal record, which meant he could legally buy handguns, picking them up after the gun shop completed the mandatory criminal record check with the Maryland State Police.
Larry would meet Mark at Douglass High School, place his orders, and pay $100 or more above the gun shop price. He bought a .22, a .25, a .380, a 9mm, he says. He helped a friend buy a 12-gauge shotgun and a heavy-duty Israeli Desert Eagle handgun, he said.
Mark had an insurance policy for his gun-supply business: After illegally reselling a gun to an under-age drug dealer, he would call the police and report it stolen. That way, if a gun used in a crime were to be traced to him, the theft report would get him off the hook.
Baltimore police acknowledge their recordkeeping would be unlikely to detect such a ruse. They have to rely on a gun shop to call to report the signs of an illegal "straw purchase." And some gun dealers do not call.
In a period of about six months last year, a 22-year-old drug addict named Sheila Kelly spent $5,274 to buy eight powerful guns and put a deposit on two more, all at Baltimore Gunsmith on South Broadway, according to court records. The guns ranged from a Beretta 9mm handgun with laser sight to a Cobray Street Sweeper 12-gauge shotgun and a Calico assault pistol.
Accompanying Ms. Kelly on some of her shopping trips to point out what to buy was the real purchaser, Anthony Jones, 18, who wanted the guns for his East Baltimore cocaine operation but was under the 21-year-old age limit to buy them. Police ballistics experts determined that one of the guns, a .40-caliber Glock semiautomatic, was later used in two shootings.
Police say Baltimore Gunsmith complied with the letter of the law, checking Ms. Kelly's identification and passing the data to state police for a record check.
But as this woman bought weapon after high-powered weapon at the direction of a teen-ager, no one at the store alerted police. Asked why, Tony DiMartino, the proprietor of Baltimore Gunsmith, declined to comment.
For the dealer who does not insist on a brand-new gun, newspaper classified advertisements offer a source for guns less risky and more reliable than the street.
Occasionally such ads have been used by illegal gun dealers with sizable operations, taking advantage of the fact that resale of guns in Maryland is not regulated and does not require a waiting period or criminal record check.
"A guy in his 40s who was supplying weapons to dealers told me Sunday was his best day -- going through The Sun classified ads," says Sgt. Russell Shea, of the Western District drug unit.
The narcotics business may have prompted and paid for the handgun boom. But once the pistols are in the hands of teen-agers, they are passed casually among friends and carried routinely.
Many shootings are prompted by the traditional causes of teen-age fistfights in earlier times, what kids call a beef: competition for girls, rivalries between neighborhoods, perceived insults, ordinary bullying. But the scrap that once might have ended with a black eye now may end fatally.
"We talk about the old days when there were no guns," says Teffori David, a Monroe Street 16-year-old, speaking of what things were like when he was 12, before crack cocaine drew many of his buddies into dealing. "It was just straight-up fists. I was never afraid. . . . Now it feels like you almost have to have a gun."
Larry Phillips says he shot at people twice. Once, when he was arguing with his girlfriend at Walbrook and McKean, another teen-ager walked by her and slapped her on the buttocks. "That was making me mad," Larry says.
He was carrying a friend's .22-caliber Smith & Wesson semiautomatic, he says. "I pulled it out, put the clip in and went, Bam! Bam! Fired twice."
The other boy ran across Walbrook to get away and fell on Fulton Street, Larry says. He gave the gun to his girlfriend to hide and strolled away, "like nothing happened." Two officers stopped him and frisked him a few blocks away, asking, " 'You know somebody that shot a boy?' I said no."
On another occasion, Larry says, he encountered a boy with whom he had had a fistfight more than a year earlier. Spotting him in a Pennsylvania Avenue barber shop, Larry challenged him.
"We started fighting, and my gun fell out of my pocket, my two-shot derringer. He started running, and I shot at him," Larry ,, says.
Larry says he believes he hit both boys, though he may be wrong. There are so many shootings in the area, and Larry is so inexact in placing the date of the shootings, that it is impossible to verify the incidents from police reports.
But in two interviews two weeks apart, Larry repeated precisely the details of both shootings, drew accurate maps of the streets and described correctly the guns he said he used.
How does he feel about the first shooting, when he thought he had seriously hurt or even killed the other boy?
"I think about it sometimes," Larry says. "It's over and done with. I accept it was wrong, if that's what you mean. But as far as really, really care about it? No."
'It's shoot or be shot'
Last April 13, Eric Jerome Brown died at the age of 19, shot with four bullets on Moravia Road, shouting distance from the apartment where his grandmother was cooking his dinner. Why?
Ask friends and relatives of Eric and the two boys charged with his murder, Hamin Shakir, 15, known to his friends as "Hammer," and Andrew Payton, 17, who goes by "Fish." Read the police reports. You hear a murky tale of a boy named Shannon who argued with a girl named Starsha, leading each to call together a group of friends to fight.
Detective to Hamin Shakir: "Tell me what caused you and Fish to start shooting."
Hamin: "A boy jumped on Fish and started to hit him with his fists."
Detective: "Why did the boy jump on Fish?"
Hamin: "I don't know, all I know is, a girl named Starsha told us not to go home, that the boys are going to try something."
It was a silly teen-age argument, barely worth a bloody nose. But there were guns, and Eric Brown, who liked to play cards and to visit the go-cart track on Pulaski Highway, is dead, and two boys he never met are charged with his murder.
Woody, 17, a sometime dealer in West Baltimore who has fathered a son and is hoping to go straight, says shootings occur over "reps," or reputations: "If I carry myself like I'm really something, someone might say, 'I'm gonna try this guy and take a shot at him.' "
Some shootings take place over rumors that a shooting may take place, says Woody's friend, Black, 16.
"Somebody might tell me that a guy wants to shoot me. I see him and I shoot first. It's shoot or be shot."
With so many trigger-happy teen-agers on the street, other teens justify their own gun-toting as a form of self-defense.
'You never know . . .'
"Every time we go to a party, we get into some kind of beef," says Woody. "You never know what you'll run into. You want to have your gun with you. We went to a party the other day, there must have been 10 guns there -- 9s, .380s, .357s, everything. A fight is getting started, so this boy pulls a .357 and fires in the air, and everybody pulls out their guns."
Michael Taylor, the McKean Street 16-year-old, tells of going to -- Golden Ring Mall about a year ago with some friends to buy some clothes and play in the game room. There, one of his friends bumped a teen-ager from another group as they stood around an arcade game. This sparked a shoving match and the && two groups traded threats and insults.
"I had a German Luger. Everybody I was with [about 10 boys] had a gun except two or three," Michael recalls. "We followed them outside the mall to fight them. They ran and started shooting. We started shooting back. I don't know if anybody on their side got hurt. Our side didn't get hurt. We were ducking behind a car."
The chilling nonchalance of such a tale may reflect immaturity.
The younger the gunslinger, the greater the likelihood that he will fire for a trivial cause. The volatility and unpredictability of the "hoppers," the young teen-agers on the drug corners, terrify even hardened older criminals.
"You basically have children who have guns, and they make bad decisions when they pull the trigger," says Sergeant Tewey of the Southeast District drug unit. "It's premeditated, but it's based on ignorance."
LaMont W. Flanagan, commissioner of pretrial detention for the state prison system, has made a remarkable discovery in his regular meetings with the juveniles locked up in the Baltimore City Detention Center.
"I asked several who've been shot how it felt. They said it hurt -- and that surprised them. They really did not think being shot would hurt so much," Mr. Flanagan says.
"With younger teens especially, says Dr. James E. Olsson, chief psychologist of Baltimore Circuit Court, who has examined hundreds of young shooting suspects, "the act of shooting someone else is not associated with something real. There's not a sense of concern that a human life is being taken. They're just committing an act they've seen hundreds of times on television."
The Center for Media and Public Affairs monitored 10 television channels in Washington one day last April and counted 1,846 acts of violence, including 362 scenes of gunplay.
On television, the bullets fly, the hero lives to shoot again and the bystanders rarely fall.
Almost like TV
On Presstman Street last July 14, the shootout almost followed the TV script.
Eight teen-age dealers, two from New York and six from Baltimore, faced off in a wild shootout involving at least six weapons, and none of the youths involved was hit.
But there was one victim. Adrian Edmonds, 15, with her 18-month-old son, Eric, in her arms, didn't move fast enough as she scrambled up rowhouse steps toward safety. Adrian was hit a stray bullet and died on the spot; her son was hit in the arm and survived.
The six Baltimore teen-agers are now jailed on murder charges. The New Yorkers are being sought.
Adrian's half-sister, Genia Marrow, 11, missed the shootout only because she had walked a block away to pick up dinner from a carryout -- a box of chicken for Adrian, a cheesesteak for herself and Eric to share.
When Genia came back, her big sister was gone. She remembers that the ground was littered with shell-casings and spent bullets.
Now, Danny Marrow, Genia's father and Adrian's stepfather, has moved with Genia to a Reisterstown Road apartment, trying to keep her clear of the drug-and-gun world that took Adrian's life.
'When's it going to stop?'
But teen-age dealers are on a corner just a block away, says Mr. Marrow, a recovered addict and community activist who works in the food service department of the Loch Raven Veterans Administration Hospital.
A big, streetwise man of 43, he says he is nervous waiting at the bus stop with the hoppers around. He and his daughter still hear gunfire at night, and Genia sometimes wakes up scared.
Has she known anyone else who's been shot?
Matter-of-fact, deliberate, Genia starts to count:
"My sister's brother J.J. got shot in the stomach," she says, touching her stomach. "Plus what's his name, Jewel, got shot in the head. And Adrian's boyfriend, Quincy, he got shot right there," she says, touching her left temple.
She could go on, but her father interrupts.
"It used to be we got upset because the kids were seeing needles on the ground," Mr. Marrow says. "Now they're seeing people get shot. The young people out here now are in a different world. When's it going to stop?"