Rap moves from studio to chilling street scene


ATLANTA -- A little something we learned from one of the young men who came first to this city in January to party and this week to testify against the Baltimore football player, Ray Lewis: What you don't want to be called is a studio gangsta. Call a rapper a studio gangsta and that's big trouble. This was made abundantly clear by the way young Jeff Gwen, aka Chino Nino, the rapper from Ohio, answered a question from the witness stand.

"Do you know the term, 'studio gangsta'?" asked Steve Sadow, the lawyer for one of Ray Lewis' co-defendants.

"Yes," Gwen said. "It's someone that talks about things they don't do."

A rapper without a rap sheet. All talk, no walk. Someone who's never experienced or inflicted the violence about which he raps.

"So, a real rapper doesn't want to be known as a studio gangsta, does he?" Sadow asked, implying that a "real rapper," such as Gwen, seeks out experiences in the gangsta culture, along the edges of trouble. Gangsta rap has to ring with authenticity, if not gunfire.

But Gwen disagreed. If a gangsta rapper did all the things he claimed to do in his songs, he wouldn't be around for long. He'd be dead or in jail. "You're not a studio rapper, are you?" Sadow asked, sarcastically reminding Gwen that his answer would be carried live on national television via Court TV. And firmly -- as firmly as he had answered any question over two days of testimony -- Jeff Gwen, aka Chino Nino, said: "No."

He seemed downright insulted by the question. Or perhaps unnerved by the contradiction it presented. Gwen, who is 26 and an important witness in the Lewis prosecution, wore a floppy denim jacket and jeans over a white T-shirt as he sat in the witness stand near a bottle of Moet et Chandon, a prop that had been used to demonstrate the fighting that led to the deaths of Gwen's friends from Ohio, Richard Lollar and Jacinth Baker, in the early hours of Jan. 31.

Gwen and other young guys from Akron had been at the Cobalt Lounge late on Super Bowl Sunday and into Monday. They got caught in the middle of the violent mess that ended with two lifeless, bloody bodies sprawled at the intersection of East Paces Ferry Road and Grandview Avenue.

Up until then, it had been a pretty nice evening.

Gwen had come to this city by pickup truck, smoking blunts laced with marijuana on the way. He'd come with friends "from O-H-Ten" (Ohio) to promote his rap CD, "Get Wet." He thought the Cobalt Lounge, in the hip and happening Buckhead district, would be a great place to get some exposure for his music. Especially on Super Bowl weekend.

Lewis, who turned 25 last week, had come by stretch limousine with a pile of friends to party hard, to sign autographs and to celebrate his achievement as the National Football League's leading tackler. The mink-wrapped entourage, including a couple of convicted felons Lewis did not have the good sense to shake, landed at the Cobalt, too.

And they and the guys from O-H-Ten ended up in the icy January air, and words were exchanged, and violence followed.

Now, five months later, Lewis sits silently at the defendant's table while Gwen describes how he saw Lewis "tussle" with Lollar, and how he saw Reginald Oakley, a member of Lewis' entourage, punching the late Jacinth Baker in the chest. Gwen was a convincing witness, and his testimony inflicted the most damage on Oakley, which is why his defense lawyer, the Donald Trumpesque David Wolfe, went after him.

Wolfe went hard up gangsta alley, waving the lyrics to Chino Nino's songs, reciting them, ridiculing them, expressing outrage at their violent rhymes with the righteous indignation of Jesse Helms.

Excerpt: "We're packed and we're lookin' for action. We're strapped, ready to tear up the club and make it happen." ("Strapped," Wolfe got Gwen to explain, means armed with a gun.) And this: "We hit without discretion, you wet steppin' in my direction, kingpin for O-H-Ten." And this: "Pistol-whip the snitch and dump his body in the late night. We don't play fight. The war is on, grab your weapons, blow the horn, after midnight we swarm." And this: "Get my ex three by eight Lex Luger. I swear if you're too close, I'll draw it out and shoot you."

And this: "I'm dumpin, leavin' wounded soldiers in your area. You ain't witnessed nothin' like Chino Psycho Flambino."

The silver-haired and blustery Wolfe wanted to know if Gwen was really as full of violent bravado as his songs suggested. Was he just a rap performer from Ohio or was he this Chino Nino? Was he gangsta or studio gangsta?

"I was just writing lyrics," Gwen said. "I write stuff according to how I feel Some stuff comes from life experiences." And now he can count Jan. 31, 2000, among his life experiences -- the frosty morning he saw friends' bloody bodies in East Paces Ferry Road. If Jeff Gwen, aka Nino Chino, was ever studio, he certainly isn't anymore.

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