The upstart recording studio in the heart of Hampden had big aspirations in the rap business and a tough-sounding label name - Stash House Records - to help make its mark in a world where street credibility and thuggish machismo can drive sales.
Federal prosecutors now say the name was fitting.
In court papers unsealed last week, authorities accused two men of using the Stash House Records studio, formerly tucked among the boutique shops, cafes and used furniture stores on "The Avenue," as a place to sell and store heroin.
Authorities described a drug conspiracy that also is accused of being responsible for the January 2001 killing of a man the group suspected of stealing drugs, money and guns.
The men have pleaded not guilty in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, and their lawyers have rejected suggestions that the music business was a front for illegal drug traffic.
An attorney for one of the men, Deon Lionnel Smith, suggested that the case against his client could follow a pattern often repeated in the rap industry, where stars rise up from crime-plagued streets only to find themselves tainted by friends and associates from their former life.
"This is not the first time that legitimate businessmen have been caught up in the wrongdoings of their friends," said Baltimore defense attorney Kenneth W. Ravenell.
"Mr. Smith grew up in the neighborhoods ... but the fact that he may know people who are involved in the criminal milieu doesn't mean that he is involved in any wrongdoing," Ravenell said.
Ravenell described Smith, 32, as a silent partner in Stash House Records and an aspiring rap artist. Smith was charged along with Walter Oriley Poindexter, 28, in a five-count indictment with heroin distribution and conspiracy charges.
The indictment alleges that Poindexter, also known by the nickname "Fella," shot and killed Alvin "L" Jones on Jan. 22, 2001, because Poindexter believed that Jones had burglarized one of the drug group's stash houses. Baltimore attorney Arcangelo Tuminelli, who represents Poindexter, said he expected a separate indictment to be returned soon separating the two defendants and charging Poindexter directly with the murder.
Without elaboration, federal prosecutors said in court papers that the case against Poindexter and Smith is related to separate drug and gun charges brought a year ago against Warren Grace, 23, who described himself in a financial affidavit as a "self-employed rap artist."
Court papers describe Poindexter and Smith as jointly operating a bullying, armed heroin business from various locations, including the now-closed recording studio at 911 W. 36th St. in Hampden, and addresses in the 3600 block of Spaulding Ave. in Pimlico and the first block of Wellspring Circle in Owings Mills, Poindexter's last address.
Studio's status unclear
It was unclear last week whether Stash House still was in operation. A man who answered the business telephone last week said the company was regrouping but declined to give his name. The label's officers could not be reached last week or did not return phone calls seeking comment.
On the street, court records say, Poindexter sold the group's heroin under the name "9-11" and was willing to use physical force to protect turf and maintain loyalty within his organization.
The scene described in federal court papers hews closely to the drug world described in vivid detail in samples from one Stash House Records CD, Gumbo, which is advertised on the label's Web site as being released in summer 2002.
On "Feel My Pain," one Stash House artist raps about the "blow game" from the vantage of a dealer - "Imagine choppin' 1000 grams / and every day get bagged by 1000 hands / 1000 fiends, telling you 1000 schemes ... "
Ravenell, Smith's lawyer, said there is nothing illegal about tough-talking lyrics.
"In general, a lot of artists, they play the tough game," Ravenell said. "They fraternize with those in the [drug] business sometimes because it's about gaining the street credibility - and sometimes that can come back to haunt them."
High-profile rap producer Irving Lorenzo, founder and chief executive of the New York-based label Murder Inc., has offered a similar defense as he has found his business at the center of a federal money-laundering investigation.
Authorities in New York have alleged in court records that the label behind the careers of performers such as Ashanti and Ja Rule is secretly controlled by a convicted drug lord, Kenneth "Supreme" McGriff, and funded with cash from a drug route between New York and Baltimore.
McGriff was sentenced last month in Baltimore's federal courthouse to a three-year prison term for using a handgun at a Maryland firing range as a convicted felon. In a published interview, his friend Lorenzo - known by the nickname Irv Gotti - told the hip-hop magazine XXL that federal authorities "don't understand that, yeah, 'Preme is my man, and he is just that: my man."
As recently as Friday, a defendant in another unrelated Baltimore drug case sought to invoke hip-hop culture as a defense against charges that he was part of a well-entrenched crack cocaine ring.
At a detention hearing, defendant Derrick Powell, 21, of Cockeysville, described himself as a rising rap artist and argued that the slang and coded conversations that authorities overheard during a lengthy wiretap investigation were about CD sales, not drug peddling.
The explanation met a skeptical audience.
"I personally don't buy your explanation of the talk on the phone," said U.S. Magistrate Judge Susan K. Gauvey, who presided over the case only to determine the conditions of Powell's detention. "But I'm not the judge that's deciding this case."