Mario Hamilton was on a good run when he strolled into the recording studio on Memorial Drive.
The tattooed 6-foot-6 rapper had served his apprenticeship with influential hip-hop artists and was creating buzz as Slim Dunkin, a larger-than-life character with a swagger, a sense of humor and a splash of sex appeal.
On this December afternoon, he was shooting a video with popular, street-toughened rapper Gucci Mane. It was one more step toward clearing out his own lane in the cut-throat business.
But Hamilton, 24, never shot the video. While in the studio, he got into a fight with another rapper and was shot to death. Vinson Hardimon, 29, who had bumped around the business for years without much success, allegedly shot Hamilton after the two argued about candy and, more so, witnesses said, perceived disrespect.
A week later, Slim Dunkin was being lionized as a rap casualty, a budding artist cut down and celebrated in death with a horse carriage, an elegant white coffin and piles of floral arrangements.
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“Unfortunately, it does seem like a cliche; like you’ve heard this story so many times before,” said Wendy Day, an Atlantan who advises rappers in business dealings.
For more than a decade, Atlanta has been a hip-hop mecca filled with hungry, home-grown rappers pushing hard to break out and those from other locales moving here to break into the scene.
It’s an atmosphere where, it seems, every third young male with his pants hanging low is either a rapper, producer or promoter, where jealousy abounds and rivalries play out on YouTube, pumping up the publicity, feuds and even violence, which then fuels more publicity.
Digital technology and inexpensive production equipment have drastically slashed the cost of cutting a track, and the Internet has made distribution as easy as clicking a mouse.
“Everyone has a studio with equipment in their basement, renting it out,” said Marcus Everson, an Atlanta man who raps under the name Showtime and who cut a mix with Hamilton called “Do It Big.” “There’s a ton of unsigned artists out there. Ludacris sold albums out of his trunk. People want to do it like him.”
But while the ranks of the hopeful swell, the economy has caused the industry to shrink.
“There’s less and less opportunity in Atlanta than there once was,” said Day. Large local studios — like Def Jam or T.I.’s label — have either downsized or moved to New York, she said. A sense of desperation, coupled with the bravado endemic in that world, often breeds violence, she said.
Hamilton’s two well-known local mentors — rappers Gucci Mane (Radric Davis) and Waka Flocka Flame (Juaquin Malphurs) — are well-acquainted with trouble. In 2005, Gucci was charged with murder in DeKalb County after shooting a Macon rapper he said attacked him. The charges were later dropped. Two years ago, Waka was shot in the arm while at a Fulton County car wash. Last year, security guards on his tour bus traded gunfire with assailants outside a car stereo store in Charlotte.
“Where we live, that’s how it is,” said Chaz Cobb, a friend of Malphurs and Hamilton who was at the studio at the time of the shooting. Violence is “what Waka rapped about and people are always trying him. That’s how it is. There’s a lot of jealousy. People think, ‘Why’d he make it and not me?’
“It was the same thing with Slim,” Cobb added. “He was moving too fast.”
‘Don’t get gangsta’
Professional jealousy was not cited as a motive by police. A review of investigative files and witness statements indicate it was more of a clash of egos.
While at the studio, Hamilton grabbed a banana taffy chew belonging to Hardimon, who is known as Young Vito and who once cut a song with Gucci. Hardimon, a regular at the studio, was angered and argued with Hamilton, who retorted, “I didn’t know it was your candy. Don’t get gangsta with me.”
Hamilton went into a recording booth and rapped about a man with dreadlocks. Hardimon, who has dreads, burst in and started punching the visiting rapper, witnesses said. Bystanders pulled the two apart but Hamilton broke free, one witness said, and was starting back at his attacker when he was shot in the abdomen.
“I ain’t got time to be playing games,” Hardimon said as he stomped off, a witness said.
Friends rushed Hamilton to Grady Hospital but he bled to death. Police had a hard time locating witnesses, who were afraid of retaliation or unwilling to snitch.
Hardimon surrendered days later after hearing of threats on his life.
None of Hardimon’s friends, family or associates would talk, referring questions to his attorney, who would not return calls. In court, his attorney argued Hardimon, who is about 9 inches shorter than Hamilton, fired the single shot in defense.
Hamilton’s father, Mark, often warned his son rap was a dangerous business. But he says his son is a casualty of Fulton County’s justice system.
At the time of the killing, Hardimon was out on bond after allegedly threatening a woman and her daughter with a pistol in April 2011. The woman told police Hardimon often flew into angry tirades. It was his ninth arrest, according to prosecutors, four times with a gun.
“Why was there not a closer look at this guy, seeing that he had four gun arrests?” asked the elder Hamilton. “He was released on bond two days later.
“Every time he’s released, he’s thinking, ‘I’m getting away with it.’ This guy was a ticking time bomb. He was going to hurt someone and the Fulton County justice system failed our family.”
A review of the earlier case against Hardimon shows he was released on $36,000 bond. The address on the court paperwork is for a southeast Atlanta house that burned down months before that arrest.
Not many old rappers
Hamilton grew up in Detroit and New Jersey and moved with his mother to Atlanta in 2004. He tried a couple semesters at Atlanta Metro College but dropped out.
He was introduced to Malphurs (Waka) by his high school friend, Chaz Cobb. Malphurs hadn’t started rapping yet but became successful soon after his 2009 debut.
“Waka popped six months after he started rapping, that’s the crazy part,” said Cobb. “In that business the strongest survive. But sometimes you get lucky and catch a break and make a move.”
Waka was fortunate on another front: His mother, Debra Antney, runs an Atlanta area production company that manages Waka, and helped Gucci and chart-topper Nicki Minaj rise to stardom.
Malphurs, who puts on full-tilt, high-energy shows, cut a couple CDs with his protege, Slim. They called themselves the “Twin Towers” because Waka is nearly as tall as his friend.
Waka’s career has taken off. He lives in a gated golf community and will grace the cover of next month’s SPIN magazine. Waka’s success lit a fire under Hamilton, who, according to his mother, Janet Wallace, couldn’t sing. But he was tall, handsome and appealed to women.
“He thought he was the Denzel Washington of rap,” said Cobb, with a laugh. “He struggled to get better. From his first mix tapes to his latest, he had a progression.”
Friends say he had a fierce work ethic when it came to his newfound dream. And Hamilton knew he didn’t have much time.
“There’s not a lot of 30-year-old rappers out there,” he told his mother.
He also had to create a persona for the stage. Waka gave him a chain with bejeweled Gumby and Pokey characters to be his symbol. It fit in with his sense of humor. Slim Dunkin was long and stretchy, just like Gumby. He played the hard-nosed game with a smile and a wink.
He covered himself with tattoos, including a pair of praying hands and his stage name stenciled across his torso.
But the ink went no lower than his elbows and didn’t rise up his neck. He told his family he could still cover up with a shirt and get a job one day if he had to.
True to the streets
In the genre, one must appear tough, carry a snarl and be true to the streets.
“But he’s not from the streets, he’s from a good home,” said his mother. “You have to pretend to be tough. A lot of the people he introduced me to looked scary, but they aren’t scary.”
His father noticed a YouTube video of his son cold-cocking a member of a rival crew a couple years ago. Another clip had Slim spouting hip-hop nihilism: “I dunno if I’ll be alive in five years,” he told an interviewer.
The videos worried his father, who didn’t care for his music.
“It was over the top,” he said. “But I told him, ‘As long as you stay out of jail and above ground, go for it.’
“I told him to stay out of fights. You think it’s a fist fight and someone pulls a gun. I told him these kind of people will kill you.”
Hamilton’s alleged killer, Hardimon, is being held without bond. But that is not side-tracking his career.
Recently, his Twitter account pumped up buzz for Young Vito’s new CD. It carries an image of the rapper photo-shopped in front of the Fulton County jail and is called “Candybarz.” It is unknown if that is reference to the candy-instigated fight dispute that put him behind bars.
But the CD carries his motto for life. The first song starts out repeating the verse “They can’t [expletive] with V.”