[Editor's note: A correction ran concerning this story; see end of article.]
Buddy McLain does not smile as he shakes my hand. This isn't a snub, just a sober display from a man who has seen happier days. On a bright weekday morning, we meet in the lobby of an office building in the Minneapolis Warehouse District, step into the elevator together, exchange polite greetings. The celebrated local MC, who performs under the moniker Lil Buddy (his birth name is Andre Locke), appears almost imperceptibly older than when we last met two years ago. There's a slight crinkling of the skin near the eyes and mouth, an edge of accumulated seriousness, a twinge of haggardness in his posture.
Partly, Buddy appears older because he is older--he turns 29 this May. Partly this is a result of his fashion adjustments. Gone is the Afro that lent him a youthful buoyancy, replaced by a set of cornrows that drape down his neck. Yet it's hard not to conclude that Buddy's face shows the marks of his recent personal trauma. Two of his brothers--Alvono Buchanan and Irving Locke--collapsed within a week of each other this past December. Both then went on dialysis, and both are in need of a healthy kidney.
And then there's the little matter of a bank robbery. According to police reports, on December 28, Eagan police spotted a blue Audi that had been reported stolen, and chased the vehicle until the driver crashed into a tree in St. Paul. According to the criminal complaint filed by federal agent John P. Fagan, who arrived on the scene, Andre Locke was the driver of the Audi. Inside the vehicle, officers found "a tan colored canvas bag" that contained "a large, black air pistol and numerous packs of United States currency bound by wrappers and rubber bands." Locke was arrested for robbing $39,900 from the Vermillion State Bank in Rosemount.
That sort of incident puts a few years on your face--and perhaps takes a few years off your life. Not much wiggle room there to protest one's innocence, it would seem. "Initially, we will enter a not-guilty plea," explains Buddy's lawyer, Ken Bottema. "Obviously, he's going to accept responsibility for what happened and we're just going to try to work something out."
Bottema is heartened by the fact that Judge Arthur J. Boylan released Buddy on a signature bond; essentially free on his own recognizance, Buddy owes the $25,000 if he fails to appear in court. "That's very unusual in a case like this," says Bottema. "Apparently the court saw that he wasn't a flight risk...and that he wasn't a danger to anyone."
But these events have been reported, first by the Pioneer Press, and later in reports by the Associated Press, the Star Tribune, and Channel 9 news. There would seem to be little to add to this store of facts. And so explanations remain scarce. Why might a man with no prior criminal record, a musician the Twin Cities hip-hop community has long deemed its most likely to succeed, decide--apparently on impulse--to attempt such a heist? In his first interview with the press since what he and Bottema refer to consistently as "the situation," Buddy provided little in the way of explanation, yet allowed a glimpse into his personal, formerly hidden frustrations.
In Bottema's office, Buddy wears a white collegiate sweater emblazoned with a large blue "1." Seated in the couch along the wall is Buddy's business partner in Clientele Entertainment, Henry Hassan, a large, formidable presence in a baggy Sean John shirt and black "God Bless America" ski cap. Also present is JonJon Scott, former Twin Cities show promoter and an associate of Buddy's. Across the desk from Buddy and me is Bottema.
Hip hop has had many prominent, well-publicized brushes with the law in the past. Some have been stories of rage and betrayal. Others have detailed how gang-related thuggery ignited the passions of those involved. But the fate of Lil Buddy may be the strangest story of all, the case of one man who allowed his personal anxieties to build to a head, then got involved in a perplexing, almost inexplicable series of events.
Buddy has always been a reserved interview, carefully weighing his responses before committing himself to a final answer. In the past, this has made him appear professional, endowing him with an air of gravity that you wouldn't expect from listening to his street party anthems. Now, of course, he has more reason to weigh his answers than ever. But slowly a narrative emerges: His inability to communicate the anguish caused by his brothers' illness to his friends and family caused him to snap.
"In regard to the situation, I don't know what happened," Buddy admits slowly. "I don't know what happened at all, and I'm trying to figure it out myself."
The Twin Cities black community is shocked by Buddy's arrest. Privately, several African-American radio personalities and musicians have expressed concern about why this would happen. Not only is Buddy clean, but the incident doesn't even jibe with his persona, which is street but hardly gangsta. Since moving up here from Chicago, Buddy has worked hard to establish a good reputation in the community. He has few if any enemies or detractors in the area. "He doesn't even smoke weed," one unnamed associate told me.