[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.
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.
"When I first came here, there wasn't a hip-hop background," says Buddy, "We had the opportunity to come here and make history, to do a positive thing. We take people off the streets--you know, gangbangers, helping people stop doing drugs. We took a lot of people into our family, helped them get back on track."
For the white mainstream, the question of why seems less prominent than the question of who. The wire report that was read on local news radio and television was the first many Twin Cities residents had heard of the rising star in their midst. Much of Buddy's angling has happened behind the scenes, or in venues where white clubgoers rarely poke their noses. Many, no doubt, heard that a hip-hop performer had stumbled into legal trouble and decided that "the situation" could easily be lumped under the all-purpose header "Another Rapper Gone Bad."
But over the past several years, Buddy has garnered a good deal of attention for his ambitions and achievements. In 1999, he had earned the attention of the Source, the most influential magazine in the hip-hop community. Stories about Buddy ran there over several months under the title "Diary of a New Jack," a series following the careers of unsigned MCs.
"The stories in the Source made people in Minneapolis and St. Paul proud," Scott asserts. "Over the past two years, no one has been able to put Minneapolis is the spotlight the way he did. With Lil Buddy's emergence, the spotlight was on Minneapolis because he was big upping Minneapolis and repping Minneapolis."
That sort of exposure, says Scott, is immensely valuable. As he frames the Source profiles, "It would be as if a rock group here like the Dillinger Four were followed month by month in a national publication like Rolling Stone or Spin."
Buddy was a big deal locally as well. His single "Woo Woo" became a local phenomenon with the help of heavy KMOJ airplay. He was the only hip-hop artist featured on We Rocked the World, the 1999 disc commemorating Jesse Ventura's gubernatorial inauguration. And his 2000 album, Major, sold well in the area. Then his profile largely dipped below the public radar. It would be easy to assume that Lil Buddy's star had diminished.
Critic Chris Riemenschneider concluded just that in the Star Tribune, writing in a January 4 article that "stagnating dreams of success and mounting debt may have put him in a desperate position." That's hardly a wild assumption. After all, why else would you rob a bank? Like they say, that's where the money is.
The man has two relatives in the hospital with expensive ailments. He has two sons, ages three and five, to support. At least one studio owner has lamented his inability to collect past debts from Buddy. And the career he has insisted is ready to blow up for years now is still largely confined to the Twin Cities. A spare 40 grand wouldn't solve all those problems, but it wouldn't hurt.
Buddy categorically denies that he has experienced financial hardship. "I have never had a problem taking care of my family," he says.
Similarly, Hassan maintains that Clientele is safely in the black. "Keep in mind that his career side has nothing to do with his personal, family, or emotional distress," Hassan adds firmly. "As far as stress on the career, there was none."
Explaining Buddy's low profile recently, Buddy and Hassan insist that they were preoccupied with label negotiations. In fact, after long deliberation, Clientele Entertainment seems set to make a deal with Interscope Records that would bring Buddy and Clientele's supporting acts--Igloo Knob, Don Steppa, Shotty Boo--under the aegis of that major label.
And there is evidence that money has never been an object with Clientele in the past. If anything, Clientele has flaunted its cash. The label has a reputation around town for not taking payment for shows and for being generous with money and charity benefits. "I've booked shows [with Buddy] in the past and I've tried to give him money and he wouldn't take it," states Scott.
Tommy Tucker Jr., owner of Master Mix Studios in Minneapolis, doubts claims that Clientele is flush with cash: Buddy and his label, Tucker claims, owe him $10,000 for past studio time.
"Slowly but surely the phone numbers we had [for Buddy] were disconnected," says Tucker, adding that he's just about given up collecting the debt. "This sort of thing doesn't happen to us much, and it happens less since Buddy. At least we made him pay for his own tape."
Hassan gruffly counters that he and Buddy never paid their bill because they were dissatisfied with the business arrangement they had with Tucker. Considering Buddy's greater difficulties, that issue may never be fully settled. But even more important than whether Buddy owes money on the studio is the vehemence with which he argues that he has no financial difficulties. After years as a local high roller, his solvency is a point of pride. It's easier for Buddy to admit to mental duress than to a negative cash flow.
"No one had an idea that I was depressed," continues Buddy. "They're so used to seeing me be the strong person. I'm strong for everyone else. I wouldn't really get into it. No one had an idea, not even [Hassan], and this is my closest friend. I'm with him more than I'm with anyone, and he had no idea. It's a lot to deal with."
Since his release, Buddy has been in the studio almost constantly. He already has more than enough in the can for a new record. One can only guess why he's stockpiling material. If a musician crafts art out of life, then you would surely expect such a traumatic experience to inspire him. Or, more cynically, one might imagine that Buddy, like Slick Rick or Tupac before him, wants to get as much on tape before he disappears into the forced public-relations void of prison.
But both those MCs already had noted careers behind them. Will Lil Buddy be that lucky? He's betting on it.
"In the past few days, I've already cut six or seven new songs," he reports by phone, two weeks after our initial interview, maintaining that the recording will reflect a desire to be open with his fans and the community. "We don't see any reason to hide anything from the public that has always supported us," he says. "I'm definitely recording something with regard to what was going on with my brothers."
It's an open question, though, how deeply these new tracks will address his trials. Buddy McLain has always been a public artist and a private man. Now, Lil Buddy has the artistic opportunity to show a black man publicly grappling with depression, and with other personal issues that often go unacknowledged in hip hop. He has innumerable personal reasons to back down from the challenge: a desire to protect the privacy of his family, an unwillingness to seem defeated, fear of legal repercussions. But hip-hop listeners who learn communication from the art form they love--white kids as well as black--would have a lot to learn from that sort of risk-taking.
And perhaps Buddy could teach himself in the process as well. "I want to learn me," he says. "I want to learn how to talk to people, how to get things off my chest. I'm learning that it's all right to shed a tear here and there."
Correction published February 6, 2002:
Keith Harris credited the wrong news organization for breaking the story about the arrest of rapper Lil Buddy. Word of the arrest surfaced first in a Pioneer Press article by Hannah Allam. The above version of the story reflects the corrected text. City Pages regrets the error.
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