His hard-bitten lyrics and bruising diss tracks have earned gangsta rapper AR-Ab a dedicated following in his native Philadelphia over the last decade, and the respect of hip-hop heavyweights ranging from Drake to producer Swizz Beatz.
Drawn by his tales of street justice and boasts of his dominance in the drug-world, viewers have flocked by the millions to his self-released YouTube music videos.
But on Tuesday, federal jurors decided that AR-Ab’s tough-talking kingpin persona was more than just bombast to burnish his music cred. It was, they concluded, a reflection of a real-life criminal career.
Jurors found the rapper — whose legal name is Abdul West — and three members of his entourage guilty of turning their record label, Original Block Hustlaz (OBH), into a large-scale North Philly drug trafficking operation implicated in at least two killings.
Although federal prosecutors did not charge them in connection with those deaths, they left little doubt as to whom they believed to be responsible.
“Every one of them had their hustles,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Everett R. Witherell told jurors during his closing argument last week. “But it all ran through Mr. West.”
West, 37, sat stoically next to his lawyer as the jury announced its verdicts Tuesday on counts including conspiracy and distribution of crack cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine. As U.S. marshals handcuffed him and led him back to prison, he smiled and blew a kiss to supporters and fans in the courtroom.
He faces a mandatory minimum prison sentence of 15 years under recidivist provisions in federal drug laws.
The verdict came after a two-week trial that put West’s music under a microscope and raised questions about just how much a genre defined by hyper-masculine boasting of street-honed toughness can be taken at its word.
In West’s case, prosecutors argued, his lyrics and social media persona were more than just marketing: They amounted to a confession to crimes.
Jurors were shown several of West’s videos and dozens of Instagram posts as FBI agents pointed to direct links to crimes that he or members of his crew had committed. That evidence was buttressed by a trove of more traditional evidence investigators amassed over two years, including wire recordings, pole camera video, cell phone location data, and text messages pulled from the defendants’ phones.
Prosecutors interpreted his lyrics in one video to be an admission that West ordered the 2017 murder of drug world rival Robert Johnson, who was shot multiple times on the 4000 block of Benner Street in Wissinoming. A member of West’s entourage, Dontez “Taz” Stewart, has been charged with the slaying.
“I’ll have da whole city scared,” West’s song says. “Stand near home / I call Taz and tell him / Bring dat n—’s head to me.”
Investigators discovered the lyrics for that track, written four days after Johnson’s death, in a note in West’s phone. He maintained that it was a coincidence. Prosecutors balked.
“Either he’s the most unlucky musician that ever existed,” said Witherell, who prosecuted the case with co-counsel Timothy M. Stengel, “or he ordered that hit.”
In another video released after FBI agents raided an OBH stash house at the One Water Street Apartments in Old City last year, West complained that the feds “took 10 of ‘em” — a reference to 10 kilograms of cocaine seized at the scene.
“Quarter million loss, got a broke heart,” he rapped. “And they snatched my dog, that’s the worst part. / One rat destroy everything you work for. / I pray to God that he don’t tell them who he work for.”
Throughout the trial, West and his codefendants maintained that OBH was not a drug-trafficking front, but a legitimate record label that had drawn interest from fans and music industry insiders alike.
They pushed to keep the music videos out of court, accusing prosecutors of using their profanity-riddled lyrics and descriptions of violence to turn the jury against them.
“These aren’t love songs,” said Evan Hughes, attorney for West’s codefendant Jamaal “Bionickhaz” Blanding. “This is street music.”
U.S. District Judge Michael M. Baylson, in an October opinion referencing violent scenes from American mob movies and classic operas, said he was sensitive to the danger implicit in searching for literal truth in artistic expression.
But he ultimately concluded that West’s lyrics were relevant to his crimes.
“Simply put,” he wrote, “individuals cannot immunize themselves from criminal liability by expressing their intent in a rap video.”
West had made little effort to hide the truth behind his lyrics as his career took off from his battle rapping days in the early 2000s to his more recent beefs with other rappers, like his Philadelphia contemporary Meek Mill.
In a 2015 interview, West spoke plainly about growing up on a “crack block” in North Philly and inheriting his drug-dealing territory from a friend who got out of the trade.
“You’ve got people who know how to rap good but don’t live that life, and you got people that live that life but don’t know how to rap good,” he said. “I live that life, and I rap good.”
Dozens of witnesses at trial described West’s sizable narcotics-trafficking operation. Based in the same neighborhoods of North Philly where West grew up, it drew its supply of crack cocaine, heroin, and meth from California, and stored it in upscale Center City apartments that he believed would be less likely to draw law enforcement scrutiny.
One of them, the Edgewater Apartments at 2323 Race St., belonged to Johnson before West allegedly had him killed.
Fans reacted to news of the rapper’s conviction with a mix of dismay and tweeting under hashtags like #FreeAR-Ab.
The future of OBH and its artists now hangs in doubt. By far the most popular rapper at his label, AR-Ab is facing decades behind bars.
Its second most renowned artist — Charles “Dark Lo” Salley, who was not indicted with the others — was arrested during the trial for allegedly intimidating a witness, a charge that carries a maximum prison term of 20 years.
West’s codefendants all had links to OBH. They include Blanding; Jameel “Melanio” Hickson; and Hans “No Brakes Bras” Gadsen. Five others pleaded guilty beforehand.
And at least two other members of his crew — Stewart and Abbas Parker — are facing state prison sentences for murders associated with the group.
Asked Tuesday why West himself had not been charged with murder despite the accusations at trial, prosecutors said it was their policy not to discuss their charging decisions.