Philadelphia rap star Tommy Hill - a key member of the group RAM Squad - died Sunday morning, two days after being shot in an apparent robbery outside an East Mount Airy bar, police sources said.
Hill, whose given name was John Wilson, had been living in Atlanta since serving two years in prison on federal drug charges and since the RAM Squad's breakup.
Hill launched his career in the late 1990s with the help of former mob boss Joseph "Skinny Joey" Merlino, and federal authorities later pressured him to cooperate with investigations into drug dealing and City Hall corruption.
Hill told The Inquirer last year he had rebuffed those overtures, but he testified in 2004 against a trio of Kensington crack dealers accused of amassing an arsenal of weaponry to protect their turf.
Hill, 36, began serving his prison sentence that same year for selling crack.
"When he came out, I had a long talk with him about what I thought he needed to do to straighten out his life," said Bernie Resnick, an entertainment lawyer who had worked with Hill since the late 1990s. "He was listening, or at least I thought he was listening."
Resnick, who said he learned of Hill's death from another client, said he told Hill to work in the background as a songwriter, promoter, and marketer of new talent. Hill appeared to have been following that advice - he started a company, 34th Floor Entertainment, and worked mostly with artists in Atlanta and North Carolina.
"Because of the nature of the testimony he gave . . . he was going to have a target on his back for a very long time," Resnick said. "Of course, Tommy had trouble doing anything in the background."
Social-media and news websites dedicated to hip-hop were filled Sunday night with speculation about Hill's shooting death, but Philadelphia police would not discuss the case.
In fact, police would not even officially identify Hill as the victim of the Friday-morning shooting outside Reuben's Marc bar at 8131 Stenton Ave.
In the original account of the shooting, police said the victim left the bar about 1:30 a.m. without paying his tab. When the manager went outside to collect the money, police said, three masked men approached and announced a robbery.
After two of the robbers rifled the victim's pockets, they shot him in the chest and lower body, police said. The manager and bar security guard then drew their own weapons and traded gunfire with the robbers. No one else was injured.
The victim was taken to Einstein Medical Center in critical condition. He was pronounced dead at 5:16 a.m. Sunday.
Resnick said Hill didn't spend much time in Philadelphia, and he didn't know he was in town last week.
Hill was raised in North Philadelphia's Richard Allen public housing project, and the RAM Squad was an acronym for "Richard Allen Mob."
Though the group's lyrics were classic gangsta rap, its members strove for a more melodic and danceable sound that would be palatable to rock fans, Resnick said.
They signed with the label Universal after selling 50,000 records on their own in Philadelphia. They toured with rapper Nelly but never received the support they needed before Universal dropped them, Resnick said.
Hill was the "life of the party," he said.
"He was a bigger-than-life personality," he said. "He certainly lived a life that was worthy of a screenplay."