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Rhyming through the hard times

Hip-Hop artist and teacher Ronald "Ron Royal" Reid writes in his notebook. Reid says music has helped him through tough periods in his life, such as the death of his best friend and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
Hip-Hop artist and teacher Ronald "Ron Royal" Reid writes in his notebook. Reid says music has helped him through tough periods in his life, such as the death of his best friend and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Manchester Meadows' resident rapper sits alone at a picnic table.

The park is in full spring mode on a recent Thursday afternoon. Sunny, but not hot. Breezy, but no gusts. It's the kind of weather that attract parents, children and Ronald "Ron Royal" Reid.

With plans to record an album this summer, Reid finds himself here often, writing songs about everything from broken relationships to surviving Hurricane Katrina.

His lanky 6-foot, 6-inch frame is slumped over a spiral-bound notebook, a gold-colored pen in his right hand. The 25-year-old -- called "Ron Royal" because of his desire to be considered among the greats -- focuses on the beats pumping from his black iPod.

Occasionally, he raps in a low hum, searching for the language that matches the rhythm. His left hand keeps time, moving as though he were working an invisible turntable.

And at some point, his mind will drift to the subject he ponders daily. March 31, 2004: The day his best friend and fellow rapper Arthur Tips was shot to death by Sumter police.

Discovering music

On weekdays, before he comes to the park, Reid works with behaviorally challenged kids at Chester Middle School. He also serves as a leader of the King's CREW, a school group that promotes nonviolent activism among students.

In many of these children, he sees a familiar sight.

"You have a lot of kids that are in these situations that need that example of someone who genuinely wants to see them do better and (can) honestly say, 'I've been where you are, and I didn't give up,'" he said.

Reid was raised by his mother, a teacher, who took care of him and his younger brother. He remembers brawls and drug deals going down in his rough Charleston neighborhood.

It was also in Charleston that Ronald wrote his first rap lines. His second-grade script: "I'm the Joker. I play poker. I sit on my sofa and drink some soda. I go outside and look for Batman, turn around and see a fat man."

"We were just trying to find words that rhymed," he said.

The first rap audio cassette he worshipped was LL Cool J's "I'm Bad." He always made sure to turn the volume down during the one bad word in the song so his mother wouldn't hear it. He rewound and played the tape so many times it broke.

Fortunately for Reid, he also grew up during the rise of the Fresh Prince, Will Smith. Smith didn't curse on his records, so Reid and his mother could listen to the music together on their 3-hour drive to his grandmother's house.

Reid's mother, Patricia Willis, shared his love for rhymes. She was a poet, the lady people came to see when relatives died because she knew how to pair the words that would become the poems of obituaries and funerals.

Meeting Arthur

Music gained a newfound importance to Reid at age 10 when his family moved to Sumter. Shortly after arriving, he saw the neighbor's kid sitting outside with a dictionary, studiously writing down vocabulary words.

The boy was a year younger than Reid. His name was Arthur Tips.

"Like brothers," Willis said of the friendship that developed between her son and Tips. "Arthur would be at my house about as much as my own children were there. ... He could just come and walk on in. He didn't bother to knock or anything."

The two soon began rapping with Tips' older brother, whose crew formed a rap group called "Society of Shadows" that would battle rappers from other neighborhoods.

Dozens of kids would sometimes gather for a battle in a grove of plum trees. The young rappers stood in a circle and blasted everything from their rivals' shoes to their mommas.

The older guys helped Reid and Tips write their rhymes. They dubbed the two middle school boys the Rugratz.

As the boys matured, so did their music.

The first song they wrote by themselves was called "Kids Killing Kids," a series of rhymes about teen violence. They set the beat, penned the words and performed it at a school talent show while sharing a microphone.

"We actually wrote a lot of stuff that was ahead of our time," Reid said. "We rapped about HIV and AIDS. ... We saw violence, and we rapped about it."

They honed their skills in lunchroom freestyle sessions, where some guys would beat the table while others kept the hooks flowing. And they continued to play -- and win -- local talent shows.

The boys wrote songs after school at Reid's room, spewing their lines through his karaoke machine. They filled notebooks with rhymes and dreamed of being like their idols, OutKast.

Rap "was their life," said longtime friend Dedrick Harvin of Rock Hill.

The boys called themselves Black Diamond. Only they could divide themselves.

As the duo continued to refine their craft, Willis noticed her son's poetic skills.

"I never knew that was in him," she said. "When I would read some of the things he had written, I was just very moved by them ... They were so deep."

The boys even developed their own rap names. Tips was "Imfamous T" (as in I'm Famous T) and Reid was "Dangerous D," although the initial reason for Reid's title wasn't so scary.

Tips played basketball and football. But Reid was clumsy and hurt other people or himself when he played sports. Or anything else.

"He thought he could dance like Usher," Harvin said. "But his own feet tripped him up."

The day

The boys lives -- and their goals -- changed after graduation. Tips became a father during his senior year and went to work after high school. Reid dropped out of college so he could pay for his new car. Over the next few years, they made time to write, even as Reid moved to Charleston, back to Sumter and then to Rock Hill in 2003 with his mother after she remarried.

That same year, Ronald met Nate Pitts, who was managing a Radio Shack when Reid came looking for a transfer to the store. Reid began talking about Black Diamond, and Pitts said he was looking to start his own management company focusing on sports and entertainment.

"What I got from my initial conversation was his passion," Pitts said. "He had the talent, and he also had the business side."

A few months later, Black Diamond had an audition scheduled with a guy who could get the duo major exposure.

Finally, Reid thought, they'd have a chance to record their music. If they made it big, they could spoil Tips' two daughters and buy houses for their mothers.

Three days before Black Diamond's big audition, Reid went job-hunting around Charlotte. He accidentally left his cell phone at home, which was unusual because he always kept it with him.

Throughout the day, he felt funny, but he thought it was because he didn't have his phone. He headed back home to Rock Hill around 5 p.m.

When he walked through the door, his mother stopped him.

"Son, I have some bad news," she said, and he quickly assumed he'd again been turned down for a job.

"When she said that Arthur got killed ... that was the last thing that I expected to hear," he said. "I just froze up. I stopped thinking about my music. I stopped thinking about everything."

Witness accounts from the State Law Enforcement Division's report on the case say Sumter police responded to a local day care center on that day to talk 20-year-old Tips, who had been in an argument with an ex-girlfriend, but Tips drove away.

Police tried to puncture his tires with stop sticks, and Tips turned into a vacant lot, according to witness statements. When officers approached the vehicle, they said he pulled out a silver handgun and opened fired while holding his 1-year-old daughter. One officer was shot in the backside but survived. The child wasn't hurt.

One officer said he shot Tips in the back as Tips was firing on other officers. According to the report, when Tips did not put down his gun, the officer shot him in the head, killing him.

The Third Circuit Solicitor's Office said SLED's investigation revealed no criminal conduct by the police officers, and the office declined to prosecute.

When Reid finally got to his phone that day, he had several hundred missed calls.

Another setback

Reid was distraught. He said Tips wasn't a violent guy and he would never put his daughters in danger. He didn't know him to carry a gun.

The loss left Reid mad, furious that they'd come so close to their dream, only to end up with this nightmare.

"I forgot about Saturday," he said. "I forgot about auditions. ... The only thing I knew was that the best friend I ever had was not here."

For the rest of the year, Reid read every report about the shooting, including one that said possible gunshot residue was found on the hands of two officers involved in the incident, but not on Tips' hands. Reid was confused and frustrated by the whole situation.

Then, a longtime friend from Sumter, John Turner, told Reid to change scenery. Turner serves in the U.S. Air Force and was stationed near Biloxi, Miss.

"I know he was going through some hard times in his life with Arthur's death and all," Turner wrote in an e-mail to The Herald from his current post in Italy. "So I told him to come out to (Mississippi) with me and he could get away from it all."

Reid moved to Mississippi in February 2005. The beach treated him well. There, people didn't talk about Tips. And though he'd struggled to find work in Rock Hill, he landed three jobs in just a few weeks in Mississippi. He stayed in an apartment near the ocean.

He walked in the sand at night, rapping about and to Arthur, trying to heal. He wrote rhymes on his balcony. He read Psalms and Proverbs, searching for spiritual guidance.

Reid and Turner talked about Tips and about the music. Turner didn't want Reid to stop.

"I believe that he is better than 98 percent (of the) people out there who have record deals," Turner wrote. "The world needs to hear him because he doesn't rap about the same trash that is out there now, and there is something unique in his way with words."

Gradually, through talking with Turner and writing songs, Reid let go of the bitterness. He hooked up with one of Turner's military friends who had a drum machine and an expensive keyboard. They went to a local studio and recorded a few songs.

Then, Reid was dealt another setback -- Hurricane Katrina, which ravaged the Gulf Coast in the summer of 2005.

By the time he realized the track of the storm, evacuating wasn't an option. He went to a shelter on the Air Force base to wait out the storm.

He was stuck there for more than a week. He passed time by blowing up plastic gloves to serve as makeshift balloons for kids. When Reid finally got out, his life in Mississippi was over.

Reid returned to Rock Hill and moved back in with his mother. He became a popular substitute teacher in York, the same school district where she worked.

And like he had after Tips' death and before Katrina, he again found his music and adapted to life.

Reid's time as a substitute teacher, his ability to relate to troubled students and his friendship with Harvin, a Chester elementary school teacher, helped him land his job at Chester Middle.

He started working there in the fall, and he's taking online college courses through Kaplan University, studying counseling.

Pitts, who stayed in contact with Reid through Tips' death and the hurricane, now encourages him to channel his experiences into his music.

This summer, Ron Royal plans to record his first album, featuring tracks dedicated to Tips and his experience with the hurricane. He won't profanely rap about drugs or treating women with disrespect. Instead, his music tells his story, while encouraging people to overcome their trials.

Reid hopes his rap will become mainstream. But if it doesn't and he spends his days rapping to school kids about avoiding gangs and wanting a better life, he's fine with that, too.

"In the beginning, it probably was more about the fame and the fortune," his mother said of his music. "But now, it's really more toward 'How can I help someone?'"

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