Much of that stemmed from a relationship with Ted Ginn Sr. Coach Ginn knew all about Al's turbulent home life and took him under his wing, even inviting him over for Christmas. Al conditioned with the team, rode on the buses to games and meets. Al's other foundation was a neighborhood crew that called itself the S. Characterized by candy-painted, big-rimmed American luxury cars — Lincolns, Cadillacs and Oldsmobiles from the '60s and '70s — swangin' was a coming-of-age prerequisite in the Clair.
Al had some of the charisma of the guys they were listening to, plus a sharp tongue and a melodic style of rapping.
He first combined them into a little neighborhood chant, titled "Hol' Up," whose popularity snowballed among the social circles orbiting the popular football and track teams. At the Glenville talent show in December of , in front of a thousand kids, he got up on a stage to perform for the first time.
He used the profits to buy a pack of blank discs. And I saw people start respecting me. As Al enjoyed his school-ground notoriety, he was introduced to a Glenville freshman named Ralph Worley Jr. Al recorded his second mixtape, The Fat Ality , in the bedroom studio. He rapped over popular contemporary instrumentals but tossed a beat and verse from RJ himself at the end of the project.
RJ, 15, had first made beats on a PlayStation video game before becoming "savvy with the software shit" and upgrading to Pro Tools, an amateur producer's Pandora's box. The very first beat he made was inspired by the moody progressions of keyboard licks in " 5 On It ," the Bay Area anthem by Oakland duo Luniz.
He slowed them down, transposed them into mahogany piano notes, and stripped everything else back, leaving just handclaps, a shaker and a bass kick so powerful it shook his bedroom walls. Al was addicted to it. As Al's first two mixtapes created a buzz on the Clair, people got interested in working with him and RJ.
They've formed this little clique and they were like, 'Al, you in it? And I went. Two months into his fledgling music career, this was the first of many moments where Al — then a year-old teeming with talent but lacking on guidance — felt backed into a decision that was essentially already made for him. He doesn't admit resentment toward anyone, but there are wistful cracks of lamentation. And they said, 'We gotta get with Al. The clique was whittled down to four guys who called themselves Royalty Camp.
Over the next few weeks they recorded a track tape, taking turns laying bars in RJ's closet recording booth and embracing the local rap style of " cappin " — boasting about things you don't have or haven't done. They rhymed about jewelry, million-dollar deals, inch rims on Jaguars, hoping the verses, those bedroom incantations, would rap themselves into reality. On the last day of recording, Al asked RJ to put on the "5 On It" beat that he'd been mumbling to for months.
What they recorded, in one take, became the first version of "Came Down. Sure, he slurred some lines and words, but they liked the track's rawness. Plus, they didn't expect all that many people to hear it anyway. We were thinking small, like, we're 'bout to burn this shit onto some CDs and sell these CDs and get some Jordans.
Sell CDs they did: "Came Down" quickly became a neighborhood hit, then picked up underground steam as CD-R discs were passed around, landing in the hands of the city's tastemakers.
It was like an infection — it was everywhere. It was like a fucking Martian landed on Earth. We played it a lot during games. It was a local anthem. Before Rich Paul was Rich Paul, mega agent with the world's best basketball player as a client, he was Rich Paul, a grassroots entrepreneur who met LeBron while flipping throwback jerseys out of the trunk of his car. Clair and had met years earlier when Al was in middle school — and counted Ted Ginn Sr.
They weren't close but they were familiar, and by the time "Came Down" was being passed around, Paul was firmly in LeBron's inner circle. Royalty Camp had scrambled to record new material, knocking out hits in Phatty Banks' Hough studio for a mixtape called Royal Rumble.
The mixtape featured "We Ballin'," a colossal finger-snapping, buzzy synth-saw hype track that elevated the group, helped the group draw appearances like at Moda, and opening sets like for Harlem rapper Juelz Santana. He was introduced to Ducky Smallz, a local artist with far stronger ties to Rich Paul than Al laid claim to. While Paul knew of Al, he hadn't known about the group's breakout.
Rich didn't know how big we were until we started to do little shows, packing them bitches out and rocking them. Eventually, he came around. It was a different stratosphere than what the group was used to. Here was someone who had the stuff they rapped about. They didn't have change, so he was like, 'Keep it. Paul pitched the idea of forming a label through which they could release their music. After turning down some other local labels and a few meetings, Al found himself operating under Paul's umbrella in an undefined business arrangement.
He was wearing all types of hats, from manager to jeweler. I was living a grown man's life, but I still was a boy. Rich gave me guidance about how to be a man. They hit the ground running. Al and the rest of the Royalty Camp started spending time at Rich's home in Hudson and, within a few weeks, Rich had leveraged connections and the buzz of "Came Down" into a meeting with Atlantic Records in New York City.
Al claims that within an hour, after playing just "Came Down" and one beat from RJ, Atlantic was ready to sign him. But Al's movement stumbled out of the gate. The day after Al returned from the Atlantic meeting, a close friend of the group, Anthony Gordon, was shot and killed in the Flats after a show where Al had been slated to play, but bailed at the last second.
Just weeks later, another wrench got tossed into the gears. Atlantic received cease-and-desist notices from Bill Cosby and his attorneys. The two sides finally agreed on Al Fatz. It was a minor hiccup though; the bigger problem was the layers of the deal itself.
Al found himself in the basement below layers of middlemen with no experience in business or contract law, which made negotiating fuzzy. It's murky, man. Banks, a veteran producer and sound engineer, recorded the second version of "Came Down" and was instrumental in the group's development during this era.
And while RJ caught a respectable check from the deal, he can't help but think that Al may have jumped the gun in signing with Atlantic, especially concerning the rest of the Royalty Camp. Brothers fight and brothers make up. I always wanted the group to keep doing what it was doing, but Al signed that deal and that lightweight messed it up for us.
Pinning down the decision processes and release schedules — basically any sort of detail — is difficult 10 years after the fact. Part of that is the industry, but part of that has to do with the time this was all unfolding, the difference between the analog world of hard copy or erasure and the digital world of fossilized minutiae.
There are no Twitter timelines to search for promo tweets, or archived Facebook event pages, or easily discoverable YouTube interviews at every major radio station. It's a treasure hunt through the internet's awkward middle-school phase: bootleg MP3 websites, long inactive Myspace pages, and pre-Soundcloud music sharing platforms.
It's squinting at thumbnail-sized photos taken on Nokia brick phones, newsletters created in MS Paint, and scanned copies of old Billboard magazines. It's relying on the memories of kids who were 16 years old at the time. But what's clear, at least to Al, is that without legal representation or even a guardian involved in the deal-making process, he ended up in the dark. All I could do was make music," Al says. It was going through Rich and I just kind of let Rich do whatever.
Just like when Royalty Camp first formed and Al went along, the Atlantic deal just ended up kinda going Contractual issues aside, this period really was a boon for everyone involved.
With Al's star rising, "Came Down" began spreading out of Cleveland and into the national spotlight. It was because it worked for a mass audience. It almost didn't happen, as negotiations dragged through the summer. Discussion is locked. Follow Follow this discussion and email me when there are updates Stop following this discussion.
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