It's a gray afternoon in March, and all three members of the hip-hop group 3 Problems are in a courthouse in downtown St. Louis. Each is 18 years old. Two of them walk free: James Johnson, from Ferguson, and Taylor Merriweather, from the adjacent city of Jennings. The third, Terrell Brown Jr., from Florissant, just north of Ferguson, is pleading guilty to a charge of second-degree murder.
"Any noise you make, any outbursts in the courtroom, can only hurt Terrell," a defense attorney tells the assembled family members. The members of 3 Problems are cousins, and their mothers – sisters in their mid-thirties – are here along with some 20 relatives representing four generations, from grandmothers to babies.
Before the sentencing starts, the lawyer unsuccessfully argues for the charges to be reduced to manslaughter. Meanwhile, off the lobby, Johnson – who raps under the name Swagg Huncho – reaches his hand up under a vending-machine slot to steal a bag of Red Hot Riplets, a type of local spicy potato chip. With a laugh, he gives them to one of his little cousins.
Johnson and Merriweather (a.k.a. Lil Tay) are seniors at a pair of area high schools that received dismal 1 out of 10 GreatSchools ratings. They both have young children who live with their mothers. Johnson and Merriweather live with their mothers as well.
3 Problems are blowing up in St. Louis. Their latest mixtape, A Problem Story, features threats, brags and stories of real-life tragedy over menacing beats and anthemic choruses. The video for the song "For a Fcknigga" is approaching 200,000 views, despite the fact that they've never been written about and have no record deal.
Girls lose their minds over Johnson and Merriweather, who sport short braids and lean physiques. They get recognized when they're out in "North County," the area above St. Louis that's most famous for Michael Brown's killing. At the Michael Brown protests, both in August and November, a number of admirers hit them up for pictures.
The extended family shushes itself as they enter the courtroom, and shortly Terrell Brown – a.k.a. Relly Rell – emerges. He too has the short braids and the swagger of an emerging star, but he's handcuffed and wearing mismatched orange prison sweats.
In late 2013, a man named Ryan Faulstich was murdered in a dispute over heroin in the neighborhood of Boulevard Heights – that's South St. Louis, the white half of this starkly segregated city. Brown didn't pull the trigger, but stands accused of providing the gun, driving the car, taking money from the killer and disposing of the gun. As for the murderer himself? He was killed before he could be put away.
The judge, a middle-aged black man, asks Brown if he has anything to say.
"I'm sorry, sir."
"Don't say sorry to me, say sorry to them," the judge says, gesturing to Faulstich's parents, the gaunt mother battling tears. "Because I won't even remember your name by the time I sit down to dinner."
3 Problems' best song is called "Come Around." In it, the guys explain in clear, heartbreaking detail why a young kid would turn to a life of crime. "They say fuck our applications, so we slangin' dope," raps Merriweather. "‘Cause you ain't gotta fill an app just to cop a ‘o.'" (An ‘o' is an ounce.) Their "For a Fcknigga" video features them pointing semiautomatic guns at the camera in front of an abandoned shipping container.
3 Problems started as something of a boy band. PG singalongs like "Tell the D.J." ("You can tell the DJ to play our song") helped them build a following, but were eventually replaced by the more ominous tones of their newer music. They're adept at either style, with a gift for choruses that stay with you, and sharp songwriting regardless of the subject matter.
Johnson – instantly relatable, exuding charisma – is their ringleader, while Merriweather is the obvious breakout star, with a Drake-like ability to switch between rapping and singing, his braids bouncing as he gleefully threatens adversaries. 3 Problems have opened shows for popular acts like Rich Kidz and Webbie, and are allied with a local crew called Street Sweepers. It includes the artists Nerve, YD, Twon, and, most notably, LA4SS, another young rapper who is close to breaking out. Word about 3 Problems has been spreading; Johnson says he gets Instagram messages from fans all over the South.
Lacking a production budget, 3 Problems got the beats for some of their songs – including "Come Around" and "For a Fcknigga" – from YouTube instrumentals, and can't remember who produced them. Otherwise, their beats and engineering come largely courtesy of a local veteran named Playboy. Like the city itself, the St. Louis sound is a cross between Midwestern and Southern influences, with the Chicago drill scene an obvious touchstone.
Terrell Brown Sr. is 3 Problems' manager, and the father of their incarcerated groupmate. He's had his own problems; last year he was released from federal prison after serving three years on drug-conspiracy charges. But he met a valuable connection inside, a music-industry veteran who taught him how to shape an act. "Hopefully they'll make it out of a bad situation into a good situation," he says.
Brown Sr., says it's important not to confuse the group's hip-hop personas with their real lives. But it's not always so easy to separate the two. Merriweather and Johnson have both been shot at – Merriweather has been hit, though the bullet passed through his arm, and he says he used to steal cars. He also says that, in October 2012, he was beaten up by the St. Louis police, because they thought he had drugs on him. "They took me down to the station and tried to charge me with assaulting an officer, but they didn't have anything so they let me go."
According to St. Louis PD's official report on the incident, police had been called "after a report of subjects armed with guns." Several people dispersed after officers arrived, including Merriweather, but an officer caught up with him. Merriweather "struck the officer in the face with a closed fist," the report said, adding that a struggle ensued and Merriweather continued to resist arrest until he was pepper-sprayed. He was taken into custody but released to his mother because he was a juvenile. No guns or drugs were found.
In January, Merriweather's and Johnson's close friend Geno was murdered, his body dumped in an abandoned loading dock in North St. Louis. Neither Merriweather nor Johnson knows why Geno was killed, and no one has been convicted of the murder. "He ain't made it to 18 like we did," laments Merriweather. To commemorate Geno, he and Johnson got tattoos of his name across their jugulars. (Brown, Jr.'s older brother was also murdered, back in 2007.)
Johnson and Merriweather are set to graduate this month. Each has a back-up plan, in case hip-hop stardom eludes them. Merriweather may go to business school while Johnson hopes to attend rapper Nelly's EI school for sound engineering. For now they live with a degree of paranoia. They rent cars to avoid being recognized on the street.
It wasn't supposed to be like this. The group's families moved to North County when they were younger to escape the chaos of the city, which regularly places high in surveys of the most dangerous American cities. But demographics haven't shifted in their favor. St. Louis was once the country's fourth most populous city, but following the great migration, whites left for the surrounding county. By the time Reagan took office, blacks had begun moving to North County, kicking off another round of white flight.
In Ferguson, which is now 70 percent black, unemployment has soared, and 25 percent of the population there lives below the poverty line. But the city's power structure is somehow still white. In March, police Chief Thomas Jackson resigned, following the Justice Department's report in the wake of Brown's shooting, showing Ferguson's unjust collection of fines and fees from residents, as well as false arrests.
Brown's murder didn't surprise 3 Problems, but it angered them that Darren Wilson was not indicted. "A black officer would have got slammed," Johnson says.
Terrell Brown Jr. pleads guilty to distribution of heroin, armed criminal action, and murder in the second degree.
The judge sighs. He asks Brown if he can spell "heroin."
"I'm impressed," says the judge. "Most people in your position can't."
The prosecution announces the plea bargain: 10 years for each charge, to be served concurrently. The judge grumbles that the sentence feels lax, but consents. Accounting for time served, Brown will be up for parole in seven years.
The deceased man's mother gives an impassioned speech, noting the theme of the mass she just attended: forgiveness. She took it as a sign from God. She tells Brown she forgives him. Still, she desperately laments the guns, drugs, and alcohol that have ravaged St. Louis.
"It's a war out there. In our own city!"
Outside the courtroom, Brown's mother sobs. But his family expresses gratitude at the sentence. "It could have been life," says Johnson. He hops into a friend's car, lights a cigarette, and heads off northward through the city, the snow finally starting to melt off.
Behind them, another family member's car plays 3 Problems' song "Come Around." Merriweather's voice comes through the open window: "They say, 'The worst feeling being broke,' I say 'Man I know.' Where I'm from we got no hope, so we rob folks."