Album Review: Vince Staples-Summertime ’06

Artist: Vince Staples

Album: Summertime ’06

Release date: June 30, 2015

Producer: No I.D.

Released by: Def Jam Recordings, ARTium Recordings, Blacksmith Records

The first hip hop album I ever listened to was Mos Def & Talib Kweli are Blackstar, and it changed my world.  That album began a lifelong love affair with hip hop, and I’ve intermittently been a fan of a variety of artists (MF DOOM, RjD2, El-P), but few have resonated as deeply as Vince Staples, and his debut album Summertime ’06.  The first thing that distinguishes Staples from any other rapper I can think of is the way he seems to rap downhill, so that by the time he finishes one line, he is already into the next one.  He achieves this effect by ignoring what seems like the most basic of emcee conventions, the pause between lines.

Nowhere is this more evident than on “Señorita,” the album’s chief banger, in which he describes the harsh realities of gangland life as if reading them off a stock ticker.  “That’s somebody’s son but a war to be won baby either go hunt or be hunted, we crabs in a bucket he called me a crab so I shot him in front of the Douglas, we cannot be fucked with we thuggin’ in public.”  This line from “Señorita” is delivered so easily that its sentiments, which could be seen as commonplace in the rap game, are given an extra sense of reality, as if Staples is simply describing his day.  This combination of harsh subject matter and effortless flow give each song a sense of importance, and lends additional punch to the album’s descriptions of hopelessness.

Early in the album Staples claims allegiance to the Gangster Crips (a large southern-California-based set of one of the largest gangs in America), and throughout Summertime ’06 he confronts the harsh realities of gang life with a shrug.  On “Jump off the Roof” the gang life and drug addiction lead to a twisted declaration of love, directly confronting the intractability of love in gangland: “I hate when you lie, I hate the truth too, can’t wait till you die, I hate that we through.”  On “3230” he describes the way he was “Soldier since the stroller” and the way the death of his brother was just “The price of bangin’ since my granny Alameda(’s) days.”  This fatalistic leaning that pervades the album would threaten to make it depressing, but the beats are inventive and addictive.

The album was produced (for the most part) by No I.D., a beatmaker so obscure he or she doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page, though that will likely be remedied soon.  No I.D.’s beats are filled with unexpected instrumentation and complexity enough to keep my attention even behind a slow, soulful sing-song as in “Might be Wrong,” which contains the funniest moment of the album.  As he describes that when confronted with a moral quandary his sentiment is “Die to the world, I took the money” before in a softer way, as if in parentheses, he adds “wouldn’t you?”  This gag illustrates perfectly the album’s ability to paint a picture blacker than the night, while keeping me riveted to its incomparable flow and inventive beats.  Vince Staples Summertime ’06 has reminded me, once again, why I love hip hop.

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Album Review: Vince Staples-Summertime ’06

Treetops (Volume 5)

5. Rebel Summit

At the very center of Norwood Park, there was an expanse of flat ground roughly the size and shape of a regulation soccer field, an ideal staging area for a conference of dissidents.  This area, referred to affectionately as Center Field, had in the past possessed an almost mystical allure.  On certain nights when the air was moist and still, and a full moon was in the sky, it seemed to glow a dull green.

This glow was now more imaginary than anything, as the combination of substandard landscape work and a plague of litterbugs had conspired to rob the area of its mystic quality.  Still, this seemingly otherworldly glow had made such an impression on those that had actually seen it that it became legend, and imbued Center Field with the sense that something significant would happen there someday.

Caius took the otherworldly importance that this area seemed to own and exploited it, Max felt, to seem something like a king.  He further felt that if Caius chose this spot to act as a countermeasure against assassination, believing desperate gangsters would have a hard time murdering an emperor.

Besides the Heaters, the Numbers, War Helmet the Gents and the Rosies, other gangs started to show up, very few of which were known to the Treetops.  Hi Rize, a gang from just the top five floors of the Curling Homes, one of the city’s largest housing projects, and who were a rare sight anywhere but their singular hood, were there.  The Watchmen were there with their stetsons pulled down as far as they could go and all hanging binoculars from their necks. The Vikings were there wearing football helmets and brandishing baseball bats.

From this, Max could see that some gang members attending the speech were actually holding weapons without drawing static.  He pulled his chef’s knife from the carrying pouch he wore on his hip and held it in front of him pointed to the stars.  He did this to draw Mason’s ire, which was drawn immediately.

“They said no weapons, they see you with that knife you’re gonna lose it,” Mason warned.

“What about them?” Max said signaling toward the Vikings, whose bats and helmets, he figured, ought to be characterized as weapons.

“Yeah but that’s part of their uniform,” Mason said as though this explanation would satisfy.

Simon laughed, pulling two knives out of his own carrying case and tossing one to Art.  “There, now knives are part of our uniform.”  Art cackled showing his teeth and stowed the knife under his belt.  The Treetops, excluding Roly and Big D, stood shoulder to shoulder.

Mason was frustrated.  His forehead seeped sweat at a terrific rate, and his face shone beet red.  “Stash the fucking knife.”

He could have been talking to any of them, but everyone knew he was talking to Simon.  Simon smiled mistily and seemed to purr, less a spontaneous reaction than an insult.  “Or what?”

Mason pulled a knife of his own out of the hidden spot on his person and stabbed it into the ground in front of him.  He took two small steps backward from his knife, making his shoulders to be parallel with Simon’s and holding his tightly coiled fists in front of them.  “Square up motherfucker.”

“About time,” Simon said, forcing his own blade into the dirt and stepping away from it as Mason had done from his.  He stood with his arms at his sides, shrugged, and raised his fists.  “You first.”

As it seemed to Simon, Mason’s fist had arrived in his face at the exact same time as he finished speaking and his face rippled in response.  Simon staggered on his heels and tried to throw a punch of his own which feebly caught only air.  Mason tripped him, driving his back into the ground with the full force of all his weight.

Simon retched in pain.

“Hey!” from the edge of Center Field, “No fighting!”  Both of the combatants looked to the direction of the yell and saw a large muscly 30-something stomping toward them the  him with fists balled at his hips.

Mason rolled off Simon, holding his arms in the air as high as he could, shaking his head from left to right with his mouth held wide open.  “I didn’t start it, he fucked with me first!”

Seeing that the fight had concluded, the Forty-Niner uncurled his fists and slowed to a stop.  He watched Mason for a moment, looking to see that the fight was over.  Simon grunted as he pulled himself to his feet, bent down and grabbed his knife off the ground.  As he slid the knife down the special leather sleeve he’d created in the back of his pants for that purpose, he spit on the ground and interlaced his fingers behind his back.

He pulled his clasped hands far back until he heard a slight pop sound from his shoulder, then he cracked his knuckles.  Simon’s eyes drooped and his face melted from a grin into an impotent scoff.

“Testing, testing,” crackled the PA system from the eastern edge of Center Field as one of the Forty-Niners checked that it was working.  The improvised amphitheater was choked with gang members, milling around, trying to stay together and spread out at the same time.

As Max loped across the field, balancing on one leg before leaping onto the other, he watched the crowd to see what gangs he could recognize.  He didn’t recognize any of the city gangs, so he looked to see if there were any other suburban gangs in attendance.  The more he watched the crowd and failed to see any familiar faces, the more tense he became. He was certain that this was a setup, and that Mason had brought them there to be surrounded.  For what, he didn’t know.

“There’s no other gangs from the ‘burbs,” Max mentioned as he approached from behind and placed his hand on Mason’s shoulder.  “Where’s your invitation?”

“What?” Mason said, knitting his eyebrows hard.

Max pushed roughly on the back of Mason’s shoulders and kept his voice soft yet impassioned as he spoke through clenched teeth.  “Where’s your fucking invitation?”  He thought that he’d been tricked.

“Well they’re here right?  And we’re here, right?”  Big D interjected, seeming to Max completely stupid.

“Right they’re here, so they must have an invitation.”  Max turned around, standing face-to-face with Mason and stepping into his personal space.  “So let’s see it.”

“I don’t have an invitation,” Mason admitted, hearing the Treetops wail in confusion and horror, finding themselves uninvited to a sea of unfriendly faces.  “The Heaters are a city gang, the city gangs don’t need invitations, everybody just knew, we were all talking about it, about him, I’m just here to see Caius, not to trick you.”

Max searched Mason’s face, trying to see a twitch, any unconscious shift in expression that might indicate deceit.  He made a fist with his left hand and rested his lips against the back of his knuckles.  He closed his eyes and concentrated on his breathing, trying to calm himself down.

The other Treetops circled around Max as he was deep in thought, looking at each other, with their eyes daring each other to say or do anything.  As the moments drew on, Max unclenched his fist and dropped his right arm, before bringing it up quickly and slapping Roly loudly on the left cheek.  “You’re too fucking smart Roly, what’s the game?”

After the slap Roly took a large step backwards, allowing Mason to step in front of him and shield him from Max’s wrath.  The sound of the slap carried all the way across Center Field, and the crowd became enflamed, all seeming to shout and push up against one another at the same time.  Big D tried to hold them apart but Max continued to throw punches at Roly, and Simon used the confusion created by all the commotion to punch Mason as hard as he could in the stomach.

“What’s going on?”  A voice boomed from the PA system and everyone stopped fighting, parting the crowd and creating a clear path from the Treetops to Caius.

The entire crowd, as if they were well-trained animals, at the same moment all fell silent.  They all watched Caius’s face expecting to see anger or at least annoyance, as could be expected, but they saw only peace.

He neither smiled nor frowned as he raised the microphone to hold it near his mouth.  “This summit is meant for just this.”

The crowd moved all in unison, creating a huge circle with Max, Mason, Roly and Simon at its center; and Caius at its northernmost edge, holding sway over all and calling them to attention.  Max screamed as loud as he could, “He lied to us!  He said–”

Volume 4

Volume 3

Volume 2

Volume 1

Treetops (Volume 5)

Treetops (volume 4)

4. Concourse Parkway

Norwood Park was like every other park in the city during the day, a collection of baseball diamonds and children running as fast as they can.  At night though, Norwood Park belonged to the gangs.

It hadn’t always been this way.  There was even a time when Norwood Park and the Teddy were considered sister parks, and in 2003, the two were connected by a shiny sidewalk marketplace filled with book stores and vintage record shops.  The area became a magnet for moneyed tourists, a garden of possibilities for pickpockets and stick-up-men, so gangs were permanently struggling to gain control of it.

Two of the city’s biggest gangs, the Vikings and the Gents, spent the entire year of 2005 at war over this stretch of real estate, and on September 26th, two combatants were stabbed to death in the alley behind the Bombay Noodle Hut.  As a result of this and several other violent departures from normalcy, consumers avoided the area.  As the years stretched on and the gangs went nowhere, Concourse Parkway became a retail graveyard, and thus, it was no longer an area of contention between any gangs.

Businesses began to fail and get boarded up, creating the skeletal remains of commerce.  These corpses continued to serve a purpose at least for the gangs, as empty space to cover with spray paint signatures.  Roly, upon seeing all the tags, called out,  “Do we have a sprayer?”

“No,” Max said, “We didn’t bring one.”

“Fuckin of course not,” Roly stepped away from the others, casting his hands frustrated to the sky.

Mason, having been handed a can of red spray paint by one of his soldiers, tossed it up to Roly.  “Here ya go.”

Roly began to shake it vigorously, making that familiar rattle loud enough for all to hear.  Simon asked, “What is that red?” but it was more statement than question.  He knew that the can was red, Red was the Heaters signifying color, while the Treetops’ was green.

“You’re right,” said Roly as he flipped the can back to Mason, “Can’t use it.”

Mason shrugged, took the can and tossed it to another Heater as he signaled toward a blank patch of brick over a dumpster with a closed lid.  The Heater, a pudgy boy with thick glasses, started struggling to pull himself up and tag the space with a red H.

Seeing this, Simon made himself known, calling out loudly, “Right, I’ma just keep goin, anyone can join me.”

Art jogged over to Simon, beckoning Max to join them, which he did.  Roly stood at the mouth of the alley holding his hands in front of him attempting to bar anyone from leaving, “Wait we’re almost done.”

“Na, just catch up,” Big D said as he joined Max Art and Simon.  The Treetops stepped into the street, posting up next to a jeep.

After a short time the Jeep’s doors opened, and out stepped a young couple.  The man, Zachary wore a purple handkerchief around his neck, and the woman, Angelica, had a purple doo-rag on her head.  Max knew who they were.  He was head of the Gents and she was head of the Rosie’s, two gangs with a history of interbreeding so deep that they’d long ago been considered in effect the same gang.

The Rosie spoke first, “Who’re you?”

Simon introduced them, “The Treetops, from Evergreen.”

“Tourists,” said a heavily tattooed man holding a cedar cane and wearing shined wingtips as he too stepped out of the Jeep, “Get the fuck outta here.”

Max dug in his pocket, looking for the invitation he’d received that morning, but Simon spoke before he could find it.  “Or what?”

The Gent seemed stunned, clearly unused to defiance.  “Or we fuck you up, what you think?”  He took the cane, held it up vertically as its tip planted onto the cement directly in front of him.

Max found the invitation and held it out.  “Here’s our pass to the summit, it’s cool.”

Angelica stepped forward and grabbed the invitation.  “What the fuck is this?”  As she read the pass she chuckled, “oh my god you stupid fucks, where’d you get this?”

Just then, Roly, Mason and the Heaters arrived huffing and gasping, having run half the way down the block.  “These are the Treetops, from one a the south suburbs, Evergreen, they’re cool though.”

Angelica shook her head laughing.  “They’re cool?”  She turned and walked directly to Mason, staring at him in the eyes as she did.  “They don’t look cool.”

Art, who’d previously been silent, offered what he felt was a helpful suggestion.  “We could just throw down.”  Everyone who’d heard was stunned, and rendered quiet by their surprise.  “I mean, if ya just wanna know if we’re for real, there’s an easy way to find out right?”  He stared down each Gent in turn, finally stopping in front of the biggest one, Zachary.

He looked around, watching Art’s eyes and the eyes of his fellow gang members, and he knew what was expected of him.  He swung hard, landing his knuckles in Art’s cheek with a moist wallop.

After having the position of his head suddenly and violently altered, he slowly brought it back to standard position.  The Rosies and the Gents both shot into action, creating semi-circles behind their members

“Is that it?” Art said grinning ear to ear.  He hadn’t moved at all, and did not appear to have been struck.  Zachary was bolstered then, and pulled his fist back farther than before, but Art interjected with an elbow to the gut.  Zachary hadn’t seen it coming, so it knocked the wind out of him, and he collapsed gasping for air.

None of the Gents or the Rosies made a move, and all held silent.  Mason stepped forward,  “These are the Treetops, from Evergreen, they’re coming in to the summit, ‘kay?”

As the Treetops crossed the street from the concourse to Norwood Park, Max jogged ahead of them again and called out, “Simon, Roly, D, Art, powow.”  He flipped an open palm above his head and used it to signal that the Treetops should come together.

Mason raised his arm and opened his mouth as if to offer protest, then thought better of it, and stuck his hands in his pockets.  He hurried across the street to the park and disappeared in the shadows.

When he was certain Mason was out of earshot, Max spoke sounding nervous.  “I don’t trust Mason, I think those invitations were fake, I think he planted them.”  As he made his suspicions known, he became aware that though Big D’s face wore its standard blank expression, he detected what he thought was a nervous tension in Roly’s knit eyebrows.

“Yeah well that’s real interesting,” Simon spoke, his voice filled with what could be described as an aggressive boredom.  “I’m not goin’ back to Evergreen.  Mason’s suspicious, okay, so what?”

“Yeah I’m not missing this,” said Art, “I can handle myself.”

Max was frustrated by what he felt was brash overconfidence displayed by his fellow Treetops.  Didn’t they realize the danger of their situation?  Could he really trust Roly and Big D?  The Treetops were a gang, not a family, so every member was a potential traitor.

After a time of silent consideration, Roly interjected.  “Don’t worry about Mason.  Mason’s solid–well, he’s not solid, but he’s not, ya know, not, ambitious, I guess.”

“What?”  Max blared, as he’d not expected Roly to use that word.  The wheels in his head rolled over the word again and again.  “Ambitious?  What’s that supposed to mean?  What the fuck does Mason have to be ambitious about?  Why’d you pick that word?”

“I don’t know, uh, I just said it, it felt right I don’t know.”

Max grabbed Roly’s collar and forced him backwards until his back met the cold jagged brick of the alley wall.  “Are you working with Mason?  What’s the plan?”

Big D grabbed Max’s arm and wrenched it away, holding it against his own chest.  “Come on, guys, let’s just go to the speech.”

Roly dropped onto his ass, folding his arms around his knees.  “I don’t know why I said ambitious, I guess cause it sounded cool, I don’t know.”

Across the street, Simon and Art already stood, motioning with their hands for the others to join them.  Max yelled, “are you ladies done?  It’s not safe for young ladies to wander at night, look.”

The gangs were heading into the park, and in the distance was heard the squeal of a PA system turning on.  The speech was just about to take place, so Simon and Art turned and walked toward the noise, with Max Roly and Big D in tow.  Max was still extremely nervous, but there was no time to deal with fears, however justified.

Volume 3

Volume 2

Volume 1

Treetops (volume 4)

Treetops (Volume 3)

3. The Teddy

Mason led them to the Main Concourse, an asphalt line that bisected the park and was peppered with streetlights.  It was twenty yards wide, and at night completely barren, making of it an eerie black stone river.

Simon, energized from what he felt was a victory over Mason, could not hide his excitement.  “Let’s find a spot and post up, see what happens.”  As Simon broke into a light jog, coasting in front of the rest.

Mason grinned, barely letting his teeth show.  Max noticed this anticipatory smile and called after Simon.  “I don’t think that’s real wise.”

Simon responded, “Whatever,” curt and sharp.  He sat on a garbage can, hanging his feet before its mouth.

As soon as he did this, two large, muscled gang members rushed out from under the trees and knocked Simon to the ground, causing him to land painfully on his hip.  They were both wearing black tank tops, green suspenders and world war 2 era headgear.

“The summit is to take place in Norwood park, keep moving.”  These were members of War Helmet, a gang renowned throughout the city for its brutal discipline.  Simon tried to lash out at the Helmet who’d assaulted him, but before he could take a swing, two more grabbed him by each arm and held him still.

“That’s War Helmet,” Mason said casually, “They’re providing some of the security.”

“Security?”  Simon opened his mouth as if he didn’t understand.  After just a moment of consideration he closed his mouth and relaxed his arms, seeing that in a physical contest he would be outmatched and outnumbered.  “Understood.”  Simon frowned and lowered his head.

As they continued down the Concourse, Mason kept the dialog going.  “War Helmet comes from Port Ashland, I don’t know much about them, don’t mess with ’em though.”

“Yeah,” Simon said, defeated.

As quickly as the members of War Helmet had arrived, they disappeared into the darkness created by the trees.  Art was intrigued by this show of mastery, and he searched the darkness for other members of this gang, crouching under low branches and peering up through the leaves toward the streetlights.

“Stop looking for us,” a voice came from nowhere, loud and deep.  “The summit is to take place in Norwood park, clear the Concourse.”

“Or what?”  Simon strode slowly into the middle of the black, solid path.  Stretching his arms to his sides, he straightened his right leg out in front of him, than switched it with his left.  “Come on, War Helmet, scare me, I wanna see your force.”

After around 15 seconds watching the willows, Mason tapped Simon on the shoulder and spoke softly into his ear.  “Unless you’re gonna go in there and look for them, I think we should go.”

With his mouth held open and his pupils flicking back and forth, Simon nodded and began to walk forward.  The rest of the Treetops followed, continuing a frightened caravan.

 

The Treetops came to and passed what was affectionately referred to as the Big Fountain.  The Big Fountain had once upon a time been one of the city’s central meeting places, hosting all manner of political rallies and musical performances, but it had been decades since water had flowed through it.  Now it was simply a grouping of mold-covered gargoyles looking fearsome and portending doom.

Seeing that on the edge of the Big Fountain sat a fairly nondescript group of street hoods, displaying no obvious colors and all facing in different directions.  Passing them, Mason casually waved his hand.  “Jeremy.”

A Skinny man in an undershirt waved, remaining silent.  His face was gaunt and his bones stuck out, making it appear as though he’d not eaten for years.  The streetlights circling the fountain made the divots and crevices in his face create shadows when the streetlight hit them from the right angle.  The shadows on his face made him appear ghostlike, but not the ghost of a person, more a dark harbinger of the end times.

“That was Jeremy, he runs The Numbers, they’re all right.”  From the fountain, The Treetops and The Heaters continued through a tight group of willow trees.  The trees were packed together such that they created a decaying canopy, moonlight shining through its gaps at different angles.

Max became uneasy.  “Who’re The Numbers?”  Max asked nervously, as though the answer would harm him.

“They’re from the outskirts, I think, by the train yards, I think.”

Waiting until the Numbers were out of earshot, Simon eventually proffered his analysis.  “The Numbers is a stupid name.”

“So is the Treetops,” said Art, casting his potentially offensive statement casually; just throwing it out there.  “And so is the Forty-Niners, and so is the Heaters.  Gang names are stupid.”  Art looked into Simon’s eyes, challenging him.  Simon and Art conflicted often, sometimes even coming to blows, but Simon was too scared after his encounter with War Helmet to tire himself out in this way, so he said nothing.

As soon as he invoked the name of the Heaters, which had already been the center of a contentious moment, Art looked Mason in the eye, seemingly daring him to make a move.  Mason silently kept moving, trying not to look at Art.

“The numbers is a stupid name,” Simon spoke, his voice tinged with anticipation.  “The Heaters is a stupider name though, it must be said.”

In an instant Simon was on his back, Mason standing over him with a cocked-back fist.  “Why’re you fuckin with me?”

Simon twisted and pushed up with his hands, backing Mason up and claiming his own patch of grass.  “Cause we don’t need you.  I don’t even know why you’re here, get the fuck out.”

“He’s here cause we wanted a guide,” Roly said, backing Simon and Mason away from one another.  “We weren’t gonna come up here with no plan.  Mason knows the park better than we do.”

“Oh wow he probably knows they got trees and stuff.”  Simon spoke staring into Mason’s eyes as they circled each other, Big D standing between them.  “Fuck that, like we can’t figure it out.”

As he stretched his arms out, Big D sounded like a toddler begging his parents not to hurt each other.  “Two is better than one right?  Isn’t that a good enough reason?”

Simon responded quickly, “No, I don’t trust Mason, he’s got a plan and I don’t like it.”

Purposefully and deliberately, Max strode out between them.  “Cool it, Simon.  Fact is, we weren’t gonna come without a guide and you know it.”

“But why couldn’t we come without a guide?  We got an invitation same as them, we’re not stupid.”

Max lowered his head and beckoned Simon with his hand to lower his the same way so they could speak more softly and privately with one another.  “I wasn’t comin’ without a guide, that’s what it comes to.  You wanna blame someone for nothing?  Fine blame me, but cool it, you’re not helping us, look around.”

Simon stood up straight, looked around and saw they were surrounded at all sides by the Heaters, many of them clutching weapons.  He looked left to right, seeing the whole situation.  “Okay, you’re right, that was uncalled for, I apologize.”

Mason stood silent watching Simon’s face, seeing from his expression that his apology had been insincere.  “It’s okay, whatever.  Want us to take you to Norwood now?”

Max felt sickened by Mason’s superior attitude, but he just said “yeah,” and they all moved on.

Treetops (Volume 3)

The Treetops (Volume 1)

Chapter 1: Rebel Summit

“Caius said no weapons right?”  Big D said as he lifted himself up over the seats of the M train, pressing his hands and feet on the stabilizing rails.  He was watching Max balance a chef’s knife on his knee with the point down and the tip of the handle resting against his forehead.  The very tall, stick-thin gangster hoisted himself over Max, staring daggers down.  D’s question might have seemed like a threat, given their relative sizes and positions in the train car, but Max, the far smaller of the two, held all the power.

Max was annoyed,  “Yeah,” he began, taking the knife by its handle and casually tossing it from his right to his left hand and back again.  “I’m gonna stash it before we get there, it’s cool.”  He silenced Big D’s concern with a flick of the wrist.

Overpowered, Big D ignored the slight Max had given with his somewhat cavalier response.  He knew that he had no power, because he wasn’t even an official Treetop yet.

Both Big D and his brother Roly had joined the Treetops only two years previous.  It is an important right of initiation for each member to create his or her own uniform.  Big D’s uniform wasn’t even finished, as he still had to find and steal shoes, but size 24’s were few and far between.

The Treetop’s uniform was cheap, that was its operative characteristic.  They came from the far Southeast suburbs, a place where incomes were very often subsidized by nickels earned recycling cans.  Their uniform was just a dark T shirt and jeans, often sheared at the knees with a knife or a broken bottle.  These uniforms were scavenged from fences and clotheslines, stolen from citizens and fished out of dumpsters, as they could not be paid for.

Big D had yet to find and steal shoes gigantic enough for his feet, so he’d had to buy them.  Since he wasn’t able to steal his shoes, he was technically a prospective Treetop, and on a lower social rung than the others.

Simon, one of the founders of the Treetops on the same train, saw that Big D needed to be reminded of his station.  “Fresh kicks, D, you rollin’ large, moneybags?” Simon purred with a sick grin on his face.  This was, for Big D, a joke he’d heard since he’d begun initiation proceedings, and he was growing tired of it.  His eyes flared and his lips spread apart showing his teeth.

Noticing the aggression growing, Max held a bare palm up above everyone, said “Not now,” and that was the end of it.  Max was one of the most senior members of The Treetops, and also quite smart, so he held a position of expertise and authority.  Max knew it was pointless to squabble, as the gang needed to stay calm and not act rashly.  The Treetops’ destination was possibly now already drowned in bloodshed.  They were heading to a speech, the audience of which was to be made up of representative groups from gangs all over the city, a tinder box of blades and egos.

It seemed that the impossible had happened.  It seemed that Caius really had brought everyone together.  It was rumored that he was very near to granting an immediate and retroactive amnesty to all on behalf of all.  As he put it in his weekly radio hour, which was broadcast on a low frequency unknown to the police, “All beef will be squashed and put to bed.”  It was fantasy, it was a fever dream.  Many including Max wanted to believe that Caius could usher in an era of peace, but considered it a virtual impossibility.

This speech was meant to be some sort of coronation, or state-of-the union, or list of commands.  If it was a coronation or a state of the union, many gangs would chaff under any kind of leadership.  The Nomads, for one, didn’t even have an official territory, they lived by their wits wherever they found themselves, and would surely refuse bearing allegiance to anyone.

If the speech became a list of commands, there was no telling how many could die.  Whatever happened, Caius would be killed, Max reasoned, very likely.

Max considered himself a student of human moves, of the way people kept their eyes open for ways to gain personal advantage.  War was big business in the criminal underworld, just like in the straight world. Max knew that the peace Caius promised was a dream.  Bad blood ran too deep and too many gang leaders were agents of chaos to make a lasting peace feasible.  Threats had flown freely for many years, and gang backlogs were full of debts to collect and wrongs to revenge.

Despite all the bad blood, the speech was happening.  The morning of Caius’ speech, Max, Art, and Simon had all received messages in letters slid under their front doors inviting them to a “rebel summit.”  By that time, the grapevine had been alive with talk of Caius for months, and these invitations told everyone where and when they could see him; midnight, Norwood Park.

After much debate, the Treetops had decided to send a small running crew.  The running crew consisted of Max, Art and Simon, the most senior of the Treetops, as well as Roly and Big D, brothers who seemed like they were from a fairy tale.  Big D was tall and skinny, Roly was short and fat.  Big D was dumb and trusting, Roly was clever and spiteful.  Both of them could fight, and in defense of one another they were unstoppable.

The fact was that the Treetops’ crew was minuscule compared to the others.  Many of the other gangs certainly would come in force, and likely outnumber The Treetops by five or six times.  To reach Norwood Park, they needed to take the subway all the way from Evergreen, the southeastern suburb they called their ‘hood.  This meant that if they had a crew of twenty or thirty, they would very likely draw stares from the Pigs, so they kept the crew as small as they could.

Every gang and every gang member had the same mortal enemy, the Pigs.  They were all the same; liars and cheats, thieves and pushers, same as they said of the gangs.  The thing the gangs really hated about the Pigs was not the deception in their words or the evil in their deeds, it was their self-righteous swagger.  They walked their beats as if the neighborhoods belonged to them, but Caius had foretold of the day fast approaching when the Pigs would know what true power is and find themselves wanting.

Caius had risen to be a prominent figure in the world of the criminal underground through “The Bulletin,” his weekly radio show on 123.7 AM, a low-wattage independent radio station he ran out of his headquarters.  All the gangs including The Treetops were avid listeners, as Caius’s brash anti-authoritarian take on lifestyle and philosophy appealed to them.  “We must lay low on a day-to-day basis,” Caius said regularly, “but our time will come.”

Within each neighborhood, every gang had created a unique network of alleys, shortcuts, side streets and backdoors to avoid the Pigs.  Caius had told them, if every gang’s network were connected, the Pigs could never find them.  Caius sketched a plan with his words, that if a member of a gang had too much heat on him anywhere in the city, there could be a stash house on every block, and they would all be communal.  He encouraged all to imagine a future war, one where the gangs could unite, recognizing that they all had the same true enemy.

Caius called it paradise, utopia, and more than anyone else had before, he made people believe in it.  Caius, the revered one, he could make everything like it should be.

Roly sat across from Max and shrank his voice to a low growl.  His eyes were stll and locked in to Max’s, holding them tight.  “So what do you think?  I’ve never met Caius, I don’t even know what he looks like, why am I gonna listen to this guy?”  Roly’d heard the same rhetoric everyone had, and he knew that many were praying for the dawning of a new era, with some even counting on it.

“Everyone I’ve talked to who’s heard him speak says it’s like nothing else.”  Max rolled his eyes and opened his mouth wide, as if the top part of his head was falling away from his face.  “I don’t know, he might just be smooth, all I know is everybody’s gonna be there, and whatta you wanna be left behind?”  As he finished his question, Max closed his mouth and looked into Roly’s eyes.

“All I’m saying is we’re leaving our territory, that’s all.”  Roly’s face quivered.

Simon giggled, “You scared?”

Roly’s eyes narrowed and he tightened his lips, “No.”

Max interrupted, “Everybody listen up.  I know this isn’t ideal, we’re gonna be exposed.  But I think we can smash anyone, and if we can’t they’ll know us when we’re gone, and they’ll know where we come from.”  He looked over the Treetops as he spoke, and it gave him no confidence.

Simon blew contempt through his lips, “Yeah our names will be on official documents at the morgue.”

Max normally enjoyed Simon’s gallows humor, but he wasn’t in the mood.  “The morgue?”  Max stared at Simon, trying to show him rage, but it came across like terror.  At Simon’s jape, Art guffawed, but it was more in agreement than laughter.

Spurred on by the show of support, Simon continued.  “Yeah this is about to get blown up, man.  Caius said no weapons, but whatta they gonna do, check?  Fuckin forget it, this’ll be a free-for-all, I ain’t scared though.”

“So it’s agreed, we pack blades at least,” Max raised the point of his butcher knife to be parallel with his line of sight.  “Got mine,” Max grinned.

Big D seemed to be getting frustrated, but he wouldn’t dare try to tell Max anything, he’d learned his lesson.  He just tried to change the topic and shift focus from Max, “None of us have heard Caius, though.  So what—what if they’re right and he is the one?”

“What if who’s right?  The one!?”  Simon spoke quick and loud, loud enough so that everyone could hear his voice break.  “Caius’s head of the Eastside Forty-Niners, what if he wants everyone to be a Forty-Niner?  I’m not a fuckin Forty-Niner, I’m a Treetop, I’m-a stay a Treetop, too.”

As Simon spoke, Max eyed him suspiciously.  “You holdin’ anything that shoots, Simon?”

Big D rushed Simon and held him by the collar, “I swear to god, if you fuck this up I’m gonna kill you.”

Simon laughed as he slid a knife out of his pocket and threw it on the ground.  He sat back as far as he could and held his hands in the air.  “Fuck me man, fine, I’m not carryin’ anything.  I was gonna stash it same as Max, jesus.”

Roly looked at the knife for a few seconds considering, then pulled out his own knife and put it on the ground next to Simon’s.  “I believe in Caius, I think there’s too much money at stake for anyone to fuck this up.  So, we don’t wanna get caught with nuthin’.  Stash all blades in the same place.”

“Money?”  Art said, his voice laced with a mocking suspicion, “There’s money?”  At the mention of money, Art’s ears picked up and his tail wagged.  Art had been standing on a seat near the door between train cars, but as he spoke he lowered himself to the floor and stood in front of the others.

Roly knew that Art’s blood ran green, “Well if Caius brings us together, the way everybody’s saying, we can make real money.”

Big D hated when gang members talked about money.  “This isn’t all about money, this is about finding a way to live together.”

Art rolled his eyes and stretched over a couple of seats on the train, laying still as he pretended to snore.  Max seemed to shrink in his seat, pulling his feet close to him and wrapping his arms around his knees.

They were all frightened, this was new, heading to a speech.  Workers and administrators and servants went to speeches; gangsters didn’t go to speeches.

The Treetops (Volume 1)