Friends of slain rapper turn tragedy to celebration

by Jordan Green

The instrumental sounds like a disembodied organ fill. The song is the crew’s signature. On the record with its visionary MC on the microphone it had been a boast bursting with life and promise. Now on the stage of Ziggy’s in Winston-Salem with the brightest star imploded it’s become a grievous memorial.

With the 23-year-old rapper named Tre’ Stylez ‘— known to the GPD’s criminal investigative division and the daily newspaper as Richard Normand ‘Trey’ Michaud III ‘— gone now for a week, the members of his crew are spitting his lines one last time before putting the group to rest along with its master conceptualist.

The ugly circumstances of Michaud’s death ‘— the rapper was reportedly shot at the tail end of an otherwise happy party while most of the other celebrants were sleeping ‘— is hardly mentioned. Nor are the foreboding lyrics of the title track of the group’s first album, Kill Me (‘“Take me out, take me out quick/ You know it’s my time to go/ I’m feelin’ so low, the bullets blow/ Hit me with the drive-by/ ‘Cause you know I love death/ I live by the sword, want to die by the gat’”).

Rather, Michaud’s friends are celebrating his life, reveling in the lyrics of raunchy sexual invitation, themes of free-flowing alcohol and visions of smoking marijuana on the beach.

Daron James, a friend, introduces the group by reminding the audience that Michaud brought them together. ‘“For no reason should any one of us suffer and hurt from this time on because we all have each other,’” he says, adding: ‘“I know somewhere in this building Trey’s standing in the corner grinning.’”

There’s no talk of vengeance against Michaud’s killer. His crew, family and musician friends talk about his death as ‘“senseless’” and about wanting justice under the law. But the notion that Michaud might want friends to take matters into their own hands hardly seems appropriate despite the mercenary quality of some of his lyrics. The artist Tre’ Stylez can be hard to square with the young man named Trey Michaud.

‘“If you met Trey, you liked him,’” says rhythm guitarist James Hilton of the Five L’s, the hard rock group that closes the show. ‘“If you knew Trey, you loved him.’”

By the time the Tre’ Stylez’s song ‘“Iconoclast Crew’” rolls around, there are a lot of people onstage: hype man Stitchy C (AKA Casper AKA Matt Seamon), guitarist Ross Bright, MC Sleazy B (AKA Brian Rogers), MC Double J the Jenius (AKA John Jackson), MC John D. Young, DJ Philly Fresh (AKA Phillip O’Dell) and an emotional friend named Matt Alexander. A friend named Russ Dunn has stalked the stage with his mandolin. Rapper Ed E. Ruger has taken a guest turn. Now, at the culmination, another friend, Sherry Martin, is distributing plastic cups of beer ‘— clutched three to a hand ‘— to the crew.

She drinks her own down fast and turns the cup upside down to shake out the last drops onto the stage. Her face is streaked with tears. Who can tell who is friend, and who is official member? It hardly matters. The group named Tre’ Stylez is rapidly disintegrating as it furiously approaches the end.

During the last three songs Sleazy B sits for periods on the edge of the drum riser with a glum expression on his face. He nurses a beer, pulls out his last cigarette and tosses the empty pack at the inside of the barricade. Young sits down beside him and tilts his can to Sleazy’s in a gesture of support. The tears are flowing.

Right now the members of Trey’s crew are spitting his lyrics, lines like, ‘“You see I’m deadly with some paper and pen/ I ain’t your friend/ I ain’t a friend to many/ But rhymes I got plenty.’” Or: ‘“Understand I got a plan/ I want the world in my hands/ If it don’t happen I’m-a still keep rappin’/ Bust a gun, I’m having fun.’”

And yet the hard posture of Tre’ Stylez in verse is contradicted by the testimony of those who loved him, the swells of mourners at the funeral home for his visitation and funeral in the past week. In fact, he was a friend to many. He was constantly talking up the Greensboro underground hip-hop scene, not to mention raving about bands from other genres ‘— bands like the Five L’s and the bluegrass-tinged Swamp Boat ‘— and then getting up and performing with all of them.

‘“He lives on through the local music scene, through Celinski, Ed E. Ruger, Metaphor the Great, Ill Position, Will Zaybine, myself,’” Stitchy C says later. ‘“He pulled this whole music scene together like glue. This Greensboro underground scene is what he bled for.’”

Michaud’s aunt Rhonda Moggio, who came up from Florida for the funeral, is here with her husband at the concert hall too. She remembers her nephew as precocious, charming, and of course, creative.

‘“He was very respectful to his mother ’til the day he died,’” she says. ‘“His family ‘– we supported his music’… He was very charming and very good looking. He learned manners. He would shock adults that he would come up and shake their hands when he was very young.’”

On Michaud’s last night he was at the home of members of a rock band called Nyos. Mike Eastep, a friend of the band and a member of the household, remembers how Michaud pushed Nyos to start playing gigs.

‘“He started motivating them to get out there,’” Eastep says. ‘“He found something he liked and he really pushed it. He was all about the local groups getting together and helping each other.’”

It’s hard not to hear the line from ‘“Iconoclast Crew,’” ‘“Bust a gun, I’m having fun,’” and not be overwhelmed by its prophetic acuity, matched against the reports of Michaud dancing in a kitchen in the wee hours of the morning as male aggression escalated harmless play to deadly gunfire. Were the lines authentic when he first committed them to paper?

Michaud’s writing largely avoided the Social Darwinism of much of the rap oeuvre, the promise to annihilate all contenders to get to the top. All the same, the lines betray a preoccupation and even acceptance of the possibility of being on the receiving end of violence. Did those lines reflect his social reality when they were recorded? Or does life imitate art?

It’s hard to say, but it’s easy to see the legend crystallizing to fill the void of Trey Michaud’s wasted potential as Bright recalls saying goodbye to his friend at a private visitation at the funeral home.

‘“I gave him a hug and a kiss for everybody who couldn’t be there,’” Bright says. ‘“I wasn’t supposed to. I told him: ‘You were going to be big, but now you’re going to be much bigger.””

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