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Two months later, on January 26, he found himself in another altercation following a show. After he performed at Grand Central in downtown Miami, two witnesses told Miami Police they saw the rapper aim and fire a gun at a group of people outside. An officer stopped him near North Miami Avenue and Seventh Street and found SpaceGhostPurrp holding a silver pistol. The rapper denied firing it, but he was arrested on two felony counts of aggravated assault with a firearm and discharging a gun in public. The charges were dropped a month later.
Today, SpaceGhostPurrp says he is done acting like a goon. "I feel all this rap beef shit has slowed things down for me," he says. "The shit backfired on me. Kids don't care about that shit. All they care about is the hottest songs and who is putting out good music."
Dragging on a Newport menthol, Gunplay leans forward in a lawn chair in the backyard of a beige house with a red brick portico in west Pembroke Pines. For the past four hours, the menacing rhyme-slayer with long dreads and bloodshot eyes has been locked in a room while cutting and slicing a song for his upcoming debut album, Medellin.
It's been seven months since Miami-Dade prosecutors dropped armed robbery and aggravated assault charges that could have sent the Carol City rapper to jail for the rest of his life. Every day since then, Gunplay has tried to shed some of his thug past. Once poised on the edge of national success and coming so close to losing it, he won't let it slip away again.
"I am in a transition right now from the streets to being in the music industry full-time," he says. "Shit is real hard. A lot of niggas get in the industry but are still stuck in the streets. A lot of people don't make it."
He is on the cusp of becoming the next gangsta rapper to come out of the neighborhood. Mainstream outlets from Rolling Stone to Grantland can't get enough of a bugged-out Gunplay spitting rhymes with a rapid-fire deep baritone that reminds hip-hop heads of Wu-Tang Clan's Method Man.
Gunplay is close to joining Rick Ross on center stage. All he has to do is keep his volatile street persona in check. But "that's extremely hard to do," he concedes.
He was born Richard Welton Morales Jr. on July 18, 1979, in El Paso, Texas. "Nah, man, I'm Rachet," Gunplay jests. "Call me Rachet Morales." His Jamaican mother and Puerto Rican father are New York natives who met while serving in the Army. His parents divorced in 1982, when he was 3.
When he turned 10, he and his mother moved to Miramar. She worked two jobs, making it difficult for her to keep tabs on him. Gunplay was 13 the first time he was arrested, for retaliating against a bunch of white kids who had pelted him using slingshots. He started smoking weed around the same time. Two years later, he dropped out of Miramar Senior High because he was told he had to repeat ninth grade.
"They said I didn't have enough credits because I never went to class my freshman year," he says. "I just hung out in Carol City, hustling in the streets."
At 16, he was selling $5 and $10 baggies of cocaine and marijuana. "I sold a little here and there to pay bills," he says. "Nothing major." He used some of the cash from his drug sales to buy a small voice recorder to tape himself freestyle rapping.
"When I got a little more money, I bought myself a sampler," he says. "I'd sample a beat and write lyrics to that beat all day."
He studied Busta Rhymes and Wu-Tang Clan and mimicked them in his bedroom mirror.
"I did my homework on every aspect of hip-hop," he says, incorporating gritty events he witnessed in real life. "I seen a nigga get his head bashed in with a bat," he growls. "I seen motherfuckers get shot up in their cars on the highway. I seen slimy hos set a nigga up to get robbed. If you really listen to my music, you realize this is what I am rapping about."
As he got deeper into the drug game, though, Gunplay forgot to follow Ice Cube's advice in the N.W.A. classic "Dopeman" about not getting high on your own supply. By the time he turned 18, he was spending $600 to $700 a week on drugs. "All my homies sold it; nobody really did it," he says. "But I didn't give a fuck."
His life changed in 1997 when he met an overweight former state corrections officer named William Leonard Roberts II. "He would just be swerving through the hood, hanging out in Carol City," Gunplay says. "We just clicked. He took me under his wing."
As Roberts transformed into Rick Ross, Gunplay — alongside fellow Carol City rappers Torch and Young Breed — formed the group Triple C's, short for "Carol City Cartel." He supported Ross during the Bawse's lean years, driving with him up and down I-95, hitting strip clubs, and sleeping in $30-a-night hooker motels while hustling mixtapes.