A gleaming white Cadillac Escalade lurches to a stop in a grimy South Beach alley. A slender, olive-skinned dude in a T-shirt steps out holding a bulky duffel bag. He approaches a husky, Mohawked young man with gold teeth and a face full of startling tattoos that include a microphone, an AK-47 vomiting shell casings, and a rag doll's stitched smile around his lips.
The two exchange a fistful of money and the duffel bag, which Mohawk man plops into the trunk of an Audi A5 convertible. He slams it and heads for Ocean Drive.
Palm trees whiz by as he begins rapping and stares at the passenger seat rather than the road. Then he lets loose the year's hottest catch phrase: "I put that brick in yo face! Now what you gon' do with it? Now what you gon' do with it?"
Next he heads to a modest home in the 'hood. "Better have my money when I come to collect," he raps while holding an assault rifle in one hand and a shotgun in the other. "Pay up, pay up, pay up!... I love selling blow."
Finally, a man wearing a Hellraiser Pinhead mask rips apart a package of white powder in an almost campy display of excess.
Since dropping his "Brick in Yo Face" video this past April 30, 19-year-old hip-hop artist Phillip Katsabanis -- AKA Stitches -- has become Miami's rapper of the moment. His gangster anthem has garnered more than 2 million Facebook shares, close to 13 million views on WorldStarHipHop, and gushing write-ups on well-known music websites like Complex and Noisey. Even South Beach's twin late-night palaces, LIV and Mansion, have given him the VIP treatment.
"He is one of the top five most-watched artists in Miami," says Abebe Lewis, co-owner of the legendary North Miami recording studio Circle House. "There are a lot of labels looking at him."
The rise of Stitches provides a blueprint for modern-day hip-hop myth-making. Almost overnight, Katsabanis went from being a suburban Kendall kid known as "Lil Phill" to a bona fide gangsta rapper. Though there's scant evidence to prove his claims of being a cocaine kingpin since he hit puberty, he created a viral reality that fed on the Magic City's reputation for drugs and violence, which began with Scarface's Tony Montana and continued through Rick Ross.
Over the past four months, New Times has spent time with the budding star in an attempt to pull back the curtain. While some of his claims are true, others seem inflated. Moreover, he recently lost some street credibility when claims surfaced that he wears fake jewelry and stages faux events like pretending to give away $10,000 to a lucky fan.
"Stitches is a fraud," says Al Davidi, a New York nightclub owner and jewelry-store owner known for selling gaudy pendants and chains to rappers. "He's abusing his viral fame."
Katsabanis brushes off the critics. "I don't give a damn what haters say about me," he seethes. "I know and my real fans know I am real."
It's a rainy afternoon in late June, long after the debut of "Brick in Yo Face," and Katsabanis is strolling through the showroom of the Collection, a swanky exotic-car dealership in Coral Gables. He's accompanied by a bald, muscular bodyguard with a bushy beard who wears a bulletproof vest and carries a concealed pistol. After inviting a New Times reporter here, the rapper boasts that he's going to buy a blue 2014 Maserati Ghibli, an Italian sports car that retails for around $66,000.
Standing close to six feet tall and barrel-chested, Stitches cuts an intimidating figure. In addition to the face tats, he sports ink on his neck, arms, and hands that features a menagerie of roses, musical notes, pinup girls, and jokers. Underneath the body art, he's a handsome young man with blue eyes and sandy-blond hair. He speaks in a deep baritone as he brags about the artists lining up to work with him. When a salesman wearing a black polo shirt and black slacks escorts Katsabanis to a waiting lounge, the rapper explains why he has a security detail. "When you blow up and get money, people are going to have hatred for you. I can't go out in public without someone trying me."
Since going viral, Katsabanis says he has concentrated on booking nightclub shows, making more videos, and cutting new tracks. He's released clips for "Mail" and "I'm Just a Gangsta," two songs from his debut No Snitching Is My Statement mixtape. He's amassed more than 730,000 followers on Instagram, his preferred social media application. (He doesn't have a Facebook account.) This past July, he performed at a nightclub in Tallahassee and for a stripper's birthday party at PT's strip club in Hialeah. The two gigs paid him roughly $20,000, he says.
WorldStarHipHop, the website where "Brick in Yo Face" blew up, has been described by its founder, Lee "Q" O'Denat, as "CNN of the ghetto." Since 2005, it's curated the work of many up-and-coming artists. "The big-label executives go on that website to see what is going on," notes Lewis, CEO of recording studio Circle House. "It offers the biggest profile when you are an independent artist."
When Katsabanis' song went viral on WorldStarHipHop, the only identifying phrase was "18 year old Unsigned Artist in Miami." People clicked and clicked. Within six days, "Brick in Yo Face" had racked up more than 6 million page views.
The week after "Brick in Yo Face" appeared, music journalists went wild but didn't question his incredible backstory. He said he sold his first cocaine brick at age 14 and then lived a lavish rapper lifestyle on South Beach. Drew Millard, editor of Vice-owned music site Noisey, wrote, "Before Stitches was Stitches... he was Lil Phill, a teenage drug dealer," adding that "Brick in Yo Face" 's "beat wheezes and lurches like a freight train as conducted by Godzilla." David Drake, a writer at the site Complex, added: "The song sounds like eight rails of cocaine mainlined while standing on top of a fighter jet."
Katsabanis fueled his own legend with cryptic interviews and songs about his alleged drug-dealing past. He rapped that he "met cocaine at the age of 11," and in May, Miami-based ESPN radio host Dan Le Batard invited him on the air. ("His video was so impossibly ridiculous and Miami and cartoonish," Le Batard tells New Times.) During the 11-minute session, Katsabanis wouldn't even tell Le Batard his real name.
When he met with New Times, Katsabanis stuck to his script. "Ain't nothing in my story fake," he asserted. "I promise you that."
He said he moved out of his mother's house when he was 14 years old, relocating to South Beach, where he rented penthouses and rode around in exotic cars. "I was dating older chicks," Katsabanis said. "They would sign the leases."
He added that he was expelled from G. Holmes Braddock Senior High School during the first week of his freshman year for punching the principal. "He was talking too much crap," Katsabanis alleges. "He said, 'You think you're gonna be the next Lil Wayne, but you ain't gonna be shit,' so I stuck him in the face."
This is the first of several places where questions begin to arise about his past. Manuel Garcia, principal at Braddock, confirms Katsabanis attended school there. He says he was never punched. "I know the young man by name," he practically seethes over the phone. "I've been the principal here for 11 and a half years, and that claim is completely false."
Katsabanis says he was arrested ten times as a minor "for stupid shit" but won't reveal details about the alleged crimes. When pressed for more information, he becomes visibly annoyed. "I'm really about what I say I am about," Katsabanis growls. "Just listen to my songs."
His reluctance to divulge anything concrete about his alleged drug-dealing days has led to a growing chorus of doubters, some of whom claim they have proof Katsabanis is a phony. They point to a series of publicity stunts via his Instagram account that were allegedly meant to bamboozle his 700,000-plus followers.
Roel Luciano, a 27-year-old Miami Gardens resident, was a Stitches fan until late June. "Not anymore," Luciano says. "He's a bitch." On June 23, Luciano tells New Times, he found a gold chain Katsabanis had thrown from a moving car traveling north on Interstate 95 during the late afternoon rush hour. Indeed, Katsabanis posted a video on Instagram that shows him hurling the chain out of the sunroof. About 20 minutes later, Luciano saw the 15-second clip and began scanning the four lanes in front of him. -"I-95 was bumper-to-bumper," Luciano says. "Traffic was moving really slow, and I was looking out for it. Sure enough, the chain was sitting in one of the middle lanes."
He says he stopped his car, got out, and snatched the chain off the pavement. When he took it to a pawn shop to determine the value, he says he was told it was gold-plated copper. "It was faker than silicone titties," Luciano says. "When I called him out on -Instagram about the chain, Stitches blocked me."
A few days later, Katsabanis posted another short clip in which he shows up at the South Miami residence of "fan" Melissa Jackson. He pulls out a stack of hundred-dollar bills and hands it to Jackson. "You won the ten grand," he says. "This shit is real." A petite, olive-skinned girl in a yellow polo shirt and white jeans, Jackson jumps up and down with excitement. She takes the wad and hugs Katsabanis. "Thank you," she says.
The clip garnered 4,685 likes on Instagram and 706 comments, most of them flowery platitudes. For example, a user named lavitachallenge wrote, "awwww that's so generous of you. Wow I'm impressed 100%." Kid_retro93 wrote: "You're such a good person man."
In an interview with New Times in mid-August, Jackson reported the whole thing was a set-up arranged by a friend who knew Katsabanis. "He didn't give me the $10,000," she says. "He took it back and only gave me $100." Jackson complained that Katsabanis used her to win social media brownie points with his fans. "He put me on blast," Jackson adds. "When you talk to him, let him know that I said he didn't give me shit."
In late July, an anonymous blogger named Fake Watch Buster posted on Instagram a photo of Katsabanis with the word "fake" stamped across the gold Audemars Piguet watch the rapper is wearing. "Stitches with the terrible, low-end replica of Audemars Piguet," Fake Watch Buster wrote in his caption. "Burn it."
Then there's this: A day after meeting with New Times at the Coral Gables car dealership the Collection, Katsabanis posted a photo of him test-driving a Maserati. The caption read: "How you like my new toy?" But the Collection salesman who assisted Katsabanis, who did not want to be named, reported, "He didn't have the money for the down payment, so he did not get the car."
About four years ago, Katsabanis was on the top floor of a parking garage in West Kendall. Then 15 years old, he was dressed in a Boston Red Sox baseball cap, rosary beads, a red -T-shirt three sizes too big, and baggy jeans. A crude homemade tattoo spelling his name in cursive letters was etched along his left forearm. On a cell-phone video, he waved his arms wildly, pointing at the camera and jumping around while spitting out:
My name is Lil Phill,
Ain't nothin' Lil
He continued with profanity and -- though he was the size and age of a Little Leaguer -- rapped about his sexual prowess:
Bitches on my dick,
Just for the thrill,
I come up on the beat,
and rip it quick.
Miguel Segarra Jr., another 19-year-old aspiring rapper, says that back then, Katsabanis -- Lil Phill -- was known for showing up at different schools to battle other teenaged lyricists. "A lot of people didn't like him, but I respect his grind," says Segarra, who recently made a song with Katsabanis."Despite all the hate he got, he kept pushing."
Born on June 17, 1995, Phillip Katsabanis is the youngest of three brothers in a family of Cuban and Greek descent. He was barely 1 year old when his parents, Esther and Alexander, broke up. It was a bitter split. According to public records, Esther filed for divorce on March 28, 1996 and eventually won a permanent restraining order against her estranged husband. At the time, the family lived in North Miami Beach.
Alexander was allowed to continue seeing his sons under supervision, but he could not have any contact with Esther. A family court judge also ordered Alexander to attend anger management classes. Records detailing the allegations against the senior Katsabanis have since been destroyed.
Esther and Alexander declined repeated requests for comment, including Facebook messages that explained New Times wanted to interview them about their son's assertions that he was on his own and selling drugs when a teenager.
Court records indicate Alexander was a deadbeat dad. Esther's attorney filed motions at least seven times between 1996 and 2005 to hold her ex-husband in contempt because he had missed child-support payments. According to an August 7, 2003 document filed by Alexander's attorneys, the elder Katsabanis was broke: "These financial circumstances have resulted not only in non-payment of child support, but also in the former husband's inability to pay his current mortgage, credit cards, automobile payments, and other living expenses." At the time, Alexander lived in a two-floor, five-bedroom waterfront estate on Allison Road in Miami Beach that he and his second wife, Maria Chavez, purchased for $737,000 in 1997. They sold it for $2 million in 2005.
Records show that similar issues surfaced when it came to caring for the kids. Although he was supposed to pick up his boys every other weekend, he missed half of the first 18 appointments, according to a motion filed by Esther's lawyer.
In a brief interview with New Times, Chavez, who divorced Alexander Katsabanis in 2010, says young Phillip was both musical and loyal. "He was just the sweetest little boy," she says. "He was very protective of his brothers even though he was younger, and he always loved to sing and dance."
Phillip Katsabanis/Stitches, however, says he did not get along with his father. "I don't talk to my dad at all," he asserts. "I never had a relationship with him."
Aside from an absent father, Katsabanis and his older siblings, Dimitri and Alexander Jr., led a relatively normal suburban life. Their mom is a health insurance broker who bought a two-floor, three-bedroom townhouse on Bird Road in 1997 for $179,000. She's remarried twice in the past decade. She divorced her second husband in 2006, two years after tying the knot.
A year later, when Katsabanis was 12, Esther began dating Jose Cabado, a Miami-Dade Police detective in the special crimes bureau, concentrating on sex-related offenses. This is something Stitches' haters have publicized on blogs and social media pages.
"I can't control who my mom dates," Phillip says. "He has never done me wrong. If people want to talk bad about it, that is their problem. I don't give a damn about it."
The couple shares an orange West Kendall house with 25-year-old Dimitri and Alexander Jr., now 23. It's plastered with Christmas lights and is decorated with stones that say things like "Happiness is homegrown." When New Times visited July 1, no one answered the door after several knocks.
Despite his claims of being estranged from his father, Katsabanis and his brothers post photos on their Instagram accounts that show a tight-knit brood. When "Brick in Yo Face" went viral, Dimitri put up a photo of Katsabanis with the caption: "4 million views for my little bro... Stitches!!!!" An image Alexander Jr. posted in mid-June shows the three brothers baring their teeth for the camera. "At the end of it all, the only thing that matters is #family," read the caption.
When reached on his cell phone, Alexander Jr. declined to comment on behalf of himself and Dimitri. "[Stitches] doesn't want to involve his family in his music," Alexander Jr. says. "And I'd prefer to keep my family and my personal life out of his business."
Phillip says he always maintained a close relationship with his mother despite moving out at an early age. "I have a good family," he says. "But I grew up really fast and wanted to be independent."
In school, former classmate Alexander Rimas says Katsabanis "would freestyle... roam the halls and do whatever the fuck he wanted." Rimas says he does not know anything about Katsabanis' being expelled or having a juvenile criminal record.
Miami-Dade Schools data is private since he was a minor. The only proof Katsabanis got in trouble is a March 29, 2012, court document that states the then-16-year-old boy received probation for an unspecified crime. And he has no criminal record as an adult.
His brothers are a different story. In May, federal prosecutors charged Dimitri and Alexander Jr., along with 18 others, with conspiracy to commit wire fraud and identity theft, among other crimes. They allegedly masterminded a scheme to obtain iPhones at discounted prices by stealing personal information. The brothers are accused of pilfering at least 1,249 cellular devices from Verizon, which incurred a loss of more than $545,500. They had to post a bond of $50,000 to remain free -pending trial, which is scheduled for October 6.
During their brief phone conversation with New Times, Alexander Jr. and Dimitri insisted their alleged crimes have nothing to do with Stitches. But they backed up their little brother's claims that he earned a living selling blow. Moments after that call ended, the rapper called New Times to threaten legal action and bodily harm. "If you write anything bad about me," he warned, "I will sue you." Four hours later, he added, "I'm serious, my nigga. Anyone who brings negativity on me or my family, that person is going to see me the next day. I don't care about this music shit." Days later, after a reporter emailed him to check facts in this article, he replied with a phone call full of expletives and then followed up with a text message: "I hope your fake story is worth the ass beating that you gonna get lil nigga. Doubt me I dare you sucka."
About a month after he was put on probation for the crime he won't talk about, Katsabanis dropped the "Lil Phill" handle and began his metamorphosis into Stitches. "That was just a different time in my life," the rapper recalls. "I was just a kid back then."
The first major addition to the Stitches persona was, of course, the stitched smile around his lips, which he says was created by Steve Santacruz, owner of Empire Tattoos, a gritty shop on Washington Avenue. "Steve has been my boy for a long time," he says.
Photos of the new ink popped up on Alexander Jr.'s Instagram feed in September 2012, three months after little brother had turned 17. The following month, he stopped using the Lil Phill handle on Twitter and deleted the rest of his first incarnation's social media presence. Before the year ended, he had added the AK-47 tat to his face.
He tells New Times the stitches tattoo is a metaphor for his strong belief in the old rap adage that "snitches get stitches." The rifle was just done on a whim. "It's my favorite gun," he says.
Katsabanis also started flaunting his money. He would hang around South Beach, regularly cruising into the Whole Foods at Alton Road and Tenth Street for a six-dollar juice flanked by tough-looking older guys and decked out in jewelry, says one employee of the grocery store who didn't want to be named.
"I figured he was a hustler -- he always pulled up in nice cars, like a Mercedes," the employee says. "He was a young kid with a lot of shit that young kids don't usually have."
Around that time, Katsabanis befriended Leonel Carrera, an amateur boxer and a member of Chicago's Almighty Imperial Gangsters Nation. Carrera, who is six years older than Katsabanis and goes by the social media handle "Leovelli," had been convicted of armed carjacking in 2005 and, seven years later, added convictions for grand theft and dealing in stolen property. He's facing six other felony charges, including battery on a law enforcement officer and strong-arm robbery.
"He's my boy, my best friend," Katsabanis boasts to New Times and says he has trained with Carrera for years. "I'm a brawler," he adds. "Trust me."
Carrera is the guy wearing the Pinhead mask in the "Brick in Yo Face" video. When the clip went viral, he linked to it on his Facebook page and wrote, "ma lil brotha making history."
At SoBe's Empire Tattoos, Katsabanis also met Karlen Moodliyar, a Miami R&B singer known as "Pretti Sly." With his GQ looks and tattoos from his ankles to his neck, Pretti Sly owns a top modeling agency, lives in a Miami Beach mansion, and rides around town in a pearl-white Bentley.
After hearing Katsabanis rap, Pretti Sly introduced him to Circle House's Lewis, who was confounded. "Here's this kid with a Mohawk and a bunch of tattoos," Lewis says. "I didn't know if he was crazy or cool. In time, I got to know him personally. He really has the passion. I wish most artists had his drive."
In the past year, Katsabanis has been to Circle House Studios at least ten times, Lewis says.
Also, several tracks for his mixtape No Snitching Is My Statement were produced by Atlanta-based 808 Mafia and famed Miami hip-hop genius Scott Storch.
On October 31, 2012, Katsabanis married a petite brunet judicial assistant named Erica Duarte. At the time, he was 17 and she was 28. In 2008, she was a contestant on the first season of MTV's Paris Hilton's My New BFF.
In 2013, the couple had their first son, Rex. In mid-August, Erica gave birth to their second child, Rocco. On his Instagram, amid the images of him smoking weed and holding piles of cash and guns, Katsabanis sporadically posts photos of Rex, who is a Baby Gap model in the making with wide blue eyes and short brown hair. The captions reveal a softer side: "He is what I am most thankful for. #myson #champion."
"Being a dad is the greatest feeling," Katsabanis reveals. "It puts a real smile on my face every day. Nothing else does."
Asked if he felt it was appropriate to post pictures of his son next to drugs and guns, Katsabanis replies: "I don't give a shit."
Dressed in a black T-shirt, black shorts, and a black skull cap, Katsabanis is sitting on the ground against a chainlink fence. It's early afternoon June 25 outside a brown apartment building at the Pork 'n' Beans projects, and he's flanked by his bodyguard, a cameraman, and a tall, skinny rapper with dreads named M. Dinero.
Katsabanis and Dinero walk over to five young black men loitering outside a building who, after some negotiation, agree to appear in a video for a song called "Price Tag." The group gathers behind a rundown shed, and Katsabanis instructs the new extras to stand behind M. Dinero. Then he walks behind the cameraman and yells, "Action!"
Dinero begins a rap -- "That boy working with the feds/Let's put a bounty on his head" -- as the extras dance. After the scene is over, Katsabanis tells New Times: "I feel you shouldn't be a rapper if you are not going to rap about some true shit. Don't rap about someone else's life. If you worked at McDonald's, rap about that. Rap about how much you hated it. Don't rap about selling drugs and killing people when you have never done that a day in your life."
Katsabanis/Stitches kicked into overdrive at the beginning of 2014. In March, he legally trademarked the name "Stitches," and a month later, on April 25, his mixtape No Snitching Is My Statement was released for free downloads on various hip-hop sites. Three days later, the "Brick in Yo Face" video dropped on WorldStar-HipHop. Some scenes were shot on South Beach and others at Pork 'n' Beans.
The three-minute video followed the usual gangsta-rap plot line depicting a drug deal and thugs jumping around. The key distinction is Carrera in the Pinhead mask throwing white powder around a room like a maniac. Katsabanis says he's made a few thousand dollars from ads that play with the video on YouTube, but he won't discuss a specific dollar amount.
Katsabanis says he directs all his videos. "I've been doing everything on my own," he asserts. "I didn't have help from anybody. I probably spent 40 grand of my own money for studio time and shooting videos."
However, Katsabanis and his buddy Carrera have not been able to enjoy the success together. Just days after "Brick in Yo Face" was seen around the world, a federal grand jury indicted the 25-year-old Carrera and another man for killing a gang rival. "We was real close to turning professional," Katsabanis says. "Bad things happen. I am helping him pay for his lawyers."
Katsabanis claims he has also been looking over his own shoulder. "I have the feds following me everywhere too," he says, adding that law enforcement officials are tailing him in an attempt to catch him selling cocaine. So now, Katsabanis tells New Times, he has quit being a drug dealer. "It's over," he says. "That's the past. Music is all I do."
According to Circle House's Lewis, today's generation of rappers must show record labels they can generate their own buzz before being offered a deal. Label heads want to see consistency, he adds. " 'Brick in Yo Face' alone is not going to cut it," Lewis says. "You got to keep feeding the fans and stay true to yourself. He can't drop off and just do one video every couple of months."
Lewis believes Stitches is better off as an independent artist. "When he does shows, all the money goes to him," Lewis says. "If he can stay hot, Stitches can average $5,000 to $10,000 a show a week. That's $30,000 to $35,000 a month."
But Katsabanis says he's teamed up with some big, big names. "I did a song with Trinidad James, and I did a song with Diplo," he says. "I'm working on something right now with Skrillex. The Insane Clown Posse are hitting up my managers, still trying to plan shit out. Oh, and Travis Barker."
Is this exaggeration? In the opaque world of hip-hop management, it's unclear. Danny Cook, James' manager, confirmed Katsabanis -recorded a track with his client. A representative for Barker who did not want to be named says that the two have talked about a possible collaboration but that neither has followed through. Diplo did not respond for comment via email and an Instagram direct message, although he did invite Stitches onstage at a recent Miami Beach show. Representatives for Skrillex and the Insane Clown Posse also did not respond.
But some local peers have called out Katsabanis. Two months ago, 30-year-old Broward County rapper John Paul released a video for a song called "Controversy Sells" that parodies "Brick in Yo Face." In it, Paul spits, "You ain't moving bricks, you ain't popping shells, you ain't in the trap, you ain't pumping crack, what ya think of that?"
When Katsabanis saw the video, he responded on Twitter: "This nigga only got 5000 views on the music video your a joke...fuck boi." He declined to comment about Paul to New Times.
A Margate native who has been trying to get his rap career going since 2004, Paul tells New Times that Katsabanis represents everything wrong with hip-hop today. "Any artist can drop a video on WorldStarHipHop, but unless you dress yourself up and jump around with an AK-47, you don't get noticed," he says. "It seems like you need some kind of gimmick to go along with your music."
Still, Katsabanis/Stitches is only 19. At times, he can't help but act his age. During a one-week span in July, Katsabanis posted photos of himself dousing champagne on a dancing crowd at Mansion nightclub, getting wasted with Pretti Sly at the tattoo parlor, and showing off his new gold Rolex watch that replaced the Audemars. (The watchdog Fake Watch Buster certifies the Rolex is real.)
And his immaturity is starting to interfere with his ability to make money. Al Davidi, the New York nightclub investor who goes by the moniker "Al the Jeweler," claims Katsabanis started making unnecessary demands after he booked him for a private show in Los Angeles on July 18. "First of all, he has his bodyguard call me, not his manager," Davidi says. "I agreed to fly him and the bodyguard on a private flight and pay him $9,000."
Katsabanis, he says, called him back and demanded another $2,000 and that three members of his entourage also be allowed to come along. Davidi canceled the deal. But he tells New Times he would have been willing to book Katsabanis to perform at the three nightclubs he owns in New York. "I would have paid him $11,000," Davidi says.
But Katsabanis killed his chances with Davidi after another phone call. "This time, he told me to go fuck myself and some other shit," Davidi alleges. "He was very disrespectful."
When confronted with Davidi's complaints, Katsabanis declines to comment directly. He just cracks a wide smile. "I don't put my business out there like that," he says. "But I don't give a fuck."
He adds that he doesn't waste time thinking about what his detractors have to say about him. "Some people think 'Brick in Yo Face' is a one-hit wonder," he says. "But I guarantee you, I'm just getting started. I am going to shock the world."
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