For a long time, Ronald White's thoughts of a career in rap music had given way to much simpler life goals: staying alive and out of prison. Faced with two counts of first-degree murder, thoughts of life in prison and the death penalty — not rap — occupied White's imagination.
"Glory to God," says White, known by his rap moniker, Ron Ron, as he recalls the not-guilty verdict, passed down in the summer of 2007, related to the killing of two men outside a Kansas City liquor store.
God comes up a lot in conversations with White, a native of Kansas City's East Side. God has given him, he says, the talent to rap. After the trial, God gave him the clarity to see a career in music as a priority. And if the city's hip-hop elite are religious, they, too, can thank God — White is a seriously talented rapper.
The emergence of a recent YouTube video sent locals scurrying to figure out Ron Ron's identity. The video's two songs, "Hey Honey" and "Throwbacc," form a sort of Jekyll-and-Hyde version of White.
On "Hey Honey," Ron Ron wears thick black glasses and coos playfully to a woman, I know you're tired of a square/Wanna ride with a certified player? He changes wardrobe for "Throwbacc," ditching the glasses for a Royals cap and a harder, gangster persona. As individual songs, both are catchy, well-produced and lyrically spotless, standing on opposite ends of hip-hop's pop-gangster spectrum. Together, they're a complicated personality portrait with beats.
Sitting at an empty desk in his sparsely decorated office and studio space off Wornall, White talks about his life with a storyteller's appreciation for detail. "If you can't tell, I like to talk," he says as midnight approaches.
In middle school, he started writing rhymes in a notebook. Using his small stereo, he figured out how to record beats from songs on the radio and then dub his rhymes over them onto cassette. "That's what I did for the next two years," he says. "I made six or seven songs off the same beats."
Living an itinerant childhood with his mother, a FEMA worker, Ron returned to Kansas City at the age of 14, just in time to attend high school. His brother-in-law and former classmate, Ron Richardson Jr., remembers that he first noticed White rapping in a heated freestyle battle in the lunchroom.
"Ron had the 'hood before he ever had the mainstream," Richardson says.
White doesn't shy away from discussing his troubled youth, either.
"The old Ron Ron was walking around with a gun all the time, halfway paranoid, and didn't like nobody. I got a kick out of doing ignorant shit," he says.
He reminisces about running afoul of the law during his youth, losing his best friends to prison and violence. It was a life lived in tenuous harmony with the streets — White says it's a story familiar to many others from his neighborhood, an area known as the 50s. That's also where Fat Tone and Tech N9ne grew up.
"It was a tough motherfucker to grow up in," he says. "Mentally, niggas was so sharp, their con games was so sharp. Mentally and physically, it took you through a workout."
If White seems battle-tested, his wisdom comes from some hard lessons over the past few years. A year spent in prison awaiting trial on murder charges, months of house arrest after posting bail — White has had plenty of time for self-evaluation.
"I decided to really live from that point on," he says, referring to the not-guilty verdict. "You can only say the ghetto and how a person grows up is responsible [for so long] before you have to take ownership."
Restored freedom, he says, was also his wake-up call to start pursuing a rap career more seriously. In early 2008, after getting some timely advice from the Popper, an established local rapper ("You're too tight not to do this rap shit," White says the Popper told him), he moved rap back to the top of his agenda.
Last October, White issued the Ron Ron release Mr. No It All, an online mixtape containing several of his most popular songs.
Funny, playful, articulate and street-wise, the 24 tracks take listeners through personal dramas and tongue-in-cheek observations. In Ron Ron's voice, you hear a hustler's hunger. The lyrics layer the emotional honesty of Eminem against the complex double-entendres favored by Jay-Z.
On the riveting standout "Go Get It," Ron Ron turns serious, rapping over a rambling piano: I'm from the black top, baby/And the crack rock gave me/Anything I ever wanted from the streets/And then bust a little more/Posted by the liquor store/I could afford to put Jordans on my feet.
The mixtape, White says, is simply the beginning. His summer tour will take him through Missouri and elsewhere in the Midwest, culminating in a mansion party in the Ozarks. "We'll just get stupid, dumb retarded," he says of the grand finale.
For all the fun he plans, White remains serious about his business. He speaks about the sort of PR and marketing acumen that rappers need to be successful.
"At the end of the day, regardless of what you do, everything you do in this business has a title, a name and a definition. It's PR work, media relations, marketing, damage control. You can't play the game — fuck it, you can't win the game — if you don't know the rules."