Kyle James is center stage at Club 906 in Liberty. Microphone in hand, shirt off, cut abs on display, he's delivering his hip-hop single to about 20 people. A few people dance to the rhymes as they watch Mayor Sly James' 24-year-old son, backed by Kemet "thePhantom*" Coleman, perform "Bender."
Drinking for three days, some might say I'm on a bender, James rasps. Get a bad chick back to da crib, then I bender ... over. Play my shit on replay because I'm colder than December. We don't need no sleep we keep it rolling off this liquor. I'm on a bender, bender, bender ... I'll take this bottle to the head just might drink till I'm dead.
Next door, at Retro Bowl (the two venues are connected), two Liberty cops have blocked the doorway to a bathroom where they're questioning a man who looks like a much shorter version of Chicago Bulls center Joakim Noah. He's bleeding and has stuffed brown paper towels into his mouth to stanch the flow. He tells the uniforms that he got jumped. The police turn their attention to another man, dressed all in white.
It's a strange night, made a little stranger by James and Coleman's enthusiasm booming through the walls. While a Retro Bowl employee mops up the blood, the two rappers are playing to their small audience in the adjoining club as if they've sold out an arena.
"There's people here who had other shit that they could be doing, but they're here wanting to hear what I have to say," Coleman says when they come offstage. "I don't give a shit if no one shows up. I'll perform like there's 1,000 people there."
James is looking for a victory cigarette. He says he stopped smoking two days before the show to keep his voice fresh. Sweat drips off him.
"It felt great," James says.
Kyle James is late. He's meeting with Coleman and a reporter at Fric & Frac, on 39th Street.
When he gets to the restaurant's patio, wearing a powder-blue Royals shirt, shorts and a flat-billed baseball cap, he wants to talk about his rap, not his rap sheet — the rumored fights, the mug shot in the daily paper. In three days, he's putting out his first mixtape. It's called Barz4Daze, and it features Coleman, who also mixed and mastered it. The two have spent a year on it. "Bender" is already out, and James is shooting a video for it.
"It's probably going to be one of the coolest videos to come out of here," James says.
Modesty often eludes him. He and Coleman call themselves "Team COA," for center of attention. They shout out the letters at shows, punctuate social-media posts with them, deploy them in casual conversation. It's not just a slogan but an attitude, and what it sums up goes beyond music — at least as far as hiring "promo girls," they say, and starting a line of merchandise. They call it a movement.
"There's a girl who got 'COA' tattooed on her," James says. "I have to show you this. It's crazy."
James pulls out his iPhone and reveals a photo of the letters inked onto a woman's body. They say they'd joked with the woman about getting a COA tattoo. She didn't hesitate.
"There's a lot of people who are the center of attention or think they're the center of attention or want to be the center of attention," Coleman says. "So they've definitely clasped onto that."
James has been the center of attention over the past year for confrontations at metro bars and nightclubs. The first on the record: an August 2011 fracas at Fran's Restaurant. According to a police report, James threatened the job of an in-uniform, off-duty cop who had handcuffed him for acting unruly in the Power & Light District business and walking out on a $30 tab. James apologized a few days later and offered to pay his check.
"As soon as that happened, I wasn't Kyle," James says. "I wasn't K.J. I was the mayor's son. People probably looked at it as 'he wants some attention — it's a gimmick,' or something like that."
James is reluctant to rehash this and other scuffles, but he admits that he's been wrong a few times. His mistakes, he adds, have just been a little more public than most people's.
"There's also been times when things were blatant lies," he says. "There's also been times when my personality and how eccentric I am — people may not know how to react to it. I think it could be misunderstood."
By the end of August 2011, though, he was back in the news, accused of punching a woman in the face at a bar, the Point. TV news crews camped outside his apartment. Reporters knocked on his door, and James, scheduled to work that day, holed up to avoid the attention.
"I actually lost my job," James says. He'd been a server at Brio. "I couldn't go to work because of this shit."
The assault case was scheduled for trial this past February but was thrown out after the woman failed to show up in court. By then, the TV crews and reporters were less interested.
"I'm proven not guilty, and nothing's even said," James says. "Nobody even took the time to see if this is even fucking true. It's just like, 'He punched some girl in the face.' Inaccurate. That's part of the shit that comes with the territory."
Things got worse this past April 8. James was with Kendrick Williams that night when Williams was fatally shot in Westport. As the Middle of the Map Fest was wrapping up its weekend in the entertainment district, men in a car heckled Williams' fiancée in the parking lot of the Sun Fresh market. Someone in the car opened fire on Williams when he moved to check on her.
James saw a man point something from one of the car's windows. He thought it was a camera phone. It was a gun. There was a pop. Williams got "hyped up" and pushed him, James says.
"These dudes are shooting?" James says Williams told him. "This is crazy."
Williams' fiancée was the first to notice that he'd been shot. Then Williams, 22, collapsed.
"He was smiling when he passed away," James says. "He told me, 'You got this.' I've internalized that and remembered that. I knew what he was talking about. That's why I want to be unwavering in the whole approach to this because it's bigger than just me. When you see something like that, it's kind of hard to be scared of a crowd or be onstage or be scared to walk down a street. What do you really fear at the end of the day? And are you going to let that limit you?"
Williams' killing remains unsolved. James and Coleman now wear matching black and gold "Stop the Violence — In Memory of Kid" bracelets to remember their friend.
The violence around James didn't stop, though. In late April, Fox 4 reported that James was "beaten and bloodied" after a fight with a self-proclaimed martial-arts expert outside the Brooksider. James refused to press charges and accepted a ride home from police. "I didn't fight," James says. "I just stood there thinking I was doing a righteous thing."
In May, James was charged with disorderly conduct in Kansas City, Kansas. A judge ordered him to pay a $170.50 fine. He doesn't want to talk about that one. It's just another time when something happened to him, and people talked about it only because he's the son of the mayor.
"People think he's getting spoon-fed by his parents," Coleman says of his friend. "I could probably name how much money this dude has in his bank account, and it's not very much. We're both fucking broke as shit. But he's a grown-ass man, so his actions are his actions."
"The No. 1 thing that I hate is how this reflects on a man who did everything for my brothers and sister that he possibly could," James says of his father. "He worked his ass off, tried to put us in the best schools. This is literally the most inspiring person that I've ever been around in my whole life. And I hate how the things that I've done, even if they're true or not true or whatever, how they reflect on him. Sometimes you have to learn in your own way, and I'm still learning."
Mayor Sly James didn't return messages left by The Pitch with his spokesman. But Kyle James says his father, who played in bands as a young man, is supportive of his music career.
"My dad is supportive of whatever I want to do that is legal, that is time-fulfilling, that is not going to outright harm other people," James says. "He's completely supportive of me being passionate about something. That's hard to do. He's letting me be me but at the same time giving me guidance and input."
And James insists that the dust-ups haven't been about drawing attention to his fledgling hip-hop career.
"Music wasn't even on my mind at Fran's," James says. "I'll just chalk that up to not having direction, not being focused, and allowing myself to be in a situation where I became vulnerable. And when I was vulnerable, I probably didn't handle it or deal with it in the most mature way that I possibly could."
He goes on: "I want to be known for music. I want to be known for talent, not for rash decisions or trouble. I don't want no trouble."
"He's really driven to do what he wants to do now," Coleman says.
Inside Coleman's Armour Boulevard apartment on this August afternoon, his caramel-colored cat, Achilles, roams the living room and flops down for attention. The one-0x00ADbedroom space is decorated with paintings, drawings and photos of famous black Americans: Jesse Jackson, Malcolm X, Michael Jackson, President Obama. Family photos share wall space.
"I'm in my mother's stomach," he says when he points to a 1987 image of his parents in a church. There's a shot of his dapper father in his law office. Coleman takes his fashion sense from his father and has the tie his dad wears in the picture.
Coleman has just split a marathon push with James to finish the mixtape. As Coleman shows off his place, the mixtape has gone live for downloading and streaming on bandcamp.com — for free.
"I wanted to make it as accessible to people as I could," James says. "Especially being the first thing that I put out. All I want is as many people as possible to hear it."
Four hours after its release, the mixtape has been played about 500 times.
James and Coleman were supposed to perform at the Riot Room as part of The Pitch Music Showcase August 4. They say "technical difficulties" kept them from playing their set that Saturday night. Coleman says the Riot Room had one sound person, working two stages, who told him that the club didn't have the wiring needed to hook up his laptop. And then his computer crashed. (They found their way onto the stage later. DJ Sheppa let them freestyle on top of some beats at the Riot Room.)
Coleman says he and James were sitting outside the Riot Room, figuring out what to do next, when a Foundry employee approached James. "This punk bitch from the Foundry comes up to him and goes, 'You're not going to start any trouble, are you?' "
"This always happens," James says. He kept his cool, told the guy: "Dude, I'm sitting here. I'm performing tonight. I'm not trying to come into the bar."
"You gotta let that shit roll and realize this all comes full circle," James says. "Big reward, big shit."
Coleman says people have tried to steer him away from James. Someone even created a Twitter account to do so.
"The only two tweets are to me," Coleman says. He remembers the messages. "You're putting yourself in a bad light if you're hanging out with that James dude. He's going to fuck up your reputation."
His ex-girlfriend warned him about James, too. Coleman says she told him, "I feel like you broke up with me to go be with Kyle."
Basketball and music brought James and Coleman together at Notre Dame de Sion. They made their first recording together in the basement of Coleman's parents' home when James was in sixth grade and Coleman in eighth.
"We'd be up till, like, 6 in the morning, working on stuff," James says. "Now it's embarrassing if you listen to it. It's like, 'Oh, shit.' "
"That stuff is whack," Coleman says, "but it definitely showed that we had chemistry."
Coleman graduated from Raytown High School. James bounced from Rockhurst to Lincoln to Paseo. The two lost touch when Coleman went to college, first at the University of Central Missouri. "I partied a little too much," he says. He moved to the University of Missouri–Kansas City. "Did too much music," he says. "So I went to [Metropolitan Community College] Longview, and I actually got straight A's there, for some reason. So I went back to UMKC and then kind of stopped."
After high school, James was accepted into UMKC's Institute for Entrepreneurship and Innovation. He thought he was done making music, but he says it pulled him back. So he dropped out.
"My goal is to never go back to college and finish it," James says. "I'm very tunnel-visioned. If I don't have direction and I don't have a goal in sight, then I can be here, there and everywhere. Once I have tunnel vision, everything seems to make sense. When I'm focused on something — and it's something I love — it's pretty attainable."
About 18 months ago, Coleman and James reunited. They released a song in April 2011 called "I Won't Lose."
Coleman worked as a paid staffer for Sly James' mayoral campaign, and when he wasn't canvassing or working fundraisers, he cut a rhyme for his friend's dad. At the same time, Kyle James became Coleman's business manager, a job that reminded him how much he wanted to be onstage performing. James quit the job, and the two began making music again.
They take different approaches to what's in the music, though. James packs his lyrics with drug and alcohol references and sexual innuendo. Talk of partying and women, though, is less present on tracks like "Get Away" and "Make a Way," which he wrote two days after Williams was shot and killed.
"I try to paint pictures," Coleman says, "and he'll just shoot a bullet through that canvas."
"I'd rather keep it raw and honest for myself because that's the only way that people will feel you," James says. "He's a little bit more calm and reserved and, honestly, a little bit more tasteful."
"Is tomorrow Thursday?" Coleman asks.
"It all blends together," James says.
It's about 3 p.m. They're hungry. They talk about going for steaks at Plaza III. They settle for the $2.99 meal deals at Church's Chicken.
James' left biceps is freshly tattooed with a pyramid with an all-seeing eye surrounded by a sea of flame — a basic, dollar-bill-style illuminati symbol — and the letters "COA," which were drawn by Coleman. The birthday gift from his girlfriend took three hours to complete. The script for the words "center of attention" is hard to read on purpose, James says. He wants people to really look at it.
On his right arm is a tattoo of an eagle and the word "freedom," which he says he got when he moved out of his parents' home at 17.
James meets Coleman at his apartment. Coleman works on a Jimmy John's "Italian Night Club" sandwich. James drinks an iced tea. They're going to a meet-and-greet with Tech N9ne, who's playing that night.
"It's the No. 1 way I'd want to spend my birthday," James says.
James and Coleman grew up idolizing Tech N9ne. Coleman modeled his style on the Kansas City rapper (along with Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, the Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac). Now Coleman and James are working with Tech, who they say showed at their recent RecordBar show and proclaimed his approval.
After their performance that night, Tech bought shots. The party moved to the Riot Room for Caribou Lous. They made a makeshift VIP section on the patio to celebrate Tech's "Caribou Lou" single going gold.
Another night, the trio started at Luna and ended up at the Foundation. "We were all kind of messed up, and this fool gets onstage and starts rapping at the Foundation," Coleman says of James.
"I was trying to express myself," James explains.
"He starts freestylin', and then somebody was like, 'You've got to get off the stage,' " Coleman says. "They kick him off the stage, and this fool says, 'Who the fuck are you?' That shit was the most hilarious thing ever. Tech talks about that all of the time. We've got a song coming out with Tech called 'Who the Fuck Are You?' "
"It's probably not one of those things that I would have done in the past five or six months," James says.
James is already working on the sequel to Barz4Daze, and he says he's written a lot of it. "I'm going to try to knock that one out real quick after the first one comes out," he says. "I'm already in my stride."
But they say their focus is on a COA album. "That album is going to be crazy," James says.
A couple of days ago, Coleman released the first song off an R&B project he's almost done making, a come-on called "Believer." He and James smirk as the track plays on a laptop.
Your body is calling so you want to believe, Coleman sings in a smooth voice. I'll make you scream Jesus. I'll make you a believer ... Call me the messiah because I'm back for the second coming.
Coleman grew up in a religious home. His father became a pastor in 1997. Coleman says his parents made him read the Bible — an experience he says helps him write lyrics.
"I'm spiritual enough to be comfortable saying those things," Coleman says of "Believer." "God is a lot cooler than people believe."
Kyle James is a different kind of believer. His faith is in his music. He believes he's going to make it. He believes Coleman is going to make it.
"Since the music has been picking up, I feel like a lot of people are like, 'I understand that kid,'" James says.
"My goal is to conquer this city," Coleman says. "I want to be a household name with this guy."
"My buddy from L.A. just started a record label, and we've got some contractual things in the works," James says. "We may not be here for long."