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.