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Facing the Music

From rapper to convicted drug supplier, Elgin's Nathan Mackey reflects on a rural gangsta's life

Michael Corcoran

Originally published October 8, 2000.

When Nathan Mackey saw the police lights behind him on Cameron Road the night of June 27, 1999, he knew his number was up. His head swirled with thoughts of leading police on a chase or jumping out of the car and taking off on foot. The former Elgin High School football and track star was sure he could outrun the officers.

"I knew that if I just pulled over, I was going to prison,'' he says. But he didn't flee; he froze. Something inside told the self-proclaimed "country thug,'' who has released four gangsta rap CDs as "Lil' Black," that this was how it was meant to be.

The police officer at his window notified Mackey that he wasn't wearing a seat belt. When a background check turned up outstanding traffic warrants, Mackey was taken into custody. As he sat handcuffed in the back of the police cruiser, watching the officers search his car, the police found what Mackey knew they would find -- 3 kilograms of cocaine, with a street value of more than $50,000. "Suddenly, they kicked the back door of the cop car shut,'' Mackey recalls.

Mackey was well-known to Elgin officers as a major drug supplier. "But he was pretty smart, using two or three guys to work for him, so we never caught him," Police Chief Steve Huckabay says. The slamming of the car door was the sound of his time running out.

"Every morning, I wake and pinch myself, hoping it's all just been a bad dream,'' says Mackey, a 27-year-old husband and father of two. But it's no dream; on Feb. 17, he pleaded guilty to a charge of conspiracy to distribute cocaine.

"There are two sides to the street. On the one side is all the money, cars, jewelry, women. On the other side is when 'them folks' get in your life,'' he says.

"Them folks'' is slang for the criminal justice system, which will have Mackey in one of its federal penitentiaries for a length of time to be determined at a sentencing hearing Wednesday Oct. 11. The mandatory minimum for the charge under federal sentencing guidelines is five years, but because this is Mackey's first conviction he could get less time under the "safety valve'' provision.

While waiting for a $10,000 bond to be approved, Mackey sat in the Bastrop federal holding facility for 12 days, taking inventory of a life that once carried such promise.

"When you're on the street, man, you don't see things clearly,'' he says. "I used to tell neighborhood kids in Elgin to bring me their report cards and I'd give them $10 for every A, $5 for a B, thinking that I was encouraging them to stay in school. Instead, I was taking them from their parents."

"Me getting caught is the only way, besides getting killed, that I would've stopped,'' he admits. Still, he sometimes wishes it was a bullet, rather than a set of handcuffs that had ended his reign as a drug supplier. "It's over like that (snaps his fingers) when you get shot, but I've gotta face my troubles every day."

And every day he looks back at his small-town upbringing and wonders how he came to be the modern-day gangster he rapped about in his songs.

'You know my pops

always told me

a flashy man was broke/

But I was blind at the time

and took it as a joke'

From 'My O.G.'s' on Lil' Black's CD, 'Around the World In a Day'

"Watch out for the grasshoppers,'' Mackey says, leading a visitor through his childhood home two miles outside the Elgin city limits. Indeed, the little critters are floppin' and poppin' all over the front porch. "It's me, Mama!'' Mackey announces, then the door creaks open and Emma Mackey goes back to the bedroom to put on some "company'' clothes.

Before he was old enough to drive, Nathan used to go to Thomas Park, where all the local kids hung out.

"Nathan was always gettin' bit,'' his mother says, wearing a brown dress and gold necklace. "I remember once we had some baby pigs that Nathan wanted to pick up, and I warned him not to go near them because the mother hog would do anything to protect her babies. Well, he went ahead and tried to pick one up, and the mother bit him clean to the bone.''

The scariest injury of all was on the football field. Four games into his senior year, Nathan was piled on by five or six Giddings High players who his mother says were out to get the flashy tailback who wore No. 1 and strutted as if he deserved it. As Nathan lay there motionless, his mother ran from the stands to the sidelines. They had a deal that if he was hurt, he'd wiggle his feet to let her know he was OK. But there was no movement this time. Just as Emma started out on the field, something she promised her son she'd never do, she saw his feet move side to side. He wasn't paralyzed, but his football-playing days and his chance of getting a college scholarship were over.

Even before the injury, the tug of the streets had already become more alluring than the Friday night lights. The Elgin Wildcats star, who used to wear a strip of tape on his helmet just to be different, also was the crack dealer who rolled through town like the late-night ice-cream man.

"My coach took me aside at one point and said, 'The word is that you've been selling drugs' and I told him, 'No, man, those are just some people I know. I'm around it, but I don't do it.' ''

With doe eyes like his hero, the late rapper Tupac Shakur, and an electric grin that could heat up a TV dinner, Mackey has long been able to charm his way out of situations.

"His father used to tell him, 'You're a country boy, why do you still act like you're in the ghetto?' '' Emma Mackey says. Although he was born in Austin and raised in Elgin, Nathan Jr. spent the first six years of his life in Houston and Los Angeles. Not wanting Mackey and his sister, Tracy, to grow up on those mean streets, his parents moved their young family back to the small Texas town where they grew up. Nathan Sr., who died of cancer in 1995, started driving trucks, and Emma got a job as an inspector for Tracor Inc.

The Elgin that Mackey's parents remembered was a town whose biggest civic event, the Hogeye Festival, celebrates Elgin's status as the sausage capital of Central Texas. But by the 1980s, the town of about 6,000 started reverberating with a new urban beat; MTV was creating a new sort of global teen-ager, and supersonic car systems were booming the sounds radio wouldn't touch. What's more, an insidious new drug was infiltrating the predominantly black south side of the railroad tracks.

"Everything changed when crack came to Elgin,'' Mackey says. "Folks have this image of Elgin as a hick town without any of the inner-city problems you always hear about -- drugs, violence, shootings, robberies, corruption. It's always been there, but with crack, it all went haywire."

The problem in Elgin had gotten so bad by the mid-1990s that Bastrop County sheriff deputies called on the Capital Area Narcotics Task Force. "Some of the major dealers were moving to small towns to go unnoticed,'' says Travis County Sheriff Margo Frasier, whose office took over the narcotics task force from the Department of Public Safety in December 1999 . The local police often don't have the time or manpower, Frasier says, so her investigators help out, making undercover buys, cultivating informants and increasing surveillance. Since June 1, the task force has filed 90 felony drug cases in Travis and five surrounding counties.

Driving around Elgin on a recent afternoon, Mackey points out Thomas Park, once a hotbed of crack-dealing and pot-smoking, as well as some heated games of basketball. But this time it's empty. "This was the spot, man,'' Nathan says. "But everybody that used to hang out here is in the penitentiary."

With crack came money, more than most small-town kids ever dreamed of having. But the need to get the drug led to crime and occasional turf battles. Rivalries with neighboring towns went beyond high school football as teen-agers, spurred by the gangsta rap lyrics coming out of South Central L.A., started wearing Crips and Bloods colors, blue and red, to signify what town they were from.

With a popular Houston-bred sound of rap called "Down South'' came new street drugs such as "fry'' (or "wet"), which is a cigar soaked in embalming fluid; cocaine-spiked marijuana ("primo") and "lean,'' which is codeine-based cough syrup mixed with cola and sipped out of giant cups. "That's all the Houston influence,'' Mackey says, noting that country thugs look to H-Town for examples of true gangsterism.

"I did a record store appearance in Waco a couple months back, and they were playing my record and the kids were diggin' it. A couple of guys came up to me, holding my CD, saying, 'This is slammin'. Where you from?' When I said I was from Elgin, outside of Austin, they said 'Oh, that's cool,' then they put the CDs back. I told myself the next time I did an in-store I'd say I was from Houston, and sure enough, the CDs were flying out the door."

Seeing firsthand how difficult it is for independent releases to get shelf space in chain record stores, Nathan opened his own shop, Big Pimpin' Tapes and Records , just three doors down from his grandmother's house in South Elgin. But the store went out of business after a few months in 1997. "I found out that your friends and neighbors don't really want you to succeed,'' he reflects during a recent drive past his old storefront. "They'd spend five dollars in gas money to drive to Musicmania rather than pay two dollars more on a CD at my store.''

Learning the dope ropes

They say that an habitual crack user becomes addicted as early as the first hit. Mackey felt a similar buzz the first night he sold crack. "I made about $140 in about an hour, and my first thought was that I didn't have to bug my mom for money anymore."

Mackey said his parents believed in providing the necessities of life -- food, shelter, clothing -- and that was it. So when all the cool kids at Elgin High started wearing Air Jordans and other status brands, Nathan knew he'd have to come up with the money himself if he wanted to be in. "I'd hear my mom on the phone every week, borrowing $20 or something for gas money or to pay some bill,'' Nathan says. Meanwhile, Nathan's lawn-mowing and minimum-wage, part-time jobs at Red Lobster, Short Stop and Weiner's barely left him with enough money for after-school snacks and movie dates.

Just as with any business, it took time for Nathan and his pals to learn the ropes. "We'd go to Austin or Houston to buy rocks to resell, and we must've had 'country jackass' written on our hats. They'd take advantage of us, sometimes selling us eight rocks for $100. We'd go back to Elgin and sell them for $20 each and not even double our money.'' Major crack suppliers started seeing the demand at small-town drug havens like "the Line'' on Taylor's Walnut St. (a two-block strip of bars and crack houses that was bulldozed in 1995 by the National Guard). Soon, the trips to Houston weren't necessary to score product.

Mackey says a street-level dealer could make $3,000 to $4,000 a night, depending on how late he wanted to stay out. Although he followed the "Don't get high on your own supply'' rule, Nathan found euphoria in the wad of bills that he loved to peel off at the mall.

But it wasn't just easy money . The constant threat of violence often made Mackey rethink his occupational choice.

"The scariest thing that ever happened was when we went to Houston during a dry spell in 1990. We went all over town looking for crack to buy so we could resell it. It was night, and I went up to an apartment complex and suddenly six dudes came out of the darkness with guns pointing at me. They told me to strip down and lay on the ground. I was sure they were gonna kill me. I had 4,000 bucks on me, which is more than enough to kill a dude over. I felt a gun to my head and thought, `That's it. I'm dead.' '' But the dealers just wanted to make sure Nathan wasn't an undercover agent. They sent him on his way, so frazzled he couldn't even drive. He told himself right then that he was out of the drug game.

Three weeks later, he was back on the street, selling crack. "I had an addiction to making money, and there ain't no Charter (substance abuse program) for that.''

After he met his wife, Jeannette, and she gave birth to a daughter, Myesha, Nathan took another stab at the straight life. In 1994, he started taking business courses at Huston-Tillotson College. There he met two other rappers -- Anthony "N-Do'' Lockhart and Adolph "S.A. Fool'' Taylor -- and they decided to get in on the Down South craze by forming the hard-core gangsta rap group CKC (Ciller Klan Click). Schoolwork soon fell by the wayside as the group spent most of its time writing lyrics, playing parties and clubs, and looking for original tracks to rap over. "Me and (Lil') Black didn't like each other at first,'' producer Tim "Big'' Bailey says. "It was a Taylor- Elgin thing.'' The contentiousness between those towns 10 miles apart is so strong that Nathan and his Taylor-raised wife Jeannette have lived in Austin for five years as a compromise.

"We used to pull up alongside each other and try to drown out the other guy with our sound systems,'' Bailey says. One day, as they got into the hip-hop version of drag racing, Mackey heard a great new beat coming out of Bailey's car. "Yo, who's that, man?'' he asked. "It's me,'' Bailey said. "Ain't no way nobody from Taylor could make a slammin' track like that!'' Mackey said. "I got plenty more,'' Bailey said. CKC had found a producer.

Like many in the Texas rap scene, Bailey grew up listening to classic rock and heavy metal in addition to hip hop and dance music. "I had to share the upstairs with my grandfather, and he'd always be telling me to turn off that rap music,'' Bailey says. "Then one day I was playing AC/DC and Led Zeppelin, and he said, 'Hey, boy, that's some good blues.' ''

After graduating high school in 1990, Bailey received a scholarship to the prestigious Berklee College of Music but returned, homesick, from Boston within a year.

Back in Taylor, Bailey got a job with a picture frame manufacturer and, at night, built the home studio where CKC recorded its first album, "Dark Territory.''

"We had to rap in his closet,'' Mackey says, with a laugh , "and the clothes were still hanging in it.'' Neither that album nor the follow-up, "The Family,'' made much of an impact outside the Austin area, selling a combined 20,000 copies, but Lil' Black wasn't about to give up. The rapper, whose smooth, deep voice compares to Scarface of the Geto Boys and Tupac Shakur, figured that he couldn't compete with those national acts until he recorded in a real studio, with a big budget. He went out to raise capital the only way he knew how.

"I've never had a goal of being a drug lord or something,'' Mackey says. "I was always dreaming of making it in the music biz. Selling drugs was just a way to finance the projects.''

'Do you like catfish?'

For his first solo project, "We All Gone Die,'' which came out a few months before the 1999 bust, Lil' Black scouted every studio in town before settling on Pedernales, owned by Willie Nelson's nephew Freddy Fletcher and Fletcher's wife, Lisa .

"When I was in the street, I started getting really prejudiced against white people,'' Mackey says. "They were just trying to keep us down, you know, is how I started feeling. But then I met Freddy and Lisa, and from the first day they were like family.''

On a recent afternoon, Mackey Nathan and his manager/label partner Anthony Clay stopped by the Fletcher's sister studio Arlyn to talk about the possibility of Uncle Willie doing some vocal tracks on a rap remix of "On the Road Again.''

Things weren't always so chummy. Pressured by his pending incarceration to have a big hit with his second solo record, "Around the World in a Day," Mackey switched studios.

"Some girl guaranteed me I could get better mixes at her studio, so I told Lisa I needed to take my tapes over there.'' Hurt by this snub, Lisa became even more upset when he paid his balance due with 1,900 $1 bills.

"I hope you don't mind counting,'' Mackey said.

"I hope you don't mind getting a call at 2 a.m. if this envelope turns up short,'' she countered.

About two weeks went by when Lisa's phone rang. It was Nathan. "Hey, Lisa, do you like catfish? We gotta talk.'' The studio switch turned out to be a disaster, and Nathan wanted to finish his album at Pedernales. He stopped by Mr. Catfish, and over lunch the Fletchers welcomed back Lil' Black.

"Around the World In a Day'' ended up costing more than $70,000 to record, even though Mackey often took advantage of the $800 day rate with around-the-clock sessions. Add the $15,000 paid to a radio promoter and full-page ads in various national hip-hop publications to announce its release in July, and the album's cost has gone into six figures. Which makes some wonder if it, like earlier recording projects, was funded with drug profits.

"A lot of people think I'm the front for all this dirty money,'' says Clay, who met Mackey after the bust when they both coached youth flag football teams in East Austin. "But this was made with squeaky clean money.'' Clay, a Samsung employee who decided to get into the rap biz after reading an article about hip-hop impresario Puffy Combs in Black Enterprise , put in some of his own money and lined up a couple of investors.

"I knew I was taking a big risk by backing a guy who's going to prison,'' Clay says. "But I think the talent's there. Plus, Nathan's genuinely sorry for what he's done. If he wasn't, I wouldn't have anything to do with him.''

2 fates: prison or death

The first Sunday after he was released from Bastrop on bond, Nathan Mackey rejoined the church where his father used to preach. A former blues guitarist who'd have wild parties at the house when Nathan was a child, Nathan Mackey Sr. got the call to preach when his son was 10 years old.

"Suddenly, it all changed back home,'' Nathan says. "My dad said I couldn't listen to rap, couldn't wear certain clothes, couldn't hang out with the bad kids, couldn't watch certain movies or watch certain TV shows."

Worst of all, he made Nathan put on a suit and go to Mount Mariah Baptist Church every Sunday.

"My dad would never go to church before that. I'd never go either. But because he got the call, he expected me to change overnight. I'd tell him, `You saw the light, not me,' and my rebel streak would lead to a lot of fights,'' he says.

His father found a bag of rock cocaine in Nathan's room when he was 17 and flushed it down the toilet, leading to a fight. Nathan was kicked out of the house and went to live with his aunt.

When Nathan started taking his music seriously, his father backed off a bit. When the elder Mackey was diagnosed with cancer in 1995, Nathan moved his family, including baby son Andre, back to the old house in the country to take care of his father. At night, after his mother came home from work, Nathan would get together and practice with CKC.

"My pops didn't agree with my music, but he was happy that I'd found something that would keep me off the streets. He'd talk to me, saying 'Son, the life you've been living has only two results -- prison or death.' But back then I didn't think either of those things were going to happen to me. I was too smart, too fast to get caught.''

After services his first Sunday back, Nathan asked to address the congregation. Standing where his father once stood, Nathan apologized for all the families he had torn apart, all the lives he had ruined because of his greed.

"People would come back to me (for drugs) six, seven times a night, and I'd say, 'You gotta cut this out. You got a family.' But I'd still sell to them,'' he says.

As Nathan begged for forgiveness, he broke down and cried. Everybody in the church was in tears, and afterward, an older couple Mackey has known his whole life came up and asked him to talk to their son kid, who had started selling crack.

"I met with the dude,'' Nathan says, "and I asked him why he was doing what he was doing. I've talked to a bunch of kids since then, and the answer always starts the same way: 'So I can have . . .' 'So I can have a nice car.' 'So I can have jewelry and hip clothes.' 'So I can have a boomin' sound system.' They all sound like me 10 years ago.''

Mackey knows his challenge is to talk louder than the money, so he holds up his life as an example of what not to do.

"Every black kid in Elgin looks up to me. It goes back to my football days and carries on through the rap music and my time on the streets,'' Mackey says. "But when I talk to kids, I tell them that they have what I can't buy with all the money I've made. I don't want them to make the mistake I did, which is having to lose their freedom in order to realize that it's the most precious thing on Earth."