Crime Mob’s world headquarters doesn’t exactly scream street credibility. It’s a spare room just off the front entrance of a white, wood-sided tract home in Ellenwood, a middle-class Atlanta suburb. The walls are white, the carpeting is red, and the space is dominated by a queen-size bed with a matching comforter. In the corner, a small personal computer sits on one of those blond wood computer tables, like something out of an Ikea catalog circa 2002.
While she affects a vampy, femme fatale pose in videos, 20-year-old Crime Mob MC Venetia “Princess” Lewis looks younger in person. She’s lying forward on the bed, her baby fat poking out the bottom of her baby tee. Her empty, fur-lined Timbs sit pigeon toed on the floor. Her brother, Jonathan “Lil Jay” Lewis, sits on the side of the bed nearest the door. Older by a year, he’s tougher to read. His expression falls somewhere between tough-minded rap artist and embarrassed high schooler. Considering the circumstances, he might be feeling a little like both. It’s not often that rappers do an interview with their father present, but Fred Lewis, a stocky, kind-faced man who sports a red and black “Lewis Family Reunion” T-shirt, has inserted himself between his kids on the bed.
“When they first started getting into this business,” says Fred, a correctional officer at a federal penitentiary in downtown Atlanta, “me and my wife—of course, raised in a Christian environment—we didn’t care for the curses.”
“We couldn’t curse at all,” says Princess, laughing. “We had to wait for them to go to the grocery store.”
The group first came together when the Lewis kids were at Cedar Grove Middle School. Lil Jay’s access to recording equipment—a third-rate PC Fred bought for playing video games and a copy of the sampling/sequencing program Fruity Loops—made the house in Ellenwood the place to be.
“Twenty people have been in this room at one time,” says Fred. “Trust me, I hated it. Hated it!”
“All of them asking for water and something to eat,” Princess adds.
“Even in a small room, the smoke was in their clothes,” Fred continues. “I never smoked, never did any drugs in my life. So that type of environment, for one, I didn’t like them to associate with. We knew that type of element. When you say you do these things, people are gonna try you.”
Cedar Grove High School is a ’70s-era tanbrick building eight minutes from the Lewis house in Ellenwood. With an enrollment of 1,470, the school draws students from a wide range of socioeconomic backgrounds. While the school consistently falls short of state-mandated educational standards, its basketball and football teams (the Saints) do well in South Dekalb County Division II competition. (Last year, Cedar Grove alum Marcus McNeill went to the Pro Bowl after his rookie season as an offensive lineman with the NFL’s San Diego Chargers.) And the Cedar Grove stock-market team took first place in the Georgia Council for Economic Education’s annual mock stock-market competition (portfolio valued at $325,087).
Above all else, though, Cedar Grove is known as a fertile breeding ground for crunk music—the smashmouth rap style pioneered by another short, middle-class Atlanta guy, Lil Jon, and centered around his record company, BME. In the wake of the success he found in 2004 with former Cedar Grove students Trillville and Lil Scrappy, Lil Jon opened BME’s doors to Scrappy’s protégés, Crime Mob. It was a dream come true for Lil Jay.
“When I came up, we listened to Lil Jon,” he says, also citing Timbaland and Mannie Fresh among his influences. “We were young. It was overwhelming, really. Just last year, we watching him on TV, and now we signed to his label.”
The Lewises, along with group mates Brittany “Diamond” Carpentero, Jarques “M.I.G.” Usher, Alphonce “Cyco Black” Smith and Christopher “Killa C” Henderson, brought BME “Knuck If You Buck,” proof positive that Lil Jay shared Lil Jon’s facility with drum-heavy fight music. But after “Knuck” blazed its way into the clubs, onto the radio and up the charts in the summer of 2004, sales of Crime Mob’s eponymous debut stalled shy of 300,000 copies.
Not terrible. But coming after the millions sold by their predecessors at BME, a little disappointing. Like most fathers, Fred Lewis isn’t shy about sharing his opinions when it comes to his kids. “Signing with someone young like Scrappy,” he says, “I think he sees them as a competitor instead of [himself as] their boss. I think that he has opportunities to really make Crime Mob bigger. They work for him. He has opportunities to make them bigger. You hardly ever see them together. When the song says ‘Crime Mob featuring Lil Scrappy,’ the song is already done. He just walks into the studio and bam! He’s never been in the studio with them.” He pauses and adds, “If you wanna know everything, Lil Jon has never been in the studio with them.”
This spring, Crime Mob are finally getting their second chance. With Lil Jay’s latest party starter, “Rock Yo Hips,” booming out of trunks from Bankhead to Brooklyn, they seem well-positioned for the release of their sophomore album, Hated On Mostly. In the three years since their debut, the group has been through its share of upheaval. Lil Jay has decided not to pose for photographs of any kind (the one opposite this page is from 2006), choosing instead to remain, in Diamond’s words, “behind the scenes, making beats.” Princess, in the surest sign of stardom, attracted a stalker who sorted through every Lewis in the Atlanta phone book and tracked her down. (She hung up on him.) They’ve switched managers, dumping Tommy Phillips, who was also Scrappy’s manager, in favor of Johnnie Cabbell, who handles the business of crosstown snap group D4L. Most importantly, Crime Mob lost one of their original members. Killa C now resides at Phillips State Prison in Buford, Ga. More on that later.