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Coulda Been: The Life and Unsolved Killing of Chinx

Friends and family remember the late rapper as the police look for answers regarding his killing earlier this year.

In the early hours of May 17, Lionel Pickens, better known as the rapper Chinx, was guiding his silver Porsche Panamera 4 down Queens Boulevard, a main commercial artery in his home borough. He had just performed at Club Red Wolf, a Latin nightclub in Dyker Heights, a southwestern section of Brooklyn yet to be engulfed by $1,000 strollers. He and a passenger, Antar “Yemen Cheese” Alziadi, had considered hitting up a hookah bar after the show, but it was closed. Chinx was going to drop Alziadi off at a subway stop before heading home to his family in Ozone Park. Neither man made it home that night.

While the car idled at a red light near 84th Drive, another vehicle, later described by eyewitnesses as a black Mercedes-Benz, pulled up alongside the Porsche and someone inside the car opened fire. Chinx was hit at least eight times, as 9-millimeter bullet casings flew through the window and danced across the pavement. He managed to pull the car over near a Dunkin’ Donuts and a 99-cent store as the assailants’ vehicle ripped a U-turn and sped off.

When the NYPD arrived at the crime scene, a detective scoured Chinx’s social media contacts and called his manager, Doug “Biggs” Ellison, in hopes of finding a number for the rapper’s mother. There was an “accident,” the detective said. Someone had been shot.

“It didn’t sound good from the time the phone rang,” Ellison said. “The urgency in [the police officer’s] voice and the panic explained so much more than what he was actually saying.” Ellison and Chinx’s wife rushed to the hospital, where they received the tragic news. Chinx had died outside the Dunkin’ Donuts at 31 years old. Alziadi had been struck twice in the back but would live.

“There’s no words for the loss, the emptiness that you feel,” Ellison said. “It just put us all in a really, really crazy place of mourning and sorrow. It’s the most surreal thing. I had to literally go from planning an album to planning a funeral.”

To cynics, the killing of Chinx is another predictable incident of a rapper cut down by the same sort of gun-related violence he described on his records. After all, Pickens has a criminal history; his crew is called the Coke Boys; the dark shadows of violence and incarceration have followed those around him, even within the music industry. But the crime is confounding and shocking to people who knew him: There is no known motive for the killing, and Chinx is universally described as a man who steered clear of the street-related trouble that plagued him in his youth. “I think it was a setup,” an unnamed police official told Newsday in May. “This was not a road rage episode. This was an assassination.”

While Chinx had yet to reach national prominence, he was established in New York, a regional figure in a SoundCloud era. He was neither a baroque wordsmith nor a flamboyant caterwauler; instead, he had a yeoman’s approach that utilized his hoarse voice and a rhyming cadence with the rhythm of a meat cleaver hacking through gristle. After years of pumping out mixtapes independently, Chinx’s debut solo album, Welcome to JFK, was released by eOne Music last Friday.

Chinx and French Montana in 2013 in New York City.

Johnny Nunez/WireImage Chinx and French Montana in 2013 in New York City.

Chinx was best known as the protégé of Karim “French Montana” Kharbouch, the Bronx rapper signed to Interscope Records. They toured together and paired up on countless songs, including the recent “Off the Rip,” which has amassed more than 2.9 million YouTube views since late June. Montana was touring in Europe when he received the news of the shooting from his security team. “I just busted out crying,” he said. “Chinx wasn’t somebody that was always caught up in trouble. Everybody that knows him knows he’s the coolest cat you could meet. He was a great guy who worked so hard to get where he was at. I don’t think none of us got over it yet.”

Following Chinx’s death, there was an outpouring of mourning from the entertainment industry. Along with expressions of grief from contemporaries like Meek Mill, Migos, and Wiz Khalifa, Khloe and Rob Kardashian both posted photos of Chinx on Instagram. Jay Z, performing at the second of his Tidal “B-Sides” concerts, addressed the crowd at New York’s Terminal 5 venue: “We are seriously under attack like never before,” he said. “Rest in peace to Chinx.”

“He was about to do his own thing,” said A$AP Ferg, a rapper from Harlem who recorded the track “What You See” with Chinx in 2014. “He was looking good. He had his jewelry, he had his minks, he always made it a movie when he shot his videos. You could tell he was a rising star. He would have went where he wanted to go.”

Chinx grew up in Far Rockaway, Queens, one of New York’s most isolated communities, in a wind-smacked warren of public housing high-rises overlooking the ocean. His mother worked as a clerk; his father was an inconsistent presence in his life who died when Chinx was a teenager. After 11th grade, he dropped out of high school to pursue both a rap career and street money. His original stage name was “Chinx Drugz” — the first part was bigoted slang for being narrow-eyed from smoking weed, the second was because, well, he sold narcotics. Chinx first earned neighborhood notoriety in the early 2000s as part of Riot Squad, a group that included RayquanStack Bundles” Elliot, who was shot to death in front of his apartment in 2007, just as his own musical career was beginning to blossom.

A mourner lights a candle on May 18, 2105 at a makeshift memorial beside a street in Queens, New York, where rapper Chinx was shot dead.

JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images A mourner lights a candle on May 18, 2015, at a makeshift memorial beside a street in Queens, New York, where rapper Chinx was shot dead.

Charismatic and handsome, Chinx had a mosaic of tattoos that included a cluster wrapping his throat like a turtleneck and an airplane on his left hand that became the cover art for Welcome to JFK. He was described as having a friendly and laid-back personality, but also as a man who carried himself with the gravitas of someone who had lived the street life. “He was a gangster and a gentleman,” Ferg said. “Somebody’s grandmother would love Chinx, but he had that side to him: ‘Don’t mess with me.’ He was a man’s man.”

In 2005, Chinx’s career was temporarily derailed when he was sentenced to several years in prison for a 1999 robbery that he committed at 15. On a Far Rockaway street, he and another teen had snatched a 57-year-old man’s gold chains and shot him in the torso. While serving time at Mid-State Correctional Facility in Upstate New York, Chinx earned his GED and married Janelli Caceres, now the mother of two of his three children. “He had state greens on,” she said of the 2006 wedding ceremony. “He was able to wear a collared shirt. It was nice, regardless of where it was and how it was done. We couldn’t be too picky about it.”

Following his release from prison, Chinx rededicated himself to music, and, by all accounts, turned his life around. Thanks to a shared affiliation with Charly “Max B” Wingate, a charismatic rapper from the Bronx now serving a 75-year sentence in New Jersey State Prison for his role in a 2006 robbery-homicide in Fort Lee, he began working with Montana. As part of the Coke Boys crew, Chinx released the five-part Cocaine Riot mixtape series and collective projects such as the four-part Coke Boys franchise. “There was no time that we wasn’t having fun making music,” Montana said. “He was unique. He had the swag, he had the wordplay, he had songs for girls, he had the gangster joints. I would compare him to Oscar Robertson — he had all-around game.”

In 2012, Chinx landed his first hit and a legitimate hometown anthem with “I’m a Coke Boy,” a track that repurposed the sinister violins used 15 years prior by Royal Flush on the track “Worldwide.” “Rock till your tape pop / Started from the dope spot / Made my first couple hundred whipping on the stovetop / Me and Frenchie in that new Ghost Phantom,” Chinx rapped.

“He was one of the most professional people I’ve ever worked with,” said Harry Fraud, who produced “I’m a Coke Boy” and, by his estimation, worked on around 50 records with Chinx. “He was so incredibly talented, and I know everyone says this now, but I really never saw him pull out a piece of paper or write anything down. And he wasn’t doing simple shit.” Fraud said he actually fell on the floor when he heard about Chinx’s death. “This is really something that took a piece of us away,” he said. “I could break down right now, talking about it. It was like taking the heart out of a body.”

Welcome to JFK is a departure from Chinx’s past sound. He exchanges his customary production — punishing, machine-gun trap and contemporary sample-based boom-bap — for glistening synths and skittering arpeggios. Singing is frequent, from his Auto-Tuned opener (“Experimental”) to appearances from R&B artists Ty Dolla $ign (“The Other Side”) and Jeremih (“Thug Love”). “His intention was to set himself apart as an artist,” said Ellison, who acknowledged that Chinx had been somewhat overshadowed by his musical similarity to Montana. “These were things that were always in him, but he needed the comfort and confidence to say, ‘I’m not selling out; I’m not crossing over; I’m just doing good music.’”

Chinx performs on December 9, 2014 in New York City.

Johnny Nunez/Getty Images Chinx performs on December 9, 2014, in New York City.

Mixed and sequenced following Chinx’s death, Welcome to JFK was originally scheduled for a fall release, but was pushed forward after the shooting. The record has a grim prescience, the same ribbon of memento mori that ran through posthumously released rap albums like Notorious B.I.G.’s Life After Death and Makaveli’s The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory. The last three tracks include “Pray” (“Last night I fell asleep / and then I had a dream / that a n​-​-​-​- hit me in the brain”), “Hey Fool” (“Driveby hit the deck / Shots lick and the whip swerve off”), and the closing song “Die Young,” which he recorded just days before being killed. Preoccupation with death is de rigueur for street rap, but the eeriness is inescapable here — it’s impossible to listen to “Far Rock,” which features Stack Bundles, without being cognizant that both artists were killed. “Whatever was going through his mind, or if he had a premonition, it speaks volumes to his mental state when he was recording the album,” Ellison said.

Nearly three months after Chinx’s killing, the case remains unsolved. Someone claimed responsibility on Instagram with taunting messages and a photo of a handgun, but that has been debunked as a troll from Sweden. Since then, the NYPD has theorized that the shooting was tied to the killing of Stack Bundles, as well as to a double homicide that occurred in Mount Vernon in June when two men were shot after leaving the strip joint Sue’s Rendezvous. “One of the victims in the Mount Vernon homicide was known to Pickens,” NYPD Lieutenant John Grimpel told Grantland, describing him as Chinx’s “friend.” Police have canvassed Far Rockaway, despite its distance from the crime scene, in search of potential witnesses, but Grimpel said no one has been taken into custody.

Alziadi, who the authorities said was cooperative, was unable to furnish many details about the shooting that he survived. And he is the only one who could identify the shooters. After the shooting, he wrote “RIP to my brother you saved me!!” on Instagram, but later deleted the words “You saved me.” He posted numerous photos from the hospital of his wounds, some gruesome, and implored Chinx’s family to contact him to learn what he described as the “real story.” But according to Caceres, Chinx’s widow, “He didn’t see anything. They heard something and before he knew it, they realized they were being shot at.”

It remains unclear whether Alziadi’s relationship with the Coke Boys’ inner circle deteriorated after the shooting or if he was always a peripheral figure. “Yemen Cheese is nobody,” according to Montana, who said he had not spoken with Alziadi about the incident. “I know him, but he’s not nobody you should be asking about anything. He don’t know nothing. He was just there with him. If he knew something, somebody would have gotten locked up.” Grantland’s numerous attempts to contact Alziadi went unanswered.

Mourners gather to attend the wake and funeral for Chinx.

DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images Mourners gather to attend the wake and funeral for Chinx.

For now, Chinx joins Tupac Shakur, Notorious B.I.G., Jam Master Jay, Big L, and many more on the depressingly long list of rappers whose killers have never been brought to justice. And at a time when they expected to be celebrating the release of his debut album and rising career, his loved ones are tormented by the apparent senselessness of the killing — and that its motivation remains unknown.

“It’s just a confusing situation,” said Caceres. “We have so little details to go off of. We weren’t there. We don’t know what to believe or what to feel. You just have to take the person’s word for it, that they’re telling you everything they do know and hopefully there isn’t something being left out. Definitely somebody knows something.”

Ben Detrick (@bdetrick) is a contributor to the New York Times and Grantland.