Music

When Drakeo the Ruler Died, He Was Already a Legend

His death at age 28 is a great loss for hip-hop—and just one of many in recent years.

A man points and smiles at the camera in front of a beige background.
Drakeo the Ruler via YouTube

On Saturday night, rapper Drakeo the Ruler was lined up to perform at the Once Upon a Time in L.A. festival, a multistage concert series founded by Snoop Dogg and featuring other local legends, like Cypress Hill. But Drakeo wouldn’t get to take the stage: A fight broke out backstage at 8:30 p.m., with an assailant stabbing 28-year-old Drakeo in the neck. The festival was canceled; Drakeo was rushed to the hospital, only to be declared dead by Sunday. Police are still searching for his killer.

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Drakeo’s loss of life at so young an age comes after a lifetime of personal tragedies, years of fighting unfair charges from his city’s punitive criminal justice system, and a rapid-pace run of popular and highly acclaimed projects, including one album recorded entirely from behind bars. It was a jolt across the rap world, to his friends and children, to fans who loved his already-influential work and had rallied to free him from the system.

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Drakeo the Ruler, born Darrell Wayne Campbell, was raised by a single mother in the gang-heavy Hundreds section of South Central L.A. He was caught up in petty crime in the troubled neighborhood from a young age, landing in jail before he’d even turned 13. As so many from his hometown had done before, Campbell and his brother Devante turned to rapping as a way to escape the punitive cycle of the streets, inspired by artists like Boosie and Webbie, the Hot Boyz, and the battle rapper Cocky. In his 20s, Campbell began releasing mixtapes under the stage name Drakeo the Ruler, taken from the ancient Greek legislator Draco, and was discovered in 2015 by DJ Mustard, the party-favorite producer who’d come to fame working with fellow West Coast artists YG and Ty Dolla Sign. Mustard remixed Drakeo’s song “Mr. Get Dough” to widespread attention, signed the young upstart to his 10 Summers label, and featured Drakeo on that label’s first compilation mixtape. A few months after those features, Drakeo released his official debut mixtape under 10 Summers, titled I Am Mr. Mosley. By the time he released that tape’s sequel in 2016, he’d established the rap collective Stinc Team with Devante—who assumed the stage name Ralfy the Plug—along with their cousin Rassy Bugatti, as well as other rappers from their area.

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With these projects, Drakeo had made his name in the L.A. rap scene. His gravel-voiced, mumbly, tongue- and rhythm-twisting flows conveyed his sharp storytelling skills, replete with hilarious punchlines, creative slang, and nonstop shit-talking. His style quickly became iconic in the area, and within no time Drakeo had multiple imitators as well as collaborations with regional heavyweights like Mozzy. But as the Stinc Team was coming up, the city it came from kept up attempts to persecute its members. In January 2017, the LAPD raided the condo where Drakeo and the Stinc Team had shot some music videos and arrested the crew, nabbing the Ruler on alleged weapons charges. Drakeo maintained his innocence, but he was kept behind bars for 11 months, missing the birth of his first son. However, he snuck a phone into his cell and kept promoting himself and the Stinc Team, keeping him in the mind of loyal Angeleno fans. After being released that November, he went on a 10-day recording spurt, culminating in the masterful 16-track album Cold Devil. The tape got Drakeo more attention than ever before and introduced slang he had created—“flu flamming,” “uchies,” “Pippy Long Stockin”—to a wider national audience while elevating the profile of his Stinc crew. Rappers like Lil Yachty and Shy Glizzy soon co-signed Drakeo’s music and added their own spins to it.

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Still, the law kept coming for the Ruler, and he was booked on murder charges in March 2018, relating to a shootout in December 2016. Much of the Stinc Team was also targeted and rounded up by the LAPD while they were on tour. But there was never any hard evidence linking Stinc to the crime; as music journalist Jeff Weiss—who, full disclosure, I know personally—reported for the Fader in 2019, the case against Drakeo depended on a combination of hearsay, false statements from imprisoned “informants,” and even a probe of his videos and lyrics. The detective in charge relied on this flimsy portfolio, along with baseless allegations that the Stinc Team was actually an organized gang as opposed to a music crew, to keep Drakeo in L.A. County’s Men’s Central Jail, including time in solitary confinement, until his trial. Briana Younger would later write for the New Yorker:

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Investigators found that Drakeo was not the gunman, nor did he have a hand in the violence, but prosecutors sought to present the murder as the result of an old beef between Drakeo and another rapper, who was not even at the party or otherwise connected to it. When those ties proved nonexistent, prosecutors combed Drakeo’s music for menacing gestures and proximity to weapons.

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In July 2019, Drakeo was acquitted of the murder charges, but the jury was hung on the additional charges of shooting from a motor vehicle and a criminal street gang conspiracy. Then–Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey refiled both charges in September, which, for Drakeo, meant the possibility of life in prison. His trial was set for August 2020, and he remained incarcerated through that time. In response, rappers and fans of Drakeo organized a campaign to free the rapper and vote out Lacey from her position; Earl Sweatshirt did a remix of Drakeo’s “Ion Rap Beef” and kicked off his verse with choice words: “Fuck the DA. Free the Ruler.” Drakeo used his time behind bars to record the album Thank You for Using GTL; he rapped verses over the phone to producer JoogSZN, who then outfitted them to beats that brought out Drakeo’s voice and flow, stifled as it was by the low-quality (and expensive) GTL prison line. Nevertheless, the two crafted a masterpiece, released to the public in June 2020. Months later, Jackie Lacey lost her reelection bid to George Gascón, one of the many “progressive prosecutors” who’ve won important municipal offices in recent years. The day after Lacey’s loss, her office presented a plea deal to Drakeo, which he accepted, finally securing his freedom.

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Just like after his previous release from prison, Drakeo used the moment to dive straight into recording, dropping the tape We Know the Truth in December 2020. Throughout 2021, he kept up his prolific clip, with a studio album, The Truth Hurts, in February, along with two more tapes in July and December, respectively. This string of releases showcased both the development of Drakeo’s style and his increased prominence; stars like Drake and Sean Kingston joined Stinc members as features on various songs.

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It’s clear Drakeo was on the course for only more fame and an even wider impact in the coming years. But now, we’ll never know what could have been.

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Drakeo was ultimately victim of both circumstance and a criminal justice system that had it out for rappers like him. The LAPD, like several city police departments, has long been notorious for brutality, corruption, outsize targeting of Black Americans, and a conspicuous lack of care when it comes to rapper-related cases. Just this November, the Guardian reported that L.A. cops targeted the street corner where the late Nipsey Hussle owned his clothing store, and that the police consistently harassed passersby who came through. Thanks to a massive, dedicated fan base willing to organize against the prosecutors who were keeping him bound, Drakeo was gracefully able to flee L.A. County’s wrath, an outcome still out of reach for too many other unjustly incarcerated Americans. But Drakeo only got a year to enjoy this freedom. It shouldn’t have been this way.

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The murder of Drakeo occurred just days after another one of Los Angeles’ own, Slim 400, was shot to death in the city; just a month after Young Dolph was likewise gunned down in his hometown of Memphis, Tennessee; and nearly a year after Stinc Team member Ketchy the Great perished in a car accident. In between these killings, other hip-hop elders have recently succumbed to health issues: 55-year-old Kangol Kid of the pioneering group UTFO died of colon cancer; 62-year-old Leonard “Hub” Hubbard, a founding member of the Roots, died of blood cancer; and 64-year-old Greg Tate, a longtime rap scholar, was a victim of cardiac arrest. As I wrote back in the spring, these past few years have been some of the most fatal, and brutal, in rap history, with older legends prematurely lost to disease and younger creatives murdered in grisly fashion. It’s horrific and unacceptable for this to be the norm. Hip-hop’s diverse, unique, ever-evolving artists and creators deserve long, rich lives—to not be hounded by the system, to get the protection and care they deserve, to be able to enjoy success without being punished for it. Over the past few years, more of the U.S. has finally come to grips with the cruel, vindictive institutions that keep far too many Black Americans in awful, desperate circumstances. It’s long past time for major change.

And yet this trend of untimely death, sadly, does not seem to be abating anytime soon.

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