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Police search for Drakeo the Ruler’s killer; music world stunned

Mourners light candles at a makeshift memorial
Mourners light candles at a makeshift memorial on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in honor of slain rapper Drakeo the Ruler on Dec. 19.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)
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The fatal stabbing of Drakeo the Ruler backstage during a concert at Exposition Park that brought together some of the biggest names in rap music left fans stunned and authorities searching for his killer.

The brazen attack occurred Saturday night behind the main stage of the Once Upon A Time in L.A. music festival at Banc of California Stadium, prompting officials to abruptly cancel the event before some of the artists, including Snoop Dogg, had performed. Police have released few details about what happened and have not confirmed Drakeo was the victim.

But a person with direct knowledge of the incident told The Times that Drakeo the Ruler had been attacked by a group of people. He later died from his injuries, according to the source, who requested anonymity to discuss the matter candidly.

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Another source said a video of the incident showed people running up on stage and security trying to break up a fight. Another video captured Drakeo on the ground with emergency personnel treating him.

It was unclear who had access to the backstage area. No arrests had been made as of Sunday morning, said Officer Luis Garcia, an LAPD spokesman. “Detectives are still trying to figure things out,” he said.

The rapper, whose real name is Darrell Caldwell, 28, was scheduled to perform at the concert, which had a stacked lineup of popular artists that included Ice Cube, 50 Cent and Al Green. Caldwell’s death came as his career was gaining rising acclaim, with many fans and music critics calling him an innovative and creative lyricist. He’d recently been released from custody after a series of closely followed court battles.

The California Highway Patrol said it was handling the investigation and asked anyone with information to call the Southern Division Investigative Services Unit at (323) 644-9550.

Soon after the stabbing occurred about 8:30 p.m., organizers ended the event as patrons moved to get out. “Out of respect for those involved and in coordination with local authorities, artists and organizers decided not to move forward with remaining sets so the festival was ended an hour early,” Live Nation said in a statement.

Drakeo the Ruler, 28, whose surrealist slang made him one of the most original stylists in L.A. hip-hop, died after being stabbed at a concert.

Some attendees said they were not promptly told the event was over.

“I can definitely see why they wouldn’t want to create a panic by saying somebody got stabbed, but maybe they should have just shut the music off and told people there was a technical issue,” said Troels Trier, 36, who flew in from Denmark with friends to attend the festival. “People were standing literally for hours waiting while a DJ played.”

Trier described the festival as poorly organized, with few security measures, long lines for food and drink, and crowds of unmasked people that were difficult to navigate.

He and his friends were surprised when they were able to walk in without anyone checking their tickets or belongings, he said. Unaware that only clear bags were permitted, Trier brought a black backpack.

“Nobody checked it — I walked straight in,” he said. “You could have brought anything in.”

One of the headliners, the Game, performed just one song before abruptly exiting the stage with no explanation, leading to a 30-minute break before the next performer, Ice Cube, began, Trier said.

Al Green then performed, Trier said, and Snoop Dogg was supposed to take the stage at 8:30 p.m.. The rapper, who was a co-promoter of the festival with Live Nation, later said in a statement that he heard about the altercation while he was in his dressing room and chose to immediately leave the grounds.

“My condolences go out to the family and loved ones of Drakeo the Ruler,” he wrote. “I’m not with anything negative and as one of the many performers, I was there to spread positive vibes only to my city of LA.”

Photographer Bridget Arias said she was working the event backstage, watching George Clinton perform at about 8 p.m., when she heard one person say, “Drakeo got stabbed.”

“Then another person confirmed it, and then it was kind of like the monkey game, where everyone kept repeating a version of what was happening,” she said.

Shortly after, festival security ordered her and others to leave, she said, though in the confusion they were still stuck in their cars hours later.

Prominent stars in the industry — from Drake to Snoop Dogg — mourned the loss of Drakeo the Ruler.

Caldwell was a South L.A. native who achieved legendary status in the West Coast rap scene for pioneering a singular sound he called “nervous music.” He released 10 mixtapes and put out his first studio album earlier this year. He recorded the mixtape “Thank You for Using GTL,” a reference to prison communications company Global Tel Link, with verses recorded over a phone while he was being held at Men’s Central Jail awaiting trial in connection with the 2016 shooting death of a 24-year-old man.

Caldwell was acquitted of felony murder and attempted murder charges, but L.A. County prosecutors sought to retry him on conspiracy charges and weapons offenses. They alleged that his rap collective, Stinc Team, was a street gang, and attempted to use his lyrics and videos as evidence, drawing outcry from civil rights and free speech advocates.

The controversial trial drew even more attention when the court imposed a sweeping gag order on Caldwell and his legal team that prohibited them from discussing the case on social media or in the press and directed them to take down postings proclaiming his innocence. The move prompted the Reporters Committee on Freedom of the Press, the Los Angeles Times and the First Amendment Coalition to file a friend of the court brief urging the court to lift the gag order, which the brief described as unconstitutional.

The trial court vacated the gag order in October 2020. The second case was ultimately resolved with a plea deal, and Caldwell was released in November of the same year.

He released his biggest single to date, “Talk to Me” featuring Drake, this February.

Friends and colleagues of the rapper were mourning his death.

“We spent the hardest two years together fighting for his freedom, facing life, before walking out a free man just over a year ago,” tweeted attorney John Hamasaki, who defended Drakeo against criminal charges. “Through it, we became friends and then like family. I don’t even know how to start processing this.”

Eric Mora, 65, met the rapper about four months ago when he made a delivery to his Hollywood Hills home. Mora had spent time in prison for a crime he did not commit and said the two hit it off as they discussed the criminal justice system’s flaws and how lucky they were to be free.

“It was a mutual understanding of how traumatizing that can be,” he said.

Drakeo invited Mora inside, he said, and they exchanged numbers. Mora’s nephew is an aspiring rapper named Cairo DeNiro, and Drakeo agreed to listen to his music and consider collaborating with him, he said.

Mora learned of the rapper’s death on Sunday. “I was shocked,” he said. “Surprised. Sad. Shocked.”

“I feel bad for his family,” he added. “It’s a tragedy.”

The scene outside Banc of California Stadium was quiet Sunday save for the sounds of crews tearing down stages used for the festival. A lone sign and flowers posted on a fence along Figueroa Street read “Drakeo West Coast Luv RIP.”

On Martin Luther King Boulevard, near the backside of one of the stages, a few blue and white balloons fluttered in the wind above a set of candles.

Times staff writers Mikael Wood, Nate Jackson and August Brown contributed to this story.


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