Barber to hip-hop stars cut it close most of his life
“We were drinking some ale, smoking weed and getting drunk, right?”
Bilal, formerly known as Ron Walker, is sitting in his RV outside a mosque at Jefferson Boulevard and 4th Avenue in South L.A. The sun is setting fast as the short, soft-spoken man with a scraggly white beard takes me back to Feb. 1, 1969, the day that changed his life. He was 23 and cutting loose at a party — something he says he rarely did — when the nightmare scene unfolded.
Someone “put some LSD in the ale,” Bilal says. “They thought, let’s play a joke on Ronnie.”
Bilal doesn’t recall what happened next. But court records show he pulled out the .38-caliber pistol he kept for protection when he sold clothes on the streets of L.A. and started shooting at everything in sight. Shirley Ann Williams, a woman in her 20s whom he’d never met, was later pronounced dead at the scene.
In previous meetings, Bilal, his Muslim name, and I had discussed his childhood, his time as the personal barber for Suge Knight and the rest of the Death Row Records crew, and his re-dedication to Islam. At the height of his role with Death Row Records, he traveled to New York, Paris, Hawaii — anywhere in the world Knight wanted a haircut, Walker was on the next flight over, all expenses paid. But until this particular meeting, something had been missing from Bilal’s story — there was a gap in his early adulthood. Now that gap was starting to make sense.
A psychiatrist assigned to the ensuing criminal case agreed that Walker had, in fact, been drugged against his will. Still, the young father was convicted of murder in the second degree and would serve seven years in prison.
“They put me in a 19-man dorm with the Aryan Brotherhood,” Bilal says of his time at the Sierra Conservation Center in Jamestown, Calif. “Wasn’t nothing but white people in there. … [When] I came in there, some of them were naked with their underwear on their head doing the gorilla walk.”
Tormented by guilt for the shooting, Walker read the Koran, converted to Islam and took up what would become his passion: painting. By the time he emerged from prison, he says, he was a changed man. In the years that followed he became entrenched in the world of R&B and hip-hop, where he not only made a living but realized some essential truths.
Bilal has been cutting hair since before he can remember. His father, Arthur Walker, was a traveling jazz musician who switched professions and became a barber so he could stay in Los Angeles with his wife and seven children. Three-year-old Ron was so inspired by his dad’s line of work that one afternoon he stole his mother’s clippers and took them to his own curls.
After he was released from prison in 1976, he began working with hair stylist Hugh Davis Jr., who already had an established list of clients, including Ray Charles and Dick Griffey, chief executive of SOLAR Records. Griffey employed singing groups including Shalamar and the Whispers, occasionally bringing the soul singers with him. Davis was Griffey’s personal barber, but the two had a falling out in the late ‘70s.
By the time Walker had his own salon, Curl Connection, in Inglewood (later renamed Shear Artistry), Griffey had switched his allegiance. Walker would cut Griffey’s hair until his death in 2010. Griffey even paid for Walker’s pilgrimage to Mecca in 1990.
Through Griffey, Walker crossed paths with a bodyguard named Marion Knight. It was the late ‘80s, and Knight had just finished playing football at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and was trying to catch on with the Los Angeles Rams. “I met him when he was a kid with a football helmet in his hand; he didn’t even have a car,” Bilal says. “The people around him tricked him into looking like he was a bad guy.”
A few years later, with some funding from Griffey, Knight launched Death Row Records. Death Row took the hip-hop industry by storm, expanding on the popular gangsta rap genre. Knight persuaded former N.W.A member Dr. Dre to produce Death Row’s first album, “The Chronic,” which went three times platinum — only to be outdone a year later by Snoop Dogg’s debut record, “Doggystyle,” at four times platinum.
Walker became both a confidant and barber-on-call for the high-profile group of musicians.
“They trusted me with anything,” he says. “If Suge was going to go and disappear for a minute with somebody’s girl and he didn’t want to take this half-million-dollar Death Row chain with him, he’d leave the chain with me.” Though Walker appreciated the rich-and-famous lifestyle, especially when Knight gave him a $9,000 Cartier watch for his birthday, he was never particularly interested in the music industry. He preferred to focus on doing his job well, then going home to L.A.
“I just go and do what I have to do and then I disappear, because they’re doing their business,” he says. “All the people I’ve been around, they’ll tell you the same thing. They have on their fur coats and alligator shoes and I show up and do their hair in a sweat suit.”
Former Death Row Records publicist George Pryce remembers Walker as quiet and unassuming. “Suge seemed to be very fond of him,” Pryce says. “I thought he was a nice guy, and I know he was at Suge’s beck and call.”
There are many stories from the road. Bilal says Tupac Shakur once started a show in New York by calling out his name and shouting “Big Ron!” to the crowd. On another trip, Walker asked Death Row rapper Kurupt to teach him how to Crip walk, a reference to the hit gangsta song “C-Walk.” Kurupt’s response? “Man, if you a Crip, you just walk.”
The most expensive haircut he ever gave was to reggae singer Shabba Ranks before an appearance on “The Arsenio Hall Show.” “The haircut took me 2½ hours to do. I charged him $475.”
He says he was with Knight and Shakur in Las Vegas the night of Sept. 7, 1996, when Shakur was fatally shot. He was entrusted with tickets to the Mike Tyson vs. Bruce Seldon fight at the MGM Grand, which he disbursed to Death Row Records members. Walker, who was never big on parties or clubs, particularly after that fateful night in 1969, spent the evening in his hotel room.
He never bought into the conspiracy theories about Knight’s possible involvement in Shakur’s death — a killing that remains unsolved.
“If they say Suge had anything to do with Tupac’s killing, that’s a lie,” he says. “Suge actually cried when he got killed. … We were in Cabo two weeks before. Tupac was trying to catch up with Suge swimming out across the water. ‘Pac got tired and went straight to the bottom, drowned. Suge pulled him out, pumped him out. If he wanted to kill Tupac, all he had to do was leave him in the water.”
After Shakur died, Walker stuck around Death Row — “That didn’t bother me; I was raised in the ghetto,” he says — but shortly after its Beverly Hills headquarters was raided by police in 2002, Walker left for good.
It was the last in a series of events, including family tragedy and multiple failed marriages, that made Walker reassess what he wanted to do with his life. “I was just plain tired, man. I just cut everything loose.”
Edges of violence
It’s August 2014, a week after Knight was shot six times at a Sunset Strip party hosted by singer Chris Brown. I’m visiting Bilal to get his thoughts on what transpired.
“He’s hard to kill. God’s got something for him to do,” he says. “I gave him a Koran one time, right? He laughed. Three or four years later, he said, ‘Remember that book you gave me? I didn’t read it. I’m a Christian.’ I said, ‘You’re going to need somebody’s book, so you better take that Bible and stick with that.’”
Bilal lives in his RV, which he renovated himself. It’s parked on the street outside a mosque across from a patch of grass masquerading as a park. Inside the mosque, he is seated in one of the few remaining chairs, his shoes removed. The imam and most of his congregation have since moved to another location, but Bilal has chosen to stay.
“I have special attachments to this masjid [mosque]. I’m like the last Mohican,” he says with a smile. “I messed up growing up, and I straightened up very, very young. I went to prison and ran into Islam, and I haven’t done anything since then that I’m ashamed of.”
Bilal still cuts hair for personal gigs. Art is his passion — in addition to painting, he creates sculptures, pottery and woodcarvings. His most elaborate work to date is a mural of President Obama at Compton City Hall.
Among the valuable lessons he’s learned over the years, he shares two in particular.
“I know the rich people with money are no better than the people down there pushing those baskets with no money,” he says.
And it helps to have a guiding principle in life. “My main philosophy is not trying to do everything right, because I don’t know if everything is right. But I damn sure know when something is wrong.”
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