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Requiem for a Rapper 

Why was Kenny Smith shot by police? While his family and friends wait for answers, they ponder the tragic loss of a promising artist

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The road to becoming a rap star was paved with work, and Smith set about learning the trade. He turned out his pockets for money toward studio time and beats; he would call up friends, leaving voicemails with his latest rhymes. Soon Smith developed a unique style, thanks largely to his voice, a high-pitched space-invader drawl with shades of Lil Wayne that stood out against the usual mumblings of newbie rappers. He began working patented phrases into his work, like "I am too much."

And most importantly, he came up with his own rap name. Inspiration struck while he was delivering a line, cleverly morphing a chest-bumping verb into a new moniker.

"It wasn't on purpose," recalls Ferguson. "He said a line like, 'Everybody knows Ken ball. Kenn Ball. I think I'm gonna run with that.'"

In the meantime, Smith's friends were making their own moves. Like a lot of young kids, they sought strength in organized numbers, bonding together as an entertainment group called Aviator Lifestyle, or AvL$ in Twitter shorthand. The plan was for the group to throw parties, put out T-shirts, and – as he rode to a high profile – promote Kenn Ball's music. "He was the backbone, pretty much," says friend Armanti Claggett.

"It was a thing where we wanted to live an aviator lifestyle – a more elevated, lavish kind of lifestyle," explains Ferguson. "Like pilots, we were going to control our destiny."

In the year leading up to his death, it seemed Smith had in fact punched his ticket for better things. Through a friend, he hooked up with Euclid High alum and current Chicago Bears linebacker Thaddeus Gibson, who regularly flew Smith to Houston to work with producers. Eventually the material he created there would go into a debut mixtape, titled in homage to his Euclid friends: Birth Place of Aviation.

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