One year passed, then two, and the cops never arrested him for the shooting. “They didn’t come yet,” he’d repeat to himself like a mantra. “Maybe nothing happened. Nah. Nothing happened. Nothing happened.” His efforts to convince himself the shooting hadn’t even taken place fell short. “At the back of my mind,” he says, “I knew something happened.”
His mother didn’t know what was going on, but she had begun to observe changes in his behavior. He had always been soft-spoken, but now he was quieter, more introverted. “He stopped smiling,” she says. “I couldn’t understand why he was so serious.” Others, however, didn’t notice a thing. “He seemed to be the same kind of kid I knew as a child,” says his uncle Clarence Coleman. “He didn’t look like he was haunted by anything.”
In 1996, he was arrested three times in two months for selling cocaine. His punishment: seven months in state prison. He was 22 when he got out. He had already become known in New York’s underground rap scene; Gang Starr gave him a shout-out in the liner notes to their 1994 album Hard to Earn. If he didn’t want to spend the rest of his twenties in a prison cell somewhere upstate, he decided, now was the time to get more serious about his music.
In the autumn of 1998, Coleman found himself standing on the corner of Lexington and 112th Street one night when a silver car rolled down the avenue, its blue halogen headlights drawing everyone’s attention. The driver pulled up to the curb and cracked his window.
“Dep, right?” he said. “Get in the car.”
It didn’t take long before everyone in the Johnson Houses had heard the news: Puff Daddy had sent a Bentley to fetch Coleman. Recently, Black Rob, a Bad Boy rapper from the Jefferson Houses next door, had invited Coleman to appear on an album. After hearing Coleman in the recording studio, a Bad Boy senior executive had pulled him aside and asked if he wanted to sign a recording contract.
Bad Boy Entertainment released G. Dep’s first album, Child of the Ghetto, in the fall of 2001. Vibe gave the album four and a half discs and profiled him in a feature called “People on the Verge.” By then, Coleman was 27 and had a 3-year-old daughter. With his daughter and her mother, he moved to a townhouse in Scotch Plains, New Jersey.
He had told nobody about the shooting, but even after he’d left East Harlem, there were moments when memories of what he’d done would bubble up. He would be at the movies, a tub of popcorn on his lap, watching the screen, when one character would pull out a pistol and shoot somebody—and suddenly he was right back in 1993, on Park and 114th. When he was younger, he’d identify with the perpetrator on the screen—“I shot someone, too,” he’d say to himself—but as he got older, he found himself empathizing with the victim. In the middle of the movie, he’d start wondering if the man he had shot at was still alive—and then he’d question whether he even deserved to be in a theater at all, rather than in prison. The lights would go back on, everyone would file out, and he’d leave with no memory of the movie he’d just seen.
Then there were the nights when he’d stay out late, working or partying until 2 a.m., coming in after everyone else was asleep. Sprawled on the sofa in the living room, exhausted and high, he’d find himself obsessing yet again about the shooting. His paranoia about the cops catching him had almost disappeared, but on nights like this he felt overwhelmed by an intense fear. “Like my soul is going to burn in hell—that fear,” he says.
He had been smoking marijuana since the eleventh grade, but after he signed with Bad Boy, he tried a “dust blunt” for the first time—marijuana mixed with angel dust—and found that PCP helped alleviate his torment in a way that marijuana never had. “It was really at a point where I used to hear voices, and my conscience used to tell me: ‘What you did was wrong,’ ” he says. “That was really the only drug that made me not think about anything.” Before too long, he was smoking so many dust blunts that the executives at Bad Boy took notice.
He’d signed a $350,000 contract with Bad Boy four years earlier, but by the end of 2002, he was broke. After he lost his lease on the townhouse in New Jersey, he packed the family’s belongings and drove to the Johnson Houses. “Now I’m bringing the U-Haul right back up to 1840,” he says. “It was depressing.” Not only had his career stalled, but he was living, once again, just a block away from the scene of his crime.