You Can't Bury Me
Octavis Berry still watches over the League of Extraordinary G'z
A local rapper died last October because nobody would tell him he was dying.
His name was Octavis Berry, and he rapped as Esbe da 6th Street Bully. Berry was one-half of local hip-hop duo Dred Skott and a founding member of the League of Extraordinary G'z – a dedicated rap troupe that combines the entities Dred Skott, SouthBound, and Da C.O.D. Group functionality is more family than formality.
Berry didn't have health insurance. The hospitals he visited for chest pains had no one to bill for an MRI scan that would have revealed a pulmonary embolism – one that filled his lungs with blood until he eventually couldn't catch a breath.
Berry had complained of chest pains since the League's Southeast tour last summer. He'd tell his girlfriend Stephanie Sanders, a woman he planned to marry, that it felt like a stabbing in the chest, like a knife pushing gradually into his rib cage. Sanders sent him to the hospital when he got back, but the doctors told him he had asthma; he wasn't using his inhaler right.
He developed a cold, which doctors later diagnosed as bronchitis. That turned to pneumonia, which lasted for weeks unmedicated. He'd started coughing up blood in August – keeping a sock in his closet for hocking globs into every morning. Sanders thought the blood was coming from his gums since the episodes would occur after brushing his teeth.
He started to take longer getting up stairs. A week before he died, he couldn't jog to the end of the block.
"I thought that he was just hot," Sanders says. "He was overweight already, and we'd been in a relationship for two years. We were getting comfortable. He had gained that extra 30 pounds being in a relationship. I didn't think that he was gaining this weight because his body was reacting wrong."
He swelled up like a blowfish during his last week. The water weight took hold.
"That was his blood pooling," says Sanders, becoming silent for a spell. "It just really sucks."
Octavis Berry died at 9:43pm on Oct. 14, after collapsing at 11th Street and I-35 near Brackenridge Hospital. According to Sanders, doctors there report the rapper had been hostile during treatment and had to be restrained. She believes that's what finally ruptured the artery.
Saturdays are family day at Sanchez Street in the house where Octavis Berry lived his final days.
Home to Reggie Coby, Leroy "Greezo" Minor, and band manager Kunal Sharma, plus a temporary abode to Robert "Lowkey" Hein, Tucker "Tuk da Gat" Ivey, and LaDarrian "Dowrong" Torry, the house is the mecca for all things League-affiliated.
"This was just supposed to be a mixtape," explains Greezo, who, at 30, is the oldest member of the group, which also includes Stephan "S.Dot" Sweeney, Johnathan "Lil' J" Brea, and Michael "Sandman" Hein, who's currently serving in the Navy. "It wasn't a group until a few months of us recording. When we first got together, I was still on house arrest. I wasn't out. Reggie, Low, Tay [Berry], and Sandman was grinding with the rest of Da C.O.D. When I got out the house, Tuk was already going to Reg and Tay's every day. It had already started forming like a family."
The League of Extraordinary G'z is family, but it's also the richest collection of rappers Austin has seen in years. The seven members remain relentlessly dedicated to their craft, spending the majority of their free time recording, rehearsing, and critiquing each other's work. They spin solo tracks on repeat, check one another on verses, and tweak their sets to balance energy and spotlight affiliate members like DJ Kurupt and RaShad "Blaxsmith" Smith.
The hard work has yielded a wealth of celebrated street releases since the group's 2010 inception: three installments of the Concealed Weapons mixtape series, two Loftin-N-Austin comps, an S.Dot and Tuk da Gat helmed White Boy Mixtape (four of the League's eight original members are white), and a slew of independent releases from the three groups that make up the crew. They've toured the Southeast and Pacific coast, earning the adoration of rap icons Dead Prez and Organized Noize's Ray Murray – one of the group's foremost inspirations. Local rap pioneer Bavu Blakes considers them a few chess moves away from unprecedented achievements among homegrown hip-hop artists.
"We believe in something that's never even existed," Greezo says. "I remember going to South by Southwest in 2005 and passing out my mixtape. This white lady, I handed her my CD because I found out she was in A&R. She said, 'What do you do?' I told her I was a rapper from Austin. She laughed at me in my face and handed my CD back, didn't even give me a chance to say listen to the motherfucker.
"'You're a rapper from Austin? Bye.'
"That's fertilizer and momentum," he adds. "We believe in energy."
That, they have in scores. With a live setup that includes a DJ, a drummer, up to 10 different rappers, and a lion mascot who jumps around in the group's trademark Texas T-shirt, League shows offer as much heat as any other performance you'll see in this vast city of music.
"It's almost a competition," Lowkey says of trading bars with his bandmates. "We all want to come harder than the next. Whoever's on the song with me is going to try to eat that song off the bone, so you better come hard, or else you gonna get rapped out the room."
Berry was the group's most prominent MC, a vibrant, party-sized personality who befriended Norwegians and planked atop aquariums on tour. He was the one who conceived the League of Extraordinary G'z, and he was the nucleus for the community that's gathered around the collective. A blown-up portrait of him hangs above the board on which the group tracks songs. He's keeping watch over the League he built.
"I miss his energy and having him around," says Coby, his group mate in Dred Skott, who, for all intents and purposes, was Berry's second half. "But he wouldn't want the show to stop. He'd want you to go harder. I know because he told me."
We Gon' Make It
Octavis Berry rapped about death because even in life, death was no stranger.
The youngest child of Pauline Starnes, he lost his oldest brother, Kenny, to a drive-by shooting in 1994. LaDarrick Torry, Berry's second brother and Dowrong's father, died 16 years later when his house was invaded and he got shot defending his home. In between, in 2004, Kenny's eldest son died from burns incurred while saving his younger brother from a burning vehicle. Only a sister, Angela Enoch, survives among Berry's four siblings.
"It's hard to talk to her some days," Sanders says of Starnes. "There's no way in hell I could deal with that. Pauline's a sweetheart, a very Christian woman. She does believe in her Savior, but she's endured a lot."
Those hardships contributed to the League's bond: It represents family in a space where the physicality of biological families have ceased to exist.
"Everybody wants to be part of a family, man," says Tyrone "Bone" Jones, a former deejay on KAZI 88.7FM. He's been SouthBound's manager since 2001 and runs 2 Da Bone Records, the label that released the first albums from that group and Dred Skott. He's the elder statesman of the crew – an adviser to the League – and, as Lowkey affirms, "part of the family."
"People see us and want to be a part of it,"' says Jones, "because we gellin'." That's why the Sanchez house is filled to near capacity with rappers from other groups on Saturday afternoon. That's what makes the League better. Their dependence on one another is divine; they think the world of each other's rapping ability and recognize the role the group plays in their healing process. Dowrong, 18 years old and now without his father and two uncles, has taken over a number of Berry's verses, including the classic "Yes He Is."
"This group is what he left me," he says. "He created the League of Extraordinary G'z and in passing away, he gave me the League."
"I'd die for these niggas," Greezo says. "Low, I'd jump in front of a bus for that dude. This ain't talk. I lost my son four years ago, and then Tay. I lost the woman that I love. This is all I have. I know what happens when I die, because I've seen it. All we have is to go hard."
Now they go hard in an effort to provide for Berry's children. He had three with LaShonda Simonton – Tavarius, Octavis Jr., and Krystal – and he helped her raise a fourth, Shontay – a point that comes up regularly with the League during conversation.
"I watched those kids grow up," Coby says. "I've known those kids for 10 years. They call me Uncle Reggie. If it's wintertime and it's cold out, it's only natural: school time – get the books.
"They know me like that, and that's real cool. I told them that if they need anything, they can call me. That makes all of us go harder to be in a position where if they call, we can facilitate. I don't have any kids of my own."
"We're all going to die," adds Greezo. "The only thing that we have is what we leave behind for our kids and the future generations of the League."
I Am Not Afraid
The newest member of the League of Extraordinary G'z was born March 29, 2012. Serenity Lakentay Berry – 20 inches and 8 pounds, 4 ounces – is the first and only child of Octavis Berry and Stephanie Sanders.
"She looks exactly like him," says Sanders, from her home in Missouri where she now lives with her mother. "She'll look at me all serious, and I'll see him in her so much. When she scratches her eyebrow, her pinky turns to the side just like her dad's. And she's got his fat baby boobies, too. Her chest looks like his."
Sanders was three months pregnant with Serenity when Berry died, and in an effort to familiarize her with her father, she played Dred Skott's "I'm Not Afraid" to her belly when she rested.
"If you listen, it almost sounds like a lullaby," she says. "I played that almost every day while she was in the womb. I waited until a week after I had her and played it again, and she fell asleep instantly."
The song has doubled as Sanders' anthem. She's a strong woman, cheerful in conversation and proud as hell of her little girl ("I want to show her to the whole world"), but Berry's death crushed a lifelong dream that she had for her children.
"I had two dads," she says. "I had a biological father that gave me up, and I had a dad that adopted me – who now has nothing to do with me, either. The one thing that I wanted for my children was for their father to be there, and now my child can't even have her own father.
"My thing now is, 'Why did God cheat my daughter out of having a dad?' I got cheated out of two. Why does she have to be cheated? That's the one thing that I wanted for my child, was that she'd grow up and enjoy being around her dad."
Then she recalls the League in the days immediately following Berry's death.
"I don't remember who it was, but one of them said something like, 'Your baby may have lost one daddy, but she's got seven more right here.'"
For donations to the Berry family, see www.octavisberrydonations.com.
LOEGZ takes its name from The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, a film about a cast of extraordinary individuals who, as Reggie Coby attests, "all come together when they're needed to handle shit."
"Everybody in LOEGZ is the shit by themselves," he adds, "but when we come together, it's some superfreak type shit." Here's proof.
"Yes He Is," Concealed Weapons III (May 12, 2011) Berry, S.Dot, and Tuk spit quick like Twista over a soulful hook and murky piano sample. Berry raps: "We in the industry's respiratory like a detrimental germ. Ain't no cure for it, so you might as well let the kush burn."
"70s," Dred Skott 4 President (Nov. 4, 2008) Reggie Coby gets soulful, riffing on leisure suits, the Jackson 5, and "Superfly" over a mean blues guitar lick.
"That Ain't Right," Seasons Change (April 20, 2009) The brothers Hein point a jagged finger at posturing rappers. "You say what you feel is street. I say what the streets feel," raps Sandman, before Greezo wipes the floor with rugged realism.
"Don't Touch Me," Dred Skott 4 President Octavis Berry on full display, funny as he is ferocious: "When I invade your living room, fuck your couch. Nigga, we here like we live here, too. I'm lounging, breaking up a pound on your momma's good china."
"Next Level," single (March 1, 2012) S.Dot, Dowrong, and Tuk get "up on your neck, ass, and elbows" over trunk-rattling soul and a backbeat that could have come from a Black Milk session.
"Keep Movin'," Seasons Change. SouthBound flips the Beatles' "When I'm 64," reels in singer Rochelle Terrell, and digs its toes into the dirt: "Go find my worst enemy, even he admit that we the shit."
"We Gon' Make It," Concealed Weapons II (May 31, 2010) "Niggas on that lame shit like candy paint and swangs and grills. Nigga, when that ink dry, I'm investing in scholarships for my children following thinking daddy can't do wrong. Tay almost 13. Nigga, we shoulda been on. But everything happen for a reason, so I take it, cause in my gut I got a feeling that we gon' make it." "We Gon' Make It" lyrics by Octavis Berry