Proof of Life
Saying everything's okay
And if I never leave this thug life
I'll see you again someday
I wish, I wish, I wish
Singer R. Kelly's homage to his fallen dawg in the hit song "I wish" mirrors the mourning for Chip "Bankie" Banks, a New Jack rapper who was gunned down in central Harlem shortly after Thanksgiving. Almost everyone in the Wu-Tang Clan-affiliated hip hop group American Cream Team has been moved by Kelly's gothic R&B in the aftermath of Banks's slaying. To them, "I Wish" portrays the depth of grief you feel when a beloved dawgyour homie, your best friendwinds up bullet-riddled, and dies over some silly-ass beef. But no one in the Clan and the Team, even as they stood sobbing around a platinum casket on December 1, could have envisioned a master playa like Banks ending up a victim of cold-blooded murder.
At the time of his death, Banks, a 30-year-old father of eight, was not, in R. Kelly's words, "dreaming of windows black-tinted like a hearse." He was on the verge of releasing "More, More, More," the first single from his debut album, Only in America. A fledgling actor, Banks, born Bruce Lamar Mayfield, starred alongside Wu-Tang Clan's Oli "Power" Grant in the 1999 movie Black and White. It was during filming that Al Pacino, who had no role in the flick about urban white teens trying to tap into black culture, befriended members of the self-described "clan of word warriors," becoming particularly close to Banks. "Pacino and Bankie hit it off," recalls the rapper's producer and childhood friend, Naheem "Pop" Bowens. "They talked often."
Banks, a "rhyme-slinging" visionary, was among the most promising unsung hype in hip hop until some ghost dog appeared out of nowhere and turned on the dark. Witnesses told cops that shortly before 7 a.m. on November 25, they saw a man, whom authorities would later identify as Alfred Dancy, pointing a gun at Banks as he left a building on Fifth Avenue near 128th Street in Harlem. Some claim that as the unarmed Banks dodged the gunman, they heard him plead, "Why can't we discuss this?" Dancy, 28, allegedly replied, "Fuck this!" and then shot Banks once in the left arm. Banks collapsed between two cars, and that is where, witnesses allege, Dancy finished off the bent and broken rapper with a bullet to the chest.
Within minutes, cops responding to shots fired swooped down on the corner of 129th Street and Fifth Avenue. There, several enraged witnesses pointed out Dancy to the officers, who found the suspect hiding under a vehicle. According to NYPD spokesman Ralph Smith and witnesses, Dancy resisted arrest and three officers sustained minor injuries during a scuffle. The officers were treated at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital and released. Banks, meanwhile, was pronounced dead on arrival at Harlem Hospital, where his alleged killer also had been taken for treatment of injuries allegedly suffered during efforts to subdue him. Police say they recovered the murder weapon, a .45 semiautomatic. A grand jury has indicted Dancy on a charge of second-degree murder. He will be arraigned on December 14. John Geida, Dancy's court-appointed attorney, did not return calls for comment.
Rumors about the motive in the killing of Chip Banks began circulating in the neighborhood immediately: That the morning Banks was shot he had been hanging out at an illegal nightclub frequented by gamblers, " 'hos," and Uptown gangsta underworld types; that Banks, who once gambled heavily, owed money to some "fake-ass playa"; and that Banks, who'd dubbed himself the "money" of the American Cream Team, had gone into the after-hours joint to borrow $10 and got into an argument. A law-enforcement source says a preliminary investigation concluded that Banks was shot in a "dispute over money." As relatives and members of his hip hop family try to make sense of this outlandish killing, some believe Banks may have left behind an epitaphwildly suggestive clues about how he lived, and never wanted to diein a rap called "Flashbacks":
I grew up, no moms, no pops/I was mad at the world/Took it out on my block/While my homies play B'ball, I sat and I watched/Although I wasn't athletically inclined/I knew how to lift my .9/Make four nicks from a dime/Jovita's son, long life of crime/But that was way back when we use to watch Porgies, get horny/Friday, eat Whiting and Porgies/We were little shorty misfits/Way back when Chrissy from Three's Company had big tits/The ole timers pushed Caddies, rocked British/Mr. T had a Slick Rick Neck/He was the realest/Remember Mikey? He liked it/They said Shorty died from eatin' Pop Rocks and Pepsi/I Joe-Pesci any bully that tried to test me/A young shorty in the 'hood, I never let it stress me/I know the streets will be what the streets will be. . . .
Is Alfred Dancy someone Banks may have Joe-Pescied during his "long life of crime"? Bowens, the rapper's 31-year-old producer, paints a different scenario: It's one of redemption, the self-confessed ex-thug as born-again dawg. He says the Chip Banks he knew no longer indulged in what the late rapper Big L called "lifestylez ov da poor and dangerous." Although Banks was not, as R. Kelly would say, "iced up with a Bentley and a house," this was the American Cream he relished. He says that on November 24, Banks was upbeat about the planned release of "More, More, More" in December. "I am taking control of my career," he told Bowens as he embarked on hawking first-run copies of his record to deejays at popular nightclubs and underground bashment enclaves.
Bowens remembers that Banks had planned to hand-deliver the record to the famed deejay Red Alert at Alert's birthday celebration in the Bronx. He speculates that after leaving Alert's party, Banks may have returned to Harlem to continue distributing the single. Banks, according to Bowens, had not been acting like someone who would sabotage a lifelong dream. "Bankie was going to Atlanta and then to L.A. to finish his album," adds the ashen-faced musician whose Phat Farm goose-down coat Banks was wearing when he was shot. "He was reading a script for a new movie." If Banks gambled, he never bet carelessly on his life. "Bankie was dealt a hand he had to play out and he played it the best way he could," Bowens asserts. "Yes, Bankie was a rolling stone, but he gave us enough proof that he loved life."
Bowens recalls that the Wu-Tang's Power met Banks four years ago and turned his life around. Power helped him grow up. "I could see from my Caller ID that Bankie had his own phone," Bowens says. In 1997, Power enlisted Banks in what would become known as the "Wu-Revolution," making him an integral playa in the formation of the American Cream Team. Banks had vowed to help make the Team a powerhouse in the hip hop nation. "I could take you on an adventure through my rhymes, talking about money shit and street shit," the late rapper once boasted.
No matter how far Chip Banks had strayed, he always called Laura Andrews's apartment in Harlem's East-North Houses home. The last time she saw him was at her dinner table on Thanksgiving. Banks told the neighborhood do-gooder about the movie script he was reading, scowled at the chunks of ham on a guest's plate, and bragged about making it big with continued support from Bowens, Andrews's son.
Andrews recalls that the only time she detected that something was troubling Banks was when he expressed frustration about not being able to corral one of his younger relatives nicknamed Snapper. It is "little shorty misfits" like Snapper whom Banks had been reaching out to. "Bruce [which is how Andrews refers to the slain rapper] was angry with Snapper," she explains. "I hugged Bruce and told him, 'Yes, you can see that Snapper is hardheaded because you have come a long way.' He said, 'I know, Ma: I'm trying to tell these knuckleheads they don't have to be out there.' "
Someday, Snapper, too, might reminisce: "To get up out this 'hood was like a fantasy." Perhaps he'd see his whole life flash before him, including that Thanksgiving Day when Chip Banks was having, as he put it, "flashbacks of the times." Even Snapper might agree with the hip hop martyr: "Some made us laugh, some made us sad."
Reporter's note to "Bankie": R. Kelly put it best, "Your family called the morning of the tragic end/Damn, my condolences."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.