Rudolph Johnson, the up-and-coming Atlanta rapper known as Marlo, who loomed large among his city’s rap heavyweights even as he remained an underground figure and ambivalent local celebrity, was shot and killed there Saturday night, police said. He was 30.
The Atlanta Police Department said that officers had initially responded to a single-vehicle accident on Interstate 285, west of downtown, around 11:30 p.m. and discovered the driver deceased, with gunshot wounds.
“At this time, investigators believe the victim was the intended target of the gunfire, and they are working to determine the circumstances surrounding the shooting,” police said in a statement.
The Fulton County Medical Examiner’s Office confirmed Sunday that Johnson had been killed. The shooting came amid a rash of gun violence in Atlanta in recent weeks, following a turbulent period of protests against the police killings of Rayshard Brooks there and George Floyd in Minneapolis. “It has to stop,” Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said last week.
Marlo, or Lil Marlo, who was also known locally as Young Rudy or Rude, turned to music relatively late in life, hoping to escape what he referred to as “the streets” — a world of guns and drug-dealing that had surrounded him as he was raised in some of Atlanta’s most neglected neighborhoods.
In 2017, he signed to Quality Control Music, the homegrown label that had minted stars like Migos and Lil Yachty, alongside his friend and collaborator Lil Baby, who went on to become one of hip-hop’s biggest new stars.
“Two words,” Pierre Thomas, the Quality Control executive, said at the time of the pair: “Real Atlanta.”
Marlo went on to release five mixtapes with the label, including his debut, “2 the Hard Way,” with Lil Baby, followed by “The Wire,” “9th Ward God,” “The Real 1” and “1st and 3rd,” from this year, which featured appearances by Future, Young Thug and Gucci Mane. Admittedly not a natural emcee, Marlo got by on the authority of his hard-boiled and hyperlocal street tales, delivering boasts, threats and regrets in a distinct, wheezing squeal that he was developing.
Though not a presence on the Billboard charts, he represented a distinct strain of cult-favorite regional rapper and connector, especially in Atlanta, commanding respect from his more established peers as he inched toward a breakthrough.
“I ain’t tripping,” Marlo said of his gradual rise toward the mainstream. “I had to be new to the block before. So it just is what it is.” As his partner Lil Baby racked up industry accolades, Marlo told his fellow rapper, “No matter what I’m doing, you keep going.”
Rudolph Simmons Johnson was born on May 1, 1990, and raised in Bowen Homes, one of Atlanta’s most notorious and crime-ridden housing projects, which was demolished in 2009 after a string of killings.
“I know how to survive in the jungle,” said Marlo, who called his Bankhead neighborhood and the Bowen projects the “home of the murderers and them drug dealers,” and whose music told of witnessing violence and crack sales from a young age.
Thomas, who has worked to convince his Quality Control artists that music is a safer path, said in a 2017 interview, “All of us come from the same background — I know the lifestyle,” adding, “I know what it’s like trying to get out the hood, trying not to make the same mistakes and putting yourself in the position to go back to prison.”
Marlo called Thomas “a real battery pack in me,” an inspiration to try to choose the studio over the street.
“So much potential that the world didn’t get a chance to see,” Thomas wrote Sunday on Instagram. “It’s really hard for me to say RIP.”
Marlo is survived by his mother, Santresa Maxey; his cousin, Denise Hill-Love, who helped raise him; and his two sons, R.J. and Marlo Jr.
Lil Yachty said in an Instagram post announcing Marlo’s death that the two rappers had been recording Friday night. “We just did a song [at] 4 this morning smh rip brother,” he wrote.
Jacoby Hudson, a longtime friend and Atlanta defense lawyer, said in an interview that Marlo had just left a Bankhead block party late Saturday when he was killed.
“It’s heartbreaking, because I told Rudy it would end like this if he didn’t change the people he was around,” Hudson said in a phone interview. “He didn’t let the music save him. He still wanted to be in the neighborhood. He cared about people, and he took care of people. He loved too many people, and his loyalty is probably what got him killed.”