His funeral was full of swag — cool like Errick Lamarr Pratt Jr., an aspiring D.C. hip-hop artist known as PopSmoothe.
The unconventional 23-year-old sported kilts, straw sandals and foxtails on Georgia Avenue in Northwest Washington, where he recorded poetic music videos on his grandmother’s rooftop. PopSmoothe was a chocolate hippy, not a gangsta rapper, and he wasn’t supposed to go out like this — laid out in a white coffin covered with red roses, with makeup to conceal the bullet wound to his head.
Worse, it was PopSmoothe’s own gun that had killed him. His death, according to police and prosecutors who completed their investigation last month, is a story about the painful cost of carelessness with firearms.
More than a thousand mourners — family, friends, fans — filed into the Victory Christian Ministries International church in Suitland on a cold winter morning to celebrate his life.
For some, it was the second time attending a funeral for Errick Lamarr Pratt. PopSmoothe’s father had been shot to death at 23 nearly two decades earlier. Same name. Same age. Same ending.
Errick Jr. was just 4 years old when his father was killed in 1995. His grandfather, Larry W. Pratt, remembers him as a child with sad eyes at the funeral.
Now, here were PopSmoothe’s friends, red-eyed and weary, some replaying in their minds the January night he was killed, wondering what they could have done to change the course of events. They lined up at the mike in the center of the church, where PopSmoothe’s musical career began in a gospel go-go group called Radical Praise.
“He was one of the funniest dudes of all time,” his best friend, DeLonta Washington, told the crowd, and “one of the most beautiful souls I ever had the pleasure of meeting.” He drew laughs recounting the reaction to PopSmoothe’s eccentric style: “We would be on the avenue, and people would be making fun of that kilt he was wearing or the tail or those ‘Jesus sandals.’ It’s a real trip to see my brother in this casket.”
On a big screen above the stage, PopSmoothe appeared in a prescient video clip, talking about how he wanted to be remembered.
“ ‘PopSmoothe was an artist of the future. He was legendary,’ ” Pratt told an interviewer last year. “I’m trying to start a new wave of freedom and positive swag.” He explained what inspired him: “Trees, water, human beings, just hearing good music.”
As the memorial video and his music played, some people rose, performing “the PopSmoothe,” a dance Pratt had created. “Stamp,” they repeated, a phrase of approval he often recited.
One by one, barefoot praise dancers in white flowing gowns and red pants took to the stage, spinning and raising their arms as if flying. The music throbbed, giving the funeral the feel of a concert.
Pratt’s mother, Taneisha Johnson, 40, wearing a black dress trimmed in white cuffs, swayed in the front row. Photos of her son, sporting a nose ring and a full beard, flashed on the screen.
PopSmoothe’s grandfather got up from his pew and began pacing around the church as pastor Tony Brazelton, PopSmoothe’s uncle, preached a long sermon about the questions raised by an untimely death.
“It bothers me,” the grandfather said later. “What were they even doing with a gun?”
The gun — a Mossberg .22-caliber rifle that can be purchased at Wal-Mart for about $250 — lay on the dining-room floor of a house in southern Prince George’s County that belongs to PopSmoothe’s cousin.
PopSmoothe bought the weapon late last year after someone he knew was fatally shot on Georgia Avenue, where he’d grown up and lived with his grandmother. But he needed advice on how to handle it.
“He came to me and was like, ‘What am I supposed to do with this?’ ” Washington recalled. “It was the first and only gun he had, as far as I know.”
Washington, 27, knew that PopSmoothe’s father had been shot when the younger Errick was a kid and that “he was searching for peace with that.”
Errick Lamarr Pratt Sr. — known to his family as “Big Errick” — had been driving a rental car on Chesapeake Avenue in Southeast when he was killed just before midnight on July 16, 1995, according to the police report. His family said the intended victim was the passenger next to him.
“They were shooting at the guy riding with him,” remembered his father, Larry Pratt. “He got shot right here.” He raised his right arm and pointed at a spot beneath his armpit.
“It was a little hole. Looked like a .22. He was DOA,” Larry Pratt said. “The guy who killed him got killed two days later.” The alleged assailant and his victim were buried on the same day at the same Maryland cemetery: National Harmony Memorial Park in the Landover area.
Now Big Errick’s son had his own .22, this one designed to look like an AR-15 assault rifle.
DeLonta Washington didn’t think a long rifle belonged in the city. He told PopSmoothe to find a new place for the gun, and that’s how it wound up at Jordan Brazelton’s house in rural Brandywine, Md. Brazelton, PopSmoothe’s cousin, had a recording studio and 110 acres where PopSmoothe and his friends could practice shooting.
So a new ritual was born. On some evenings, they’d drive to Brandywine, where they would record songs and work on their marksmanship.
At the edge of the woods, bullets flew across the marsh at a green Newport cigarette poster propped about 100 yards away. There was enough ambient light from the house to see their target, but it was still dark enough to see the burst of orange flash after they fired.
“It made a flash in the house later, too,” Washington said. “It was dark enough for me to remember that flash.”
Brazelton, a 25-year-old audio engineer, was already mixing beats on his studio equipment when PopSmoothe and his girlfriend, Toni Stephenson, along with Washington and another of PopSmoothe’s childhood friends, Tyrez Noels, pulled into the driveway on Jan. 8 about 10 p.m.
They were planning to record the final take of an album they had named “Flight 202.” The album, featuring PopSmoothe and Washington, would be the project to launch AveLife WorldWide, a music company they had created with five other friends.
It was Noels’s first time at the Brandywine studio, and he was eager to try out the equipment. “I was just putting up beats, and the whole time Tyrez kept saying .‘I want to do a song,’ ” Brazelton said.
PopSmoothe wanted to give Noels, a 22-year-old student, the studio time, so he went outside to shoot his rifle with Washington while Noels recorded.
Brazelton had reservations about the gun. A few weeks earlier, it had gone off accidentally when he was showing it to a friend. “I picked it up and pointed it at the couch still thinking the safety was on,” Brazelton said.
The bullet hole in the couch frightened him, but not enough to ban the rifle from his house. He felt better about his cousin and friends shooting the rifle in the woods rather than somewhere in D.C.
“I felt like if I didn’t provide that area for them to do that,” he said, “my little cousin would wind up getting into trouble.”
Few others in his family knew PopSmoothe owned a rifle, and his friends didn’t give it much thought. He lived in a part of the District where, according to police records, at least six people were killed in a three-month span last year.
“People are getting shot up here left and right,” Washington said, “so when he got the assault rifle, I didn’t question it.”
Neither did another friend, Darrell Simpson. “He lived in Washington, in a neighborhood that was into guns,” Simpson said. “It’s like living in the rain forest. You are going to carry an umbrella.”
Despite the rifle, PopSmoothe was no gangbanger, his friends said. A 2008 graduate of Friendly High School in Fort Washington, Md., he modeled, wore skinny jeans, once worked at J. Crew and had big ambitions for his music and a clothing line.
When PopSmoothe, Washington and others created AveLife in 2011, they imagined themselves touring around the world, performing to sold-out audiences like Jay-Z.
“Rap for us is like the American Dream, a little bit,” said Simpson, 28, who works as a correspondence coordinator for a D.C. patent firm.
Internet radio personality Carib Rose discovered PopSmoothe’s music after plowing through CDs artists submitted for her “Urban Mulata Show.”
The cover shot for his album “Smoothe Like Dat” featured PopSmoothe sitting — almost dripping — on his grandmother’s brown crushed-velvet sofa in a 1970s-style shirt.
The retro image caught Rose’s eye, but then his music caught her ear. His style mixed trance, alternative and electronic beats.
“It wasn’t just urban, gritty, full of profanity,” Rose said. It was lyrical, profound and unique to the D.C. music scene.
“Birds in the air,” he sang. “Look me in my eye. Tell me what you see. Tell me what I want to be.”
At the edge of the woods, PopSmoothe pointed his rifle. Pop.
Then Washington fired. Pop.
Washington pulled the trigger again. Nothing. The rifle jammed. They went back inside, and Washington took a pen and a butter knife to fish the bullets out of the rifle. Then he put it on the dining-room floor and told his friends: Don’t mess with the rifle.
“Stamp,” PopSmoothe replied, slang for understood.
“Stamp,” Brazelton echoed.
Two people didn’t get the warning: Stephenson and Noels. When Noels came out of the recording booth around 1 a.m., he picked up the gun.
“I turn around, and Tyrez got the gun in his hand,” Washington said. “He’s holding it from the pistol grip, and he’s holding it from the back like a novice.”
PopSmoothe told Noels to put down the gun. But in a matter of seconds, the rifle went off.
Stephenson woke up to the sound of the shot and heard screams. As she rushed toward the sound, she saw her boyfriend slumped on the floor, shaking.
“What did you just do?!” she remembered Washington screaming at Noels.
The bullet had gone through the left side of PopSmoothe’s head.
As Brazelton dialed 911, Stephenson called her mother and found herself unable to utter a word. Her mother hung up. Stephenson called back, crying: “Mom! Errick! He’s shot! He’s shot!”
Washington grabbed the gun from Noels, who was crying, “I didn’t mean it!”
While they waited for the ambulance to arrive, Washington began performing chest compressions. “I felt him take his last breath,” Washington said. PopSmoothe died in his best friend’s arms.
Prince George’s detectives and state prosecutors investigated Noels’s role in the shooting, but they declined to file charges, ruling it an accident.
“It was a case where the shooter did not even realize that he was dealing with a working firearm,” said John Erzen, a spokesman for the Prince George’s County State’s Attorney’s Office. “There was not a magazine in the gun, and there was a belief that it was not functioning. In speaking with Mr. Pratt’s family, they were in agreement that they didn’t want to file charges in the case.”
In the wake of the shooting, there was forgiveness by some and fury from others.
Noels “truly did not know that gun was going to go off,” Washington said. “But at the same time, what kind of stupid m-----f----- would point a gun at somebody and pull the trigger?”
Noels, who did not respond to repeated efforts to reach him, has been distraught over his friend’s death and is getting therapy, said his mother, Tiffany Noels. PopSmoothe’s mother called Tyrez to comfort him, Tiffany Noels said, but a lot of people did not understand the circumstances of the shooting, and some vowed revenge.
“I’m trying to help my son to heal,” she said. “They were extremely close. He wakes up thinking this is a bad dream, but it isn’t.”
PopSmoothe’s friends met six weeks after the funeral to finish burning and packaging 350 “Flight 202” CDs.
Simpson and Keita Madison, a 27-year-old aspiring actor, squeezed onto a navy-blue leather sofa in an Upper Marlboro studio where PopSmoothe liked to record. Maurice Linder, a 28-year-old docket coordinator at a patent law firm, perched on a stool. The three created an assembly line.
“Now we’ve got to get all these CDs out, package it up and get it to the people,” Simpson said.
Bobbing his head to PopSmoothe’s music, Linder stacked the sleeves in a pile next to Simpson. Madison balanced a CD on his knee, scribbling a label: “Flight 202, AveLife Worldwide, PopSmoothe x Digaveli. #LongLivePopSmoothe.” He repeated the process at least 100 times.
They worked surrounded by images of musicians who had died too young: Jimi Hendrix, Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G. Soon a canvas collage of PopSmoothe photos that leaned against a table would be hung alongside them.
As the assembly line shut down, the final song on “Smoothe Like Dat” played.
“I look up to the sky,
I see the sunrise,
It says PopSmoothe’s limelight is gonna shine.”