When Avonti Garrett picked up her husband from the airport, it was almost always a happy time.
For extended periods he would be away recording, writing or producing a song, but would rush home for even the shortest reunions with his wife and three children. Avonti got used to life as the wife of Stephen Garrett, known to most as Static/Major, the best-kept secret among hip-hop insiders in search of a hit.
But staying married to an artist can be difficult. The lifestyle is not something most women want to deal with, she says. At first, she didn’t either. Back in 1998, when she first met Stephen at a concert where he was performing, Avonti avoided him.
“One day I was leaving Shawnee Park and my girlfriend stopped the car and he opened the door and said, ‘You been running from me,’” she recalls. “It was the beginning of our relationship.”
The two were married Sept. 10, 1999. He proposed to her on the phone.
“I couldn’t believe it. Is that how you ask? I wanted to tell him my answer later but he insisted I answer now, and I said yes,” she recalls. “Later, when he came home with a ring, he got on his knee right as soon as he walked in the door.”
Almost nine years later, Avonti waited anxiously at Louisville International Airport for her husband’s flight from Atlanta to land. She knew if her husband, who spent day and night recording, was sick enough to return home early, it was worth a little bit of worrying.
He was rolled to the car in a wheelchair.
“I put him in the car, he looked really weak,” she says. “I thought it was from not eating or drinking because he looked so dehydrated.”
Within 13 hours, Stephen Garrett would be dead in a Louisville hospital, to the utter shock of his family, fellow artists and fans. Now, a year later, his family is suing the hospital — one of the city’s largest healthcare providers — for malpractice, claiming a doctor’s negligence during a routine procedure caused the death of the 33-year-old, one of hip-hop’s emerging talents.
The cranberry vodka swirled and flirted with the idea of spilling over the brim as I bounced around the dance floor. All the gyrating bodies offered a humidity that made the cooler temperature near the bar inviting. Surrounded by framed plaques of records that Static/Major helped write or produce, a photographer snaps all sorts of vogue poses in front of an airbrushed backdrop of a white Bentley under a headline: “Static/Major Grammy Party,” sprayed in bright bubble letters across the top.
Hosted by Big Don and MJ Entertainment, one of Louisville’s premier urban promoters, along with Red Carpet Events and ATM Music Group, tonight’s party at club Ice Breakers is the official celebration of Static’s breakthrough: three posthumous Grammy nominations for best song, best rap album and best album. Static co-wrote Lil Wayne’s “Lollipop,” one of the biggest hits of 2008.
The club hoppers packing Ice Breakers tonight are a mix of diehard fans and personal friends, who gladly dig into their wallets, purses and pockets and hand over some recession dollars for the chance to commiserate a Louisville icon as best they know how. Sitting behind the red-rope line in one of the booths designated VIP for local promoters, event planners and radio personalities, it’s an occasion to celebrate.
“We have a shallow crowd,” a promoter sitting to my left yells in my ear. “These would-be celebrities are drug dealers, MSD workers and Humana bitches, living off loans — I like this crowd.”
Decked out in enveloping bug-eye shades and a suit coat over a hip T-shirt, dress shoes shining in contrast to his chalk-dusted jeans, the man bestows more nightclub expertise: Louisville’s urban nightlife scene is growing, he says, but patrons often expect something for nothing, even on an occasion in remembrance of Static/Major, the most successful hip-hop/R&B star to come out of the city. Too many people are asking for a discount or free pass, he says.
“People want this to be Atlanta and have free drinks all night without paying $25,” he moans, pointing to a woman whose body oozes out of a tight Baby Phat dress. “This is a hood crowd, but at least they’re spending money tonight.”
A year ago Static’s career was accelerating. Weeks before his untimely death, the singer, songwriter and producer was himself immersed in the elusive luxuries of hip-hop’s artificial excess.
Wearing a Versace suit, flaunting champagne bottles, video vixens and a stretch Hummer limo, Static was co-starring in the music video for “Lollipop,” the first single off Lil Wayne’s multi-platinum album Tha Carter III. The crossover hit transformed Lil Wayne from rap star to pop icon, and the track leapfrogged up the charts until it reached its peak at certified quadruple platinum during the first half of 2008. Another chart-topping song under Static’s belt, many believed it was the beginning of his own rising solo career.
When the video shoot for “Lollipop” wrapped in Las Vegas, Static flew home and performed at a Valentine’s Day cabaret last February at the Mellwood Arts Center, organized by Dajuan Bibb, co-owner of Big Don & MJ Entertainment and a childhood friend of Garrett’s.
Static complained about being a little sick. He had been trying to shake a cough since the “Lollipop” shoot, Bibb remembers. Nonetheless, he was pumped about performing in front of a hometown crowd.
“The one thing about Static was he kept himself connected to the streets of Louisville,” says Herlon Robinson, who used to host a radio show on Magic 101.3-FM. “He had a studio here and a family here. He kept that local mentality, which didn’t cripple him but allowed him to say, this is where I’m from and I’m not ashamed. These are my people.”
Under the tutelage of Jodeci’s Devante Swing, Static first appeared on the national stage with Smoke E. Digglera and Digital Black as the group Playa, which released their only album, Cheers 2 U, in 1997. The group was able to shuttle past the Kentucky stereotype of straw hats and shoeless hillbillies, which continues to poke at many other urban artists, in large part because they were an R&B group with versatility.
“They learned how to write for themselves and everyone else,” Robinson says. “They showed the music world their worth and importance. A lot of artists are just one-dimensional. All they know is the booth, and you have to know more because it is a business, but Playa covered it all.”
The Valentine’s cabaret would be Static’s final live performance.
A week after the cabaret, the studio hermit who was known to spend hours writing and harmonizing was forced to cancel an entire day’s session. The cough he complained about earlier was persistent and getting worse. With a hoarse voice Static called home to his wife complaining about dizziness and aches. He told Avonti he was unable to open his right eye and had been bed-bound most of the day.
Static reluctantly went to Dekalb Medical, a hospital located in Decatur, Ga., a suburb of Atlanta. There, he told Avonti, doctors said he had acid reflux. He returned to Louisville still wary about checking in for medical treatment.
Stephen was afraid of hospitals. His sister Melynda, a classmate of Bibb at Waggener High School, died in one. When Stephen was 19 years old, Melynda passed away from a heart condition, Bibb says. He never shook the idea that medical care somehow contributed to her death.
“Stephen always said hospitals kill people,” Bibb says. “No question that was one of the biggest things for him, he didn’t like doctors or hospitals. He was determined that they killed his sister and said so repeatedly.”
But flu-like symptoms persisted. When they spoke on the phone, Avonti noticed his speech was slightly slurred. He cut short the finishing touches on his debut solo album, Suppertime, which was set for release in early 2008, to ride the wave of success from “Lollipop.”
At home in Louisville, Stephen’s labored breathing woke Avonti in the middle of the night. She thought he was choking. Avonti convinced her husband he needed to check into the nearest hospital.
Stephen Garrett checked into Baptist Hospital East Feb. 25, 2008, and after a number of tests was diagnosed with a rare condition called myasthenia gravis, an autoimmune disorder with hallmark symptoms of muscle weakness and fatigue. Doctors recommended a procedure called plasmapheresis, a treatment similar to dialysis that removes toxins from the blood using an implanted catheter as a central line through the neck and into the chest area.
Avonti remembers a neurologist saying Stephen should feel better within 24 hours. The plan was to insert the catheter that night and monitor him until surgery the next morning, she says.
“I’m not feeling them fucking with my arteries,” Stephen told Avonti.
Before asking that his wife go home to retrieve some things from a list he prepared, Stephen asked to see his children (he had three with Avonti, one from a previous relationship and he cared for his sister’s child). Holding their 4-year-old daughter Makari in his lap, he gazed into her eyes and caressed her cheek. Stephen began to cry. The little girl asked her daddy why was he crying.
“He said no reason, but that everything is going to be OK,” Avonti remembers. “Then the nurse came in and cleared the room.”
Walking down the hallway, Avonti felt the urge to run back in the room. She pulled the curtain and grabbed Stephen’s hand. He was still crying.
“He told me it was OK and to go home and get everything off that list,” she says. “I gave him a kiss and told him I loved him.”
Back at home Avonti hadn’t finished packing when her cell phone rang. She remembers Stephen’s mother, Edith Raymond, was crying on the other end. She told Avonti that Stephen passed out and they couldn’t get him to wake up.
Avonti threw the bag over her shoulder and sped out the door. Her mind racing, she allowed herself comfort at first, thinking Stephen had just gotten scared and passed out due to his fear of hospitals.
The elevator doors opened and she was face-to-face with the chaplain.
“The doctors are trying to get a heartbeat,” she told Avonti.
“I kept screaming, ‘What happened? Why are you here?’ and I scooted the chaplain to the side and ran to Stephen’s mother. She said she heard Stephen saying something was hurting and they called the nurse.”
Standing in the hallway, Avonti remembers hearing violent grunts and thrusts from her husband’s room as doctors tried to resuscitate him, an effort that lasted an hour and a half, she says.
Eventually, she found her way inside the room.
“I am standing beside the bed, pleading with him to keep fighting. Please baby fight,” she says. “But he was dead. He had been dead.”
Few media outlets paid much attention to the cause of Stephen’s sudden death, and instead focused more on the personality of the songwriter. The glib coverage said, among other things, he died due to complications from a medical condition. The autopsy report, had anyone bothered to look, is more specific: “Death in this case is attributed to complications associated with dialysis catheter placement.”
Though the plasmapheresis treatment he received is considered necessary and helpful, like any therapy, there are potential risks and complications. For instance, an incorrect insertion of the large central line poses grave risks that can lead to excessive bleeding or lung puncture depending on where the catheter is located. Stephen’s autopsy report says he died due to respiratory arrest after the removal of the catheter, and the medical examiner noted he complained about pain once it was inserted, saying there was “something wrong.”
In August, Avonti filed a lawsuit against Baptist Hospital East and Dr. Dean J. Wickel, the chief surgeon who recommended and administered Stephen’s treatment. The suit alleges that medical negligence on the part of the hospital and doctor caused Stephen’s death, and demands a jury judgment for compensatory and punitive damages, along with costs associated with pain and suffering.
“When a young fellow like Stephen goes in and needs the treatment he’s suppose to have, death is not one of the things you can reasonably expect,” Larry Franklin, the attorney representing Stephen’s family, says. “Right now we’re interested in the incident reports, depositions and what type of investigation they conducted.”
The depositions of the radiologist and nurse who attended to Stephen shed light on what happened the day he died. In a sworn statement, nurse Diane Richards recalls that once the catheter was placed, he became upset and uncomfortable.
“He was trying to talk more than he had before,” Richards said. “I think I documented that he was saying, ‘This hurts, this hurts too much. There’s something wrong in my organs,’ which was unusual.”
She had never heard anyone complain about internal organ pain due to catheter placement before, and attempted to reposition Stephen to make him more comfortable. It made little difference. Even though Richards said she had never had a patient with his condition or recommended treatment before, the radiologist had already performed X-rays on Stephen’s chest to ensure the catheter was placed correctly. Later, however, Dr. Wickel called Richards, telling the nurse the line was in the wrong place. He instructed her to remove it, according to her testimony.
Richards explained to Stephen that she was preparing to remove the catheter, and said he was relieved. But as she pulled the line from Stephen’s neck, he began losing consciousness. By the time it was removed, he had passed out. He would not regain consciousness.
“We are very sorry about the death of Mr. Garrett. We are regretful when any patient passes away at our hospital,” Susan Phillips, an attorney for Baptist Hospital East, says. “However, we feel that we provided excellent care to Mr. Garrett.”
Phillips says she is not at liberty to discuss the details of Stephen’s care or condition, or the lawsuit itself. LEO Weekly contacted Dr. Wickel’s attorney, but he was unavailable for comment. According to records obtained from the Kentucky Board of Medical Licensure through the state’s Open Records Act, Dr. Wickel is in good standing with the state, and the agency’s legal department reports that no disciplinary action has been taken against him.
If the judgment is in favor of the plaintiffs, any amount that would be awarded to the Garrett family would be left to the discretion of the jury. Given Stephen’s earning potential, which is still being calculated, it could be one of the largest civil lawsuits in Kentucky history, Franklin says.
Wearing a fuzzy fur coat, Digital Black jumps onstage, seizes the mic and launches into “Cheers 2 U,” Playa’s hit track. The celebration at Ice Breakers is winding down, but everyone still sings along as DJ Kaos plays as much of Static’s catalog as possible. The crowd — a field of arms waving slowly and in unison — moves to grasp each second.
Among songwriters, Static/Major has been compared to R. Kelly and Kenneth “Babyface” Edmunds, with a style and voice that borrows from an old quartet format fused with a modern sound that fellow musicians go crazy for. Using suggestive lyrics instead of clumsy lines, the hits include a who’s who among hip-hop and R&B: Ginuwine’s “Pony” and “So Anxious”; Aaliyah’s “Try Again,” “We Need a Resolution” and “Rock the Boat”; Jay-Z’s “Change the Game”; and Jamie Foxx’s “Can I Take U Home.”
Static often bragged no one could hold a candle to his harmonies.
The work ethic made him an asset inside the music industry to superstars looking for that pop hit, and a trustworthy producer among record executives.
Louise West, Static’s longtime business manager, says a few years ago, Craig Kallman, president and CEO of Atlantic Records, called Static. He was looking for the right song for Pretty Ricky, a new R&B group the label had just signed. Atlantic had spent quite a bit of money on the group, but wasn’t sure if they had the right producer.
“They wanted Static to work with Pretty Ricky. They had that much confidence in Static’s creative abilities,” West says. “With others he helped revamp the whole album, and it ended up going platinum.”
Marcus Ramone Cooper, or “Pleasure P,” a former member of Pretty Ricky, says he learned a lot from Static during a short period of working with him — mainly to remain focused enough to become your own hit factory.
“Static had just a great vibe about him,” he says. “Over time he became a friend and brother. He taught me everything as far as singing: how to organize music, how to hear it and write it.”
West says Static was always working on material and probably has hundreds of recorded songs waiting to be released. Being a studio hermit paid off. It was how “Lollipop” was born.
“Wayne and Static knew each other in passing for many years,” she says. “They ran into each other at a studio and Static remarked, ‘I have the perfect song for you.’ Static told Wayne the one thing his album didn’t have was a pop song. He played it and Lil Wayne told them to hold the presses, he found his first single.”
Putting Louisville on the map is a phrase in the local hip-hop community that just about every artist has aspired to own, but if anyone can claim it, certainly Static remains at the fore. Native Barber, a Louisville hip-hop artist who was close with Stephen, says his death was a personal and professional loss: Static appears several times on Native’s latest mix tape, Black Super Hero. The two toured together when Static was singing with Playa — that group was a part of a camp called the Swing Mob, early ’90s artists who defined a particular sound and included Missy Elliot and producer Timbaland, among others.
“When it first happened I wrote myself off after his death, to put it bluntly,” he says. “He went this far and got this success and had it snatched from him — what’s the point, really? But my guy stood by when a lot of people counted me out. He said it’s never too late. It’s never too late to get that hit record, either.”
Rooted in Louisville, a city where hip-hop tastes, styles and performances are best described as a mutt of regional influences, Static brought the city’s mix of Midwestern sound with a pinch of Southern grit to the forefront.
“Static put that mix in a bottle and gave it to the world,” Native says. “The average person in Louisville heard these songs and never knew he wrote it. Maybe it’s a ‘I don’t believe it until I see it’ attitude here.”
Last month, Static/Major won a Grammy for best rap song, for co-writing credits on “Lollipop.” The trophy won’t arrive until a few weeks from now, but Avonti was able to deliver a brief speech in honor of her husband during the pre-show of the awards ceremony. Traveling to Los Angeles for the Grammys was bittersweet: While it was worth the trip to see her husband recognized for his talent, the joy empties easily.
“Louisville lost a legend and I lost my husband, and it breaks my heart,” she says. “They would say he’s just a rapper and I have had to tell people many times that he did a lot more things. He was a lyricist. He was a family guy. He was Stephen.”
Avonti says in the meantime she is hoping to get Static’s album, Suppertime, released later this year. The album’s title references his hunger to break out in the music business, and ultimately shows that he did — even though now it resonates in a different way, because he was never really able to eat and savor the success.
Avonti remembers times Stephen would wake her up in the middle of the night with a harmony in his head and a tape recorder by the bed.
“Stephen had a natural gift from God. I never saw him write a song with an ink pen. There would be times he was in the studio and he would listen to the track and say it would tell him what to write,” she says. “Have you ever had someone in your life you cannot explain? There are not enough words.”