Viral Rapper Stitches: Some Truth, Many Questions

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Finally, a man wearing a Hellraiser Pinhead mask rips apart a package of white powder in an almost campy display of excess.

Since dropping his "Brick in Yo Face" video this past April 30, 19-year-old hip-hop artist Phillip Katsabanis — AKA Stitches — has become Miami's rapper of the moment. His gangster anthem has garnered more than 2 million Facebook shares, close to 13 million views on WorldStarHipHop, and gushing write-ups on well-known music websites like Complex and Noisey. Even South Beach's twin late-night palaces, LIV and Mansion, have given him the VIP treatment.

"He is one of the top five most-watched artists in Miami," says Abebe Lewis, co-owner of the legendary North Miami recording studio Circle House. "There are a lot of labels looking at him."

The rise of Stitches provides a blueprint for modern-day hip-hop myth-making. Almost overnight, Katsabanis went from being a suburban Kendall kid known as "Lil Phill" to a bona fide gangsta rapper. Though there's scant evidence to prove his claims of being a cocaine kingpin since he hit puberty, he created a viral reality that fed on the Magic City's reputation for drugs and violence, which began with Scarface's Tony Montana and continued through Rick Ross.

Over the past four months, New Times has spent time with the budding star in an attempt to pull back the curtain. While some of his claims are true, others seem inflated. Moreover, he recently lost some street credibility when claims surfaced that he wears fake jewelry and stages faux events like pretending to give away $10,000 to a lucky fan.

"Stitches is a fraud," says Al Davidi, a New York nightclub owner and jewelry-store owner known for selling gaudy pendants and chains to rappers. "He's abusing his viral fame."

Katsabanis brushes off the critics. "I don't give a damn what haters say about me," he seethes. "I know and my real fans know I am real."

It's a rainy afternoon in late June, long after the debut of "Brick in Yo Face," and Katsabanis is strolling through the showroom of the Collection, a swanky exotic-car dealership in Coral Gables. He's accompanied by a bald, muscular bodyguard with a bushy beard who wears a bulletproof vest and carries a concealed pistol. After inviting a New Times reporter here, the rapper boasts that he's going to buy a blue 2014 Maserati Ghibli, an Italian sports car that retails for around $66,000.

Standing close to six feet tall and barrel-chested, Stitches cuts an intimidating figure. In addition to the face tats, he sports ink on his neck, arms, and hands that features a menagerie of roses, musical notes, pinup girls, and jokers. Underneath the body art, he's a handsome young man with blue eyes and sandy-blond hair. He speaks in a deep baritone as he brags about the artists lining up to work with him. When a salesman wearing a black polo shirt and black slacks escorts Katsabanis to a waiting lounge, the rapper explains why he has a security detail. "When you blow up and get money, people are going to have hatred for you. I can't go out in public without someone trying me."

Since going viral, Katsabanis says he has concentrated on booking nightclub shows, making more videos, and cutting new tracks. He's released clips for "Mail" and "I'm Just a Gangsta," two songs from his debut No Snitching Is My Statement mixtape. He's amassed more than 730,000 followers on Instagram, his preferred social media application. (He doesn't have a Facebook account.) This past July, he performed at a nightclub in Tallahassee and for a stripper's birthday party at PT's strip club in Hialeah. The two gigs paid him roughly $20,000, he says.

WorldStarHipHop, the website where "Brick in Yo Face" blew up, has been described by its founder, Lee "Q" O'Denat, as "CNN of the ghetto." Since 2005, it's curated the work of many up-and-coming artists. "The big-label executives go on that website to see what is going on," notes Lewis, CEO of recording studio Circle House. "It offers the biggest profile when you are an independent artist."

When Katsabanis' song went viral on WorldStarHipHop, the only identifying phrase was "18 year old Unsigned Artist in Miami." People clicked and clicked. Within six days, "Brick in Yo Face" had racked up more than 6 million page views.

The week after "Brick in Yo Face" appeared, music journalists went wild but didn't question his incredible backstory. He said he sold his first cocaine brick at age 14 and then lived a lavish rapper lifestyle on South Beach. Drew Millard, editor of Vice-owned music site Noisey, wrote, "Before Stitches was Stitches... he was Lil Phill, a teenage drug dealer," adding that "Brick in Yo Face" 's "beat wheezes and lurches like a freight train as conducted by Godzilla." David Drake, a writer at the site Complex, added: "The song sounds like eight rails of cocaine mainlined while standing on top of a fighter jet."

Katsabanis fueled his own legend with cryptic interviews and songs about his alleged drug-dealing past. He rapped that he "met cocaine at the age of 11," and in May, Miami-based ESPN radio host Dan Le Batard invited him on the air. ("His video was so impossibly ridiculous and Miami and cartoonish," Le Batard tells New Times.) During the 11-minute session, Katsabanis wouldn't even tell Le Batard his real name.

When he met with New Times, Katsabanis stuck to his script. "Ain't nothing in my story fake," he asserted. "I promise you that."

See also: White People in Rap Music: A Five-Part History

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Francisco Alvarado was born in Nicaragua and grew up in Miami, giving him unique insight into the Magic City and all its dark corners. An investigative reporter with a knack for uncovering corruption, Alvarado made his bones as a staff writer at Miami New Times and remains in dogged pursuit of the next juicy story.
Allie Conti was a fellow at Miami New Times and a staff writer for New Times Broward-Palm Beach, where her writing won awards from the Florida Press Club and the Society of Professional Journalists. She's now the senior staff writer at Vice and a contributor to the New York Times, New York Magazine, and the Atlantic.