Viral Rapper Stitches: Some Truth, Many Questions

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The first major addition to the Stitches persona was, of course, the stitched smile around his lips, which he says was created by Steve Santacruz, owner of Empire Tattoos, a gritty shop on Washington Avenue. "Steve has been my boy for a long time," he says.

Photos of the new ink popped up on Alexander Jr.'s Instagram feed in September 2012, three months after little brother had turned 17. The following month, he stopped using the Lil Phill handle on Twitter and deleted the rest of his first incarnation's social media presence. Before the year ended, he had added the AK-47 tat to his face.

He tells New Times the stitches tattoo is a metaphor for his strong belief in the old rap adage that "snitches get stitches." The rifle was just done on a whim. "It's my favorite gun," he says.

Katsabanis also started flaunting his money. He would hang around South Beach, regularly cruising into the Whole Foods at Alton Road and Tenth Street for a six-dollar juice flanked by tough-looking older guys and decked out in jewelry, says one employee of the grocery store who didn't want to be named.

"I figured he was a hustler — he always pulled up in nice cars, like a Mercedes," the employee says. "He was a young kid with a lot of shit that young kids don't usually have."

Around that time, Katsabanis befriended Leonel Carrera, an amateur boxer and a member of Chicago's Almighty Imperial Gangsters Nation. Carrera, who is six years older than Katsabanis and goes by the social media handle "Leovelli," had been convicted of armed carjacking in 2005 and, seven years later, added convictions for grand theft and dealing in stolen property. He's facing six other felony charges, including battery on a law enforcement officer and strong-arm robbery.

"He's my boy, my best friend," Katsabanis boasts to New Times and says he has trained with Carrera for years. "I'm a brawler," he adds. "Trust me."

Carrera is the guy wearing the Pinhead mask in the "Brick in Yo Face" video. When the clip went viral, he linked to it on his Facebook page and wrote, "ma lil brotha making history."

At SoBe's Empire Tattoos, Katsabanis also met Karlen Moodliyar, a Miami R&B singer known as "Pretti Sly." With his GQ looks and tattoos from his ankles to his neck, Pretti Sly owns a top modeling agency, lives in a Miami Beach mansion, and rides around town in a pearl-white Bentley.

After hearing Katsabanis rap, Pretti Sly introduced him to Circle House's Lewis, who was confounded. "Here's this kid with a Mohawk and a bunch of tattoos," Lewis says. "I didn't know if he was crazy or cool. In time, I got to know him personally. He really has the passion. I wish most artists had his drive."

In the past year, Katsabanis has been to Circle House Studios at least ten times, Lewis says.

Also, several tracks for his mixtape No Snitching Is My Statement were produced by Atlanta-based 808 Mafia and famed Miami hip-hop genius Scott Storch.

On October 31, 2012, Katsabanis married a petite brunet judicial assistant named Erica Duarte. At the time, he was 17 and she was 28. In 2008, she was a contestant on the first season of MTV's Paris Hilton's My New BFF.

In 2013, the couple had their first son, Rex. In mid-August, Erica gave birth to their second child, Rocco. On his Instagram, amid the images of him smoking weed and holding piles of cash and guns, Katsabanis sporadically posts photos of Rex, who is a Baby Gap model in the making with wide blue eyes and short brown hair. The captions reveal a softer side: "He is what I am most thankful for. #myson #champion."

"Being a dad is the greatest feeling," Katsabanis reveals. "It puts a real smile on my face every day. Nothing else does."

Asked if he felt it was appropriate to post pictures of his son next to drugs and guns, Katsabanis replies: "I don't give a shit."

Dressed in a black T-shirt, black shorts, and a black skull cap, Katsabanis is sitting on the ground against a chainlink fence. It's early afternoon June 25 outside a brown apartment building at the Pork 'n' Beans projects, and he's flanked by his bodyguard, a cameraman, and a tall, skinny rapper with dreads named M. Dinero.

Katsabanis and Dinero walk over to five young black men loitering outside a building who, after some negotiation, agree to appear in a video for a song called "Price Tag." The group gathers behind a rundown shed, and Katsabanis instructs the new extras to stand behind M. Dinero. Then he walks behind the cameraman and yells, "Action!"

Dinero begins a rap — "That boy working with the feds/Let's put a bounty on his head" — as the extras dance. After the scene is over, Katsabanis tells New Times: "I feel you shouldn't be a rapper if you are not going to rap about some true shit. Don't rap about someone else's life. If you worked at McDonald's, rap about that. Rap about how much you hated it. Don't rap about selling drugs and killing people when you have never done that a day in your life."

Katsabanis/Stitches kicked into overdrive at the beginning of 2014. In March, he legally trademarked the name "Stitches," and a month later, on April 25, his mixtape No Snitching Is My Statement was released for free downloads on various hip-hop sites. Three days later, the "Brick in Yo Face" video dropped on WorldStar-HipHop. Some scenes were shot on South Beach and others at Pork 'n' Beans.

The three-minute video followed the usual gangsta-rap plot line depicting a drug deal and thugs jumping around. The key distinction is Carrera in the Pinhead mask throwing white powder around a room like a maniac. Katsabanis says he's made a few thousand dollars from ads that play with the video on YouTube, but he won't discuss a specific dollar amount.

Katsabanis says he directs all his videos. "I've been doing everything on my own," he asserts. "I didn't have help from anybody. I probably spent 40 grand of my own money for studio time and shooting videos."

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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.