“Philadelphia banks are not hit by takeover teams very often, and with good reason: there are few ways out.” ~Duane Swierczynski, The Wheelman
It was nearly opening time at the PNC Bank on Rising Sun Avenue in the Olney section of North Philadelphia. As early pedestrians ambled past on the cold, foggy morning of Tuesday, January 2, 1996, the bank manager entered the low-rise building alone. At the SEPTA bus stop a few feet away, a pair of construction workers casually looked on. Wearing white hardhats, the two young men appeared to be simply sipping hot coffee, puffing on Newports and talking about the forthcoming blizzard. Except they weren’t.
Instead those two men — later identified as Christopher Roney, 26, and Mark Canty, 22 — were watching every move, waiting for the opportunity to bum rush the manager and rob the bank. On the streets of Philly, Roney was more popularly known by his professional hip-hop handle, Cool C. A hit song called “Glamorous Life” had made him a local celebrity back in 1989, but a lot had changed since then.
Canty was not famous, having been recently fired from a lunch-room gig at Albert Einstein Medical Center. But rounding out the motley trio was another familiar face: Warren McGlone, 26, who acted as the heist’s wheelman. McGlone was well known as a key figure in the Philly hip-hop scene, a chubby microphone sensation who called himself Steady B.
Canty carried a 9 millimeter and Roney a 380-caliber semi-automatic; both knew this branch had no security guard. When PNC’s first employee arrived, they pushed their way through the building’s doorway. The manager was forced to the floor while Canty took an employee to the back to access the vault. Having pulled off successful heists previously with the rappers, Canty surely anticipated a major payday. So what if it was supposed to snow? Later that day, it’d be raining green.
However, within moments of entering the PNC Bank, the silent alarm was tripped; the pair’s clumsily thought-out plan began to go haywire.
Riding solo in patrol car #2516, female Philadelphia police officer Lauretha Vaird, a former teacher’s aide who had joined the force nearly nine years prior, responded to the call. As Vaird stepped towards the bank door with her gun drawn, Canty reportedly screamed to Roney, “Here comes the heat!”
The Sound of Philadelphia
Back in the late 1980s, when hip-hop was still maturing into a commercial art form, Cool C and Steady B were ghetto superstars. They performed shows at Fairmount Park’s fabled plateau in West Philadelphia and had their 12-inches and albums stuffed into metal racks at Funk-O-Mart on Market Street. Having met when they were students at Overbrook High School, which Will Smith also attended, both were signed to local label Pop Art Records who, in turn, got them distribution and marketing deals with larger labels.
Although Steady B and Cool C were young boys, still teens when they signed on the dotted line, they were repping the region well, working as hard as their elders Lady B, Schoolly D and MC Breeze. “Those guys were the quintessential Philly rappers,” MK Asante, author of the Philly coming-of age-memoir Buck, says. “They had that Philly aggression and cockiness that just made them completely ours. Steady B came out with a song dissing LL Cool J [“I’ll Take Your Radio”], and Cool C made a track talking about the Juice Crew [“Juice Crew Dis”]. ”
Pop Art was owned by Lawrence Goodman and overseen by his brother, Dana. The label had previously released techno-funk singles by Galaxxy, disco-soul from Major Harris and early singles by Juice Crew comrades Roxanne Shanté and Biz Markie. In the 1970s, years before fictional gangster rapper-turned-music-mogul Lucious Lyon made Philadelphia rap fodder for culture vultures on Empire, Goodman had conceived the label with Ron Aikens while they served time at Graterford prison.
Located in West Philly on City Line Avenue, the small label soon became a hip-hop beacon in the brotherly love metropolis. Pop Art’s first forays into rap were Eddie D’s “Cold Cash Money” and Roxanne Shanté’s “Roxanne Revenge” in 1984. These led to a run of impactful releases from the label, which played an important role in the emerging rap marketplace. What Philadelphia International meant to soul in the 70s, Pop Art was to rap in the 80s.
“Hip-hop was still very much a singles medium back then, and Pop Art Records was more influential than they’re given credit for,” Rolling Stone writer and pop music historian Jesse Serwer explains. In 2008, he wrote about the rise and fall of the pioneering label in the “Philly Issue” of Wax Poetics. “When Marley Marl and those guys couldn’t get deals in New York City, they came to Philadelphia and signed with Pop Art. The Goodmans were street dudes, but they knew hip-hop.”
In 1986, after producer Marley Marl jumped ship and started Cold Chillin’ with his manager Tyrone “Fly Ty” Williams, Pop Art released a few hoagie-sized dis bombs aimed toward those bums in Queens. “This was back in the 80s,” Asante laughs, “when Philly was the wild wild west, and those guys were coming at Marley Marl, Craig G, coming at everybody. That’s that thing we Philly cats got, and I think people appreciated that about them. We had these guys representing where we was from, and that was special too. Steady B and Cool C both represented that Philly hustle mentality.”
Steady B, who was Goodman’s nephew, was the first to sign to the label, releasing the street hard and scratch heavy “Just Call Us Def” in 1985 — the self-proclaimed “b-boy genius,” along with his homie Grand Dragon K.D. were ready to explode. “Like a nuclear attack on the hip-hop crowd.” The b-side of the 12-inch single was the equally hard “Fly Shante,” a duet with Roxanne. That same year, souped-up off the fumes of teenaged fame and professional disdain for other rappers, he dropped the LL Cool J dis “Take Your Radio.” While Steady was a fan of the Kangol wearing rapper, Pop Art encouraged dis records, knowing it would inspire fans to pay attention. Dropping his album Bring the Beat Back a year later through Jive Records, Steady B was seen as a contender.
Pop Art and Steady B were on a mission to expose the flyness of their ‘hood. Along with DJ Tat Money and Three Times Dope, an artist/label collective came together called the Hilltop Hustlers — an homage to a former West Philly street gang from the 70s. Two years later, Steady teamed-up with his Jive label-mate, hip-hop icon KRS-One, who added his Bronx boogie to a remix of Steady’s single “Serious,” a super-catchy track from his third album Let the Hustlers Play.
During the same time period, Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, and Salt-N-Pepa were also signed to Pop Art. Legendary Philly rapper Schoolly D says, “In the beginning of Philly rap, it was just me and MC Breeze putting out records, but what the Goodmans were doing was completely different. Pop Art wasn’t soft, but they had a way of taking the hardcore and making it radio friendly. I’d known Steady B first, back when he was MC Boob; later, we performed a few times in the Midwest together: Chicago, Detroit, Ohio.”
After appearing on several Three Times Dope records, Cool C’s first official release was the 1988 single “C Is Cool,” produced by Steady B and Goodman. The already-veteran rapper Steady wasn’t shy about sharing his expertise behind the mic as he guided Cool C through the studio process. Already close friends, Steady B and Cool C grew tighter in the lab as they worked towards the goal of being the hottest team in hip-hop.
With their eyes on the prize, the following year Cool C’s infectious single “Glamorous Life,” was christened the soundtrack for the city. As the first single released from his debut album I Gotta Habit, the fun and funky track soon became a bonafide anthem. Corner boys, B-girls, break dancers and party people listening to Lady B’s “Street Beat” show on Power 99 all embraced his hedonistic braggadocio over a Bobby Byrd sample.
“That song was so awesome,” remembers the trailblazing rapper and popular radio personality Lady B. “Back then, Cool C was just a fun-loving kid who loved hip-hop. Back then, everyone in Philly was into representing their neighborhood. With me coming from West Philly, I’m an original Hilltopper. I thought the whole crew was very creative, but, when the Goodman brothers got Cool C signed to a major [Atlantic Records], that was big.”
Hiring Lionel Martin, perhaps the most popular urban music video director during that era, guaranteed the song would be heard outside of the MC’s hometown. “Although Cool C was on Atlantic, it was Lawrence Goodman who hired me to shoot the video and paid me,” Martin says from his home in California. He and his business partner Ralph McDaniels operated the pioneering urban video production company Classic Concepts. Martin adds, “Cool C was a very nice, polite young man.”
Later, Martin also crafted clips for Philly acts Boyz II Men, Da Youngstas and Jill Scott. “People always ask if the young girl in the video is Jill Scott, but I’m 99 percent sure that it isn’t. She never mentioned when we worked together.” Still, the best-kept secret about “The Glamorous Life” was that it wasn’t even shot in Philly, but in the pre-gentrification era Meat Packing District in New York City. “We put up these fake street 60th and Lansdowne signs, but we were really on the docks in Manhattan.”
Precluding Puffy’s “well-dressed playa” aesthetic by a few years, Cool C’s fashionable swag stood out on stage, in press photos and videos. Clad in fresh-pressed Adidas track suits, truck jewelry and the coolest, cleanest kicks, C was always sharp, perpetually on point.
“When it came to fashion, he was slick,” Schoolly D recalls. Seven years older than Cool C, Schoolly’s seminal 1985 single “P.S.K. What Does It Mean?” originated “gangsta rap” as a genre. “I was closer to Cool C, because I used to see him in some of those after-hours spots. You know, those open-at-three-in-the-morning kind of places. We all had tailors back then who made us suits, and Cool C was into the flashy fashions. But when the 90s came, all of that changed.”
Things certainly had changed for the former Pop Art golden boy, whose 1990 follow-up album Life in the Ghetto scored less than impressive sales, leading to him being dropped from Atlantic. In 1993, along with Steady B’s buddy DJ Ultimate Eaze, the trio formed a crew called C.E.B and released their only album Countin’ Endless Bank on Ruffhouse Records. The group’s first single, “Get the Point,” portrayed them as gangster boogie boys maxing at the barbershop and getting locked down.
Cool C’s new shaved-head-and-prison-fatigues look was in keeping with the hard-times grimy image of Wu-Tang, Onyx and Gang Starr. But for many, the new steez just didn’t look right, it felt forced. The record sold less than 15,000 copies. Ironically, considering their future forays, “Get the Point” sampled the Honey Cone’s 1971 smash “Want Ads,” which opens with the singer wailing, “Help, I’ve been robbed… stick-up, highway robbery.”
Dog Day Afternoon
That January morning at PNC Bank, without pausing to think about past glories or future hustles, Roney’s concern instantly became all about trying to escape the approaching police officer. Crouched behind the door, he saw her blue uniform coming closer. Looking at the sturdy, round-faced woman, he didn’t see a hardworking mother with two adoring sons (Stephen and Michael, then 11 and 17), who took care of her aging parents, loved jazz and cooking. All he saw was an obstacle — a bitch in his way.
“Don’t worry, I’ll take care of her,” he yelled back, firing from his .380-caliber semi-automatic. In that moment, time froze. The single bullet exploded into Vaird’s chest, piercing her liver and heart. Her blood spilled, and she fell to floor. After exchanging gunfire with another officer, Roney frantically escaped with McGlone in a green van. Two guns were left at the scene. So was Canty. The entire incident was captured by surveillance cameras.
Officer Vaird, who worked out of the 25th Precinct, was taken to St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children, where she was pronounced dead at 9:56 a.m. Vaird was the first female cop killed in the line of duty in Philadelphia. In another bank across town, her parents heard of their daughter’s death from a television set. With angry police vowing swift vengeance, the rappers went on the lam.
Like desperate characters from the pages of a David Goodis pulp novel, McGlone and Roney raced down narrow alleyways, crept along darkened streets, dodged in the shadows of row-houses that, like the two of them, had seen better days. They nervously waited, pondering what should be their next move.
Three days later, both men were in police custody. McGlone confessed, dropping dime on both his partners in crime. Although Roney turned himself in, he professed to be innocent, and his lawyer A. Charles Peruto Jr. refused to allow him to be questioned. Roney’s mother later claimed that he’d been home, eating breakfast with her when the crimes occurred. Canty was arrested two weeks later in Maryland.
When the anticipated winter storm hit that first month of ‘96, Philadelphia was blanketed with whiteness. Officer Vaird’s funeral was held on Jan. 11, after being delayed twice due to the wicked weather. Hundreds of politicians, police officers and citizens packed into Mount Airy Church of God in Christ on Ogontz Avenue to say goodbye and to support the Vaird family. Dressed in full uniform, Vaird lay in rest with gloves as white as the powdery snow stuck to the church’s stained-glass windows.
All these years later, Philly folks still question what brought Cool C and Steady B to the point of armed robbery. Were they in debt to drug dealers? Were they stealing funds to advance their recording career? Were they simply desperate to maintain their Big Willie images? While it may feel difficult to get a regular nine-to-five after tasting hip-hop fame, many old school rappers have done it. Cool C and Steady B made a different choice.
Philly-based alternative rap/rockers G. Love & Special Sauce included a dedication to the fallen officer on their third album, 1997’s Yeah It’s That Easy, titled “Slipped Away (The Ballad of Lauretha Vaird).” “I wrote that song differently than anything before or since,” Garrett Dutton, the group’s G. Love, says 18 years later. Told from the perspective of one of Vaird’s children, the track is a haunting retelling, with G. Love mournfully singing in its final verse:
The gangsters killed our mother dead / All is lost from our family / They tried to save our mom in vain / She drowned in blood, and she was not saved.
Having grown-up in Philly, Dutton was a young hip-hop fan in the 1980s listening to Lady B spin Steady B and Cool C records on the radio. “I researched the whole story, read all the articles I could and then just tried to figure it out,” he maintains. “I feel we told the story that needed to be told. Here were these two famous MCs who’d been a part of my life, and I was like, ‘What happened to those guys that they went from being stars to robbing banks?’ Meanwhile, this policewoman drops off her kids at school, goes to work and never comes back home. It was tragic.”
Philadelphia transplant Boo Rosario’s mother was a PPD officer at the time, despite his own occasional walks on the wild side. “It hit me from both sides, because the lady cop they shot was a friend of my mother. That was her buddy buddy,” he says. “When it started to become known who was behind the bank robbery and cop killing, it was crazy. Everybody thought they were getting it as rappers, because we thought everybody who was signed got money, but apparently not. It was a façade.”
In the 1980s, when Cool C and Steady B were coming of age on those mean streets, West Philadelphia was transforming from the gang era into the crack era. “Back in the day, in the 60s and 70s, there was the Moon Gang and others who called themselves protecting their neighborhoods,” Gene Harris, a local contractor, explained. “But as they got older, a lot of the old gang members became drug addicts. First it was heroin, and then later it was crack. There were a lot of small shops in the area like barbershops, beauty salons and grocery stores, but, by the mid-80s, as crack and guns became more widespread, a lot of the businesses were chased away.”
In the middle of the chaos was Overbrook High. The stately school, built in 1934, has alumni that includes basketball icon Wilt Chamberlain and members of the soulful Delfonics. Lifelong Philly resident Courtney Carter attended classes there with Steady B and Cool C, and knew them both well. “I’d known Steady B since we were in middle school, but me and Cool C became friends in ninth grade when he was a starter on the varsity basketball team. He was so nice on the court.” Off the court, both Steady B and Cool C, as well as their schoolmate Fresh Prince, performed the Miss Overbrook Pageant and other local venues in West Philly.
Philadelphia turntable master DJ Cash Money, winner of the New Music Seminar DJ Battle in 1987, is widely credited with pioneering the art of spinning. “Whenever the early days of rap is discussed, Philly is often written out,” Cash Money says. “It usually goes from New York to Los Angeles to Atlanta. I’m like, really, Atlanta wasn’t even making any doggone rap back then.” Still dwelling in the city, Cash remembers those long gone nights when he shared the bill with the Hilltop Hustlers crew, performing on stage at the Wynn Ballroom, the Spectrum or at Lady B’s classic After Midnight jams. “In Philly, there might’ve been only five of us making noise outside of the city, and Steady B and Cool C were two of them. Those guys were pillars.”
Filmmaker, animator and former Source magazine cartoonist Tramp Daly grew up hanging at the same spots. “Cool was a mild-mannered dude,” he says. “If something jumped off, he would jump in, but he wasn’t one to start any mess. Steady was always more grimy, always talking shit and causing beef. You just knew that one day it would get him in trouble.”
A Serious Aftermath
For nearly two decades, Christopher “Cool C” Roney has lived on death row at State Correctional Institution-Greene, a sprawling maximum security prison over 300 miles west of Philadelphia. Roney was sentenced to death for killing Officer Vaird during that fateful botched bank job. McGlone and Canty were convicted of second-degree murder and received life sentences.
In the years since Cool C’s 1996 conviction and incarceration, he has become one of the artists who have fallen into the margins of hip-hop history, practically forgotten. That is, for everyone outside the Delaware Valley, the picturesque riverside stretch fusing Philly with parts of Jersey through points south to Maryland. Writer Seandra Sims, raised 45 minutes outside of Philly in Wilmington, Delaware, recognized Cool C’s name when, in January 2006, the state of Pennsylvania dispensed a brief press release across its wire service announcing Roney’s pending March 9 execution date. Sims remembered the rapper’s golden years of fame and, like any good journalist, wanted to know more.
“I was shocked that they were in such desperation that they needed to go rob a bank, but I also felt very sad about Officer Vaird,” Sims says. “Cool C meant a lot of things to a lot of people, but he is still a real person to me.”
But within weeks of Sims seeing the press release, Cool C received a stay from Pennsylvania Judge Gary Glazer. Sims wrote Roney a letter, asking a series of questions for a proposed article to be published on AllHipHop.com. Although Cool C responded, answering Sims’ queries, the website also received a warning via cease-and-desist to not run the interview.
Eight years after the initial correspondence, the former rapper was again scheduled to be executed, this time on Jan. 6 of this year. But on December 5, 2014 Roney received a second stay, this time from Judge L. Felipe Restrepo. Sims, who currently does music publicity for Philly-based artists, says, “Reading the letter that Cool C wrote me, I could tell that he had grown-up, had matured. At this point, Cool C has been on death row for almost 20 years, and he is still fighting to live. He is a now a devout Muslim and seems to be on a spiritual path.”
On February 13, 2015 — two months after Cool C received his second stay — first-term Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf announced a moratorium on the state’s death penalty. “This moratorium is in no way an expression of sympathy for the guilty on death row, all of whom have been convicted of committing heinous crimes,” Wolf said in a statement. In addition to Cool C, there were 187 other inmates on death row at the time of the announcement.
There are obviously mixed feelings on the issue of Cool C’s potential fate, with some people arguing that his death won’t bring Officer Vaird back, while others have no remorse about a convicted cop killer paying the piper. “If they was short of money, they could’ve flipped some work,” HBO television writer and former Philly resident Carlito Rodriguez shrugs, “but instead they did some extreme shit and then bust their guns. In Philadelphia, things like that might be shocking, but it’s not surprising. Philadelphia is a tough town. Even the white boys know how to box.”
At the time that Steady B and Cool C were arrested, their label head Goodman told reporters, “I was totally outdone when I heard it. We couldn’t believe it. They’ve never been in trouble, to my knowledge.”
During the trial, it was revealed that other banks and businesses had been robbed by the trio, who, according to testimony, weren’t opposed to pistol-whipping folks just for kicks. “Although I can’t prove it, I swear those were the same guys who robbed a Holiday Inn where I used to work,” Philadelphia comedian Danny Ozark says. “Dude jumped over the front desk and was waving a gun in my face. They took $1,500 in ones and left, but when I saw that gun on television, I knew it had been them.”
Although some rap fans have always embraced the gangsta visions of their favorite MCs, beyond the big talk and thug-life lyricism, no one ever expects the voice blaring through the radio to actually be robbing banks and blasting police officers. While the records made by Cool C and Steady B still serve as the theme music to vibrant yesteryear memories, their cultural legacy is now soiled by the senselessness of the events that changed many lives one fateful winter morning.
And for what? The glamorous life? Getting it that way sure as hell wasn’t the Philly hustle in action. Not the real one, anyway. And if there’s one thing Philly’s always been, it’s real.
“I never knew those guys to be gangsters,” Lady B admits, taking a break from her afternoon show on Old School 100.3. “Knowing their upbringing, that wasn’t the cloth they were cut from. They let that materialistic side of hip-hop get the best of them. They just didn’t wake up that morning intending to kill a cop.”
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Michael A. Gonzales is a columnist at soulhead.com