The rapper leaves behind a legacy both on and off the stage
The Saturday morning before rapper Nes Wordz closed out ComFest in June, he shared a tearful conversation with friend and fellow MC Darrio Lamont, who began the day attending his father's funeral in Cleveland.
“I didn't have the best relationship with my father, but [Nes was] crying because he wants to be so close to his friends. [He] was like, ‘I'm upset I'm never going to have the chance to meet your father, because you're my brother and I want to have the opportunity to meet all your parents,'” said Lamont, who met Nes in 2007 and joined him in concert at ComFest that night, completing the three-hour drive down I-71 South just moments before taking the stage. “He's that kind of guy. He'd give to a fault. Trying to give somebody a hand, he'd give a whole arm.”
In memory of his father's passing, Lamont requested Nes perform “If It's My Time,” a defiant, live-till-you're-gone track the rapper penned in remembrance of friend and activist MarShawn McCarrel, who died by suicide in February 2016.
For Nes, the ComFest performance capped a years-long stretch that had seen him rise from talented collaborator to a heralded solo act capable of enthralling a capacity crowd, many of whom rapped along to every word spit by the tall, lanky artist. Producer Jack “Tha Audio Unit” Burton later said that onstage that night it appeared clear to him that Nes had finally accepted what many in Columbus had long been telling him: He was, at an absolute minimum, the best rapper in the city.
Still, Nes had one more promise to keep. As his set wound down, he made eye contact with Lamont and said, “I got you.” At that point, Magna Media Group founder Demetrius “SupaNatra” Howard, a rapper and producer who doubled as Nes' official DJ, queued up “If It's My Time,” which the MC introduced with a short, characteristically bombastic speech. “If this is my last time performing,” he said, “I want to leave you with this.”
Less than 12 hours later Nes would be hospitalized with a head injury and a broken leg, and four days later he was dead, leaving behind a cloud of rumor and speculation that has persisted for months.
Nes Wordz was born Sheron Colbert on Nov. 16, 1985, at St. Vincent Mercy Medical Center in Toledo, Ohio, to 19-year-old, first-time parents Harold Colbert and Tracy Shirley.
According to Harold, Nes was born with an innate talent for and appreciation of music. Among the elder Colbert's possessions is a photograph of his son at age 3, taken as he stood on the bed in his father's dorm room at Central State University and rapped along to LL Cool J.
During the months Nes was in the womb, his father would regularly place headphones on Shirley's belly, playing songs by artists such as Earth, Wind & Fire, Average White Band and Spyro Gyra. On those rare times Nes fussed as an infant, Shirley said music served as an instant balm.
“There was an after-school program around the corner from our house when he was in grade school, and that's where Sheron learned how to play the piano,” Harold said. “I remember his last recital, I asked him, ‘Are you going to take your sheet music?' He said, ‘No, I know it.' He got to the recital at the center, took his [jacket] flaps and laid them over the bench and played his music with no sheet music up there, and he didn't miss a note. He was 10 years old.”
Even as a toddler, things came quickly to Nes, according to his parents, who married in 1992 and divorced four years later. His mother said he started walking at 9 months old, and his advanced vocabulary allowed him to test into early entry for kindergarten at Bibleway Christian Academy in Toledo.
These smarts were matched by a natural curiosity about the world and an outgoing demeanor that exhibited itself from infancy.
“I can remember him being in the pediatrician's office, and the doctor had pantyhose on, and Sheron was caressing her pantyhose down her leg, because everyone was his friend,” said Shirley. “To say he was social was an understatement. He was always so relaxed in his own skin, and he always wanted to know the human condition.”
Those childhood years were tumultuous for Nes and his younger sister, Essence. The family moved often, usually related to the off-and-on nature of the relationship between the parents, which necessitated multiple school changes. In her early 20s, Shirley also struggled with drug and alcohol abuse, an addiction she traced to losing her mother and father three months apart while she was pregnant with Nes.
“I would get my kids together after school, get them to do their homework and make them dinner, and then all night I would drink and drug,” she said. “I did that for some years because it was hard to function, thinking, ‘I have to figure all this out for myself.'”
When Nes was 12, his father was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, an often disabling disease of the central nervous system. Confronted with the unfolding health crisis, Harold, who is in a wheelchair, withdrew from family life to tend to his illness, which left a deep impact on Nes.
“There was a time in my life where my father was so wrapped up in dealing with his condition that his job raising me became a secondary priority,” said Nes in a January 2017 Alive interview (he made amends with his father in his mid-20s). “I understood that, but I was still a kid, so I didn't give a fuck what I understood. I needed him, and that left a lot of resentment and anger in me for a long time.”
Around the time of his father's diagnosis, Nes, who derived his stage name by abbreviating his earliest rap moniker, Finesse the Wordsmith, performed his first concert at the Toledo venue The Junction during a hip-hop showcase, continuing a pattern established in infancy, where music functioned as both a pressure release and a calming agent. “Music is the one thing that never left me … and never judged me,” Nes said.
Following Nes' freshman year of high school, Shirley moved her children to Columbus, owing to a desire to experience a different city, as well as a need to find a new school for her son, who was expelled from Toledo School for the Arts for a prank that landed a teacher in the hospital. (Nes slipped ex-lax into an instructor's coffee, an act for which he expressed deep remorse and embarrassment while discussing the incident years later.)
In 2001, Nes enrolled at Walnut Ridge High School on the East Side, where his lyrical abilities made an immediate impression on classmates such as Speak Williams and Vada Azeem, who, at the time, rapped under the name L.e. for the Uncool. In Nes' first week, he squared off against Azeem in a celebrated lunchtime rap battle staged at an outdoor spot at Walnut Ridge known as “The Path,” where kids would sneak to smoke or throw dice, since teachers never patrolled the area.
“I had the name at the time,” said Azeem, whom the crowd voted as winner, though he now grudgingly concedes the victory to Nes. “He was saying crazy lines, and the crowd was going off. It was like they didn't want to give him props, but he was so good they had to.”
The two became immediate friends, joining classmate Deron Arnold in hip-hop trio the Thoroughbreds and connecting over interests they largely kept secret from the rest of the school.
“We bonded because he was a hood dude from the ghetto and wrapped up in gang activity, but behind closed doors we were comic book geeks. We both skateboarded. We had these common interests we couldn't let the homies know we had,” Azeem said.
The two even started a book exchange, trading novels such as “Things Fall Apart” by Chinua Achebe and “The Souls of Black Folk” by W.E.B. Du Bois, and Azeem credits the advanced vocabulary the two flashed in their rhymes to the books they digested in secret.
While in high school, Nes also connected with Chad “C10” Tennant, a Walnut Ridge alum and part of the hip-hop collective Omnibreed. Through Tennant, Nes was introduced to Kid Magic, a former DJ who ran a recording studio out of the attic of his Oakland Park home, which is where the rapper recorded his first studio tracks.
“I didn't realize how young he was at the time, but when I picked him up to go to the studio, I had to go into the home and get permission from his mother,” Tennant said. “The first solo record he recorded was called ‘Spit These Lines.' [Being in the studio] was like second nature. It just came to him.”
Nes' talents so impressed Kid Magic that he offered to record future sessions free of charge. “Some MCs just have that voice that grabs you,” Kid Magic said.
During Nes' second year at Walnut Ridge, he met his wife, Lorena Colbert, telling a friend, “I'm going to marry her,” which he did a decade later, in 2012. Shortly after the two started dating, they became high school-aged parents to a son, Daylon.
“When I found out [I was pregnant], I had a piece of paper from the Health Department, and we had eighth period together, so I put the paper on his desk and he started laughing and the teacher ended up kicking him out of class,” said Lorena. (The couple would go on to have three more children together, sons King and Zion and daughter Cadence; the two remained legally married through Nes' death even though friends and family members said they separated years earlier.) “I see him after class and I'm like, ‘That's not really a response. What are we going to do?' … We decided we wanted to have a family.”
As Nes' blood family grew, so did his musical family. In 2002, he joined Jack Burton in Takeover Gang, a hip-hop collective 20-odd strong.
“He felt like he needed that group around him. I remember him telling me he wasn't confident in himself — that he didn't have the ‘it' factor to be his own artist until he learned more,” said rapper Dominique Larue.
“A lot of people perceived it as, ‘Man, when are you going to do your own thing?' It wasn't that. It was that he understood it was not his time yet,” said Fillmore “Philly P” Neal, who joined Nes on a collaborative full-length, The Suffocation, recorded over the course of three days in 2010. “He didn't know how he wanted to be seen as an artist with the whole world looking at him.”
Though Nes exuded confidence everywhere from the recording studio to the basketball court, where he displayed a skillset reminiscent of those graying, fundamentally sound YMCA players who effortlessly drop flat-footed bank shots because they've so studied the angles of the game, there were times he struggled to keep his emotions in check. He dealt with anger issues, acute stress disorder and depression, and later in life he was prescribed medication for bipolar disorder, according to three people interviewed.
“I felt like I failed him, in a way, because I knew he was dealing with a lot of the same things I was, even mentally,” said Azeem. “Maybe I was just able to tuck it away better, so I always had it in my head, like, ‘Nes, if I can deal with this stuff, you can deal with it, too. Everyone goes through this.' But, in reality, everyone does not go through this.”
These feelings intensified following the 2016 death of McCarrel, as well as the passing of friend and producer Donte Moorer, aka Te'Mo of One Hood, who was shot and killed in South Linden in March.
“[Nes] would call in the middle of the night and tell me he was waking up with cold sweats,” Lamont said. “He wondered about his mental health. He was afraid he was schizophrenic. He'd say, ‘I want to know what [McCarrel and Moorer] are up to. I want to know if they are proud of me. Am I doing shit the right way?'”
“Sheron had so many friends die, and he was affected by it,” Shirley said. “I recall having to pull over to the side of the road and talk to him when MarShawn died. So many friends passed, cousins. He was like, ‘I'm an endangered species.'”
Still, it was rare for Nes to share these feelings with anyone outside of a few select friends and family members, and he tended to focus his energies on those around him, building connections with people that felt at once immediate and everlasting.
“He would see you for the first time and be like, ‘I know who you are. You went to this school. You was struggling and nobody was paying attention to you, but I saw you. And now look at you. And, just to let you know, bro, you inspire me,'” Lamont said. “And next thing you know you're like, ‘This is my best friend!'”
Nes was also funny and quick-witted, with a broad, warm smile and a comically pronounced know-it-all streak. “Even if Google said [he was wrong], he'd be like, ‘Fuck Google,'” Larue said, and laughed. He rarely let personal issues linger. If he had disagreements with anyone, it would be the first thing he'd address in conversation, and he was always quick to offer or accept forgiveness. Furthermore, when the situation required it, he would call on friends to do the right thing, especially if it was difficult.
“One night me and Nes were on tour, and I was drunk and took this girl's money out of her purse. After we left, I was like, ‘You want half of this?'” said rapper Pete “Copywrite” Nelson. “Nes was like, ‘No. Man, you can't go around doing this. You're fucking up your name. You're Copywrite. I don't know if that means anything to you, but there are people who look up to you.' … I gave him the money and he took it back to the girl's house because that's the kind of dude he was.”
At the same time, Nes never wanted to burden others with his problems. Instead, when these internal pressures built, the rapper typically sought relief in the recording booth. His 2013 solo debut, Since '85, for example, only took shape after Lorena noticed an increased tension in the home and called Burton to let him know that she was dropping Nes off at his studio with a suitcase of clothes. “And I told him, ‘Don't call me until his album is done,'” she said.
Early in his solo recording career, Nes sought affirmation after each vocal take. “What I learned, especially in the beginning, was he was really worried about what people thought of him,” Burton said.
As Nes progressed to Stupid Genius, from 2015, his confidence grew, and it showed in the material, which relied less on the clever wordplay he developed as a high school battle rapper and more on a raw, unvarnished honesty, with the MC telling his own story in increasingly straightforward language.
“When we came up, you had to have lines. That's how it was,” Azeem said. “Then it became to where he wanted to focus on what was real, and what was really going on with him.”
“If he wanted to say something, he'd flat out say it,” Nelson said. “He didn't have to put a bunch of seasoning on it.”
The album Nes was working toward prior to his death was intended to be a true-life telling of his own story, covering his evolution from a drug dealer and project-dweller to a family man and educator who, in the final years of his life, had discovered a new sense of self while teaching at the Columbus Arts & Technology Academy. The record was going to be called Sheron.
The members of Magna Media Group, including Lamont, Burton, Howard and Devin “Trek Manifest” Thomas, now view the events that unfolded over the course of ComFest Saturday in an eerie, prophetic light. Howard noted that the first thing the collective chanted after hitting the Off Ramp stage, in honor of Mobb Deep's Prodigy, who died earlier in the week, was, “When we say R.I. you say P.” In addition, all of the Magna members dressed in black, baseball-style jerseys, save for Nes, who requested he be able to wear all white, which lent him an almost divine appearance in contrast.
“It was like he was glowing the whole night,” said Tennant, who watched the set from the audience. “It's weird, because God will show you signs that are hard for the human mind to grasp. The last song he played was ‘If It's My Time,' and he was wearing all white, looking like an angel and heaven-sent.”
Following Nes' set, the entire crew moved to Three Sheets in the Brewery District, taking over the second floor of the bar, where they played billiards and celebrated a successful show. (Though Nes bought several rounds of shots, he largely refrained from drinking.) After last call, the party broke up, and Nes and Dominique Larue eventually made their way back to her North Side apartment.
At some point in the late-evening/early morning hours, according to Larue, Nes mentioned a need to get something out of the car, and just after he exited the apartment, she heard a loud thud. When Larue looked outside, all she could see were his feet at the bottom of the wooden staircase. Making her way downstairs, Larue discovered Nes on the ground. His teeth were clenched and his eyes were open, but he was snoring. Larue said she brought him to consciousness and helped him to her car, since Mount Carmel West hospital is located less than two miles from her apartment and Nes was uninsured at the time, making an ambulance ride a potentially expensive proposition.
The first day in the hospital, Nes was aware of his surroundings and could readily answer doctors' questions: “Do you know where you are? Do you know who the president is?” With things seemingly under control, Larue said Nes insisted she not tell anyone he was in the hospital, owing to his embarrassment and his distaste for causing concern.
“Hearing that is not a surprise to me,” said Fillmore Neal. “That sounds like something Nes would do.”
Part of this could be attributed to genetics. Shirley noted that there are still acquaintances in Toledo who don't know that Harold Colbert has multiple sclerosis because he would drive to pick up Nes and purposely never set foot outside of his van. “Harold isn't as forthcoming with information, and I think Sheron did take after that,” she said.
The second day in the hospital, however, increased swelling in Nes' brain led to growing concern from the hospital staff, and the rapper started to lose track of where he was, according to Larue. “He'd be like, ‘I'm in the barber shop.' No, you aren't. ‘That's right. I'm in the church.' No, you're not,” Larue said. “‘Oh, I know, I'm in the barber shop in the church.'” As calls went out that morning, visitation to the room surged, including fellow musicians, friends and family members.
“I'd never seen him weak or scared, and [in the hospital] he told me he was afraid, and I'd never seen that side of him,” Lorena Colbert said.
“It was a four-day nightmare,” Howard said. “Sunday your friend is missing. Monday your friend is in intensive care and it's like, ‘What the hell?' Tuesday he was in a coma. … Then I get the call Wednesday.”
On Wednesday, June 28, the morning Nes died, his mother shared the room with him, placing a hand on his chest and reassuring him that the family would find a way to carry forward in his absence.
“I said, ‘I know you're trying to stay because you think we're not going to be able to do it, but we'll be OK,' and his heart skipped a beat. ‘It's going to be hard, but I don't want you to think you need to take care of us. I'll miss you, but I love you with all my heart,' and his heart skipped another beat,” Shirley said. “I can still remember the last three beats on my right hand, and when I looked up at the clock it said 11:11 [a.m.]
“I sat there with him and cried. … I had about 45 minutes by myself and then I said, ‘I'll miss you and I love you.' When I left, a lady stopped me in the hallway and said it looked like I had a light around me, and I told her my son just passed away, and I'm sure it's him.”
In recent weeks, Magna's Howard, who also served as Nes' manager, released the rapper from his distribution deal with the company, returning the rights to his music to Lorena Colbert, which led to the albums temporarily being removed from streaming services.
“The status of his music is we're just looking for a different distribution company,” Lorena said. “At the same time, we want to keep everything still for a minute to get our footing. The music is forever. He's going to outlive all of us with it, so there's plenty of time for all that.”
Nes' legacy will also live on through his four children, whom Lamont described as an embodiment of various aspects of the rapper's personality. “There was like five different Sherons, and we see them in his kids,” he said. “Witty and funny, and then laid-back. Then one's a deep thinker and one's active and creative.”
Shortly after his father's death, Daylon even started rapping, making his live debut at the 2x2 Hip-Hop Festival in July under the stage name Young Nes, performing a set of his dad's material.
“As soon as he heard his dad's music, he started rapping, and he rapped all day long,” Lorena said. “He looks just like him. He was sitting on the couch the other day and he had [Nes'] ring on, and I looked down and I was like, ‘Wow, that looks just like your dad's hand.'”
Due to the unexpected nature of Nes' death, questions lingered following his passing, which was attributed to traumatic brain injury on his death certificate (the coroner's report detailed head injuries including a fracture of the right temporal bone, situated at the side and base of the skull). “This is not a homicide investigation,” said detective Ronda Siniff of the Columbus Division of Police in mid-November. Siniff interviewed Larue and Shirley, among others, and didn't find any discrepancy in retellings of the accident. “Unless other evidence presents itself that would make us revisit it, then, as of this point, I would say [the case] is closed.”
“People want to put a big mystery on this thing and, yeah, it's a tough one,” Neal said. “It's hard to wrap your mind around how something like this could happen in such a tragic way to such a beautiful person. But we've seen this over and over again. A person doesn't have to be a celebrity, and the whole world doesn't have to know a person for God to use a person to teach people a very valuable lesson in life. If there's something you want today, then you need to do something today to get closer to accomplishing it. If you keep saying, ‘I'm gonna do it tomorrow,' tomorrow ain't promised to nobody. If it wasn't promised to him, then it's definitely not promised to nobody.”