Robert Ross, the rapper known as Black Rob, who scored hits like “Whoa!” and “Can I Live” for Bad Boy Records in the early 2000s, died Saturday, April 17, at the age of 52.
Ross died at Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta, according to the Fulton County Medical Examiner’s office. His cause of death is still pending.
Raised in Harlem, Ross began rapping as a preteen during an era when New York was still the center of hip-hop’s universe. He grew up listening to Spoonie Gee and Slick Rick, who he later told MTV was a childhood idol. In his early twenties, he formed his first group, Schizophrenics, and signed with Bad Boy Records soon after. His imprint on Bad Boy, helmed by Sean “Diddy” Combs, started slow; after joining the label in the late ’90s, Ross made guest appearances on songs and remixes by 112, Total, Faith Evans, and Mase before releasing his signature song, “Whoa!” in 2000.
“Whoa!” was an instant staple on MTV and climbed to No. 43 on the Billboard Hot 100. The song ranks No. 47 on Complex’s 100 Greatest Hip-Hop Beats Of All Time. The song’s producer, Buckwild, told Complex in 2011, “That record kind of brought Bad Boy back.”
Raised by his mother, Ross spent most of his youth in and out of group homes, juvenile detention centers and prison, a path that fueled his debut album, 2000’s Life Story, which reached No. 3 on the Billboard album charts and went platinum. The album’s title track finds Ross reflecting on his rags-to-riches story, marked by poverty and subsequent incarceration. “Three to six my first bid, no doubt up in Spofford / Had to be 12 son, trying to make a profit,” he spits.
“It’s hell,” Ross told MTV of this time in prison. “Once they get their teeth on you, they keep biting … until they feel like, ‘Let’s throw away the key on this cat.'”
His second album, 2005’s The Black Rob Report, failed to perform as well as its predecessor. At the time of release, Ross had been incarcerated again. In 2006, he was sentenced to seven years in prison for grand larceny in connection with a 2004 hotel robbery. He ended up serving four and his music career stalled.
In 2011, Ross signed to Duck Down Music and released his third album, Game Tested, Streets Approved. After his fourth and final album, 2015’s Genuine Article, he reunited with the Bad Boy Records crew for select dates on the label’s Family Reunion Tour in 2016.
Ross suffered from chronic diabetes and high blood pressure since the ’90s. In the past five years, Ross reportedly suffered kidney failure and multiple strokes.
A week before Ross’s death, former Bad Boy labelmate Mark Curry and producer Mike Zombie started a GoFundMe to crowdsource funds for medical bills and general support. “This GoFundMe is to help him find a home, pay for medical help & stability during these trying times,” the description read. “We’ve lost a lot legends and we can’t afford to lose anymore.”