When Pitchfork profiled Milwaukee’s flourishing street rap scene in March, the music news site made sure to single out Big Wan.
“Big Wan is the city’s finest (expletive) talker,” wrote Pitchfork’s Alphonse Pierre, who paid particular praise to the rapper’s trademark punchlines. “Wan also has a sharp ear for production. … He’s behind some of the most fun rap in a city that has no shortage of it right now.”
Eight months later, the life and career of Big Wan, one of the scene’s most promising talents, was cut short.
Big Wan — birth name Dawan Turner — was shot and killed Friday morning, according to Milwaukee police. He was 19.
Turner was fatally struck by shots fired into a home on the 3800 block of North 13th Street around 9:05 a.m. Friday, according to Milwaukee police. Turner was staying there with his mother and grandmother, according to family friend Hilda Alayeto.
Turner, who was in an upstairs bedroom at the time of the shooting, was pronounced dead at the scene, according to a Milwaukee County medical examiner’s report. His death has been ruled a homicide by Milwaukee police. There are no known suspects at this time.
‘He’s always the kid to hug you’
“He liked to make people laugh and smile,” said Alayeto, who has been best friends for 30 years with Turner’s mother, Rosemary Gonzalez, and knew him his entire life, even planning his baby shower. “Dawan was very lovable. He’s always the kid to hug you, to make sure you are OK. He was almost like a big teddy bear.”
As Gonzalez’s only son (who was also sweetly “spoiled” by his grandmother, Milagros Rosa), Turner as a child charmed family and made plenty of friends with his wit, Alayeto said.
“He was just a jokester who had a comeback and a joke for anything you say,” Alayeto said. “He was quick on his feet. When you answer the phone, even if you just ask him what you’re doing, it’s a punchline.”
It didn’t take long for Turner to take his sense of humor to the recording studio. Alayeto said he started recording his first hip-hop tracks when he was 11 or 12, initially mentored by local rapper Wonderbread Rie, before he fell in with a group of hip-hop-loving friends that included his future go-to producer, RichieWitDaHitz, and future manager Bagzz.
To Bagzz (real name Will Norton), Turner’s natural charisma, ambition and technical skills were reminiscent of rap legend The Notorious B.I.G.
Even as a teen, Turner “was the type of young guy who could get in the grown people’s club and perform and rock the whole club,” Bagzz said. “Sometimes everything is so uptight when you’re making music, and he would just come and loosen people up.”
“He was just so humble,” Bagzz continued. “He just picked up on everything and he never disagreed. He listened. He was just focused on really making it.”
The single “Fast Lane Lifestyle,” which came out in November 2019, was Big Wan’s breakout track. His low-key swagger and distinct delivery — engagingly droll, with a slurred word sometimes playfully disrupting his sharp flow — drew listeners in to his witty wordplay. The music video for the song, directed by popular Milwaukee music video director TeeGlazedIt, has been viewed more than 400,000 times on YouTube.
The song appeared on his debut mixtape, 2019’s “Dog Slayers,” with the 10-track “Dog Slayers 2” coming out last year. “Dog Slayers 3” will be released on Jan. 24 as planned, on what would have been Turner’s 20th birthday, Bagzz said.
Big Wan released other boastful, one-off singles the past two years accompanied by hit TeeGlazedIt-directed videos, including “8ight Blocks” (434,000 YouTube views), “Eggshell” (268,000 views) and “Kill” (115,000 views).
When Pitchfork’s Pierre took stock of Milwaukee’s music scene for a column in March, Big Wan was one of five acts he highlighted to illustrate the rising hip-hop scene’s strength, alongside more established Milwaukee rap stars like Lakeyah, Chicken P and Mari Boy Mula Mar.
“He saw how people were listening to his music, and then he started doing small openings at clubs before other artists,” said Alayeto, who for a time helped Turner field requests for features from other rappers around the Midwest. “He started seeing all the love that Milwaukee had for him and that motivated him.”
“You always want things to end differently,” Alayeto continued. “He didn’t grow up in the best of environments on the east side of Milwaukee. … But he wasn’t a person who showed hate or anger. Because of it, he thought, ‘I’m going to work hard to get me out of this.'”
Drug-trafficking conviction became part of Big Wan’s music
In February 2020, Turner was one of two dozen people charged by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Milwaukee for their alleged association with the Buffum Meinecke Boys, a drug-trafficking gang that reportedly operated in Milwaukee’s Harambee neighborhood.
Turner was charged with selling/distributing/dispensing a controlled substance. He pleaded guilty, and this past March, was sentenced to time served, plus three years of supervised release.
He didn’t shy away from the arrest in his music. A segment of a TV news report preceded the music video for “Eggshell,” with Big Wan rapping, “They locked me up, but I never tell,” and boasting “I’m on top/They can’t stop me now.”
Turner’s goal was to make it in the music industry, and he was on his way, Bagzz said, maintaining ownership of all of his songs and investing the royalties back into the music.
“He was setting the tone to be a boss with your own music,” Bagzz said.
Following Turner’s death, fans, collaborators and fellow musicians have paid tribute to Big Wan on social media.
“Alright wan time to come out and tell everybody that u joking,” young Milwaukee rapper Lil Trav, who recorded multiple songs with Wan, wrote on Instagram. Trav appeared on Wan’s latest track, “Designer Drugs”; the video for the song was released the day of Wan’s death.
“Anybody that ever came across u was lucky to have you,” Trav wrote. “I love you.”
“Gone too soon,” Grammy-nominated, Milwaukee-born producer Bizness Boi wrote on Big Wan’s Instagram page. “Rest up young king.”
Alayeto said the turnout for a balloon release in Turner’s honor Sunday was so large that the family has decided to host a memorial service in a bigger venue than initially planned. Details are pending.
“The outpouring of support … makes (his mother) feel better,” Alayeto said. “It makes her know he was loved by people through his music that didn’t know him personally. I think that helped her a lot.”
The investigation into Turner’s death is ongoing. Anyone with any information is asked to contact Milwaukee Police at (414) 935-7360. If you wish to remain anonymous, you can contact Crime Stoppers at (414) 224-TIPS, or through the P3 Tips app.
Journal Sentinel reporter Elliot Hughes contributed to this story.
Piet also talks concerts, local music and more on “TAP’d In” with Evan Rytlewski. Hear it at 8 a.m. Thursdays on WYMS-FM (88.9), or wherever you get your podcasts.