The Tragic Rise and Fall of Rapper Hella Sketchy – Austin Monthly

In the summer of 2017, Erik and Judy Thureson picked up their son, Jacob, from a church event at a North Austin escape room. As he slipped into the car, he bumped his head and slumped onto the back seat. Pulling away from the curb, Erik peered into the rearview mirror and watched his 16-year-old son laughing groggily and mumbling under his breath. When he tried to engage him in conversation, asking about his time with the church’s youth group, Jacob slurred his words, muttering incoherent sentences that trailed into oblivion. Before long, Erik watched as he collapsed into an agitated slumber, unresponsive to his and his wife’s pleas.

Staring at each other in rising panic, Erik and Judy began to connect the dots between what was unfolding before them and an incident nine months prior, when Jacob divulged that he had experimented with marijuana and antidepressants to alleviate his mounting anxiety and depression. While disturbed by the revelation, they’d taken solace in his re-assurances that it was an anomaly—a brief and desperate effort at quieting the pain. His overtures were so convincing, so heart-wrenching, but now, they were beginning to suspect otherwise. Was it all a lie, a performance?

When they arrived home, Erik sat him down on the couch and began to mine him for information. Was he talking to Jacob or Hella Sketchy, his son’s stage name in the online hip hop community? Only a junior in high school, he was already a prolific producer with a unique brand of trap music—an emerging genre of rap infused with auto-tuned vocals and 808-heavy beats—who had worked alongside major artists like PnB Rock, Tay-K, and Ugly God. He’d even recently started rapping over his beats, a step that transformed him from a player in underground circles to a rising star being courted by industry heavyweights like Atlantic Records.

But none of this mattered to his father as he watched his son looking around dazedly, his eyelids flickering. A moment later, his mother emerged from his room, visibly flustered. In her hands was a backpack filled with capsules of Molly (slang for MDMA, which stimulates the brain’s output of serotonin, known as the “happy chemical”) and Xanax, a highly addictive anti-anxiety medication.

At the sounds of her crying, Jacob tipped over a glass of cold water onto his shirt, jolting him out of his stupor. Suddenly lucid, he ran upstairs to change clothes before grabbing his backpack and sprinting out the door. Less than an hour later, he was in the ER. “We were in total shock and denial at the time,” his mother reflects. “He’d never been through anything that was so traumatic, something we couldn’t overcome. I was viewing this as something to get through, to address and move past. Really, it was just the beginning.”

Within two years, Jacob’s musical career had brought him to Los Angeles, where he was on the cusp of national stardom. But as the hits piled up, his struggles with mental health and addiction festered. On June 13, 2019, his parents received a late-night text message from him: I love you, it read. Less than five hours later, Jacob’s girlfriend, Evelyn Walker, called screaming for help. Passed out and unresponsive, he was rushed to Hollywood Presbyterian Hospital, where doctors found a deadly combination of Xanax, marijuana, cocaine, and Oxycodone in his system. He soon slipped into a coma from which he’d never emerge. Two weeks later, at just 18 years old, he was gone.

***

Before he was Hella Sketchy, Jacob Thureson was a precocious kid living in the Beverly Glen area of Los Angeles. At school, he showed early signs of advanced intelligence, boasting a sixth-grade reading level while still in the first grade. “His teachers didn’t want him to be a distraction, so they utilized him as a class TA instead,” Erik says with a laugh.

This intellect bled into every part of Jacob’s life, especially his early musical pursuits. At age 9, he was playing guitar in concerts around the city in a School of Rock–type program called Join The Band. Jamming Green Day songs together in their garage, Jacob and his father bonded over music, as well as video games and technology.

“I’ll never forget coming home one afternoon and finding him at the computer typing Java code to adjust the settings in Minecraft. I just sat there in awe, thinking, How does this 10-year-old kid know how to do this?” Erik says.

As impressive as his acumen was, Jacob’s compassion and emotional intelligence became his defining characteristics. Extremely sensitive, his heightened awareness was fine-tuned to any signs of struggle or strife, including his family’s troubles in the wake of the Great Recession. Owners of five different properties, including a million-dollar home near Beverly Hills, the Thuresons lost everything when the housing bubble burst in 2008. As avid churchgoers, they were undeterred, maintaining that God was watching over them.

Then, in early 2013, Judy had a life-altering dream. A voice spoke to her, telling her to take a pregnancy test. If it shows up positive, move to Austin, it said. Without hesitation, she went to a nearby pharmacy and did as she was instructed. Two pink lines appeared on the test stick—an indication that she was indeed expecting.

A few months later, she and Erik pack-ed up their family—including Jacob and his two sisters, Emma and Sydney—and headed to Texas, where a lower cost of living and a number of close family friends awaited them. The move stunned his son (then 12), Erik admits. “At that age, pulling him out of the environment that he was used to, away from all of his friends, I think that’s when things started to change in a big way for him,” he says. “He already was pretty introverted, and it was a huge shift. He understood why we were moving, but it still hurt.”

More than a thousand miles from his former life, Jacob began to sequester himself in his room, choosing to lose himself online rather than explore his surroundings in Round Rock. Music lessons and other extraneous expenditures had become a distant memory in his family’s new fiscal reality, but while his guitar collected dust, he discovered SoundCloud to fill the void. Unlike Spotify and other digital music sharing platforms that cater largely to listeners, SoundCloud was made for artists. From its earliest days, the platform was a haven for deejays and producers making electronic dance music (EDM), says Mason Flynt, an Austin-based producer and close friend of Jacob’s. “People were making hours-long electronic mixes and sharing their music freely; that’s what really helped inspire a whole generation of producers on SoundCloud,” he says. “Eventually, all those EDM producers started growing up and expanding their musical horizons, driving them to experiment more with hip hop beats and connect with rappers. That’s where SoundCloud rap really sprung from, where Hella Sketchy came up.”

With access to a new musical realm and a sea of online friends, Jacob dove headfirst into the SoundCloud world. He spent days on end, headphones gripped around his ears, making beats on his computer. By 14, he was already becoming one of the hottest underground  trap producers in the world.

“I remember joking to him in the car after school, saying ‘One day when you’re rich and famous…’ and he interrupted, ‘Well, I’m kind of already famous, Mom,’” Judy says. “I looked at his Soundcloud that night and thought, Oh my gosh. His beats had 20, 30, 40,000 downloads each. On his 15th birthday, he posted a video on his YouTube channel revealing his identity. People were stunned; they started calling him the child prodigy.”

From the outside, everything seemed to be going his way: the ever-expanding musical portfolio, a massive digital following, and more than $40,000 in revenue from selling beats. But internally, Jacob was battling deep-seated demons that were leading to addiction. Long before his parents discovered the stash of pills in his bedroom, he’d used his tech savvy to convert money into cryptocurrency to buy Molly and Xanax off of the dark web. “We aren’t naïve, we know kids try substances around that age,” Erik says. “Still, we never could’ve imagined he’d be able to literally order pills straight to our doorstep.”

***

By early 2019, Jacob was living in Los Angeles and on the fast track to fame. Signed by Atlantic Records, his life was consumed by the recording studio, where he threw himself into creating tracks for his upcoming self-titled album. “He would be in there all night,” says Eli Piccarreta, an Atlantic Records A&R executive who worked closely with Jacob. “When it comes to making music, it’s a lot like sports: the more you’re in the gym, the more you’re in studio, the more you’re going to grow and evolve as an artist. He understood that and embraced that mentality wholeheartedly.”

Prior to arriving in California, Jacob   had spent the past six months living in Phoenix, where his parents had relocated to the previous year. The slower pace of life—one among his family and a host of therapists and counselors—had been good for him. But with a chance to record his first major album, Jacob grew restless. “After his therapist cleared him to leave, there wasn’t a lot we could really do,” Erik says. “He was 18, and he had the go-ahead from his doctor. At the end of the day, we wanted to support him in his musical pursuits while giving him the tools he needed to cope.”

From a career perspective, Jacob thrived in Los Angeles, making new tracks while raising his profile in the underground rap world. Piccarreta was increasingly impressed by his client’s ability to push himself creatively while bringing other artists into the fold. “One of the most special things about Sketchy, beyond the music, was his ability to connect with other artists and creatives,” he says. “He was always making sure other people had the chance to win, too. It was truly incredible to witness.”

But while his work flourished, Jacob’s depression and substance abuse spiraled out of control. Soon after the spring release of his debut album, he tweeted a flurry of ominous messages that stood in stark contrast to his once-sunny digital persona. On April 28, he wrote: “I’m trying my best to stay positive.” April 29: “I always let everyone down.” April 30: “Please don’t care about me I don’t want to hurt you when I die.”

Jacob’s new music mirrored his changing temperament. The track “Misunderstood” features the lyrics “no one knows the real me,” “popping pills like candy,” and “these drugs might be the death of me.” Once known for a signature style of “happy trap,” his sound had taken on a much darker edge, with an ambience his family considered “super depressive” and “borderline suicidal.” The album’s final song, titled “What Happened,” includes the line: “Used to make fun of my drug use. You ain’t never had a struggle with the abuse.”

Less than four months after the re-lease, Evelyn confronted Jacob about his drug problem for the final time. It was getting out of hand, she said; he was going to end up dead if he didn’t get help. He nodded, promising that the Xanax tabs he’d taken hours before were his last. After flushing his few remaining pills down the toilet, he laid down next to her and fell asleep. Within hours, paramedics found him without a pulse and rushed him to the hospital.

 ***

In early July, Judy steps out of her best friend’s car onto a sunny summer expanse of Zilker Park. It’s a cloudless day, and the green fields are filled with barking dogs, couples reading beneath the shade of Rock Island, and college students playing soccer. Surrounded by the rush of activity and the sound of distant laughter, she momentarily forgets the trauma of the past three weeks, the hundreds of hours she’d spent in a Los Angeles hospital, the precious little time she’s allowed herself to sleep.

But as she makes her way toward a couple of young men  plugging in sound equipment on the park’s west end, her eyes fall on a portrait of her son wearing gold chains and a black Sex Pistols T-shirt. Beneath a shock of bright pink hair, he stares back at her with a subtle swagger, something he’s possessed since a child. On either side of the picture is a pair of white candles, their wicks waiting to be lit.

As late afternoon turns to dusk, more than 200 people gather to mourn and celebrate the rapper’s truncated life. Some knew him from church. Others were high school pals. Regardless of their relationship to Jacob, everyone shares a similar sentiment: yes, he was a phenom, but more importantly, he genuinely cared about uplifting others.

After an hour of eulogies, the congregation’s mood darkens—a feeling Judy finds unfitting considering her son’s infectious optimism. A brisk wind suddenly sweeps across the gathering, knocking over Jacob’s portrait and extinguishing the candles bookending the frame. “Without a doubt, that was Jacob’s way of saying, ‘Hey, we’re done here. It’s time to move on and be happy,’” Judy says. “No matter his own personal problems, he always brought levity and inspiration to the people around him.”

A moment later, Jacob’s friend holds his phone to the microphone. “Spent a Check,” Hella Sketchy’s first major release, plays over the speaker. The crowd sings along, their voices rising to a crescendo each time the chorus repeats over the song’s playful beat.

In the days after his passing, Jacob’s parents received more than a thousand text messages and DMs on social media from mourning fans. The majority that reached out—almost all of them teenagers—spoke of an emotional connection to Jacob, both through his music and messages he’d exchanged with them online.

Still today, Jacob’s parents aren’t shying away from discussing his afflictions. In fact, they continue to interact with fans on the Hella Sketchy Instagram account and on their own social media pages. Judy is currently in the process of writing a book titled My Beautiful Tragedy, which she plans to release in the spring. She’s also in the midst of creating a podcast focused on mental health.

With more than 100 unpublished Hella Sketchy tracks, Erik says their family is working with Atlantic Records to release a single this spring—a precursor to an eventual posthumous LP. “It’s a little sad to think about what was left on the table,” Piccarreta says. “But his impact is going to be forever. He lives through his music, and he will have a lasting impression on the countless people he met, myself included.”

While it’s easy to stop and think, What if?, says Flynt, Jacob’s spirit will remain, both in life and in the burgeoning Austin hip hop scene. “As a producer, as an artist, as a rapper, he was beyond skilled. Hella Sketchy was the best producer in Austin history,” he says. “But even more, as a friend, as a person, he had this light, this energy; he’d use every ounce of himself to lift you up, to brighten your day. We’re going to keep that going.”

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