RAPPERS GONE BAD - HOW THE DRUG TRADE AND MUSIC INTERTWINED
Queens Reigns Supreme Fat Cat, 50 Cent, and the Rise of the Hip-Hop Hustler By Ethan Brown
Anchor. 239 pp. $12.95
Money-laundering trials often involve complex diagrams or wire transfer records. The current case against Murder Inc. record label founders Irving and Christopher Lorenzo, however, involves shoe boxes.
According to the case being put forward by prosecutors in a U.S.
District Court in Brooklyn, convicted drug dealer Kenneth McGriff bankrolled the brothers' early efforts in the rap game with dirty money, and they returned the favor by laundering his profits, dropping off shoe boxes of cash at Murder Inc.'s Manhattan offices.
This shoestring operation might sound implausible, but it sounds less so after reading Ethan Brown's scintillating work of gumshoe musicology, Queens Reigns Supreme, which describes how hardcore criminals and big-time rap became fatefully intertwined over the last two decades in New York City.
Drawing on scores of trial transcripts, wire taps, and interviews with some of the toughest thugs in prison, Brown connects the dots of the most shocking moments of recent rap history, from the rise of Run DMC to the murder of Jam Master Jay, from the beef between Tupac Shakur and the East Coast to the shooting of 50 Cent, just a few years ago.
All these events, Brown argues, can be traced back to the New York City borough of Queens, where in the 1980s several rival crews had an iron grip on the drug trade. There was Fat Cat, a family man who ran a shockingly lucrative operation out of his family deli, while McGriff and his "Supreme Team" plied their trade in fancy red leather jackets.
The profits and exploits of this era were as outsized as their personalities. According to Brown, McGriff's nephew spent $100,000 outfitting a Mercedes with gun turrets and the ability to lay down an oil slick. His lieutenants wore bulletproof vests - on top of their clothing.
Another dealer, Thomas "Tony Montana" Mickens, bought real estate and automobiles at a shocking clip, and once plunked down over $110,000 in cash for a yacht, a counting job that kept the salesman busy for almost three hours. Although these profits had the attention of Queens narcotics agents from the beginning, the drug trade didn't hit the national eye until a rookie cop was shot and killed on the New York streets. Suddenly, Mayor Ed Koch was calling for help, George H.W. Bush was campaigning with the fallen officer's badge in his pocket, and the players turned on themselves in a bloody civil war.
Growing up in the shadow of all this violence were a number of rap's biggest players today - such as Russell Simmons, future founder of Def Jam Records; Curtis Jackson (a.k.a. 50 Cent); and Chris and Irv Lorenzo, who rose out of DJ work in middle-class Queens to run one of the most powerful record labels.
As Brown describes it, the crackdown on the drug trade in the late '80s meant that real-life toughs wound up in the rap game, tilting the balance of values away from artistry and toward street credibility.
Tupac Shakur, writes Brown, was the first victim of this kind of burlesquing of street violence. Raised in Baltimore and California, and well-educated, he didn't know when to stop, or who not to tick off, Brown argues. And then it was too late.
50 Cent is an interesting twist on this world. Unlike Shakur or even Ja Rule, he actually was a hustler. As Brown writes, 50 ran a small crew, and his mother was a crack addict who was murdered. If anything, 50 had too much authenticity - as record executives found out when, just before he made his blockbuster debut, 50 was shot nine times in front of his grandmother's house - and lived.
Only the courts can decide whether the Lorenzo brothers were as deeply involved as prosecutors allege they were. But one thing is clear from this bold and unabashedly cautionary book: They probably wished they were. Or as 50 Cent puts it: "It's a sad story... . It's a story about a guy that was blessed with the opportunity to make music to make him appear to be the gangster he's not. [He was] associating himself with gangsters... . I guess he's a gangster now."
John Freeman is awards chairman of the National Book Critics Circle.