Money-laundering trials often feature complex diagrams or wire transfer records. But the recently concluded money laundering case against the founders of rap label Murder Inc., Irving and Christopher Lorenzo, involved shoe boxes full of cash.
In a U.S. District Court in Brooklyn, prosecutors tried to argue that convicted drug dealer Kenneth McGriff bankrolled the brothers’ early efforts in the rap game with dirty money, and that the Lorenzos returned the favor by laundering McGriff’s illegal profits. In one of their more colorful claims, prosecutors alleged that McGriff dropped shoe boxes of money off at Murder Inc.’s Manhattan offices.
This shoestring operation might sound implausible—it did to a jury that acquitted the Lorenzos—but it’s not the first time big-time rap and big-time crime have rubbed shoulders. As Ethan Brown reveals in his scintillating work of gumshoe musicology, Queens Reigns Supreme, after the war on drugs brought a law enforcement crackdown to Queens, hustlers gravitated from the street life into the rap game, not always leaving their illusions behind.
Drawing from 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 the first breakout group of the ’80s, Run DMC, to the murder of their one-time DJ, Jam Master Jay, to the beef between actor and multi-platinum star Tupac Shakur and East Coast rappers like Sean “P. Diddy” Combs, who was nearby when Shakur was shot four times in the lobby of a New York recording studio in November 1994 (he survived). All these events, Brown argues, can be traced back to the New York City borough of Queens, where in the 1980s several rival crews shared 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 the personalities, and have inspired more than a few rap lyrics. 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’ narcotic agents from the beginning, the drug trade didn’t hit the national eye until a rookie cop was shot and killed on a New York street. 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—from Russell Simmons, founder of Def Jam Records, to Curtis Jackson (aka 50 Cent), to Chris and Irv Lorenzo, who rose above DJ work in middle-class Queens to run one of the industry’s most powerful record labels.
As Brown describes it, the crackdown on the drug trade in the late ’80s pushed real-life toughs into the rap game, tilting the balance of values away from artistry and toward street credibility. Shakur, writes Brown, was the first victim of this kind of burlesquing of street violence. Raised in Baltimore and California, and well-educated, Shakur didn’t know when to stop, or who not to piss off, Brown argues. And then it was too late. He was shot four times in the chest in a gang-style killing while riding in a car driven by Death Row CEO Suge Knight. He died six days later.
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 of street hustlers, 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 debut, he was shot nine times in front of his grandmother’s house—and lived.
The courts have finally decided the Lorenzo brothers were not as deeply involved as prosecutors alleged they were. But one thing is clear from this bold and unabashedly cautionary book: they are among the lucky ones. They’ve escaped from their brushes with the law with their freedom, and more importantly, their lives.