Thugs 'R' Us

John Freeman
4 min read
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Money-laundering trials often involve complex diagrams or wire transfer records. But the recently concluded money-laundering case against Murder Inc. record label founders Irving and Christopher Lorenzo involved shoeboxes.

In a U.S. district court in Brooklyn, prosecutors tried to argue that convicted drug dealer Kenneth McGriff bankrolled the brothers’ early efforts at launching a label with dirty money, and that the Lorenzos returned the favor by laundering McGriff’s illegal profits. Prosecutors even claimed that McGriff dropped shoeboxes of cash off at Murder Inc.’s Manhattan offices.

This shoestring operation might sound a little implausible—it did to the jury, which acquitted the Lorenzos—but it sounds less so after reading Ethan Brown’s scintillating work of gumshoe musicology, Queens Reigns Supreme: Fat Cat, 50 Cent, and the Rise of the Hip-Hop Hustler, which describes how hardcore criminals and big-time rap became fatefully intertwined over the past two decades in New York.

Drawing from scores of trial transcripts, wiretaps 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 East Coast rappers to the shooting of 50 Cent just a few years ago.

All of these events, Brown argues, can be traced back to the New York borough of Queens, where in the '80s 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 the 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 which kept the salesman busy for almost three hours.

Although these profits had the attention of Queens’ narcotics agents, the drug trade didn’t spark widespread national debate until a rookie cop was shot and killed on 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, from Russell Simmons, future founder of Def Jam Records, to Curtis Jackson (aka 50 Cent), to Chris and Irv Lorenzo, who rose out of DJ work in middleclass 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 piss off, Brown argues. And then it was too late.

50 Cent presents an interesting twist on this. 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, 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 Brown’s bold and unabashedly cautionary book: In the world of East Coast rap, they are among the lucky ones, escaping from this brush with the law with their freedom, and more importantly, their lives.

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