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To be a gangster

Crime and hip-hop linked in Queens Reigns Supreme


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 shoeboxes.

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 shoeboxes of cash at Murder Inc.'s Manhattan offices.

This shoestring operation might seem a bit 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 past two decades in New York City.

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 in 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.

Although it 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 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, founder of Def Jam Records, to Curtis Jackson (aka 50 Cent), to 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 piss 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, he was shot nine times in front of his grandmother's house.

Only the courts can decide whether the Lorenzo brothers were as deeply involved as prosecutors allege. But one thing is clear from this bold and unabashedly cautionary book: They probably wished they were.

-- John Freeman


Queens Reigns Supreme: Fat Cat, 50 Cent, and the Rise of the Hip-Hop Hustler

By Ethan Brown

Anchor, $12.95/paperback

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