Rap and crack were both born 30 years ago, and more than a few rappers brag on their records about starting their labels with drug money. At nearly the same moment as Run DMC was growing to international fame in the mid-80s, crack cocaine began dominating the inner-city drug trade. Suddenly a subset of people who shared similar backgrounds was making a lot of money, either by selling crack rocks or rhyming into a microphone.
“New York City rappers are so into the street legends, because there are so many legends from the 1970s and 1980s, and more importantly, because in New York City we have a keen sense of our history,” Ethan Brown the author of Queens Reigns Supreme said. The legendary figures of the drug game were the province of myth and hearsay until hip-hop artists romanticized the exploits in verse. With the fusion of ghetto and prison culture unique to gangsta rap, the black underworld captured the imagination of pop culture.
The Supreme Team an infamous drug crew out of the Southside of Queens, and the street culture that developed in New York City in the early-80s had a tremendous effect on hip-hop. Many of Queens’ early rappers ran with people in the drug world. Often drug dealers and rappers were from the same neighborhood. Others grew up on the ensuing folklore. Rappers like 50 made models of drug kingpins such as Gerald “Prince” Miller and Kenneth “Supreme” McGriff of the Supreme Team.
As the 1990s rolled around, the crack era gangsta’s influence was seen everywhere in the East Coast rap scene. The backdrop of violence and thug bravado long associated with hip-hop and fallen heroes like Tupac, Biggie, and Easy-E was bringing gangbanging, the Crip walk, and beefs to the forefront of the national consciousness. Pop culture was immersing itself in gangsterism. The line between creative expression and real life violence, illegal drug sales and thuggish posturing, blurred in rap culture, where rhymes namedropped weaponry by style number and drug dealers by name.
“It all started in Queens, from The Godfather hats to the big rope chains,” Curtis Scoon, a producer for BET’s American Gangster series said. “Rappers like LL and Run would copy that style, and people would emulate them everywhere. The whole bling thing is a progression from the big rope chains. The genesis is right there in Queens. People talk about the Bronx being the birthplace of hip-hop, and they’re correct; it’s no lie. But when you look at old tapes of Africa Bambatta and Grand Master Flash, they look like Parliament or the Village People. What you see in hip-hop has Queens all over it. When you see the Lost Boyz and dreadlocks and all that, it’s from Pappy Mason. There are so many little things the rappers picked up on from these guys and presented to the world.”
In the 1980s the rappers were attracted to the drug dealers and the money they made, but by the 1990s there was a role reversal. The crossover happened quickly. But the spirit of hip-hop had already been swagger jacked. Drug dealers, murderers, and robbers all saw the money rappers were making and wanted a piece of it. Rap became the new crack game.
Known drug dealers and felons started attaching themselves to hip-hop artists as security guards, label backers, or whatever. Many hustlers were able to enter the lucrative hip-hop industry as managers, promoters, producers, or muscle. Drug money started to fund studio time for up and coming artists with strings attached, of course. The genre’s late 1980s golden years were underwritten by the gains (financial) and losses (psychic) of the crack trade. The drug pushed rap toward a faster, harsher quality. With the War on Drugs, the real hustlers needed a new hustle.
“During the mid-1990s, when the murder rate in NYC was beginning a precipitous decline, and highly organized crews like the Supreme Team no longer ruled the streets, rappers looking to be seen as street credible were forced to look to the past for inspiration,” Ethan Brown says. “Rappers could be nostalgic for the streets of the past because for the most part, they had not been affected by the fallout- crack addiction, federal indictments, murdered friends and relatives- from that era. Only 50 Cent could legitimately claim a connection, albeit a minor connection, to the days of Supreme and Fat Cat; 50’s mom had once hustled on the same block in southeast Queens where Fat Cat plied his trade.”
The rise of gangsta rap in the early-90s, complete with its glamorization of violent street life, offered a vivid glimpse into the crack era. In this era of hip-hop domination, inner-city proliferation, and everything bling-bling, gangsta rap, like the Mafia before it, took siege of the mainstream, making the transition from the underground to the suburbs and from the prisons to Wall Street. Through hip-hop the crack era was present and accounted for.
The world of rap went Hollywood, and everything chic, trendy, and hip became straight gutter. In popular culture and the music world, being a thug was considered a benefit on someone’s resume. The criminal element was alive and well in the industry long before P. Diddy and Jay-Z took hip-hop globally. The Supreme Team epitomized the essence of the era, swagger-jacking the spirit of hip-hop.
“Hip-hip’s dalliance and fixation with the streets can be traced back to the borough of Queens,” Curtis Spoon says. “While Bronx artists such as Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five or Afrika Bambaata and the Zulu Nation performed in costume, the artists from Queens opted to emulate the local ghetto superstars who were, in all actuality, the neighborhood drug dealers. During the 80s and the genesis of commercial rap, the black gangsters of Queens like Supreme, Prince, Fat Cat, and others were in a class by themselves, especially in the style department. The designer jogging suits and excessive jewelry that became synonymous with rap even to this day, started with artists like Run DMC and LL Cool J attempting to be identified with the success, flair and swagger of the drug crews in Queens like the Supreme Team.”
Sometimes the drug dealers and gangbangers wanted to get on the mic themselves. They couldn’t decide if they were criminals or entertainers. Drug dealers didn’t leave their previous lifestyles and prior vocations behind when they joined the hip-hop party, they brought it with them. They didn’t see the music business as their chance to go legit, but as an opportunity to expand operations, an opportunity to hide behind legitimacy while still carrying it gangster. The results in hip-hop were an extended cycle of violence, murder and corruption that mirrored the exploits of the Supreme Team. Violence is ingrained in rap; it’s a celebration of bitches, guns and cash. Rap’s lyrical lore holds all kinds of stories of murder and mayhem, police and thieves, bloody money and crack dens.
“These people had so much of an impact on the whole game. Whether it’s streets or entertainment,” Curtis Scoon says. From LL Cool J to 50 Cent, making paper has been their legacy. “Without crack cocaine, half the narratives of hip-hop would’ve been erased; the street cred, the danger,” Curtis Scoon says.
The crack wars and instant wealth accumulated in the mid-80s turned young black males into millionaires with tremendous power, a tendency exploited by the “had-to-be-there” king making mentality of 1990s hip-hop. Hip-hop artists have often made mythological ghetto heroes out of crime figures like the Supreme Team, bringing the legends from their hood to the masses. As hip-hop colonized the world, hustling went mainstream with music videos and reality television. In the tragic “rags to riches” storyline promoted by rappers the 1980s gangland figures were at the core.
“At its core gangsta rap is crack era nostalgia taken to the extreme,” Curtis Scoon says. “The Queens hustlers were known for lavish parties, mansions, yachts, and even bulletproof luxury automobiles.” Prince and the other Supreme Team members became models for gangsta rappers, who celebrated the drug dealers by name. On Get Down, Nas spit, Prince was from Queens and Fritz from Harlem/street legends, the drugs kept the hood from starving. Supreme, Prince and other street stars were lauded in song, their lifestyles celebrated in verse. Hip-hop became infatuated with all things street.
Today’s rappers brandish their crack dealing credentials as a badge of authenticity. Biggie even wrote the definitive rap to selling rock, The Ten Crack Commandments– Rule numero uno, never let no one know how much dough you hold, cause you know the cheddar breed jealousy especially if that man fucked up, get you ass stuck up. Crack has been a subject of rap songs since day one. As early as 1983, songs like Grandmaster Flash and Melle Mel’s anti-cocaine anthem White Lines noted the sale of rocks, Hey man, you wanna cop some blow, sure what you got, dust, flakes or rock? As did the Beastie Boys 1986 hit, Hold It Now, Hit it which boasted- I’m never dusting out cause I torch that crack.
The crack cocaine epidemic spawned gangsta rap and a lot of today’s biggest stars- Russell Simmons, Irv Gotti, 50 Cent, LL Cool J, Run DMC- started in Queens where the crack game was nothing if not serious. But a lot of the rappers have come off as studio gangsters. The product since then has become diluted.
“Gangsta rap today is about as reflective of reality as a reality show,” Curtis Scoon said. “Gangsters have pedigree. Most rappers don’t.” Still storied street guys were making their presence felt in the industry. The ascendance of ex-street guys like Suge Knight with Death Row records, James Prince with the Geto Boys, and Tupac’s partnering with Jimmy Henchmen led to a lionization of street characters like Supreme and Prince. But it also led to attention from the feds.
With hip-hop blowing up like it did, label owners who boasted of ties to crime figures were being profiled because they were black men with a lot of money and growing power. Law enforcement had always tried to find drug money and big time gangsters in the rap game. There was a long history of suspected and real life ties between organized crime and the music business, just look at Frank Sinatra and the Italian mob.
In the mid-90s federal authorities in L.A.investigated claims that Suge Knight was backed by jailed L.A.drug dealer Michael “Harry O” Harris. In Houston, DEA and local police tried to tie James Prince and Rap-A-Lot Records to narcotics trafficking in the city’s gritty fifth ward. To the feds the rap game was the new drug game.
“They were looking at rappers like they used to look at the Mafia,” Ethan Brown said. “They were trying to find crime in entertainment.” Surveillance of rap events to track allegiances, hierarchies, and feuds was commonplace. Informants were scattered throughout the music world, giving up info to all the alphabet boys, the hip-hop police, and other government agencies. In this gangster’s paradise, snitches ruled.
Rappers started catching cases, whole companies were toppled and the music industry moved on. The Supreme/Murder Inc. indictments are a perfect example and look at all the young and talented rappers going to prison like T.I., Ja Rule, Shyne, Remy Ma- the list goes on and on. From the crack era to the feds War on Drugs, hip-hop has been present and accounted for, ruling the charts and juxtaposing itself on pop culture. With the money being generated dwarfing that of anything made in the drug trade the drug barons that held sway when hip-hop was in its infancy can only look on in awe from their prison cells.