I recently had a chance to chat with Ethan Brown, author of the book Queens Reigns Supreme, Fat Cat, 50 Cent, and the Rise of the Hip Hop Hustler. The book chronicles the rise and fall of some of the most notorious hustlers New York City has ever seen, the Hip Hop artists that emulate them, and the relationships that were eventually forged between the two. The book is meticulously researched and includes firsthand accounts from industry insiders, artists, court records, and the guys that were actually out there on the grind in Southeast Queens at the apex of the crack epidemic.
Eskay: Why don’t we start out with you telling me a little about your day job.
EB: I don’t have a day job at the moment. I’m on contract with New York Magazine–not on staff. I was on staff, though, from about
1999-2005. During the 1990s I did a lot of writing about street crime and the drug business. I wrote a cover story about the Ecstasy trade for New York Magazine in 2000 and I also wrote about the takedown of a notorious crack crew in Harlem called "The Black Top Gang" (that was published sometime in ’01-or early ’02). In ’03, I wrote a cover story for NY Mag about the beginning of the Murder Inc investigation…that’s when I began work on Queens Reigns Supreme.
Eskay: So I understand this is your first book. Not a bad debut. What piqued you interest in the 80’s drug scene?
EB: Thanks–writing about the beginnings of the Murder Inc investigation is what piqued my interest in the 1980s drug scene. When I started doing research about guys like Supreme and Fat Cat I found that very little had been written about them. The tabloids didn’t even cover these guys until the murder of Edward Byrne in 1988. So there was this incredible history there that was completely untold..
I was also really fascinated by the fact that Supreme kept popping up everywhere. I’d written a little bit about Jam Master Jay’s murder during the fall of 2002, and it was incredible to me that Supreme surfaced as a suspect. Supreme seemed connected to so many current hip-hop stars (50, Jay, Irv Gotti) and he also had this fascinating past. That felt like a great story to me, one that connected the 1980s drug scene to the current moment.
Eskay: Yeah ‘Preme is like the Kevin Bacon of hustling. Although they’re considered hood legends, Fat Cat and ‘Preme were actually both locked up pretty early in their careers. Do you think this was a result of sloppy management of their organizations or just plain old bad luck?
EB: Fat Cat and Preme had very different management styles, even though both were locked up quickly. Cat ran his operation from 150th Street with the exacting style of a corporate CEO; Preme, on the other hand, had his workers wearing Supreme Team uniforms and engaging in lots of theatrical violence. Remember, too, that Cat was able to run his organization from behind bars; business at 150th Street was humming from 1985 (when Cat was imprisoned) until 1988 (when his organization was finally brought down).
I think you could argue, too, that Cat’s organization would have had an even longer run had it not been for Edward Byrne. In fact, guys who worked for Cat lament the killing of Byrne as the beginning of the end for them…
Eskay: The Byrne murder was definitely a major turning point for the NY crews, but as you note in the book, the repercussions were felt nationwide. Is it safe to say Pappy’s recklessness blew it for everybody?
EB: It’s probably safe to say that, definitely. There’s also still a lot of anger at Pappy from Fat Cat’s crew over his behavior in the wake of Byrne’s killing. Fat Cat’s guys say that when Pappy was imprisoned he made all sorts of anti-white, anti-cop statements. He also apparently resisted efforts to help get the women in Fat Cat’s crew lessened prison sentences. All of this boiled over into a prison fight between Pappy and Fat Cat’s lieutenant Joseph "Bo Bo" Rogers that’s described in the book.
Eskay: Ahhh yes, the jail fight, definitely one of my favorite anecdotes. It’s crazy how John Gotti was there to witness that.
EB: That’s a good one. The period just after Byrne was killed was insane. There was a ton of in-fighting amongst Fat Cat’s crew.
All of this pressure was on Cat; he was particularly worried about female family members going to jail for life. That’s why I find it ridiculous when people dismiss Cat as a "snitch"; this guy was literally carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders.
The rappers and street guys who dismiss Cat in this fashion really need to check themselves. I wonder what they would do if they were caught in a similar position…
Eskay: The book is filled with firsthand testimony from a myriad of former hustlers and street guys, not exactly the types who usually talk to the media. While you were doing your research, were you at all worried that you were asking too many questions or poking your nose somewhere it shouldn’t be?
EB: I wasn’t worried. Street guys–particularly the seasoned guys that I spoke with–seemed aware of what boundaries they should set for themselves when talking to me. The real problem actually came with the ex-street guys in the hip-hop business; these guys are so used to talking themselves up to gullible, non-street savvy rappers that they would often lose sight of their boundaries completely.
Eskay: Before I read the book I assumed that Irv Gotti and ‘Preme’s relationship was forged on the streets, but it turns out that that wasn’t actually the case. What made these two men from two vastly different backgrounds became so close?
EB: I think they were brought together by mutual needs–Irv needed a guy like Preme for street cred and Preme needed Irv because he was desperate for a way into the music business. I think Irv and Preme’s friendship eventually went far beyond that (Preme even attended Irv’s wedding) but at the beginning I think that sense of mutual need was the basis for their relationship.
Eskay: The Feds case didn’t turn out to be as strong as they believed it to be. I understand they have something like a 95% conviction rate. Why do you think there was such a disconnect between what they thought was going on at Murder Inc and what came out in the trial?
EB: This case had not only a shaky foundation but basically a non-existent foundation. Go and check out the search warrant affidavit filed by the feds just before they raided Murder Inc’s offices in 2003 (it’s on the Smoking Gun website, I believe). The claims made about Murder Inc (Supreme is the "true owner" of Murder Inc, etc) are not only false, but easily, provably false. When you start out under such false assumptions, it’s hard to imagine that you’re going to come up with a solid case when you go to trial. Which brings me to your point about the feds’ record of convicting people. One big reason their record is so strong is that the feds have all sorts of leeway in bringing uncorroborated evidence into the court. So when you have a defendant not represented by a high profile attorney like Gerald Shargel, that defendant is likely to be convicted. The federal justice system is really out of whack.
Eskay: Yeah, and it’s incredible how they can drag people into court and ruin lives. I read your interview with Robert Simels at AHH, where he said that federal prosecutors can pretty much allege anything they want and remain virtually untouchable from retribution by the accused.
EB: Robert is right about that. I’m forgetting the legal language that Robert used but essentially once an indictment is brought it’s next to impossible to question that assumptions behind it because good faith on the part of the prosecutors is assumed.
Eskay: Darryl ‘Hommo’ Baum is widely believed to be the triggerman in 50’s 2000 shooting, yet during the trial prosecution witness John Ragin alleged that the shooter was actually Ja Rule’s former bodyguard, Robert "Son" Lyons. The Feds intend to introduce this same evidence in ‘Premes trial next year. Is this theory feasible, or is Ragin taking them for a ride?
EB: I don’t believe that Ragin’s story is accurate. In fact, I’m working on a follow-up piece right now about Baum and promise even more information about his involvement in 50’s shooting than what’s already been reported in Queens Reigns Supreme.
Eskay: The murder case the Feds are building against ‘Preme seems strong, do you think there’s any way he can beat it?
EB: I’m investigating his case for a follow-up piece, too, and it’s not as strong as you might think.
Nonetheless, Preme faces a raft of charges–murder, racketeering, continuing criminal enterprise, drug trafficking among them–and given his past if he’s found guilty on any of these charges he will be looking at serious prison time.
Eskay: Russell Simmons has made it very clear that he will not be supporting ‘Preme when he goes to trial next year. Do you feel he’s being disloyal, or are people in the industry waking up to the fact that they need to distance themselves from these types of guys?
EB: I don’t know. But I don’t think Russell was distancing himself from Preme–he and Preme never really had a relationship that went
much beyond those Supreme Team parties in the 1980s.
I should make the point here that I don’t think that anyone in the hip-hop business needs to "distance" themselves from people with criminal records. Hip-hop has been an incredible outlet for ex-street guys who want to be involved in something legitimate. That said, rappers and record label execs need to re-consider the strategy of using guys like Preme as props to express street cred. It’s a legally perilous way of doing business and I have big problems with it ethically. The drug business has put hundreds of thousands of African-Americans in prison; it’s not something that should be used as a marketing strategy for middle class rappers.
Eskay: Do you have any other book projects on the horizon?
EB: Not yet. Before I sold this book, I’d been working on another project that did not sell. I’d like to return to it, but I’m not sure if there’s a market for it (it’s very, very different from Queens Reigns Supreme). Overall, though, I hope that QRS will open up a market for hip-hop books that are much more than as-told-tos by famous rappers.