Interview: Ethan Brown – Queens Reigns Supreme

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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.

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Queens Reigns Supreme Official Website 

Purchase the book

Review at PopMatters 


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19 Responses to “Interview: Ethan Brown – Queens Reigns Supreme”

  1. Billy Sunday Says:

    S.K.,
    This was a pro-style interview. You’ve piqued my interest in this book. Since I come from Queens I ought that I had seen/experienced this entire story first hand but I realize there are some misconceptions that I need to have cleared.

    Nice flow my dude rock, rock on.

  2. e-double Says:

    I’ma put this book on my to read list. Hopefully we can get more young people into the habit of reading. Remember, your mind is like a muscle. Don’t work it out and it gets out of shape.

  3. dCs Says:

    for the money, this definitely looks like something i will buy. im dead broke right now but i can afford 10 bucks a book. good interview

  4. Doxx Says:

    That’s a real solid, informative interview. I’m about to buy this one along with Adisa Banjoko’s new book.

    Nice work.

  5. eskay Says:

    Trust me when I tell you, this book is crack (no pun intended)

  6. Rafi Says:

    Very nice interview. I’ll be checking out the book.

  7. NU Bhattacharjee Says:

    Great interview, the depth to which the crack game has crossed over to the rap business is not surprising. What other form of capital is available to young black entrepreneurs with little to no credit history, no collateral and in a high risk, low success rate business. It would be interesting to see what types of businesses were funded out of prohibition.

  8. posta child Says:

    Deep. I hear that NU. I mean I will never ever say there is any justification for going out like that. It is next to impossible to get any money to get anything off the ground through the standard avenues. (Banks, and ect.) Its fu@ked up. You can’t get financial backing to start up things the way they should. If Todd from the suburbs wanted to open a video store and Jamal from the city wanted to start a record company……need I say more?

  9. Nah Right » Blog Archive » Curtis Scoon Interview at SOHH Says:

    [...] hould focus on for answers. If you’ve read Queens Reigns Supreme, or my interview with the books author Ethan Brown, this piece is a [...]

  10. PHIL81A Says:

    I am a young black male from Queens who lived in the boro 90% of my life. I have not read the book as yet but it has peaked my interest in a big way, the interview was very good, From hearing about and knowing people who were and are in my opinion “Negative Products of there Environment ” If all these street figures named in Queens Reigns Supreme were given a better chance in a better environment at a beginning age they would have been in my opinion “Positive Products of there Environment” possibly running a fortune 500 company.

  11. daryl francis Says:

    To Whom It May Concern,

    I am the Co-host of a progressive talk show (The Peter Rosenberg Show 106.7FM, Washington DC) discussing politics, sports, music and pop culture. I just stumbled onto your site doing some research on Ethan Brown. I’ve read his book and would love to get him on the show, especially in light of the recent Busta Rhymes shooting. Would you have any suggestions on how to contact him? I can be reached at the above email address or 646.305.1552. He is coming into DC on 2.9.06 and I would like to get him on the show that morning before his book signing. Let me know if you can help. thanks…

  12. eskay Says:

    daryl, I’ll pass your info on to Ethan.

  13. Nah Right » Blog Archive » Feds Seek Death Penalty Against ‘Preme Says:

    [...] n Supreme, his influence on hip hop, and his legacy in Southside Queens see my interview with Ethan Brown author of Queens Reigns Supreme [...]

  14. crazy shit. » “…they read.” “i read!” “books, jerry.” “oh…” Says:

    [...] s a particularly asinine thing to complain about, and i let it go. today, eskay linked to an interview he did with an author. its a pretty good interview [...]

  15. mr. unknown Says:

    i have read alot articles over the years inre: of prince and supreme. mostly based on police reports , court documents, newspaper articles ,and a few associates. however i have never read anything 100% accurate. such as do you know how they got the names prince and supreme. do you have any idea as to how the team actually got the name supreme team? i know the people you may have used to reserch with could only provied you may the past 10 years worth of rumores and street gossip. would you like to really know this and more ? if so e-mail me and maybe we can talk

    ps. by the way supreme has never served a 10 year prison term

  16. D. Miles Says:

    Yo this book got me interested like a mutha…… I saw most of the antics of several of the crews that are written about growing up in southside and the story about the southside fighting with hollis takes me back to my youth. i have to definitely read this book because i knew them all.

  17. Onesimus Says:

    I am working on a serious project. I have read Queens Reigns Supreme and I would like Ethan Brown to get involved with this project. I am from N.Y. and I know he would like this proposal. My number is 443-783-8974.

  18. Nah Right » Blog Archive » Ethan Brown Analyzes the Supreme Transcripts Says:

    [...] As you may have heard, notorious Queens hustler Kenneth "Supreme" McGriff was sentenced to life in prison yesterday (February 9) for ordering the murders of Troy Singleton and rapper Erick "E Money Bags" Smith. Unfortunatley, I haven’t had the time lately to follow the trial as closely as I would’ve liked to, but I’ve been doing some catching up. Ethan Brown, author of the book Queens Reigns Supreme, has been blogging the trial over at his website, and has the first two posts of a four part series on the trial transcripts up now. Ethan has an intimate understanding of all of the events surrounding the murders, Supreme’s past, and how the whole situation connects to the world of hip-hop, so if you’re looking for some interesting insight on the case, he’s the man to turn to. [...]

  19. A smokers thoughts Says:

    man i was reading don diva today and read about fat cat… half that bull shit in that book is false as well as BET’s American Gangsta. fat cat was a slam snitch!!!!…..the air needs to be cleared and i dont think this book does it 100%. but thats just me

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