IT'S LIKE THAT, AND THAT'S THE WAY IT IS : The Unsolved Mysteries of Hip-Hop Tragedy
The allure of breaking the law is always too much for me to ever ignore.
You're nobody 'til somebody kills you ...
Notorious B. I. G.
UF-61 Date of Occurrence: 10/30/02. Classification: Homicide. Approximate Time of Occurrence: 1930 hours. Referred to Detective Squad.
IT was around 1:00 A.M. when my cell phone rang. On the other end of the line was A. J. Calloway, then the host of the Black Entertainment Television network's hit show 106th and Parkthe TRL of the hip-hop generation. I could tell from his trembling voice A. J. had bad news.
Male/Black. Age: 37 Date of Birth: 1/21/65 Wearing black jeans, black leather jacket, white shell-toe Adidas.
"Did you hear what happened?" A. J. said.
On T/P/O victim was found facedown, apparently suffered from a gunshot wound, D.O.A.
It had to be something more than just gossip: A. J. always keeps his cool, but tonight he sounded a little shook. Okay, real shook.
"No, what's up?" I replied.
Victim identified as Jason Mizell (Jam Master Jay). 103 P.D.S. notified.
"Jam Master Jay got shot," he said.
All I could say was, "Holy shit." We knew what was about to happen: we'd been down this road before. Tersely, we said our goodbyes. A. J. had other people to call. So did I.
Witnesses uncooperative. No suspects, leads at this time.
They say everything comes in threes. It happened in Las Vegas. It happened in Los Angeles. And now it had happened here. In New York. My own backyard. Less than a mile, in fact, from where I grew up. It was a familiar story. A hip-hop superstar had been killed. In full view of witnesses. And the murder would never be solvedat least not by conventional law enforcement. I started feeling sick to my stomach.
I knew my phone was going to start ringing off the hook. The streets were gonna start talking, and talking loud. The clubs, corners, barbershops, boulevards, avenues, and back alleys where I used to hunt the truth were abuzz, and I couldn't turn my ears off from the murmurs of the street. The news that Jam Master Jay had been killed awoke the homicide detective that had been laying dormant inside me.
I couldn't say it out loud yet, but I knew it already in my heart: badge or no badge, I was going to solve the Jam Master Jay murder and continue my mission to stop the cycle of violence and distrust that had claimed the lives of our greatest hip-hop icons. Boom! The "hip-hop cop" was back.
Gutted, I started calling all my old street informants, trying to find out whatever I could. Reaching out to my contacts in Queens'shomicide division, where I'd worked so many years ago, I finally got in touch with Bernie Porter, a detective from the 103rd Precinct in South Jamaica. Porter confirmed the story going around: Jam Master Jay had been killed in his Jamaica, Queens-based recording studio. But, he added, NYPD didn't have much to go on, and furthermore, witnesses weren't cooperating.
"Surprise, surprise," I thought to myself. I told Bernie if he needed my help to give me a call. He never did, but I could already feel myself getting pulled in. While Jam Master Jay's murder would've been any homicide detective's nightmare, for meas the New York Police Department's original "hip-hop cop," as I became known first by my law-enforcement colleagues and eventually by the mediait was worse than a nightmare.
Hip-hop is in a state of crisis, yet nobody on either side is making the right moves to quash it. Due to its tragic legacy of violence, hip-hop supremacy could end at any time: just let one well-placed AK-47 spray at an awards show and it's all overand considering what's gone down at those awards shows, that's a pretty fuckin' likely scenario. So when I got the call about Jam Master Jay's abrupt death that fateful night in 2002, it felt particularly bittersweet. His murder seemed so symbolic to me: if a tree is already dying, how can it survive when you remove the roots?
In fact, I was no longer a homicide detective when I first heard the tragic news that hip-hop legend Jam Master Jay, the innovative D.J. for rap's first worldwide superstars, Run-DMC, had been shot and killed in his recording studio on October 30, 2002. I had actually retired from the New York Police Department (NYPD) nine months prior, but I was having trouble suppressing my investigative instincts. After spending twenty years on the force, they kicked in like a reflex.
I started as a twenty-year-old beat cop walking seedy Times Square streets during Ed Koch's infamous mayoralty before moving on to the Bronx for undercover narcotics, ending up straight outta Brooklyn as a first-grade homicide detective with a gold shield under Rudy Giuliani's iron-fisted administration. Working homicide, I'd investigated well over three hundred murder cases; on the job, Isaw more dead people than that little kid in The Sixth Sense. I've seen bodies chopped up in sections and then neatly disposed of in little plastic bags. I found one victim's bones tossed on the Van Wyck Expressway. In another case, I saw a man's face blown clear off by a shotgun, his eyeballs blown out their sockets, leaving a hole in his head like a window. Through that "window," I could see the dude's brain membrane. Yup, just another day on the job. Talk to any big-city detective and you'll probably hear similar storiesbut that's not why you're reading this. Ultimately, what I became most known for inside the NYPD (and in the media) was my status as the first hip-hop cop.
The NYPD would've liked to keep my existence as the hip-hop cop secret. If it wasn't for a particular newspaper article, I probably wouldn't even be writing these words today. That article was the shot heard 'round the world, reprinted as far as Australia and bounced all over the Internet.
On March 9, 2004, The Miami Herald published a story by Evelyn McDonnell and Nicole White headlined POLICE SECRETLY WATCHING HIP-HOP ARTISTS. In it, McDonnell and White revealed that Miami law enforcement were "secretly watching and keeping dossiers on hip-hop celebrities," even "[photographing] rappers as they arrived at Miami International Airport."
According to Evelyn McDonnell, she became aware of Miami law enforcement's covert hip-hop surveillance through a not-so-covert human screwup. After that, McDonnell, The Miami Herald's chief music reviewer, wrote an article profiling local Miami rapper Jacki-O. She then received an e-mail from a Miami Beach-based police detective named Rosa Redruello asking her for information. "I collect intelligence on all current rappers and record companies in the South Beach area," Redruello explained in the note. McDonnell was taken aback. "It was pretty shocking," she explains in hindsight. "When I realized it was from a police officer, I knew this was a big deal. I e-mailed the woman back and said 'Sorry, I can't divulge my sourcesbut I'd love to hear more about what you do.'"
That's rightMiami law enforcement's clandestine hip-hop surveillance wasn't discovered via an intense investigative exposé; no, adetective made it easy and sent a fucking e-mail. The first rule of law enforcement is the same as the code of the streets: keep your mouth shutespecially when talking to a journalist. Covert activity in any police department is kept undercover for two reasons. One, so those under surveillance don't realize they're being watched; two, exposure of such surveillance usually results in a public-relations disaster. As such, McDonnell and White's article exploded Miami's tensions like a volcano.
"Racial profiling" was already a hot-button topic for law enforcement across the nation; to many, the revelation that major urban police departments were targeting rappers and the hip-hop industry was further evidence of this practice. But racial profiling was an especially huge issue in Miami, according to McDonnell's collaborator Nicole White. "Black lawmakers were concerned by the profiling element," White explains today. "A lot of money was at stake, and that was the main concern."
The fallout from The Miami Herald piece was immediate. In particular, local tourism was threatened, and Miami was already walking on thin ice where race issues were concerned. After the city had refused to officially welcome South African activist/leader Nelson Mandela in 1990, Miami suffered a debilitating three-year tourism boycott by African-Americans. In later years, racial tensions exploded over incidents that occurred when hundreds of thousands of black revelers descended upon Miami for Memorial Day celebrations.
Since then, however, Miami had become a tourism mecca for hip-hop artists and their fans, with South Beach's glitzy, upscale clubs, hotels, and recording studios all catering to the blinged-out rap pack. Rappers were spending big money in Miami and showing off the city's high life in music videos, and as a result its luster as a glamorous A-list vacation spot had been restored. But now that was threatened. Following McDonnell and White's article, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and other civil-rights groups immediately threatened major lawsuits. And music industry insiders were pissed. "Russell Simmons was very upset," McDonnell says. "Damon Dash went on record: he was very upset that incidents from hispast were still haunting him. Luther Campbell was very upset. Fat Joe found it all depressing because he thought in Miami he was getting away from that kind of surveillance. The hip-hop community in general was like 'We knew it was going on.'"
Quickly, I found myself in the eye of this hip-hop hurricane. Eventually it came out that members of Miami P.D. had attended training sessions in "hip-hop crime" from NYPD detectives. I directed those training sessions, but what caused even greater controversy was the admission that Miami had in its possession a dossier known as the Binder, which I also had created in my tenure in the NYPD's hip-hop squad. "We knew there was a guy in New York who had retired who was responsible for the Binder," McDonnell explains, "but the police wouldn't give us Derrick's name."
It didn't take them long to put two and two together, though, as all the evidence that was never meant to get into the public's hands led directly to me. As the NYPD's rap expert, I was commissioned in 2001 to create the Binder, a printable database detailing the associations and background of every rapper with a known criminal arrest. It would grow to be numbingly complete, numbering over a thousand pages. The Binder covered everyone from boldfaced hip-hop superstars like Puff Daddy, 50 Cent, and Jay-Z to obscure wannabes like E-Money Bags. It listed every case each rapper ever caught, every felon they ran with, every beef they had with rival rap crewsalong with personal information like photos, Social Security numbers, record-company affiliations, and last-known addresses. Not surprisingly, the Binder caused a great outcry when it was leaked, and I ended up taking the hits.
The resulting episode reminded me of that scene in Scarface where Al Pacino's Tony Montana character states, "You need people like me so you can point your fucking fingers and say, 'That's the bad guy.' So what dat make you? Good? You're not 'good'you just know how to hide." After the Binder surfaced, I was that "bad guy"everyone else was hiding. Like the name of Tupac's bestselling album, all eyes were on me, ready to throw blame my way for one of the biggest law-enforcement controversies in decades. To theAmerican Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) I was suddenly public enemy number one.
Additionally, I found myself in the crosshairs of rappers as well: "I got the rap patrol on the gat patrol," Jay-Z rhymes on his hit "99 Problems."
My own people, though, truly left me out in the cold. The NYPD, my family for two decades of my life, which I departed as a detective with the highest rank of first-grade, couldn't take the heat and left me out to dry. "New York denied everything," McDonnell says. "It was like a game of whodunit?" Indeed, NYPD brass basically denied my existence, implying I was a lone wolf, a renegade working soloeven though I had taken my orders directly from the top: police commissioners Howard Safir and Bernard Kerik. Under Safir, who served under Rudy Giuliani's mayoral administration between 1996 and 2000, I was instructed to create a squad devoted to hip-hop crime. However, it was Giuliani's last commish, Bernard Kerik, who pushed me to create the Binder following the notorious 2001 shooting involving Lil' Kim outside the New York City hip-hop radio station Hot 97. Kerik would later become not just a bestselling author but also the first major scandal of President George W. Bush's second term in office: Kerik's nomination for director of Homeland Security ended in scandal involving allegations of mistresses and tax improprieties. Yet as the tough but innovative boss of the NYPD, any spike in hip-hop-related violence and the subsequent threat to the public seemed to personally galvanize him.
Kerik didn't exactly run to my defense when the shit hit the fan, however. When the NYPD began receiving criticism in the press for their involvement in hip-hop surveillance, they made me the scapegoat. I was even called an "Uncle Tom" by my fellow African-Americans, which hurt. To many in the media, the activist black community, and the hip-hop world, the existence of a law-enforcement unit created strictly to keep tabs on hip-hop was evidence that young black men were being unfairly targeted. The actions of my hip-hop squad were compared to the F.B.I.'s COINTELPRO program, created in large part to destroy radical black activists duringthe civil-rights era. Like everything in life, however, the truth is far more complicated.
In fact, as the NYPD's hip-hop cop, I led a paradoxical existenceI was a "po-po" that loved hip-hop music, yet wasn't afraid to put the cuffs on a rapper if he was breaking the law. Because of the way I dressed and the color of my skin, many of my fellow officers mistook me for a perp; later, they would suspect, because of my appearance and knowledge of the hip-hop industry, that I was too close to it, in too deep to be an objective upholder of the law.
I often felt that it was my critics whose subjective cultural assumptions clouded their perspective. To the ACLU types on my case, I'm black, okay? I grew up in the same 'hoods, like Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, and Hollis, Queens, as many of the most famous rappers; I'm more likely to be racially profiled myself than to engage in any racial profiling. No, as the hip-hop cop, I was always clear about what my job wasto go after criminals and to protect the public.
That didn't mean persecuting rappers just because they tended to be young, black, rich, and angry (although during my experience with the Giuliani administration it verged on thatthat's when my disillusionment with the NYPD really began). Often my job entailed protecting rappers themselves from the criminal element that attached itself to them like a barnacle. Sometimes my very presence at a concert or club would prevent a crime from happening. I was able to stop a lot of hip-hop-related crimes from happening that the public never even heard about, ones that never made it to the papers.
More often than not, I had to go to war against the cultural ignorance of my fellow officers, too many of whom assumed that all rappers were evil criminals, regardless of the facts. The NYPD often finds itself confused about how to deal with hip-hop crimeit's very interested in it, but doesn't know how to deal with it. Not every cop is knowledgeable of, or cares about, the codes of the streets rappers adhere to.
Still, if law enforcement wants to close cases, it needs to approach the hip-hop community with more sensitivity. Just as you wouldn'tdeal with a well-known Mafia don like a common criminal, the same goes for crime involving high-profile hip-hop figures. It seems like common sense, but alas, the NYPD doesn't always share my views. For example, in 2001, Jay-Z was arrested outside the midtown Manhattan nightclub Exit for illegal gun possession. Cops had allegedly found a loaded handgun on his bodyguard during a search of his vehicle; the weapon wasn't even in Jay-Z's personal possession. At the time, I begged the commanding officer to not make Jay do a "perp walk" past the rabid paparazzi lurking outside the precinct house, but it was no use. All perp walks are good for is humiliating suspects, and Jay-Z was no ordinary perpwhy would the cops treat him different from, say, Liza Minnelli in the same situation? Humiliating Jay-Z served no purpose except to make him and other rappers cooperate even less with law enforcement than they already do. Ultimately, in fact, the charges against Jay-Z were dropped. Why should rappers help the police if cops are going to alienate them just to prove who's really boss? I couldn't blame the rappers' attitudes sometimes, because every day I saw what was causing them.
Despite headlines portraying me and the NYPD as obsessive rap haters, I've always been passionate about hip-hop. That seems surprising coming from a cop, I know. And as a seasoned detective, I knew that someone had to try to build bridges between law enforcement and hip-hopor the murders of Jam Master Jay, Tupac, Biggie, and others would never be solved. And as rappers became high-stakes, headline-grabbing prey for ambitious detectives and district attorneys, I had to protect myself from peers who were all too eager to knock me down and nab my spot.
The war between law enforcement and hip-hop is an ongoing saga showing no sign of stopping; I, myself, got caught in that crossfire many times. Law enforcement and hip-hop have a lot in common. They're like two sides of the same coin, warring cousins inextricably linked to each other's destinies: each eyes the other with suspicion through cracks in the fortress walls each has sequestered itself into. Both cultures are wracked with corruption, driven by ambition, stunted by stubborn egos, closed to outsiders, and fiercely protectiveof their tribal codes. There's no way "po-po" and hip-hop could exist without each other, and yet there's no way they can seemingly get along. This would prove to be hip-hop crime's deadly Catch-22.
Indeed, by the time I formed the rap unit within the NYPD's intelligence arm, there was a dire need for a liaison between the hip-hop community and law enforcement. Hip-hop has had a volatile relationship with the police for too long. And, as an African-American man who's seen it from both sides, I can understand why better than anyone. Young black males have long complained that police treat them like criminals even when they're not, and hip-hop's omnipresence on urban streets soured the bad relations even further. Many in law enforcement saw the flashy, brazen, blinged-out hip-hop lifestyle as a taunt, but it was rap's lawless braggadocio in its lyrics that soured relations between hip-hop and cops once and for all.
The spark hit the gasoline back in '88, when the prototypical Los Angeles gangsta-rap group N.W.A. (an acronym for Niggaz With Attitude) released their scabrous protest anthem "F*** Tha Police." For N.W.A.whose members included future superstars Dr. Dre and Ice Cube"Fuck Tha Police" was a throwing down of a gat-wielding gauntlet: "When I'm finished, it's gonna be a bloodbath of cops dying in L.A.," Ice Cube threatened on his verse.
Law enforcement's response to "F*** Tha Police" was immediate. Cops started refusing to provide security at rap concerts, while rappers themselves complained about new, increased harassment. The F.B.I. even threatened N.W.A.'s right to free speech by sending them a letter threatening to go after the group if it didn't curtail its lyrical provocations.
The contentious battle didn't stop there, however. Archetypal gangsta rapper Ice-T escalated the situation when he released the song "Cop Killer" in 1992 with his heavy-metal group Body Count "I'm 'bout to kill me somethin'A pig stopped me for nuthin'" goes one typical verse. Texas police called for a boycott of the song, and cops nationwide took "Cop Killer" as a call to arms against rappers. The tension didn't end there. Snoop Dogg's early '90s breakthrough hit "Deep Cover" called for a "187 on an undercovercop""187" being police code for murder. Meanwhile, an ongoing slew of threatening "cop killer" rhymes keeps the hostile mistrust between police and rappers alive, like those on Philadelphia rapper Cassidy's 2005 street hit "I'm A Hustla": "Cops wait, wait for a drought, then I make a flood/Try to take my cake, you gone take a slug."
Between angry rappers and angry cops, I worked the middle chasm. During the last four years of my law-enforcement career, I was responsible for creating and directing what alternately became known as the "hip-hop task force," "hip-hop squad," or the "rap intelligence unit" within the NYPD's Intelligence Division; it was never given an official name, as its function was intended to remain clandestine and mysterious, unknown to all but department insiders.
As the hip-hop cop, I found no shortage of controversy. I had a front-row seat to watch over this potent cultural phenomenon, yet I was afraid I might see it die. It was the greatest job, but also ruthlessly challenging. I was proud that my hip-hop squad was placed in "Intel," as it's the department's most elite division. Go any higher, and you'd be in the F.B.I.; in fact, in Intel we often collaborated with the Feds on big cases.
The reason a hip-hop task force was created was because, in fact, it was urgently necessary. By the end of my tenure, hip-hop-related crime, in fact, had become an epidemic involving murder, robbery, extortion, money laundering, bribery, witness intimidation, and drug traffickingmost notably crack cocaine. The hip-hop industry had grown into one of the NYPD's main concerns, as evidenced by my placement in Intel: there, my hip-hop squad worked alongside the units devoted to organized crime, gangs, security for politicians and judges, and, of course, most important of all, security detail for Gracie Mansion, the stately, historic home for New York mayors since 1942.
Some NYPD guys know the Mafia like the back of their hand; others are forgery experts, others do warrants. Me, I know hip-hop, homicide, and the music industry like George Steinbrenner knows the Yankees' batting lineup. Even before I was commissioned tostart a rap-intelligence unit, I was always known around the NYPD as the go-to guy and all-around expert in rap-related crime. The big bosses let it be known loud and clear throughout the force: if a crime occurred involving a rapper or someone in the hip-hop industry, Derrick Parker was to be notified pronto.
It appeared I was preternaturally disposed to become the hip-hop cop. I've spent nearly all of my professional life working the streets of New York's hardest-knock neighborhoods that, in retrospect, would be seen as the legendary spawning ground for rap music and culture: Brooklyn, Queens, the "Boogie-Down" Bronx. I'd grown up with rap as the soundtrack to my life and had always loved the musicand like many, I've been sucked in by the drama that follows it like a shadow.
As a fan (and even sometime performer), I had always kept my foot in the music industry, which inadvertently helped me in my law-enforcement career. Starting in the early '80s, I'd immersed myself in the music world. I'd hit all the hot spots, attending legendary hip-hop clubs like the Latin Quarter to check out budding rappers like Heavy D and Big Daddy Kane before they became stars. I'd hang out in black-music industry spots like Bentley's and Chas & Wilson's, and at urban music conventions like Jack the Rapper, where I'd network with everyone from Russell Simmons and Puff Daddy to Suge Knight and Snoop Dogg.
My law-enforcement career coincided with two key developments: the rise of crack cocaine as urban America's deadliest plague and the growth of hip-hop music out of a ghetto fad into a permanent part of the mainstream pop-culture landscape. With my involvement in and passion for music, I had unwittingly created the ultimate deep cover. Even before I started a "Rap Intelligence Unit," I was a one-man "mod squad." My clashing personas proved awkward sometimes: when I made the rap scene, people would always ask me, "Are you a promoter?" Often, I so blended into the hip-hop world that my fellow cops would be fooled. I had the same response for both camps: "NahI'm 'po-po'!" That wasn't always the answer either wanted to hear.
As drug dealers started swarming around rappers at clubs andconcerts in the birth of the crack era, I was always there, waiting in the wings; I was invisible, but I kept my eyes and ears wide open. My double life followed me everywhere. I started noticing heavyweight drug dealers and known felons attaching themselves to music celebritiesoften the same criminals I was chasing for my day job. The coincidence haunted me. Before my eyes, my police work and music-business interests started to converge.
As a result, in my decades spent working my way up through the NYPD's ranks, I've seen hip-hop grow from ghetto subculture to the most dominant pop-cultural force operating today. Behind the lurid tabloid headlines and stereotypes, hip-hop has grown into possibly the second greatest African-American art form after jazz. I've put my life on the line for it many times, spending most of my career trying to protect its legacy. I've watched rap spawn superstars from Eminem and 50 Cent to Ice Cube and Wu-Tang Clan, with hip-hop becoming not just the most popular music genre worldwideit's evolved into the lingua franca for the disenfranchised everywhere.
Rap has moved from serving as the voice of urban America to dominating the heart and soul of people of all ages and races, from heartland American suburbs to Asia, Africa, Europe, and beyondand it's brought its problems with it. But if there's one thing I've learned having hip-hop under my microscope all these years, it's that, despite its vitality, the rap game has got itself stuck on death row, and the appeals are running out. To me, Jam Master Jay's murder was the ultimate indication of that prognosis.
In fact, the night Jam Master Jay was killed I was working security at a nightclub in downtown Manhattan's Soho district called NV. NV was a glamorous, exclusive hangout favored in particular by the hip-hop elite, which was once the site of a rap-related shooting. It later closed down. Ironically, it was one of the main places I used to do surveillance as the hip-hop cop. Now in post-retirement, I found myself on the other side of the game.
The minute word of it hit the streets, Jam Master Jay's killing was sure to be a massive case, with huge media exposure and controversy. Still, the way NYPD had been dealing with rap-related crimesince I left the force made it clear to me that they would probably botch the investigation.
The problem was, Jam Master Jay wasn't even in the Binder. Jay had no criminal record to speak of, and he was no "gangsta" rapper, eitherwhen Run-DMC began in the '80s, rap wasn't as criminally minded, and Run-DMC often focused on uplifting positivity and Afrocentric black pride over gun talk in their songs. Jam Master Jay was never perceived to have committed any violence in his life. A family man with a wife and two daughters, Jayborn Jason Mizell in 1965died at thirty-seven years old, much older than most of the young hotheads typically causing trouble in rap circles.
Jam Master Jay was truly one of the most beloved figures in the rap community, both for his easygoing charisma and his musical innovations. Despite his star status, Jay was a benevolent mentor, frequently encouraging up-and-coming rappers' careers; he was instrumental in helping now-famous rap star 50 Cent get his first major-label record deal. But Jay was most legendary as one of the seminal figures in the development of "turntablism," where hip-hop D.J.s transformed record players into musical instruments, cutting and scratching musical phrases off vinyl to create a whole new sound. Jay was both innovator and virtuosowhat Picasso was to the paintbrush, Jam Master Jay was to the turntable.
Most perplexing of all, Jay had few, if any, known enemies. Indeed, Jam Master Jay wasn't involved in any of the highly publicized "beefs" between rival rappers that make headlinesand often end in violence. There was nothing in Jay's background like the dispute between thuggish West Coast rap kingpin Suge Knight and his Death Row Records crew and Sean "Puff Daddy" Combs's New York-based Bad Boy posse. Their beef had already claimed the lives of two rap icons. Tupac Shakur, who was signed to Death Row, had been murdered in a drive-by shooting in Las Vegas in 1996, while Bad Boy's premier artist Notorious B.I.G. had been slain one year later outside a party at the Petersen Auto Museum in Los Angeles.
That wasn't Jay. Yet, as I would later discover as I delved deeper into the case, Jam Master Jay had taken to carrying a firearm for thefirst time in his life in the weeks before his killing; as I investigated further, other lurid details that contradicted his public image started to come out of the woodwork. Yes, Jay's murder was one of the strangest cases I'd encountered in my career as an investigator. And when I saw the unmarked Chevy Impala tailing my truck as I drove away from Jam Master Jay's funeral, I knew it was only going to get stranger ... .
Soon after I heard about Jay's shooting, I got a call from my friend Eric B., a rap icon in his own right as the D.J. half of legendary rap duo Eric B. & Rakim. Eric B. doesn't talk just to talk: when he's serious about something, he makes sure you know. This was one of those times: Eric needed my help. "Lydia and the other witnesses, they're very afraid," he told me. Lydia High was one of the key witnesses in the Jam Master Jay case, and a good friend of Eric's. She was also Jay's personal assistant and the receptionist for his recording studio. It was no surprise, then, that the authorities suspected that Lydia saw more than she let onor maybe even that she was involved as a perpetrator.
More than anything, Eric was worried for the witnesses' safety, as the police were doing little to protect them. "They don't know why someone wanted to kill Jay, and, as witnesses, if that someone may now want to kill them," he intoned gravely in his deep voice. The hardcore investigator in me kicked in; furiously I started taking notes. According to Eric, the NYPD was being very intimidating in their interrogation, scaring the witnesses even more than they already were.
"Cops on the scene put Lydia in handcuffs the night of the murder, yelling at her and berating her just hours after her friend was killed in her presence," Eric explained with frustration. "Can you believe that?" I could. Soon enough I would experience just how hard charging my former peers were acting in the case.
Despite the tensions and danger remaining around the incident, Lydia still wanted to attend Jay's funeral. "But Lydia doesn't have any money for security," Eric tells me. "She can't afford it, and she's afraid to attend the service without serious protection." He askedme if, as a favor to him, I'd be Lydia's security. I agreed gladly; besides, my hunger to seek the truth hadn't left me when I left the force. I wanted to see what was going on from the inside for myself.
Before the funeral, I took precautions to protect Lydia. I contacted both Malcolm Smith, a state senator from Queens, and Rev. Floyd Flake, a respected figure in the African-American community and a senator himself, to arrange for Lydia to enter from the church's back door. I didn't want Lydia to enter through the main entranceshe was still too vulnerable as an eyewitness. I packed a 9mm pistol in my waistband, just in case.
The funeral was held on November 5, 2002, at the Allen A.M.E. Cathedral in Queens. The ceremony proved very tasteful, passing without incident. Jay's big-name pals were out in forcerap celebrities like Salt-N-Pepa rubbed shoulders with basketball players and music-biz insiders like executive Andre Harrell and mogul/socialite Russell Simmons, who was Run-DMC's manager and co-founded the legendary Def Jam label. Simmons's brother Josephaka Reverend Run, the "Run" of Run-DMCeulogized his late bandmate with great sincerity.
"Jason helped build hip-hop," Simmons intoned in the commanding voice so familiar from Run-DMC hits. "And his job is finished." Jay's friends in the crowd wore black bowler hats and white shelltoe Adidas in honor of the D.J's trademark style. (Later in my investigation, I would discover that one of Jay's killers had attended the funeral, sporting a bowler and shelltoes himself. But I'm getting ahead of myself.)
After the memorial service, Lydia decided she wanted to attend Jay's burial, too. This wasn't part of the original agenda, but I turned my black Nissan Xterra to join the procession moving toward the Valhalla Funeral Home anyway; I wanted her to fully grieve her close friend Jay, so that day I was going anywhere she wanted to. The thing was, I wasn't alone in that thought.
On the way to the burial, I saw an unscript police car creeping behind me. When Lydia and her girlfriend Missy (who had joined us for the ceremony) noticed the car, too, they became increasingly agitated.
"Damn, we didn't do anything!" Lydia cried. "Why are the police following us?"
"They're probably just following the funeral procession," I responded, trying to put her at ease. "They're here because they don't want anything to happen."
It was a reasonable enough explanation. I almost believed it myself.
Lydia, Missy, and I made it through the entire burial ceremony, which was even more emotional and intense than the memorialI found myself choking up as I threw a rose onto Jay's coffin before they lowered it into the ground. Lydia had trouble tearing herself away: we waited until everyone had said their last goodbyes, making our group one of the last to leave. As I drove away from the funeral home in the Xterra, Lydia was still wiping tears from her eyes. That's when I saw the unmarked Chevy tailing us again in the rearview mirror.
At Francis Lewis Boulevard and 104th Avenue in Hollis, Queens, the Impala finally made a move. When it put on its siren to pull us over, Lydia started freaking out.
"The man just got buried," she sobbed. "Why don't the cops just leave us alone?" My words couldn't console her, with good reason. As the cops got out of the car, I saw one of them was my friend Bernie Porter, accompanied by a white detective I didn't know. As I got out and walked over to Bernie to find out what was going on, Lydia cracked the window slightly and started yelling.
"Why don't you just leave us alone?" she screamed as the white detective quickly approached my car. Before I knew what was happening, the white detective began yanking on the door handle, trying hard to get it open as he ordered Lydia to unlock the door. "Let me in!" he bellowed. Tears began streaming anew down Lydia's face.
I was shockedthis guy was really coming on strong. Okay, I'm not that surprised; after all, the detectives were from Queens. They have what cops from other boroughs call the "Queens Marines" mentality. They take short cuts that don't lead anywherelike this: they don't know how to treat the community, and then they wonderwhy they can't get witnesses to cooperate. Enraged, I rushed over to stop him.
"Hey, Detective, don't do that," I told him. The detective ignored me, continuing to violently wrench the locked door. He was pulling so hard, I was afraid he would tear it off.
"She's given me her permission to enter the vehicle," he shouted back.
"Nobody is giving you permission to enter my car," I responded. The detective kept ignoring me until Bernie Porter spoke directly to his partner.
"Cut it outthis is Derrick Parker's car," Porter instructed him wearily. My name didn't appear to hold much weight with this hothead until Porter spelled out my real deal for his partner: "Derrick's a retired detectivehe was in charge of Intel's rap squad."
This made Mr. Queens Marine back off, but it was too late. The damage to Lydia was done. "She'll never cooperate with the police after this," I thought to myself. Jam Master Jay's body was barely in the ground, and the cops might have already blown it, probably irreparably, with a key eyewitness in the case.
Seeing this kind of behavior from the cops, I was worried whether the Jam Master Jay case would ever be solved. When I called Bernie Porter before, he told me they were having trouble getting witnesses to talk. Now I saw whywith interrogation tactics like these, the witnesses were more scared of the police than they were of the killers. It was all too typical, too familiar. I knew at this moment that the Jam Master Jay case would never be closed by the NYPD. Just like the Tupac shooting in Las Vegas and the Notorious B.I.G. murder in Los Angeles, now New York had its own unsolved murder of a superstar rap icon. Congratulations, law enforcement, you've done it again.
Like its predecessors, Jam Master Jay's case will most certainly remain unsolved, despite all the headlines and outcry. It's a disturbing pattern that the highest-profile murder cases involving rap celebrities will never be solved. Nearly a decade after they happened, both Tupac Shakur's and Notorious B.I.G.'s killers remain at large and unprosecuted, and these were no ordinary victims.
Biggie and Tupac were luminaries not just to the black community, but to the world; next to the mighty Rakim, they are largely considered the two greatest rappers in hip-hop history, with tens of millions of records sold between them. The mythology and reverence surrounding Tupac puts him somewhere between Elvis and Nostradamus. In his music, Tupac always predicted his own death at a young age; his killing turned him into a martyr, a Malcolm X-type figure for younger generations. Ironically, his albums sell better now that he's dead, and his lyrics read now like prophecies. While Tupac is considered rap's greatest, most heartfelt storyteller, Notorious B.I.G. had perhaps rap's greatest "flow." Big's barrage of too clever, armor-piercing wordplay remains unparalleled, his cadences taking on a unique, spontaneous musical flair that rivaled the best jazz players. And Jam Master Jay, well, he's one of those that put rap on the map in the first place. With Run-DMC, the group that first took hip-hop to international success, Jay helped pave the way for many future generations of Biggies and Tupacs.
These icons are famous and beloved worldwide, yet when it comes to solving rap-related cases, well, something is rotten in New York City. My mission took on new urgency when I saw how the NYPD and the Queens D.A. were going about trying to solve the Jam Master Jay case: not only were they culturally unequipped to deal with the hip-hop community, they were unwilling to give the case the resources it needed to close it. I was enraged; you can't just do business as usual when dealing with rap-related crime. After personally putting in over one hundred hours of unpaid time, I eventually uncovered what really happened in the Jam Master Jay's murder. While the NYPD and other law-enforcement entities continue to bungle the resulting investigations, other high-profile hip-hop crime incidents keep piling up.
Of late, the hip-hop crime story grabbing the most headlines is the F.B.I.'s investigation of Murder Inc., record-label home to massive stars Ja Rule and Ashanti. Murder Inc.'s head Irv "Gotti" Lorenzo, his partner/brother Chris "Gotti" Lorenzo, and other associates were arrested, charged, and released on one-million-dollar bail, accused of using their label to launder drug money for Kenneth"Supreme" McGriff, one of the most dangerous, most feared drug lords to come out of the Queens crack game. I'd been following McGriff's crime career for years on the force, along with many, many other detectives and agents. McGriff has even been fingered by 50 Cent as a suspect in the now-infamous 2001 shooting that left nine bullets in the not-yet-famous rapper. "50, who shot ya?/You think it was 'Preme, Freeze, or Ta-Ta?" 50 wonders aloud in the song "Fuck You."
After many hairpin turns, the Gottis were ultimately acquitted of all charges in a stunning defeat for the government. I have my own personal insight into the Murder Inc. case: for three months during 2003, I worked as personal security for Chris Gotti, right at the moment the Feds' investigation in Murder Inc. was heating up. If I was Murder Inc., I would have been worriedreal worried: the Feds have an over 90-percent success rate of convictions. That the F.B.I. put Murder Inc. in their sights shows that hip-hop itself has a lot of work to do before the police stop targeting it. It also reveals what can happen when real criminals and big business commingle, a trend that, despite such high-profile cases, shows no end in sight.
To me, the Jam Master Jay case represented something different. With it, I found myself on more of a personal mission, as in many ways I identified with him. Just like Jam Master Jay and the other guys in Run-DMC, I was raised in Hollis, Queens, around the same time they were. Through my youth, I always saw Jay around the way. They were everywhere: Jay, Run, and DMC would drive constantly through the 'hood, back and forth, hanging out on Hollis Avenue all the time. I saw them before they were stars, watched them come up, and cheered when they finally made it. In fact, Run-DMC formed in 1982, the same year I joined the force, and released their classic first single "It's Like That/Sucker M.C.s" just one year later.
Run-DMC were true icons in my world, pioneers, but more than anything we knew themthat meant you had the ability to be closer to them. Their success was our success; when Jay died, it was our death, too. Understanding his murder became a lens through which I could comprehend what was going on in societywhy all thisdeadly chaos was happening again in the rap game, and why it was getting worse, not better.
At nearly the same moment as Run-DMC were growing to international fame in the '80s, crack cocaine began dominating the inner-city drug trade. Suddenly, a subset of people who shared similar backgrounds were making a lot of money, more than they'd ever seen, either by selling crack rocks or rhyming into a microphone. Often the drug dealers and rappers were from the same neighborhoodsin the case of someone like Murder Inc.'s embattled label founder Irv "Gotti" Lorenzo and convicted felon drug dealer Kenneth "Supreme" McGriff, they'd been childhood friends. Suddenly cocaine-referencing songs like Grandmaster Flash's "White Lines" seemed like art imitating life.
The crossover happened quickly. Drug dealers, murderers, and robbers all saw the money rappers were making and wanted a piece themselves. Rap became the new crack game; it was just too damn tempting for the bad guys. Known drug dealers and felons started attaching themselves to hip-hop artists as security guards, managers, road managers, label backers, whatever. Drug money might fund, say, studio time for an aspiring rapper, always with an implied payback attached. Sometimes the drug dealers and gangbangers wanted to get on the mic themselves.
Today, it's almost required that you have a prison record before you make a record: hip-hop's biggest stars, from Jay-Z and 50 Cent to Snoop Dogg and The Game, all boast of their time dealing drugs, gangbanging, or both. Indeed, the thugs didn't leave their nefarious ways at the coat check when they joined the hip-hop party: more often than not, criminals didn't see the music business as their chance to go legit, but to expand operations. The results left hip-hop in an extended cycle of violence, murder, and corruption that has yet to end. That's what I was fighting.
As the NYPD's hip-hop cop, my primary duty was to protect the public. For example, if a shooting occurs at a rap concert or at an awards show, the danger multipliesthousands of people are put at risk in a riot-type situation. I strived to prevent things like that from ever happening; if I was successful, I felt I'd done my job. But I alsowanted to protect the rap artists themselves, either from rivals settling a score or someone just trying to jack them for their chain. By protecting rappers from their foes, often one can prevent a potential riot from happening in the first place. On a personal level, however, as a rap fan I more than anything wanted to protect the rap-music industry from destroying itself.
Now, not everyone in the rap community is a felon or gang-banger; even if a rapper has a past, it doesn't mean they're still out there committing crimes. "I was dirty before," gangsta-rap originator Ice-T admits. "But my act is clean [now]. I'm square as a pool table, twice as green. I wouldn't steal a nickel off the mantelpiece, man. If you selling dope, you can't even buy me a hamburger." Nor does every rapper hate the police, either. "Hey, I like cops," claims Wu-Tang Clan star Method Man. "NYPD fuckin' rock!"
Some major figures in the hip-hop community feel that if rappers actually start policing themselves first, then the real police won't come on so strong. "It's kind of the rappers' fault," explains DMC, co-frontman of Run-DMC. "If you didn't present that [gangster] image, you wouldn't give 'em nothing to worry about. But you wanna get out there being all rah-rah and thugged-out and 'Yo, I'm Scarface' ... of course you're gonna get checked. You bring that upon yourself. Some of us are stupid enough to still ride around with unlicensed weapons. Either get a bodyguard or get your life togetheryou don't need to be out there still doing that stupid shit."1 Too often, however, there's that one bad appleand his twenty-strong, armed-to-the-teeth entouragearound to do exactly that "stupid shit."
At the same time, I understood a lot of the animosity rappers held toward the policesome of it very much justified. I always felt one of my duties as the hip-hop cop was to protect rappers from the NYPD itself. Police first need to establish trust and at the very least learn to communicate with the hip-hop community; if they don't, many police departments will continue to leave more andmore hip-hop-related crimes unsolved. Only when law enforcement starts solving murders like Tupac's, B.I.G's and Jay's will true bridges to hip-hop get built.
Throughout my career, I've worked under some of the most controversial, innovative police administrations in New York, and therefore the world. As an NYPD insider, I've experienced the insights, infights, and growing pains that come from changing eras of politics and law enforcement, all set to a hip-hop thump. As the department's top hip-hop cop, I found myself on hand for some of the most headline-grabbing cases involving some of the biggest names in rap. There was the Club New York shooting involving Puff Daddy, the rapper Shyne, and Jennifer Lopez; Puffy would find himself associated with so many criminal investigations, he got to know me by name. Then there was the funeral of superstar rapper Notorious B.I.G., the event that truly galvanized the NYPD as to the seriousness and scope of hip-hop crime. In addition, there were incidents involving Wu-Tang Clan, 50 Cent, Nas, DMX, Mobb Deep, Lil' Kim, and others. Not all of these artists were the perpetrators in the crimesmany were victimsbut hip-hop was always the connective tissue; many details never made it to the papers. Indeed, there were whole crimes that the media never even heard about, let alone the public. As the original hip-hop cop, no one has been where I've been.
In the NYPD I was often alone, an outsider inside the system; my methods sometimes clashed with the powers that be and threatened police tradition. But when faced with hip-hop's gray areas, I knew routine police work wouldn't get the job done. But as rap gained notoriety in the public eye, holding on to my spot as the top hip-hop cop became harder. Ambitious detectives saw the hip-hop crime beat as a quick means to advance their career, and my peers started trying to sabotage me to get ahead. Subsequently, after two decades of public service, I left the force with a bitter taste in my mouth. My work wasn't done, however. It never is.
If I've learned anything in my experience as the top hip-hop cop, it's that the gray areas run grayer than anybody ever expected. Indeed, all sides in this gamefrom rap and law enforcement to bigbusinesshave their work cut out for them: there are hard lessons each has to learn when it comes to flying straight and cooperating with each other. I've been face to face with killers, drug dealers, and hip-hop's greatest lyricistssometimes all at once. I've turned the hardest, most cop-hating felons into bean-spilling informants. That just went along with the job: after what I've been through as the hip-hop cop, I've seen it all.
Most of all, when it comes to hip-hop, the rule book is different. After all, nothing is quite like the music businessleast of all the crime associated with it. There's always been crime in the music business, regardless of race, nationality, ethnicity, or religion. Jewish organized-crime figures like Roulette Records head Morris Levy regularly flouted the rule of law while chasing cash in the early days of rhythm and blues and rock and roll. Later, in the "Rat Pack" era of Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, the Italian Mafia famously entrenched themselves in the music industry, dominating it for decades.
Today, the rap industry is going through the same phase: similar to how organized crime behaved during prohibition, bad guys now are moving in because there's a lot of money there, legal and otherwise. It's like any other criminal enterprise, just with a lot more flashy allure and heated racial politics added, all set to a beat you can dance to. In my case, I've only ever looked at criminal activity, not skin color: as a black man myself, I have no interest in persecuting other blacks for no reason. Unfortunately, hip-hop-related crime remains largely in the African-American community, although it's spreading to other racial groups and even other countries around the world. Like a virus, it recognizes no borders: as rap spreads its influence beyond the United States, countries ranging from England to South Korea are finding hip-hop crime growing in their midst.
Hip-hop crime remains on a nonstop roll, and while the NYPD and other police departments around the country are interested in it, they still didn't know how to deal with it. In terms of hip-hop, law enforcement has a lot on its plate. A rash of incidents spanning from the dusk of 2004 to the dawn of 2005 through today showsthat rap-related crime remains a more unabated threat than ever. A man was stabbed at the 2004 VIBE Awards following an assault on Dr. Dre; authorities charged Dre's protégé, G-Unit soldier Young Buck, for the stabbing. Buck has since proclaimed his innocence. R&B star R. Kelly claimed that he was the victim of an assault involving a member of Jay-Z's entourage. Lil' Kim was sent to prison for perjury. Death Row Records mogul and recidivist criminal Suge Knight continued to find himself in conflict with the law, including an incident in Miami that left him shot in the leg. Meanwhile, 50 Cent started so many beefs during this period, he might as well be a butcherincluding one spat with his own protégé, Los Angeles-based rapper The Game; a clash between Game's and 50's entourages resulted in a man being shot at a popular hip-hop radio station. Of late, crime has infected all corners of the rap community: both established rap stars (DMX, Ja Rule, Snoop Dogg, Beanie Sigel, C-Murder) and those new jacks on the come-up (Young Jeezy, Game, Cassidy) have found themselves linked recently to any number of serious violations of the law.
And that's just what made the papers. Hip-hop crime has now become a full-blown epidemic. Everywhere rappers go, the threat of violence hangs in the air, and persecution follows: while that's always been true on some level, the stakes are higher now. Federal authorities now feel emboldened to shut hip-hop down, especially as, thanks to hip-hop's economic power, big business has never felt more comfortable getting in bed with known criminals. As long as large corporations like Reebok continue to do major deals with the likes of, say, 50 Cent and Jay-Z, the Feds will be watching and waiting for any misstep. It's not a game.
So yes, while this is my story, it's really the history of something much, much bigger: how hip-hop grew into the global power it is today, set against crucial issues affecting real people. As such, this is only the beginning: unless extreme measures are taken, things are only going to get worse with hip-hop crime.
More than anything, both hip-hop and law enforcement need to take a real good, hard look at themselves. They say hip-hop is allabout being "keeping it real"well, money, let's get down to some real talk then. To the truth.
Do you think you can handle it? Do you think you can handle the truth? If so, read on.
It goes a little something like this ...
NOTORIOUS C.O.P. Copyright © 2006 by Derrick Parker and Matt Diehl. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.