When "Keeping it Real" Goes Wrong: The Fall of the Hip-Hop Hustler
In his first book Ethan Brown offers an engaging tale of the confluence of hustling and hip-hop in southeast Queens. Brown, a pop music critic and contributor for New York magazine, Rolling Stone, and The Village Voice, articulates how the combustible careers of 1980s Queens drug kingpins have been transformed into hip-hop folklore by contemporary rap artists. In the process, rappers and record labels discovered that the marriage of hustling and hip-hop brings more than increased record sales. This largely forced union, according to the author, leads to federal investigations, indictments, and/or death. In other words, hip-hop as role playing—think the new PS2 videogame 50 Cent: Bulletproof in which players lead the gun-toting rapper through the New York underworld—is proving to have very real consequences for an entertainment industry all too consumed with street credibility and urban legends. The aim of Brown’s book is to separate a tragic hustling history of death and despair in Queens from a nostalgic past of glitz and glare.
The book’s first four chapters provide a history of the drug trade in southeast Queens. In the late 1970s and early ‘80s highly organized street pharmaceutical companies began moving large amounts of cocaine and heroine throughout neighborhood blocks. Sparked by a massive migration of the urban poor from Brooklyn into the once safe black working and middleclass community of Hollis, local hustlers took advantage of this densely populated pocket of poverty and pain. The crews of Kenneth “Supreme” McGriff, Lorenzo “Fat Cat” Nichols, and Howard “Pappy” Mason were known to bring in hundreds of thousands of dollars per day. The author notes that the drug trade was so lucrative that rather than competition between crews, their success promoted a level of “blinged-out” camaraderie. Queen’s hustlers were known for lavish parties, mansions, yachts, and even bulletproof luxury automobiles.
As to be clear, the author contends that in the 1980s the hustling and hip-hop worlds were incongruent in Queens. Hustlers saw hip-hoppers as soft “backstreet boys”—a term used in Queens to describe kids from the safe middleclass communities above 210th Street—that made little money from the start up labels like Tommy Boy and Def Jam. However, with the democratization of the drug trade that resulted from the emergence of crack cocaine, the systematically ordered crews gave way to immature and irresponsible street peddling entrepreneurs. The escalating murder rates, growing neighborhood intolerance, and a federally sponsored war on drugs brought an abrupt end to the street hustle. FBI tactical teams and mandatory prison sentences all but dismantled the ruling crews. Thus the real hustlers needed a new hustle. The rise of gangsta rap in the early 1990s, complete with its glamorization of violent street life, offered a viable alternative.
This brings us to the author’s subtitle: The Rise of the Hip-Hop Hustler. Here Brown spends the next few chapters describing the ways in which imprisoned and recently paroled street hustlers formed alliances with persons in the hip-hop game. These partnerships were of mutual benefit. Many hustlers were able to enter the now financially lucrative hip-hop industry as managers, promoters, and producers. On the other hand, hip-hop cats like Tupac Shakur and Irv Lorenzo “Gotti” were able to garner much needed street credibility to overcome their “backstreet boy” image. (I am sure I am not the only person that remembers a pre-Death Row Tupac Shakur doing the Humpty Dance!)
For true lovers of hip-hop like myself, this is where the text turns tragic. As the author explicates the deleterious implications of the hustler/hip-hop alliance one cannot help but long for the good ol’ days of Mc Shan and BDP’s The Bridge/The Bridge Is Overbeef. To think that the deaths of Biggie, Pac, Jam Master Jay (as well as countless other lesser named rappers and roadies) are in part a result of wonderfully gifted artists embracing Scarface-like identities in the name of selling records or obtaining a record deal is heart wrenching. To be sure, the author could have countered such tragic occurrences with the very entertaining and above-board hip-hop battle of Nas and Jay-Z in 2001. This was indeed hip-hop battling at its best. Such a narrative would have added buoyancy to Brown’s somewhat nihilistic depiction of the contemporary hip-hop landscape. A narrative that at times gets bogged down with a confusing cast of characters, detailed murder-plots, and 20-year old street vendettas. In this regard, however, Brown’s glossary of players at the outset does come in handy.
Overall, Queens Reigns Supreme is a good read for fans and producers of the cultural expression of hip-hop. Its graphic and detailed storyline is enthralling and Brown’s writing style is lucid. You actually find yourself walking up and down the streets of 1980s Hollis, Queens hearing the minimalist beats of Sucker MCs. One has to believe that Brown’s book is a screenplay in waiting. The author offers a behind the scenes look at the conflux of a seedy underworld of organized crime and a highly commercialized hip-hop culture industry that has the allure of New Jack City(1991) and Sugarhill(1994) as well as the authenticity of Damon Dash’s Paid In Full(2002). Moreover, Brown’s treatment of Queen’s hustler/hip-hop culture extends beyond Jim Sheridan and Terence Winter’s recent rags to riches Get Rich or Die Tryin’flop.
In sum, this book proves to be a parabolic tale. Brown articulates that the tragic circumstances surrounding so many hip-hop greats signifies the folly of confusing a crime underworld with BET’s Access Granted. More to the point, to witness the unraveling of a talented producer/executive like Irv Gotti at the hands of a federal indictment should serve as a wake-up call to the industry. Is playing “hustler and gangsta”—complete with real hustlers and real guns, worth the demise of a legitimate multimillionaire business such as Inc. Records? The most ironic part of the story is the way real hustlers actually eschew the glamorization and attention directed toward them by current hip-hop artists. It seems as if real hustlers know all too well the difference between a federal prison and being in a music video. I only pray that talented lyricists like Ja Rule, 50 Cent, and the Game realize this before it is too late. Personally, I would suggest that they take a lesson from rappers that reinvented themselves to survive the bullet-riddled 1990s. 50—please get Diddy on the phone. Street credibility is one thing but having a sitcom or hosting Making the Band IV beats being the featured face of an R.I.P. mural.