Well into last summer, rappers 50 Cent and The Game were in a high-octane war of words, and at one point it went beyond words. A member of 50 Cent's posse shot a member of The Game's outside a radio station. Both rappers had new recordings coming out, but there was more to the war than mere publicity.
Rappers get shot about once every couple of months. But Justin Timberlake and Green Day never get shot. Just why is it business as usual for so many rappers, rolling in dough and covered with adulation, to settle arguments with bullets? Ethan Brown's "Queens Reigns Supreme" helps fill us in.
In the 1980s, southeast section of Queens -- New York City's largest borough -- spawned a clutch of drug-vending syndicates led by young black men. They became some of the most mindlessly violent cells New York has ever known, especially when crack cocaine raised the stakes. But only briefly: After the murder of rookie cop Edward Byrne in 1988, an investigative crackdown and new sentencing laws sent so many of the key players up the river that even those lucky enough to remain behind knew that an era was over.
So a lot of them decided to get a piece of the next best thing to gang-banging: the music about it. Hence Kenneth "Preme" McGriff went from heading the gang The Supreme Team in the 1980s to helping bankroll Irv "Gotti" Lorenzo's rap label Murder, Inc. As Lorenzo's brother and co-worker Chris has it: "No one wants to be a drug dealer now; you wanna be a rapper now." As such, 50 Cent started out as a small-time crack seller under legendary kingpin Lorenzo "Fat Cat" Nichols and parlayed his adventures into the "honesty" of his rap lyrics. The problem has been that the ex-gangsters have had a way of transferring their Mafia-style turf battles into their new line of work.
When Mr. Brown kicks off his book with a long list of personalities -- "the players" -- and their basic stats, one naturally worries that the text itself will not be able to convey the necessary information effectively. And indeed "Queens Reigns Supreme" is a rather meandering chronicle, surveying an endless procession of interchangeable hoodlums with Runyonesque epithets. After describing the brief reign of the Queens gangs, Mr. Brown gives us his journalistic two cents on the murders of Tupac Shakur and Jason "Jam Master Jay" Mizell, as well as his thoughts on the misadventures of 50 Cent (including naming the man who shot him, which "50" himself has been coy about doing in interviews).
Rap addicts will feast on the lore nevertheless: The book is already generating lots of buzz on Web sites. For the rest of us, "Queens Reigns Supreme" is a narrative of awesomely meaningless existences. Despite their rosy grins in photos from their salad days, almost all the people involved with the Queens gangs ended up dead or in jail. Then there is 50 Cent's posse shooting away in a Jersey City hotel parking lot. Or Shakur, according to Mr. Brown's interviews, pinning on Biggie Smalls and others gunshots that he actually inflicted on himself. (He was eventually shot dead for reasons unknown.)
Mr. Brown, well aware of the theatrical nature of the "gangsta" routine, commendably spares us the pretense that these vignettes are "self-expression" by people denied access to resources. The dramatis personae generally grew up in solidly working-class homes, often with two working parents. Mr. Brown just gives the facts, but the implications are clear: These guys were not revolutionaries but bad apples.
As late as 1987, the key players have names like Clarence and Harold and girlfriends with names like Myrtle. There is barely a Jamal or a Tamika, which reminds us that they were born in the late 1960s, just before black American naming traditions split from the mainstream. They were thus of the very first generation of blacks who grew up in the era when the "thug" persona was beginning to jump the rails in the black community, from marginal to ordinary.
Counsel From Fat Cat
Black pop artists before then were no more strangers to drugs and occasional violence than white ones were, but the liner notes for boxed sets of Chuck Berry or The Temptations do not read like chronicles of Prohibition-era rum-runners machine-gunning their way to incarceration and oblivion. The reason we now have pop histories like "Queens Reigns Supreme" is that the root-causes paradigm, together with a new oppositional race ideology, taught a simple but dangerous idea: that for black people, rebellion, no matter how incoherent, was an insightful response to less-than-ideal circumstances. From then on, fewer young black men had the natural recoil from crime that, say, the Senegalese immigrant's child tends to have. The "street" now considered the rebel perhaps not an ideal man but at least an understandable one. Apres ï¿½a le deluge.
Late in the book, Mr. Brown appends some counsel from the slammer by Fat Cat, offered in June to help others avoid following in his footsteps. A hopeful sign, one might think. But in that very month, I recall, a young black man in Brooklyn was shot dead at a barbecue by people who resented his intruding on their turf as an aspiring rapper. As Mr. Brown squeezes in other events of last summer unfolding just before his final-draft deadline, we see that the saga he relates is far from over.
One day another journalist will write a book in which not only the drug wars but also the hip-hop wars are a thing of the past. For now, "Queens Reigns Supreme" is a decent way to get a sense of what's behind the macho depravity that we are, for now, stuck with.
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