Pubdate: Sun, 26 Jan 2003
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2003 The New York Times Company
Author: Michael Wilson And Lynette Holloway


Irving Lorenzo was born in Hollis, Queens, in 1971, the youngest of eight 
siblings who, 12 years later, pooled their money to buy the boy his first 
D.J. rig. "D.J. Irv" became a minor star in Queens before crossing the East 
River and establishing himself as a producer with a golden ear, a star 
maker at Murder Inc., a gritty boutique label under the legendary Def Jam 
records. One day, a rapper called him "Gotti" in homage to the former Mafia 
boss; he has gone by the name ever since.

Kenneth McGriff grew up nearby, 11 years older than the hot young Irv 
Gotti. He took over the oldest gang in Queens, the Five Percenters, so 
named for the belief that 5 percent of all men are enlightened and become 
gods. Under Mr. McGriff, the gang was called the Supreme Team, and he 
became, simply, "Supreme." He ran, within the red-brick towers of the 
Baisley Park housing projects, a round-the-clock crack cocaine trade that 
looked more like a corporation than a corner dope outfit, prosecutors said. 
He was arrested in a police sweep of the Supreme Team in 1988, convicted of 
federal narcotics conspiracy charges, and served 10 years in prison.

The two were friends. Now, some two decades after their paths crossed in 
Hollis, the full nature of the relationship between the two men is being 
examined by police and federal investigators, who are looking into whether 
the proceeds from Mr. McGriff's drug days helped start Mr. Gotti in the 
music industry, several law enforcement officials have said. The 
investigation is also examining whether the record label was used to 
launder money, and whether Mr. McGriff served as muscle for Mr. Gotti and 
Murder Inc., they added. The F.B.I. led raids on Murder Inc. offices in 
recent weeks, seizing records and computer drives.

Mr. Gotti and his business associates say the investigation is nonsense, 
that he began Murder Inc. with startup money from Def Jam records, and that 
law enforcement scrutiny is the price paid for keeping old friends from the 
streets. A lawyer for Mr. McGriff said his client's dealings with Murder 
Inc. have been legitimate since his release from prison, that he is an 
aspiring script writer and film producer.

The investigation began nearly two years ago with a single city police 
detective focusing on drug trafficking, and over time zeroed in on ties 
between people in the drug trade and in the rap industry. It involves 
investigators from more than half a dozen other agencies, including the 
Drug Enforcement Administration, the F.B.I., the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco 
and Firearms, United States postal inspectors and the Internal Revenue 
Service. It is being overseen by the office of the United States attorney 
in Brooklyn, Roslynn R. Mauskopf.

No charges have been filed against Mr. Lorenzo, nor against any other 
high-profile figures in the rap industry. But the actions by the 
authorities in the case so far suggest that the members of task force are 
well along in their effort to compile evidence on possible links between 
the music world and the drug trade.

The investigation is playing itself out against a backdrop of violence and 
thug bravado long associated with rap music. Rap artists celebrate drug 
dealers by name. Mr. Gotti's own recording studio, in SoHo, is known as the 
Crack House.

Indeed, the same boasts of wrongdoing that give rap artists credibility 
with their audience, observers say, can attract attention from law 
enforcement, too.

"They painted this picture themselves," said Antoine Clark, publisher of 
F.E.D.S. magazine, which covers both the rap industry and the underworld it 
often celebrates.

"There's something that comes behind bringing in a kingpin to sit and ride 
with you," he said. "There's a certain ghetto pride and ghetto respect, but 
there's also a police investigation into the ties. If there's no ties, you 
can live happily ever after."

Mr. Gotti himself has said that his rise in Queens was not all spinning 
turntables at house parties. He has, in past interviews, openly discussed 
his relationships with drug dealers in his youth. He made them mixed tapes, 
and was eventually "lured" into the business, selling drugs, he has said. 
"I don't recommend it," he told Rolling Stone last year.

He started working at Island/Def Jam records in the mid-1990's while the 
label was in a slump. Long gone were the trailblazers of rap, like Public 
Enemy, who came up with Def Jam. The new talents were all on the West Coast.

Mr. Gotti started Murder Inc. in 1997 when he signed the artists Ja Rule, 
Jay-Z, DMX and Ashanti. Since then, he has become of one of the standout 
earners in the music industry. Ashanti, the rhythm and blues singer, and Ja 
Rule were among last year's most popular and most successful artists. 
Ashanti had the biggest debut for a new artist last year, selling 4.3 
million copies of her self-titled album.

With proceeds from Ashanti's and Ja Rule's albums and other projects, Mr. 
Gotti nearly doubled the value of Murder Inc. in a year, increasing its 
worth to $70 million, said an executive at Universal Music Group, which 
owns Island/Def Jam Records.

"Irv Gotti is a brand now," said Steve Wonsiewicz, editor of Sound Values, 
a monthly financial newsletter about the music industry. "When you mention 
Irv Gotti to kids, they know his beats. They know his artists."

Mr. McGriff's fortunes and power were, in their own way, no less 
spectacular in the tough corners of Jamaica, Queens. The Supreme Team was 
said to have some 200 members, making thousands of drug transactions every 
week around Baisley Park. The police cracked down, only to see the dealers 
emerge somewhere else in the surrounding neighborhoods. Then, on Feb. 26, 
1988, a police officer, Edward Byrne, was shot in the head while guarding a 
witness in a drug case. Mr. McGriff was behind bars at the time. Another 
dealer, Howard Mason, was convicted of ordering the shooting.

Mr. McGriff piqued the interest of investigators when they learned that he 
had approached Mr. Gotti looking for work after he left prison in the late 
1990's. The two men made no secret of their association; indeed, they hid 
their relationship in plain sight.

Artists on Mr. Gotti's label have lauded "Supreme" in song, while rival 
rappers have taunted the pair's friendship. The ex-convict visited the 
Murder Inc. office frequently, apparently breaking into the business when 
he optioned the film rights to "Crime Partners," by the pulp novelist 
Donald Goines, which he read in prison. He visited the New York sets, 
granted interviews, and is listed as a producer on the film, to be released 
straight to DVD in March.

"Kenny primarily has been involved in trying to write scripts," said Mr. 
McGriff's lawyer, Robert M. Simels. "He's smart enough to understand the 
real money in today's world is in the entertainment business, not any other 
kind of activity."

Mr. McGriff is being held in Baltimore on federal firearms charges of 
shooting a gun at a firing range. As a felon, he is forbidden to possess a 
firearm. Trial is slated for March.

Federal prosecutors are investigating, in particular, a payout related to 
the movie. They have seized four bank accounts at HSBC, at least one of 
which belonged to a company tied to Mr. McGriff and involved in the 
production of the movie, several people familiar with the case said. 
Island/Def Jam Records, a part owner of Murder Inc., paid $500,000 to the 
company, Picture Perfect Entertainment, for a soundtrack for the film, 
titled "Crime Partners 2000," according to Mr. Simels, who also represents 
Picture Perfect.

A law enforcement official said that among the company's principals were 
Mr. McGriff's sister, Barbara McGriff, and Jon Ragin, an associate of Mr. 
McGriff's who was arrested several weeks ago on federal credit card fraud 
charges that grew out of the larger investigation.

The money was for the production of the movie soundtrack, Mr. Simels said, 
and the disbursements from the accountant were legitimate and overseen by a 
reputable entertainment management company.

A public relations firm hired last week to represent Mr. Gotti's lawyers 
issued a statement with no mention of Mr. McGriff: "Irv Lorenzo has 
discovered some of today's greatest music talents. He is an honest and 
hard-working businessman whose life is dedicated to music. Irv Lorenzo's 
record company is a joint venture with Island/Def Jam, and the funding for 
the company comes from Island/Def Jam. Island/Def Jam owns the rights to 
distribute the soundtrack to the movie `Crime Partners.' "

Music industry insiders declined to comment on the relationship between Mr. 
Gotti and Mr. McGriff, or spoke anonymously.

J. Jesses Smith, who directed "Crime Partners 2000," has worked with both 
men. "I heard Irv say: `I always believe in helping the men around me. I 
can't be the only guy with all the money,' " he said in a recent report on 
MTV's Web site.

The investigation is being pursued during a period of some mayhem in the 
New York rap community. Nothing in rap happens in a vacuum - on the 
contrary, everything that happens in rap winds up in rhyming verse.

In the spring of 2000, Mr. Gotti, his brother and manager, Christopher 
Lorenzo, and a third man, Ramel Gill, were charged with gang assault and 
first-degree assault, both felonies, in connection with a March 24, 2000, 
attack on the rapper known as 50 Cent and two other men at a recording 
studio called the Hit Factory on West 54th Street, according to court 
papers. 50 Cent, whose real name is Curtis Jackson, has made a name for 
himself by surviving attacks on his life and belittling other rappers in 
his music.

Just before 1 a.m. that day, the three men, along with others, attacked the 
rapper and three other men with fists, a metal crutch and a knife, 
according to the papers. The rapper suffered cuts and stab wounds in his back.

Mr. Jackson obtained an order of protection against the men. The charges 
were later dismissed.

Two months later, Mr. Jackson was shot nine times, once in the face, in 
front of his grandmother's house in Jamaica, Queens. He went on to rap 
about surviving the attack, and even raise the question in verse of whether 
" 'Preme," Mr. McGriff, had anything to do with it.

Last October, Mr. Jackson's mentor, Jam Master Jay, was shot to death in 
his Queens studio. That shooting remains unsolved, and law enforcement 
officials were investigating a number of theories, ranging from a personal 
business dispute to strife within the industry.

An industry that relies on bad-boy image and, to some extent, muscle, is in 
flux, with Suge Knight, a high-profile rap mogul, Mr. McGriff, and others 
in prison or jail. "There is a power vacuum now," said an investigator 
familiar with the case. "The Murder Inc. people are scared, 50 Cent is 
coming up and everybody is running around nervous."

"There are two aspects in the industry, the money and record sales and also 
the muscle side - the rappers can't exist without the muscle behind them," 
the investigator said.

On Jan. 16, two weeks after the raid at Murder Inc., someone rode the 
elevator to the 11th floor of another hip-hop office, Violator Records 
Management, which represents 50 Cent, and fired at least six shots at the 
plate-glass windows in the reception area. No one was hit. No one was caught.
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