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Lords of Dopetown

Nicky Barnes with then-wife Thelma at a party in the seventies.  

MJ: Suppose each one of you got a pound. Frank Lucas’s business model against Nicky Barnes’s business model—head-to-head, who’s going to make the most money?

FL: That’s easy. The one who got the best dope, that’s who.

NB: Frank’s right. It is always about the product. Once I had a fight with a guy named Steve Austin. I had better dope. Steve knew it. He came up and knocked on the window of my car. “Yo, dude,” he said, “we don’t want you over here.” I said, “I’m gonna put my foot in your motherfuckin’ ass.” In those days, you didn’t shoot nobody because he was on your turf, you know. You had to have hand-to-hand combat. But the buyers didn’t care, because they followed the powder, not the guys who controlled the neighborhood.

MJ: When the movies come out, there’ll be a lot of controversy about whether you guys are being glorified. What about that?

FL: Nick is a good dude who should be glorified, not me.

MJ: Why do you say that?

FL: Because he’s a hell of a good guy.

MJ: But you were both in the same business.

FL: You in the same business as other writers. You don’t go to slit their throat. Do you?

MJ: Frank. I mean, c’mon.

NB: No one should be elevated because of what they did in the drug business. The way we operated—there was a lot of violence, like, ten to twelve homicides, to keep the whole operation running. You can’t glorify that. It’s not something Frank or I would tell any of our children to get into.

FL: Absolutely right, Nick.

NB: Heroin wreaked a lot of havoc and a lot of pain in the black community. I shouldn’t have done it. Maybe I was aware, but I just didn’t give a fuck. I wanted to make money, and that’s what I did. Looking back, I wouldn’t have made those decisions, but it’s a hell of a lot different and much easier to sanitize yourself after the fact.

FL: In our business, you get paid by fear. When the fear factor comes in, that’s when you start to make money. Violence is part of it. You ain’t gonna sweet-talk no motherfucker.

MJ: Who was more corrupt: the dealers or the cops?

FL: The cops was more corrupt. You shake hands with a drug dealer, you got their word. If they don’t do what they say, they’re gonna die. Everyone knows that.

NB: Yeah, yeah, I go with that.

FL: A drug dealer gonna live to his word. I’m not talking about a junkie. I’m talking about a man like Frank Lucas or Nicky Barnes.

MJ: Rudy Giuliani chased both you guys when he was D.A. What do you think about him running for president?

NB: Giuliani would make a good president because he’s a principled guy.

FL: When Giuliani tells you something, he means it. But I don’t think we’re ready for an Italian president. I don’t think we’re ready for a black president. I don’t think we’re ready for a woman president, but I tell you right now: I think Hillary Clinton will win this thing hands down.

NB: Hillary will be the next president.

FL: No question about it.

MJ: You guys have said some pretty harsh things about each other over the years. Nick, what’s your biggest bitch with Frank?

NB: Well, I read he had this multimillion-dollar contract on my life.

FL: Nick, hold on there! You know me a long time, and you know me well. If I had a contract on you, I’d have been hanged 20 or 30 years ago. You know doggone well that I wouldn’t do that.

NB: This was when they had the grand jury. I was with Matty Madonna and Herbie Sperling. You were on the third floor at the MCC.² Do you remember that, Frank?

FL: Absolutely.

NB: There was a corrections officer who said that Frank Lucas went to one of the other corrections officers and told him that Nicky Barnes was down there, and he was trying to set him up.

FL: You believe that? Nick! Listen to me, and hear me real good: Anybody tells you that, they’re a damn liar. You’ve been too close to me.

NB: Just what I heard.

MJ: Nick, when the New York Times called you “Mister Untouchable,” that even got the president’s attention.³ When you first found out about Carter seeing the paper, what did you think?

NB: I thought I had made a mistake, but it was done then. I still thought that I had a really good chance of winning that case, because there’s a difference between a trial in a federal court and one in a state court.