On the mix-tape track “Fuck You,” 50 wonders rhetorically if McGriff was responsible for his brush with death. “50, who shot ya?” he rapped. “You think it was ’Preme, Freeze, or Tah-Tah.” Tyran “Tah-Tah” Moore is an ex-con associate of McGriff’s and was briefly a suspect in the still unsolved murder of Run-DMC D.J. Jam Master Jay, 50’s former mentor.
Handsome, charming (even to the cops who arrested him in 1987), and rich beyond the imagination of anyone in southeast Queens, McGriff was, to borrow Queens rapper Nas’s memorable phrase, a “hood movie star.” Before McGriff entered the crack business, dealers were free agents. McGriff consolidated disparate dealers, “putting together nine to ten sale locations around southeast Queens which included Baisley Park and Sutphin Boulevard,” according to the former Queens narcotics cop. “It’s possible that McGriff’s was the first-ever crack organization,” the ex-detective says.
McGriff was sentenced to twelve years for his participation in a continuing criminal enterprise. “The inmates were calling out his name,” remembers the detective. “He was a very well-thought-of criminal, very well recognized.” Many emcees have put the McGriff myth into verse, and 50 Cent claims that he and the former drug kingpin had a rivalry. “His outlook on things is he should do what he wants to do, and I feel exactly the same,” 50 Cent told me. “So we clash. You know what I mean? He’s just not gonna like me and I’m not gonna like him.”
McGriff’s attorney, Robert Simels, dismisses the notion that the two had a rivalry, pointing out that McGriff is 42 and 50 is 27. “How could he grow up with Kenny?” Simels asks. Of “Ghetto Qur’an,” where 50 Cent intimates that he was a hustler on a par with Queens street legends Fat Cat and Tommy “Tony Montana” Mickens, Simels says dismissively, “He didn’t know Mickens, he didn’t know Fat Cat. It’s all bullshit.”
Ja rule, on the other hand, has boasted his label is funded by Supreme Team representatives. The Feds believe him. A slew of federal agencies—including the IRS, the FBI, and the DEA—is investigating alleged drug trafficking, fraud, and money laundering by people associated with Murder Inc. The IRS agent alleges that McGriff is “the true owner of the company.” The agent also says that McGriff has been “a mafia-like muscleman for the label.” Using a Murder Inc. pager, McGriff bragged about warning rivals “never to fuck with” Murder Inc., according to the IRS agent. Murder Inc., according to the agent, paid McGriff’s expenses—including $1,200 in limo rides—for two trips to Texas to visit his imprisoned nephew, Gerald “Prince” Miller. McGriff’s visits, the agent claims, coincided with “a sharp increase in the presence of heroin in the prison facility.”
Through a spokesperson, Lorenzo refused to comment on the investigation, as did Def Jam. But a Def Jam source refutes the charge that McGriff provided start-up money for Murder Inc. “Look at Irv’s history,” the man says. “He started out as an A&R man, making $18,000 a year. At that point, he was living in the studio. His next promotion was to a $30,000-a-year A&R job. The real money came after he produced a hit for DMX’s first record; he got a $3 million check to start Murder Inc. McGriff was nowhere near the picture back then.”
But in July 2001, when cops pulled over McGriff in his black BMW near 145th Street in Harlem—claiming that he was leaving the scene of a marijuana deal—he identified himself as a Def Jam executive. McGriff could have been lying about his position with the label; in the hip-hop world, it’s common for hangers-on to identify themselves as execs. Nonetheless, cops seized nearly $10,000 in cash and a .40-caliber pistol from McGriff’s car (but no marijuana).
Neither side disputes the fact that Murder Inc. struck a deal with McGriff in 2002 to distribute the soundtrack for the straight-to-DVD film Crime Partners. McGriff received a nearly $300,000 advance, according to a source close to Def Jam, who says that at first “Irv didn’t want to get involved” but that he figured, “ ‘Here’s a guy getting out of a life of crime, why not give him a chance?’ ” Lorenzo, who also grew up in southeast Queens, lavished expensive gifts, like an $80,000 SUV, on the former drug kingpin.
Lorenzo may wish he’d stuck with his initial instincts: The DVD’s other executive producers, Jon Ragin and Wayne Davis, are former drug dealers who, the agent alleges, were laundering proceeds from criminal activity through their company. A January 2003 raid of Ragin’s office yielded over 1,000 blank credit cards and equipment for manufacturing more. In August, Ragin plead guilty to criminal-conspiracy charges.
Though Def Jam and Murder Inc. point to a third-party audit of Murder Inc.’s finances that refutes many of the IRS agent’s allegations, there is clearly concern about the negative publicity generated by the investigation. On November 13, Lorenzo announced that his label would be known as “The Inc.,” conceding, “I am changing the name so people can just try and focus on our music. I’ve been making hits now for close to ten years. All everyone seems to want to focus on is the word Murder.”
The ratcheting down of Murder Inc.’s profile is an acknowledgment that though beefs can make the careers of rappers, real violence gives major record labels pause about the hip-hop business. Platinum records are no insurance against terminated distribution deals, as Death Row Records found out in the mid-nineties, when a group of conservatives led by William Bennett convinced Time Warner to sever its ties with the label even though it was peaking commercially with artists like Dr. Dre, Tupac, and Snoop Dogg. Quincy Jones III, producer of a straight-to-DVD documentary called Beef, remembers that moment all too well: His sister Kidada was Tupac’s fiancée and was with him when he was murdered in Las Vegas in 1996. “Beefs are killing hip-hop,” Jones says. “We’ve got to start uniting or we’re going to lose this music completely. There should be a lot more alarm about what’s going on.”
Russell Simmons’s political-action group, the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network, is trying to bring the parties to the table to negotiate a truce. Even after 50 Cent pulled out of Farrakhan’s “beef mediation,” HSAN co-founder Ben Chavis told New York that 50 Cent and manager Chris Lighty “are onboard, totally.” But 50 Cent seems about as interested in laying down his arms as does Hamas. The most recent mix CD from 50’s G-Unit is called No Peace Talks, and on one track, the rapper warns Ja Rule, “I think I’m going to have go see the minister and explain to him why I can’t let up off you. It’s against my religion to let a nigga survive. When you destroy you destroy completely, bitch.”
Meanwhile, out in southeast Queens, things have been heating to eighties levels. In May, Jam Master Jay’s nephew, a rapper named Boe Skagz, was shot by a man named Karl “Little Dee” Jordan, who was allegedly angry over Skagz’s song that, in the style of 50’s “Ghetto Qur’an,” named neighborhood dealers.
In September, D. O. Cannon, a 26-year-old rapper who appeared on Murder Inc. tracks, and Shadaha Bey, a member of 50 Cent’s G-Unit posse, were gunned down on the street within a week of each other. Police have no suspects in either case, and Simmons stresses that Cannon was never signed to Murder Inc. But it’s telling that Cannon’s final hip-hop verses appear on Ja Rule’s 50 Cent–baiting “Things Gon Change.” “You better watch you mouth, fo’ I rip yo face off,” Cannon warns 50 Cent. “And everybody you with gonna jet the fuck off / You’s ain’t gangsta, you sweet as duck sauce.”
Simmons rebuts the suggestion that those murders are hip-hop-related. “Twelve or fourteen people got killed between Jamaica and Hollis over the last sixteen to eighteen days,” he observes. “Nobody wrote about it.” And Simmons makes a valid point: Murders in the 103rd Precinct are up an astonishing 257 percent over the past two years. The desolate street where Cannon was slain is the sort of drug-trade-dominated block—complete with lookouts blowing whistles at the sight of outsiders—that most New Yorkers assume was cleaned up in the Giuliani years. Yet even here, Murder Inc.’s presence is felt: The label’s slogan, “It’s murdah,” is emblazoned on the makeshift shrine for Cannon.
It’s a juxtaposition—young African-American men dying on the streets as multimillionaire rappers blithely beef—that disturbs many in the community. “It’s funny,” says a man who grew up with the pair of rappers. “The more money Ja and 50 get, the worse they act. Once the money started rolling in, they got the tattoos, the gold teeth, and they started the beef. It’s gangsta minstrelsy, man.” He lets out an exasperated sigh. “With real G’s”—street slang for gangstas—“it’s just the opposite. Once they go legit, they start dressing good, acting right. They don’t ever want to go back to that life. Ja and 50 could lose it all on a life they never led.”