Lords of Dopetown

Nicky Barnes, left, and Frank LucasPhoto: From left, Tyrone Dukes/The New York Times/Redux; PR Newsfoto/BET Networks/Newscom

During the Harlem heroin plague of the seventies, few dealers were bigger than Frank Lucas and Leroy “Nicky” Barnes. Both made millions selling dope, lived the wide-brimmed-hat high life, enabled the addiction of whole neighborhoods, and, eventually, got caught. Both were locked up and later cooperated with authorities—some might call it snitching. Now, with Lucas confined to a wheelchair and Barnes in some Witness Protection Program locale, each is the subject of a current film. Barnes reports on his life and times in the flava-full documentary Mr. Untouchable. Lucas hit the ultimate Hollywood jackpot, getting Denzel Washington, no less, to play him in American Gangster (reviewed this week in “The Culture Pages”).

And so, three decades after their heyday, these former street titans are still generating commerce. This makes sense, as both insist they were businessmen, first and foremost. The trick for an ambitious black man in the seventies dope game was to minimize the sway of the Italian distributors who had controlled the Harlem scene for decades. Using sheer volume as an edge, Barnes cut increasingly favorable deals with his Mafia partners. He had the biggest clientele—hundreds of thousands of repeat (and repeat) buyers. It was a captive market, and he was their low-cost retailer. Lucas, more of a boutique operator, managed to bypass the Italians altogether by establishing the grisly but exceedingly lucrative “cadaver connection”—a direct line from Asia’s “Golden Triangle” poppy growers straight to 116th Street, smuggling heroin inside the coffins of American soldiers killed in the Vietnam War.

When the possibility emerged that these two old-school street rivals might be willing to engage in what could only be called a historic conversation—they haven’t spoken in 30 years—it was easy to envision yelling, phone slamming, and maybe even a death threat or two. Lucas, as I knew well (from writing in this magazine the original piece upon which American Gangster is based), could go off at any moment. And Barnes, who likes to quote Moby-Dick and King Lear, mocks Lucas’s “country boy” lack of education and perceived lack of finesse in Mr. Untouchable. When it came down to it, however, the two old drug-kingpins-in-winter revealed a familiarity that bordered on a kind of love. Or at least respect for a fellow tycoon.

NICKY BARNES: Hey, hey, what’s up, playa?


NB: I heard you’re in a wheelchair. What’s going on?

FL: Broke a leg, Nick. Two places.

NB: Damn.

FL: So what’s with you, man?

NB: Chilling, dude.

MARK JACOBSON: You two guys talking is something of an occasion. Ever think you’d be in the history books?

NB: I don’t know about history—

FL: Hey, Nick! I told everybody and their momma you’ll be hooking up with me in Harlem in the next two years.

NB: You won’t see me in Harlem … I gave up 109 federal felony offenses ’cause I had powder in Brooklyn and the Bronx. Too many people would be gunning for me in New York.

FL: Come on, Nick, you don’t give a damn about them little kamikazes out in the street. I been knowing you for fortysomething years.

MJ: Do you remember when you guys first met?

FL: When was it, Nick? The night you come outta jail. Was that 1970, ’69, ’68?

NB: Yeah, ’70. We met through Jimmy Terrell. Remember Jimmy Terrell? Remember Goldfinger?

FL: ’Course I remember the Goldfinger.

NB: We were in Smalls, drinking. You remember this dude Prat that had that habitual stool right next to—

FL: Yeah, Prat! He didn’t live long after that, did he?

NB: Somebody knocked him over. He owed somebody some money or something.

FL: Right. He was going at somebody’s woman…

MJ: You guys have been described as being competitors. Is that true?

FL: Well, Nick wasn’t gonna catch me—I was paying $4,000 a key. Nick, you was probably paying $65,000 or $70,000, weren’t you?

NB: During that time I was paying $35,000.

FL: And I was paying $4,000. So there was no fight then.¹

MJ: Which one of you guys had the best dope?

FL: Mark, here you go! Stirring shit up. Man, I had the best dope in the world. I had 98 to 100 percent pure.

NB: Frank had a nice package, no doubt. I had to get a pen and a pad and mediate my stuff. But when you took the mix out, my thing was close to his. Close enough for somebody not to wait on one when they could get the other. Frank, you were mostly on 116th Street, right?

FL: Yeah.

NB: Well, I had powder in all five boroughs. Not just uptown.

FL: You were big, Nick, all over.

Nicky Barnes with then-wife Thelma at a party in the seventies.Photo: Beverly James

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.

FL: All the difference in the world.

NB: In federal court, they can railroad your ass, man. In state court, you can get a fair hearing and a fair jury.

MJ: A topic that comes up a lot—it came up at a showing of Nick’s movie, and it will when American Gangster opens—is that you can sell a lot of drugs and kill people—

FL: Stop right there. Nick ain’t ever killed nobody. Me either.

MJ: I know you’re a Gandhi kind of guy, Frank. I’m saying you can do all kinds of crimes, but a lot of people feel if you snitch, that’s worse. What do you guys think about that?

FL: I never in my life, not to this day, testified on nobody. Ain’t no sonofabitch in the world who’s ever gotten put in on account of me. Bad cops, yes. But rat that shit—no, no, no, no, no.

NB: When it comes to testifying, I testified against the guys who were in the Council along with me.4

FL: Like Guy Fisher.

NB: Yeah, Guy Fisher, Frank James, Wally, Coco, Kenny, and you know, a couple of other guys. When I went into the joint, I gave Guy Fisher a woman of mine and told him to look out for her, take care of her. I didn’t expect him to start fucking her.

FL: Guy Fisher’s a punk. What do you expect out of a fucking punk?

NB: I expected him to do what I was askin’ him to do. Not to betray me. Look, he had women of his own who were as attractive as mine.

FL: You had good-looking women, Nick!

NB: I don’t know why he had to bone her, and I don’t know why the other Council members let him live after they knew he did it. That’s why I cooperated. If I couldn’t get out, I could still pull those motherfuckers in with me.

MJ: Any second thoughts, Nick?

NB: No, man. When I realized they left me on the battlefield to die, I said, “Fuck it!” … I said, “I’ll pull those motherfuckers in, let them see what it’s like.” I would rather be out here in the witness program than to be in jail with them. Why would I wanna be in there with them kinda niggers? I don’t regret it. I saw this show on CNN, with Anderson Cooper. Cats were talking about “Don’t snitch, no matter what happens.” Well, I can’t see how a guy can be considered strong if he lets a bunch of assholes walk all over him and he doesn’t respond, just because of some code that a bunch of idiots have cooked up. Anderson Cooper asked this rapper, “Suppose a child was molested and you knew who this molester was. Would you tell the police?” He said, “No.” So that’s what I’m sayin’—the street guidelines are just moron bullshit.

MJ: Frank? Do you think there’s a time when it’s good to cooperate?

FL: I told you before. I never testified on nobody.

MJ: Some cases were made, Frank.

FL: Look! I have remorse about what I did.

NB: Frank, talk a little softer. You’re yelling.

FL: I have remorse. I never sold nothing to a kid in the street, but I found out that my people had. I didn’t want to sell to kids. I didn’t want to make them junkies. I didn’t want to be a part of it. I justify it by saying during my time, I couldn’t get a job on Wall Street, not even washing toilets. I went to school three days and the teacher wasn’t there two of them. I had to make a living. I didn’t want to be just a damn bum in the street. So that’s what I did. But it’s complicated. When you get there, every rat in the goddamned woods is gonna come running to you. And anytime you don’t got no money, everybody disappears. Tell ’em, Nick.

MJ: Most people say you guys hated each other, but it seems like you were buddies. What’s the story?

NB: I’ll tell you what a lot of people don’t understand. See, you read in the paper about people having shooting wars about turf. But both of us operated in that 116th Street area, and it was no problem. If only one of us had had powder out there, every time the police came out, they would have been able to surveil out that one group. But if there’s a lot of people out there …

MJ: Did you ever think there’d be this whole hip-hop thing? You guys are both mentioned in a million rap songs.

FL: Call them songs? When I came along, we had singing. They might make up songs about me, but I don’t have to like them.

MJ: What about you, Nick? You’re like a hip-hop folk hero.

NB: I never thought anything like this would happen. When hip-hop first started, everybody—I mean the music entrepreneurs—predicted that hip-hop would be dead in five years. They said, “Those motherfuckers ain’t gonna make no money.” But hip-hop rolled along, and look what they’re doing now. They got Jay-Z, Damon Dash, Kanye West, 50 Cent. These guys are doing something legitimate.

FL: At least Nick knows the names. I don’t know none of them. I know Puffy Combs, because of his father.

NB: Oh, Melvin! Melvin Combs.

FL: Melvin used to be at my house a couple of times a week. I’m proud to see Melvin’s son like that.

MJ: Nick, are you curious about how you’re portrayed in American Gangster?

NB: Yeah. But when I heard that Cuba Gooding was doing it, I thought it’ll probably be decent. He’s an Academy Award winner.

MJ: What about Denzel as Frank?

NB: I knew if Denzel played the lead, then it wouldn’t be a bullshit part or a fucked-up script.

FL: Denzel Washington did more than a good job, he did a hell of a job. Nobody in the world’s as good as Denzel.

MJ: Man, I thought you guys might be more at odds. This is a love-in.

FL: We are friends, so you’re missing the whole point.

NB: There were a lot of the people who we were both hooked up with who we both like. Jimmy Terrell, for example, and Turtle and Claude, Peter MacDougal, Frank Moten.

NB: What about the guy who died in the mob riot?

FL: Aww, what was his name? Got killed on the George Washington Bridge. What was his fuckin’ name?

NB: I forgot his name, too, but we knew all of these guys. I guess there’s some nostalgia in it.

FL: It was the good old boys back then, that’s what it was.

NB: Frank, are you taking anything for your broken leg?

FL: They gave me a whole bunch of shit.

NB: There’s a Website out there of a guy named Gary Null. He’s an alternative practitioner, and he offers all kinds of vitamin supplements to cure bone injuries. You really ought to go check him out.

FL: Yeah? I’m going to take this down, man.

MJ: The vitamin connect. Hey, what do you want to have on your epitaph? What do you want your legacy to be?

NB: I’ll tell you what I want them to say on mine. I want them to say, “Boy oh boy, he was old. God damn, he was old.”

FL: Fuckin’ old.

Mark Jacobson’s 2000 Profile of Frank Lucas

1. A “key” is a kilogram of uncut heroin. Lucas brought his prices down by working with Southeast Asian suppliers, while Barnes purchased his keys from Mafia sources.

2. MCC, the Metropolitan Correction Center, held federal prisoners awaiting trial. Matty Madonna and Herbie Sperling were well-known criminals involved in the drug business. Sperling, a man of diminutive stature, was widely known as being “mean as a snake.” Asked about this, Lucas said, “There ain’t no snake that mean.”

3. Barnes posed for the cover of The New York Times Magazine in 1977. When President Carter saw the image, he was said to have personally directed the Feds to crack down.

4. The Council was the name for Barnes’s inner circle.

Lords of Dopetown