Dead on the Vine: Who Profits from the Image of Drugs & Violence?

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Pablo Escobar in front of the White House with his son, 1981.

When I was young I didn’t know much about drugs save for what I saw. Cute boys sold weed. People who did crack stole the change from your car and danced in the street. I applied the word “crackhead” only in the most literal sense. I was in middle school the first time I recall someone using it casually, and I repeated loudly, in disbelief: “Mrs. Fanelli’s on crack?”*

It wasn’t until much later that I learned that “cocaine” was the main ingredient in the reformulation of what I knew as “crack”. Cocaine was derived from the coca plant indigenous to South America; and was sold as a finely ground powder to be snorted through the nose or ingested orally. Crack-cocaine was literally the poor man’s coke — it was made from the dissolution of the cocaine powder in water and ammonia, its crystalline precipitate crushed in a pipe and smoked. Though it was the same substance, like cement and concrete, it was never treated as such. In fact, until the passage of the Fair Sentencing Act in 2010, the sentencing disparity between crack-cocaine and powder-cocaine was 100 to 1.

I didn’t know much crack cost but I imagined it was very cheap, given people on crack usually only asked for a dollar or some change. Cocaine cost hundreds of dollars for what appeared to be one tiny baggie. If crack-cocaine was the poor man’s coke, powder cocaine was the drug of the elite — businessmen and their degenerate kids, executives and wealth escorts, strippers and desperate financiers. As such, the South American drug dealers who processed and provided these narcotics were also very, very rich.

*Mrs. Fanelli was not on crack.

Despite the glamour around cocaine usage in American media, the men who supplied the drug were villainized and depicted as vicious and murderous outlaws. Their vilification extended to entire populations of their home countries, the stereotype weaponized and utilized as the rhetorical foundation for much anti-immigrant language. The usage of powdered cocaine by white elites was largely distanced from violence, addiction, and moral depravity associated with the traffick & use of the drug by other groups. The laymen and women who used cocaine’s derivative substance were drug addicts and welfare queens. The men who provided it were rapists and murderers. Wealthy cocaine users enjoyed complete absolution from the murder and violence that produced the supply for their recreational activity. Those bankrolling the industry through investment in and consumption of smuggled goods could hide behind images of “crackheads”, “coke fiends”, drug dealers, murderers, at the same time it’s casual consumption in elite nightclubs be contemporary and cool.

In June of 2019, a sea vessel owned docked in New Jersey was searched and revealed to be carrying 20 tons of cocaine. News outlets erroneously reported that the ship belonged to JP Morgan (JPM), when in fact, ship was financed by JPM for their European client, an massive shipping conglomerate called the “Mediterranean Shipping Company” (MSC). After the incident, a statement from MSC said that they planned to fully cooperate with U.S. Customs and Border Officials,attributing it to one of the many pitfalls of their industry: “unfortunately, shipping and logistics companies are from time to time affected by trafficking problems. MSC has a longstanding history of cooperating with U.S. federal law enforcement agencies to help disrupt illegal narcotics trafficking.”

Little reportage was done after the original story broke, but the facts remain that over $1 billion dollars of cocaine was transported overseas by a US-financed vessel, which, from this angle, appears it was facilitating illegal narcotics trafficking, more than disrupting it. Since the story, there have been no arrests, no additional reportage, no dragging of names through the mud. Neither the bank nor the shipping firm have said anything beyond these initial statements.

The anonymity of the case was unusual because, usually, busts of this kind were quickly associated with a South American face. But in this instance, it was as if, with their hands tied (potentially to one another), these two massive American and European institutions stood around and watched a couple tons of cocaine load and send itself on a trans-Atlantic trip. If we illustrious and developed nations were collectively so against this industry’s violence and murder, who was buying, shipping, and distributing all the cocaine that made those drug dealers so rich?

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Bobby Shmurda in the “Hot Nigga” video, 2014. Ackquille Pollard on his way to jail, 2014.

“I been selling crack since like the fif’ grade” raps Ackquille Pollard a.k.a. Bobby Shmurda’s “Hot N*gga” (or as it was known on radio, “Hot Boy”) in arguably the hottest song of 2014. He was hardly 20-years-old when he posted the $300 budget video to YouTube, a simple production of him and his boys, GS9, as they called themselves, dancing on a street in Flatbush. His friends crowding him, Pollard raps smoothly atop a beat he found online and toward the end of the video, cavalierly sends his fitted hat into the air before the chorus, and as the beat drops, rocks side-to-side in a dance that is part two-step, part auntie-about-to-catch-the-Holy-Spirit. The sway is simply christened “Shmoney”.

Thanks to a family connection, he lands a few shows in Miami opening for Fabolous and Meek Mill and in the coming months, we would see Rihanna, Beyoncé, Jay-Z, and Justin Bieber all post iterations of Pollard’s signature dance. The song then caught the eye of a fellow Caribbean-American A&R, Sha Money, and in a now-infamous scene, he brings Pollard to perform for (and atop) a table of Epic/Sony Execs. Legend has they won’t let him leave the room until he signs. He does, but Bobby Shmurda was already famous.

In case you were living under a rock in 2014, in “Hot N*gga” Bobby Shmurda riffs around the contours of a lifestyle spending money (“running through these checks ‘till I pass out”), getting girls (“Shawty give me neck ‘till I pass out”) and getting money to do it all over again (“I swear to God, all I do is cash out”). The Shmoney dance danced around the world, and millions who had never seen a drug, the block, or a glock wailed to the beat : “And if you ain’t a ho, get up out my trap houuuussseeeee!”

It was only a few months into newfound wealth and fame, that Pollard became increasingly anxious about the new responsibilities to his label, his old loyalties to his ‘hood and the growing interest of the NYPD in dealings of him and his GS9 friends. His paranoia turned out to be valid: in December of that year, Shmurda and his friends were arrested under charges that they were orchestrating a gang which conspired to “commit murder, maintain an arsenal of weapons, and sell drugs.” Though it’s to be suspected that his friends would cry foul play but not without a series of sound points — first off, the arrest was fueled by circumstantiality. For a “conspiracy to sell drugs” charge, there was a questionable lack of actual product (drugs). The continued use of the language “gang” and the invocation of the “Crips”, a Los Angeles-based gang seemed to be an effort by law enforcement to create the illusion of a certain kind of relationship between the men where there was (or was not yet) one.

At the press conference about the arrest, egregiously, the deputy chief cited Pollard’s song lyrics as “almost a real-life document of what they were doing on the street.” From the first court hearing, they tried to use this music persona to substantiate their image of him as a “crime boss” and “organizing figure” capable of orchestrating the crimes they claimed.

When interviewed for GQ in 2016, Pollard had spent over 400 days in prison, one of which was his 21st birthday. He had made somewhere in the upper six-figures from his brief brush with fame, Epic, his label, had recovered their investment by two and three times that. From prison, he backtracked on his original claims on the veracity of his lyrics, saying that he made up the tales of shootings, the selling crack simply because: “that’s what’s selling nowadays”.

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Over the past few weeks, rapper “Tekashi69”, later “6IX9INE” (pronounced “six nine”) became a meme when, in a deal with law enforcement, he agreed to testify against members of his “former” gang, “Nine Trey”, an arm of the Bloods. In his testimony, he accused (or really, confirmed) a number of others in the music industry of gang affiliation and online he was ridiculed for committing the cardinal sin of the streets: snitching.

Tekashi69, whose real name is Daniel “Danny” Hernandez, admits that, after building a large online presence through provoking other rappers who were initiate gang members, he pivoted to making music of his own. He then sought gang affiliation to for a few reasons: to validate the claims he made in his increasingly popular, but obviously vapid music and to secure protection from the potentially dangerous rappers with whom he had incited various beefs. The press has stressed this mutually beneficial relationship between Hernandez and Nine Trey — Hernandez gained street credibility, a crew to appear in videos, and the protection he needed; in exchange, Nine Trey received returns on his success, clean money to finance gang programming and activities.

While hip-hop historically has been artistic vehicle of reportage, entertainment & social mobility within predominantly black, low-income urban communities, with its newfound popularity, there has never been a more opportune time for outsiders to capitalize on the rap/hip-hop industry. For the first time ever, in 2018, rap/hip-hop has surpassed rock as the United States’ most popular genre. An effect of the widespread popularity is, naturally, dilution and endless imitation. Tekashi69, whose brand was based on being equal parts outlandish and obnoxious, was downright parodic of young millennials and Generation Z’s co-option of rap. The colored hair, the (apparently, real) face tattoos, made him a perfect marionette for both the gang and the music industry’s ends.

He was first noticed by an Elliot Grainge, a then-23-year-old music-industry progeny, the son of Lucian Grainge, the CEO of Universal Group, arguably the most powerful man in music. The younger Grainge was CEO of his own label, the independent 10K Projects, who signed rapper Trippie Redd. Grainge got into a bidding war with Warner Bros. and Sony to sign Hernandez after his “Poles1469” feature went gold. He ultimately decided to sign with 10K Projects under the condition of “total creative control.” Later that year, his first dosage of studio time led to the creation of the rowdy “GUMMO”. Grainge was reticent to release it, hoping that he would be able to curate more of a tongue-in-cheek pop image for the new artist but the creative clause in his contract, allowed Hernandez to make the video for the single “GUMMO” however he wanted. This meant featuring Nine Trey, whose appearance in and thereby co-sign of, the song undoubtedly helped it rack up millions of views and tons of engagement.

Hernandez, by that point, had figured something out that Bobby Shmurda had years earlier: his songs’ success was formulaic, and the trick to maintain their popularity and his fame was to repeat it. In September 2019, he testified that it was this “gang image” — rowdy, rhythmic, explicit, violent — that sold his records. And it sold a lot of them: after “GUMMO”, Tekashi69 put 13 more songs on the charts for 10K and according to Rolling Stone/BuzzAngle, his songs were streamed more than 2.6 billion times.

It was after “GUMMO: that his legal troubles began: riffs within the gang, kidnapping, robberies gone bad. But for a while, like the songs, the formula worked: both he and the gang gained both money and notoriety. There is little mention of this relationship’s third beneficiary: his label and, broadly, the music industry.

Hernandez was arrested and his assets seized under a perfect storm of racketeering, assault, firearms possession charges as part of a case against Nine Trey. This indictment was not dissimilar to the career-fatal blow laid to Bobby Shmurda and GS9, where rap lyrics and once-removed evidence are matched off a menu of charges that can be combined to invoke R.I.C.O. and prove racketeering. The Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or “R.I.C.O.” Act, colloquially referred to as simply “R.I.C.O.”, said that an individual or a group of individuals charged with violating the Act when they committed of any two from a list of 35 crimes in service of some “enterprise”, from drug trafficking to institutional corruption.

“R.I.C.O.” might be familiar to many, as this was the titular charge in Drake & Meek Mill’s 2015 hit of the same name. In the chorus, Drake boasts that he and Meek “might just get hit with the RICO” if, in combination with all their cash and jewelry, they participate in any illegal activity. As with many rappers, it’s a cheeky allusion to the implied illegality of their asset accumulation, it reminds listeners of their credibility.

If leading up to the financial crisis, our society became obsessed with aspirational wealth and the idea of its meritorious attainment, following 2008, there was a growing fixation on the illegal and criminal accumulation of wealth. The documented excesses of Wall Street bankers in films like The Big Short (2013) and The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) ushered in a new (sickening) era of music, movies, and television centered around white-collar crime and the icon of the classy criminal. One of the most popularly-cited imagery? South American trafficking king-pins, namely, Colombian Pablo Escobar. In 2017, Narcos was the most popular show on Netflix. Migos’ Quavious “Quavo” Marshall, branded himself “Quavo Huncho”, “huncho” a stylization of “head honcho” or “boss”. From hip-hop to pop to reggaeton, Pablo Escobar and his Mexican counterpart, El Chapo have become frequent allusions in music for their synonymy with wealth, status and notoriety.

There is a premium on rap that is coupled with street cred — and the music industry is all too eager to capitalize on this association. If Hernandez’s trial specifically revealed anything, it is that the commercialization of “ghetto”, “hood”, or “gang” aesthetics is so complete that an actual gang was able to send a caricature of modern rap, one exaggeratedly imitating their lifestyle, to a multi-million dollar record label, who signed and promoted him, and were willing to make money off of music and imagery that explicitly, repeatedly and regularly called out that gang.

In many ways the relationship between rappers like Pollard, Hernandez and their labels is a lot like vessel with cocaine from my story above. Both the bank and the shipping company were able to profit off the facilitation of something illegal, but were removed from any subsequent narrative of accountability. The shell of a rap star that 10K Projects, Sony, and Epic were all interested in monetizing needed to be filled with substantial form to sustain his popularity and therefore, profitability.

As such, Tekashi69 had a vested interest in being gang-affiliated and his label had an interest in turning a blind eye to those activities that thematically and visually appeared in nearly all his output. In fact, they allowed for this in the desperate inclusion of that “total creative control” clause. He and the label had a symmetric interest without symmetric accountability. There is a case to be made that, in effect, labels that act in this manner, outright encourage gang participation because the appearance of proximity to it, is lucrative.

At risk of coming to the defense of what might just be bad people, the framework models a familiar trope: people of color, men of color, are scapegoated for the criminal activities conducted with and for white male gain. Poor people are scapegoated for illegal, immoral activities conducted for elite gain. These people are all too eager to capitalize on the appearance of violence, but once things get dicey, they leave them out to dry, or as some say, “dead on the vine.”

This dynamic becomes particularly egregious when it is song lyrics that are used in court as evidence. Rap music is the only fictional medium that is applied in a court of law as evidence. Briana Younger, in the New Yorker spells out both the practical and existential problem with this:

The misappropriation of hip-hop in this way, besides being questionable in a court of law, requires, on the part of the prosecutors, the judge, and the jury, an intellectually dishonest reading of what art is and of the function it serves for both creator and audience…Every instance of a legal authority using a rapper’s creative output as proof of character or crime whispers that the power of imagination doesn’t belong to disenfranchised black and brown people.

The irony is that while labels, executives, and management are allowed to operate in imaginative world that Younger describes, the same world is not afforded to the rappers themselves. Management and executives are allowed to view their artists’ product as imagination, exaggeration and fiction, but the rappers are tied to their lyrics as all but confessions: they are evidence the crime was committed, they are evidence of motive, intent or opportunity, they are indicative of some pattern of or propensity to violence. If this is the prosecution’s grounds for conviction, then it follows that this be applied to record label executives and artist management. By their own logic, if music alone can incite violence, record labels bare responsibility for inciting and profiting off that violence — but they do not. This is evidence of a system both deeply troubling and deeply racist.

Matthew Middleton, entertainment lawyer for Bobby Shmurda put it best when he said:

“These companies for years have capitalized and made millions and millions of dollars from kids in the inner city portraying their plight to the rest of the world…To take advantage of that and exploit it from a business standpoint and then turn your back is disingenuous, to say the least.”

As Bobby Shmurda and Tekashi69 were on the stand someone should have called Grainge, leaders at 10K Projects, Epic, Sony, Universal Music to take their place. Someone should have invited them to the stand and force them into some accountability for their role in their artists’ convictions. Someone should have asked them: What did they think the songs were about? If they did not know what “Trey Way” was, what did they think he was referring to? Did they ever ask? If they had any intimation that one of your artists was part of a gang, why didn’t that bother them? Was it because they were making money?

Written by

NY-born, LA-based writer. Allegedly writing an essay collection called Black Cowgirl. Allegedly. Twitter:@jazzyhuncho.

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