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Are You Ready For Rapping?

Ronnie Ron is a real
Smart smarty
Yesterday he gave

A death preview party
But I didn’t wanna go
Coulda got upset

So I cut
Cut
Cut him off
like a tee vee set

Are you “ready for this?” inquire the Funky Four Plus One in “That’s the Joint:” Are you ready for rapping? Many people are, heralding this counter­-polyrhythmic poetic litany as an art form, the “new wave” in black music. Others see it as an ugly fad, disgusting nigger music coming from those wretched “boxes,” aggravated aural assault/vandalism. It’s like the graffiti dilemma — is it art, or is it a nuisance? I think it’s an art form, but maybe I’m biased, because I come from the land of DJ Hollywood (the undisputed champeen of all rappers), Eddie Cheeba (“The Peoples Choice / the award winning voice / Eddie / Cheeba / Cheeba / Chee­-Chee-Chee-Cheeba”), and of course, Kurtis Blow (he’s on the go), to name a few. To paraphrase Kurtis Blowski, “A place called Harlem is my home.”

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Are you ready for this? Well I just can’t miss, a with a beat like this. The beat­ — the beatbeat — the fonky beat is the key to rapping. And that’s what turns a lot of white and black listeners off. The beat is a product of the street and all of its raw, primal, and instinctive energy. These transcontinental urban griots echo the de­spair, pain, and anger of the South Bronx and Harlem (the world’s two major rap centers), which a lot of the cool-jerk white liberals and b.s. black bourgeoisie don’t want to hear. Rapping reminds them that everything is not cool and correct on the home front, like punk rock in England and reggae in the Caribbean. In fact, the “toasting” records of the West Indies are reminiscent of American rap.

The James Brown D.T.P.R.s (dance/trance psychorhythms) of rapping were a welcome change, a disco deterrent from the psychoid Giorgio Moroder os­cillator/squelch wavelengths and the mechanized hustle, the ’70s version of Or­wellian Dancestand. This musical re­vitalization grew from the basements and parks and spread to rec centers and ballrooms, including the Renaissance at 118th Street and Seventh Avenue, the meeting place of the Harlem Renaissance several decades earlier. At the “Renny” (closed down because of gunpoint rob­beries by gangs known as stick-up kids and rampant angel dust usage), you could hear kids, some as young a 11 and 12, “mixing” (playing two records simultaneously, or in sequence, while miscegenating similar rhythm tracks from each record), or rapping over certain D.T.P.R. sections of “Good Times,” or spinning (a mixing technique of repeating a certain word or phrase on a particular record by retarding the movement of the turntable manually) Captain Sky’s soop-soop “Super Sporm.” Some of those pre-teenage deejays got so innovative on “Sporm” that they would create rhythms out of the scratchy noise of the vinyl near the label of the record. In essence, they made the turntable “talk.”

What a lot of the rap dissidents don’t realize is how difficult it is to rap to the beat. Even though Blondie’s “Rapture” is a hit, Debbie Harry’s execution is awkward: her syncopations off and her cadence out of time. Rapping requires the kind of adroit skill you see when little black girls perform the “Double Dutch” maneuver in jump-rope. The bass, percussion, and drums act as rotating rope rhythms while the rapper waits for the right time to jump, to move in and out of the groove on time and on the measure. If call and response aren’t exact the rap is a failure, so the groove has to be repetitive, precise steady, as on MFSB’s “Love Is the Message”, or the standard, Chic’s “Good Times.” On “Good Times” Bernard’s bass provides an anchor, a rock against which the emcee (who usually takes on the duty or rapping while the deejay “spins” the records, the most noted exception being D.J. Hollywood, the Il Padrone of rappers, who did both, expounded on themes of monetary security (“makin’ cold curren­cy”), sexual endurance (“I’ll lay ya right back on a steady pace”), and egotism (“the best emcee’s at the top of the pile”).

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Rap records have flooded the market ever since the Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight.” D.J. Hollywood had “Shock Shock the House” on Epic, but it was a letdown to his thousands of fans, including myself. Hollywood seems to be laying low for the time being, but when and if he does make a comeback, everyone will have to take notice. ”The Breaks” by Kurtis Blow­zoski (a word/name nonsense game up­town), an eloquent, absurdist double-en­tendre rap dealing with bad luck, made him an international star. I didn’t like it when it first came out (preferred “Rappin’ Blow”), but the B. F. Skinner-type oper­ant rotation of the major radio stations had me programmed to intone: “And-­these-are-the-breaks.” The Sugarhill Gang’s latest offering, “8th Wonder” is interesting, with Big Bank Hank (a DJ Hollywood Memorex) and Wonder Mike cooling out in the background to let Mas­ter Gee “go off” with a fast and aggressive rap.

These rappers do the job, but they’re just specks in the powerful cyclone created by the two best crews in the world: the Funky-Four Plus One and Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. After debuting with “Rock the House,” on Enjoy, the Funky Four came up with a minor master­piece called “That’s the Joint.” The bassline is heavy, accented from time to time with submachinegun riffs, while the five emcees’ rubbery polyrhythmic tradeoffs at the break help funk up the atmosphere. Sharock, the lone (1) female of the group, phrases with almost clinical authority, especially on “I got money/and-I-can-jerk.” Kevvy Kev is the apex, as he incants a mesmerizing rap about various emcees, basketball-dribbling phonetics and syllable fractions in his easy slur while the other emcees counterpoint against the double-time cadence of “Rock the house/rock rock the house.”

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But the most creative crew of all is Flash and the Furious Five, because they rap in unison, flawlessly. “Freedom,” on Sugarhill, is a monster jam highlighted by clockwork call-and-response and Cow­boy’s rap at the finale over finger snaps ­— that’s right, no music, just finger snaps. But their first release, “Superrappin,” also on Enjoy, is the classic rap record. They manipulate space and time to create symmetrical vocal patterns that envelope the groove; at one point they rap so fast that it’s hard to understand what they’re saying. All the emcees — Mr. Ness, Raheem, Kid Creole, Flash (even better­-known as a mixer than a rapper), and Cowboy, who rides the groove like his self­-styled “buckaroo of the bugaloo” — have great moments, but it’s Melly Mel who turns the record inside out. His speedy rap near the climax describes the vicious life cycle of a street hood. The story isn’t just exciting, it’s ingenious; his capsulized account of a brutal fate recalls what Jean Toomer did in Cane, condensing a life into a paragraph. This high-powered literary device is what will make “Superrappin” last. It should also be an example to rap­pers who limit themselves thematically to money, sex, and narcissism, because the audience will tire of the repetition. What rap records need to do if they are to have any longevity is to expand in content end direction. Rapping can be used to entertain and educate — “edu-tainment,” as the late Eddie Jefferson said. It could also be used to Reveal, like this:

The GRANDMASTER
Is cuttin faster
Listen to his spinnin sound
As the circle goes round n round
And His line goes on n on

Leadin to the break a dawn
Two figures that become as one
Known as “The Shape of Things to Come”
And you know that, Right?

(All quotes from “Real Rap,” by Barry B­elski and the Omniscient One)

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CULTURE ARCHIVES FEATURE ARCHIVES FILM ARCHIVES From The Archives THE FRONT ARCHIVES Violence

New Jack City Eats Its Young

Motor City Breakdown

I.
BLOOD LIKE WATER

“Yo-yo, where the money at?”

Lenny Higgins, 17 at the time, didn’t usually go to the store with his foster brother James, also 17, but on the night of March 1, 1987, James asked and Lenny obliged. It was 10:30. At Williamson’s Party Store, on Perry Park Boulevard on Detroit’s West Side, they bought sodas and played some games. They left about 10:45. As Lenny tells the story, he and James were approaching their corner of Heckler Street when a hooded figure ran across the street and stopped them in their tracks. Clad in a black jacket and black hooded sweatshirt, Mark Hunter, 24, pulled a .357 Magnum from his pants waist and stuck it in James’s temple.

“Yo-yo, where the money at?”

Three seconds later another figure joined Hunter and put another .357 to Lenny’s head. Lenny had seen this boy around the neighborhood, knew him slightly, but they weren’t friendly: Dashaw Green, 15. Wearing a black, Run-D.M.C.-style “popcorn” leather jacket, hooded black sweatshirt, black jeans, and white laceless Adidas, he echoed his partner:

“Where the money at? Which one a y’all got the money?”

Lenny was confused, scared, angry — but not willing to be a toy hero, a dead toy hero — “Here!” he said, “You can have my money, just don’t shoot me!”

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Lenny gave up his $26, and James handed over $30 or $40. After they took the money, Mark and Dashaw looked at each other, an evil, hungry look, Lenny says. They lowered their guns and pushed Lenny and James backward. Mark raised his gun and fired. Flames spit out the muzzle like and orange and white blur, hitting James in the abdomen. The bullet exited through the spine. James doubled over. Lenny was frozen. Mark and Dashaw ran five or six steps in the opposite direction, but then Dashaw turned around. Mark turned around. Dashaw hesitated for a split second. Maybe he thought, I’m with my boy, and if I don’t shoot, he might think I’m frontin’. He might even shoot me. I can’t let this nigga go scot-free. I gotta shoot him, too. Dashaw and Mark ran up on Lenny, and they fired five shots — all of which hit Lenny because he stood as a shield on James’s left side — and fled into the night. Lenny and James slumped against a neighbor’s fence, not far from their house. Lenny called to one of his friends inside the house.

“Tanisha, come help me! Me and Jimmy just got shot! Come help!”

A puddle of blood formed underneath them, branching off in several directions, before a direct line dripped into the street. Lenny could smell smoke rising from his body where the bullets had dug into his left arm, left side, back, and legs. Thoughts circled in Lenny’s head as if it was a turntable fashioned by a madman—too slow at 45, too fast at 16. Lenny wondered why they didn’t take his gold chain, his sheepskin, or his Filas, or James’s Bally shoes. Just before he heard the chorus of ambulance and police sirens, he whispered to James, his best friend, “Jimmy man, not matter what happens, I love you. We gonna make it. Just take it easy, sit there and rest. We gonna make it.”

Three hours later at Henry Ford Hospital, after the first of many operations, Lenny learned that James had died.

1987 Village Voice article by Barry Michael Cooper about gun violence in Detroit

II.
THE EPIDEMIC

ACCORDING TO official estimates, there are at least two guns for every person in the Detroit metropolitan area. Nearly 65 teenagers 17 or under have been killed this year. Almost 300 have been wounded. The number exceeds last year’s body count of 48, and the wounded are steadily lurching toward the 365 of 1986. Detroit is a city whose horror reaches cinematic proportions, like The Living Dead Wear Kangols and Filas. However you like your chiller theater, Detroit is the worst because it’s real. Unlike New York, where the DMZ begins south of 96th Street, or Baltimore, where guerilla dope wars are confined to eastern and western black districts, Detroit’s violence knows no boundaries. It’s among the high-rise office buildings downtown, the upper-middle-class homes and condos on the West Side, the poverty-worn projects on the East Side. Detroit is like that nightmare where your legs become paralyzed when the monsters are chasing you; you can’t escape.

Statistics, like germs ink-stained and clamped down under a microscope, are neat and tidy from a safe distance. But once you zoom in and focus, you see fascinating, intense, and sometimes ugly details of lives previously ignored. The kids in Detroit are more than data on police bar graphs and newspaper charts, distributed as lunchtime chitchat or after-dinner arguments during the Eyewitness News. The kids in Detroit are suffering from a disease so new, powerful, contagious, and fatal that there’s not even a name for it yet.

Business is booming for funeral homes and florists in Detroit. Funeral home director James Cole said, “It’s pathetic. Just about every day, we get young people who are being killed needlessly. It’s business we shouldn’t have.”

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Emergency-room physicians often wonder if they’ll be able to treat all of the gunshot victims on busy nights. Dr. Cynthia Shelby-Lane of Detroit Receiving estimates her city sees 40 percent of the city’s young, black, male gunshot wound victims. One incident that stuck out in Dr. Shelby-Lane’s mind concerned at 13-year-old boy who was rushed to emergency with a gunshot wound in the chest.

“He was a surgical code one,” the doctor said, “which is a resuscitation victim in a life-or-death situation. Everybody looked at each other and said, ‘Thirteen? How young are the going to get?’ When they reeled him in, he was sitting up, so he wasn’t unconscious. As we started immediate resuscitation — he was breathing on his own and had good blood pressure — we could feel the bullet in the front of his chest. He was in pain but he was a young kid, and after 30 minutes, he asked me, ‘Well, can I play basketball again?’ And we just looked at each other. Obviously, he didn’t have any understanding of what almost happened to him, and, perhaps, how to prevent it from happening to him again. And that’s the biggest problem for me.”

The problem is exacerbated by the juvenile judicial system. Heavy hitters such as Y. Gladys Barsamian, 55, presiding judge of the juvenile division in Wayne County, are beleaguered, belabored, and chastised by Michigan’s legislators, who crave a scapegoat. Judge Barsamian addressed the flaws in Michigan’s juvenile justice process in an interview last year with Free Press reporters David Ashenfelter and Michael G. Wagner: “We have created a generation of children without conscience, without values. So they have no concern about people’s lives. Life is very cheap to them.” Barsamian added, “You’ve got to be able to hold people responsible for their actions, and we’re not able to do that.”

Ron Schigur, deputy chief prosecutor of the juvenile division, also says the system is lacking. “The juvenile laws in Michigan are a joke to these kids,” Schigur said. “We’ve had examples of some kids who just laugh at the cops after committing a crime, and say, ‘Hey my mom will come and get me in the morning.’ They know if they are locked up, that the law says we can only keep them until their 19th birthday. The truth is, whether he spits on the ground or murders his mom, he’s going to do an average of a year.”

III.
BURNT OFFERING

THERE IS ANOTHER FACTOR more important than the impotent laws, though, a factor that anchors uncomfortably in many a Detroiter’s mind. It is the DNA for this mutant strain of teen hood: the 1967 riot. Its ravaging aftermath was presaged — unwittingly, of course — by two different idealists. One’s oratory shook the nation; the other’s rhyme rocked the house. But to simplify things, let’s set it up, as if trying to break the full court press. In the early ’60s, Martin Luther King threw the bounce pass for the fast break: “If you sow the seeds of violence in your struggle, unborn generations will reap the whirlwind of social disintegration.” In 1981, while dodging bullets at a rapper’s convention in the former Harlem World Disco, MC Busy Bee Starsky caught the zeitgeist and slam-dunked it: “I got sperm, that jingo-jangle-jingles …” For me, there’s a photograph that locks the horror of the 1967 riot into a never-ending moment. It depicts a 30-year-old black man, John LeRoy, shot by a national guardsman at a roadblock on Lycaste Street. Lying next to a bloody corpse, LeRoy is barefoot and chest down, bleeding profusely: he looks like he’s treading the concrete, gushing blood outlining the form like an obscene surfboard, trying to escape the thick waves of night that eventually drown him. LeRoy would die three days later. His left index finger is pointing to something, maybe the future, but the look on his face asked the question on everyone’s lips — why?

After the smoke had cleared, after the Da Nang-ing M1s had silenced, after the tanks had rolled away from West Grand boulevard, after the army infantry and paratroopers had left their alleyway bunkers, after 1700 stores had been looted, 412 buildings destroyed, 657 people injured, and 43 killed, the question remains unanswered, and continues to stupefy 20 years later. Not that racial maelstrom was new to Detroit. In Ford: The Men and the Machine, Robert Lacey provides several proof texts confirming that race relations in Detroit have a long history of trouble. There was Dr. Ossian Sweet, a successful gynecologist who, with his brother and nine more blacks, was arrested on the night of September 9, 1925, after firing into a crowd of several hundred whites who were pelting the Sweet home with rocks and debris. Sweet had just moved into the two-story, $18,000 brick dwelling, located in a white, middle-class enclave on the East Side. He met with resistance from the local neighborhood “improvement” association — a front for newly recruited Klan members.

The Klan recognized Sweet as a paradigm of the Southern black who migrated northward — by 1920, the 5000 blacks in Detroit at the turn of the century had grown to 40,000, arriving at a rate of 1000 a month, looking for a better life. They found it with Henry Ford, who hired more blacks (even promoting them to foreman) than any other auto magnate. The burgeoning black middle class of Detroit was one of the first in America. But the Klan wasn’t going to stand for this. Sweet and supporters fought back, wounding one of the crowd and killing a next-door neighbor. After two trials fought by Clarence Darrow, Dr. Sweet and his comrades were acquitted.

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This turmoil was just the beginning. In 1943, the country’s bloodiest race war until that time took place in Detroit. Thirty-four people lost their lives, 25 of them black, and over 1000 were wounded. But the July 1967 “Summer of Love” is the one to beat. It haunts Detroit to this day.

If you failed to inspect the political underbelly of the community during that period, a riot in 1967 Detroit would have seemed outlandish. Riots exploded in places like Newark and Watts, but not Detroit. Impossible. The auto industry was stronger than ever — there were no Yugos or Hyundais to compete with. Detroit was one-third black, and blacks were a substantial portion of the work force in the plants. The black middle class and working class lived side by side, and their combined financial strength wasn’t to be denied. The black bloc elected James Cavanagh as mayor, and his new, very liberal administration elevated several blacks to key government positions. Detroit also had two black congressmen. Whites began their flight to the suburbs.

Berry Gordy’s Motown was the bullhorn for this new black age, and its “Sound of Young America” was heard around the world. Motown was the example of how far my people had come, and how far we could go with hard work, three-part harmony, silk and sequins, and tricky terpsichore. Motown went to the heights because white America loves black people who know their place after assimilation. From 1960 to ‘67, it seemed that Detroit was living the best of times.

“Life in Detroit before the riot,” said Dr. Carl Taylor, “was an absolute paradise.”

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Dr. Taylor, 38, is a professor of criminology at Michigan State University. He is also the president and founder of Centrax Services, Inc., one of the top private security outfits in the world. For 38 years, Taylor has lived and breathed Detroit. He can remember riding downtown to a tailor with his “Uncle Milton” — Milton C. Jenkins, the renowned Detroit street hustler and manager of the Temptations when they were still the Primes — Marvin Gaye, and Smokey Robinson to pick up sharkskin suits for a Motown Revue. He can remember the strong, self-contained high society among blacks in Detroit before the riots. Nellie Watts, a black patron of the arts, would have to turn people away from her crowded ballet and classical recitals. Taylor also remembers the caste-conscious “E-Lites” in attendance: sepia-toned, middle-class darlings in madras shirts, Levis, and Weejuns.

They were nothing like the mocha-colored “Hootie-Hoos,” with their Damon knit shirts, gabardine slacks, and alligator slip-ons. If the E-Lites didn’t leave their coveted West Side dwellings to mix in the Hooties’ East Side wild life, it was okay. Black people in Detroit maintained a perfect balance. That balance was seen on 12th Street, too; whatever the mostly Jewish merchants sold, the blacks bought in record numbers. Twelfth Street was the main vain.

“Twelfth Street was a mecca,” said Taylor. “It was a major business center in the black community. On 12th and Hazelwood, you had Bosky’s Restaurant (owned by the father of Ivan Boesky), which had the best food, especially the ‘bomb’ corned beef sandwiches. You also had drugstores, appliance and furniture stores, pawnshops, you had it all on 12th Street.”

But 12th Street was dismantled during the wee-hours of July 23rd, 1967. Rumbling started in a “blind pig” — a private, after-hours joint that sells unlicensed liquor—that called itself the United Civic League for Community Action. When police busted the place that night, there were nearly 90 people packed inside the tiny bar and grill. All had to be escorted to the police wagons downstairs, which couldn’t hold everybody. A crowd gathered at the entrance as the police led their captives out. The merriment turned ugly. Bricks and rocks were hurled, smashing the back window of one patrol car; Molotovs rocketed through the street. Stores were devoured, as if by locusts.

“I can remember as a teenager sitting on the porch,” Taylor recalled, “watching people pushing shopping carts of TVs and clothes. My neighborhood was a working class atoll on the West Side. And you could see the same sights in middle-class neighborhoods. It was unreal, almost ethereal—like everyone was a contestant on the Wheel of Fortune, and had solved the puzzle.”

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IV.
POPPY: THE GREAT WHITE FATHER

RESURGET CINERBUS. It shall rise from the ashes.

Detroit is a city full of personal billboards, slogans, and mottoes. This particular one was used to revive a dying city. It was partly fulfilled. A spanking new monorail ties some of the major hotels and office buildings downtown together like a concrete dipsy-do, all too symbolic — round and round, going nowhere. The mirrored Renaissance Center — Henry Ford II’s helping hand to Detroit after the devastation — juts out of the ground like a weird urban stalagmite. In the 20 years since the riot the city has lost a third of its people and a larger portion of its jobs. The white merchants on 12th Street and other parts of the city were frightened beyond belief, and decided they could never come back. Not only was this bad for the blacks who patronized these stores, it was bad for the blacks who worked in them — including those who were rioters themselves. With the loss of so many people and jobs and so much finance — and the upswing of crime — the city’s tax base rapidly dwindled. By 1985 it had shrunk to 12.6 percent of Detroit’s three-county metro area, down from 45.6 in 1980. With the move of Hudson’s and others out to the suburban malls, badly needed moneys were siphoned out of the city on a regular basis. Middle-class whites and blacks who did remain found themselves plagued by armed robberies and burglaries. People decided to arm themselves. Handgun sales rose sharply, and the street was flooded with illegal weapons. The city’s homicide rate shot skyward.

What happened? Why didn’t Detroit recover? There’s no solid answer to that question, at least not by conventional logic. Conventional logic doesn’t force the city’s political power to admit that the bounty of the ’80s wasn’t equally distributed. Conventional logic doesn’t scream out that the riot wasn’t why Detroit unraveled: it merely burned away the façade that had hidden Detroit’s invisible society, the forgotten underclass.

In the Detroit Free Press, Barbara Stanton pointed out that 12th Street, along with its bustling stores, hot nightlife, and periphery of black middle-class homes, had in its midst an undeniable ghetto. From West Grand Boulevard to Claremont, there was an enormous number of substandard dwellings, the largest number of unemployed, and the highest crime rate in the city. “The riot was the underclass’s way of getting back,” Taylor said. “It was pure rebellion. It was the underclass’s way of saying, ‘We’re tired of being ignored. Now you’re forced to pay attention.’ This was the guy who didn’t work in the plant, for whatever reason. This was the guy who couldn’t commerce like the working and middle-class blacks who came into 12th Street. This was the guy who was trying to figure out all of the hype going around at the time about how blacks were prospering. Blacks were working — some prospered, like the doctors and lawyers that served the black community when whites refused to — but they weren’t prospering. It was like that line Florence said to George Jefferson on a Jeffersons episode. She said, ‘How come we overcame,’ referring to the civil rights theme song, ‘and nobody told me?’ I guess that’s what the underclass felt. And they took matters into their own hands.”

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Those blacks who believed they overcame, or at least got over, were what made Detroit a Reconstruction dream. Fantasies of affluence in the industrial North came true in sprawling mansions along Boston, Chicago, and Edison boulevards. High auto-industry wages created by a black population — more than a million by the early ‘80s — that needed professional services. Black doctors, lawyers, schoolteachers, and businessmen filled the vacuum left by white professionals, who had departed for the suburbs along with their clients. Between 1950 and 1959, over 350,000 whites migrated out of the city. Racism helped create a thriving and powerful and black elite in Detroit. But when the auto industry started its long slide, the black elite’s monopoly on black business began to look like an empty package. Black America’s city of dreams was beginning to feed on itself.

The 1967 riots scarred the urban psyche. As time brought the consequences into painful clarity, blacks realized the insurrection was a painful mistake. The city was becoming a wasteland before their eyes. Many wanted to forget what happened.

A few years after the riots heroin made an appearance in Detroit. Unlike Harlem and Newark, where the drug picked up steam around 1966, heroin was almost an oddity in Detroit until 1970. It was then that Henry Marzette — a black former Detroit cop allegedly jailed during the ’50s on corruption charges — became a top dog in the city’s drug trade. After prison, he was a feared “Gorilla” pimp — one who recruits prostitutes from other pimps by force. But it wasn’t until Marzette noticed the exorbitant profits the Mafia was making from heroin in New York that he decided to get in on the action. Between 1969 and 1970, he took over the trade from a mob family in Detroit and became the city’s biggest heroin financier. Marzette influence extended well beyond the street corner and shooting gallery; during his reign little or no press coverage was given him in the Free Press or The Detroit News.

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After Marzette’s death in the early ’70s, heroin continued to ravage Detroit. Crime surged as addicts fed their monsters. Detroit’s car theft rate became the nation’s highest. Home owners spent tens of thousands turning their houses into iron-barred fortresses. In 1975 gangs like the BKs (Black Killers) and the Errol Flynns appeared on the scene. The Errol Flynns — with their black Borsalinos and weird pumping hand-dance — became infamous during an Average White Band concert where they went on a raping and robbing spree. The situation was so volatile that year that Motown — the soul of black Detroit — moved to Los Angeles. Nelson George, author of the Motown history Where Did Our Love Go?, told me, “I hate to say it, but during that time, Detroit wasn’t conducive for a booming black business.”

With Motown gone and the auto industry in a slump, the scenario in Detroit was beginning to resemble a Greek tragedy. And the city was about to be hit with the deus ex machina — Young Boys Incorporated, or YBI. Not only were they unexpected walk-ons in the second act, they rewrote the script.

In a twisted way YBI took the place of Motown. They were young superstars to street teens, more revered than Michael Jackson and Prince. For older junkies hooked on nostalgia, YBI wrapped the 45s in coin envelopes that contained a feast of memories; “heh-ron” was a stone soul picnic. The origins of YBI are bizarre. Not only were the organizations forefathers — Mark Marshall and Raymond Peoples — well known to police, but their individual crimes prior to YBI were headline news during the mid-’70s. Peoples, a tall and powerful enforcer, was charged with two other men for the 1975 murder of Marian Pyszko. Pyszko, 54, a Polish immigrant and pan washer in a bakery, was dragged from his car one night and beaten with a piece of broken concrete during a rash of racial disturbances. After three trials during which several witnesses developed convenient amnesia, Peoples was acquitted.

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Marshall’s story is a more perverse tale. Marshall was a brilliant student in school. He was the product of a broken middle-class home; his mother, Mary, was a secretary, and his father, Wallace, owned a shoe shop. Marshall grew up in an attractive dwelling in a West Side neighborhood, Russell Woods. Wallace later married Constance Blount; her stepmother, Beatrice Blount, was the widow of the founder of the Great Lakes Life Insurance Co. On August 19, 1974, Marshall’s father, stepmother, her mother, and Beatrice Williams, Beatrice Blount’s nurse, were murdered. Marshall was charged with the knife-and-meat-clever slaying. The police report mentioned traces of semen on the bodies. After two mistrials, all charges were dropped in August 1978. Marshall said after the trial, “Justice has been done after four years. I’m going up north to fish and think.”

Marshall must have pondered long and hard, because it was around this time that he and Peoples began YBI — allegedly with more than $70,000 collected from Marshall’s father’s insurance. Starting from the northwest street corner of Prairie and Puritan, YBI’s tentacles eventually covered Detroit and several counties.

By 1981, YBI’s employees were 300 strong, all teens and preteens, who were immune to the harsh punishment for drug trafficking. Many law enforcement observers have noted that YBI was run like a military outfit, organized into soldiers (street dealers), lieutenants, and the “A-Team” (enforcement). But YBI was more like a $400 million corporation — that was YBI’s estimated gross in 1981 — not unlike its hometown predecessor General Motors. Salesmen were instructed never to use the product. Milton “Butch” Jones, third man in YBI, would drill his soldiers in “marketing” meetings to “get high on money.” As reinforcement, top salesmen were given expensive perks — gold and diamond jewelry, and goose down leather jackets with fur-trimmed hoods known as “Max Julians.”

“YBI was the first drug organization that I know of to use brand names on their heroin,” said U.S. Attorney Roy Hayes. “They had names like CBS, Rolls Royce, and Coochi Khan. It was a Madison Avenue approach — you can trust our product.”

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When the competition copycatted, YBI undercut them by selling low-grade heroin under a competitor’s name. YBI’s drugs (they were selling $3 plastic packets of crack, back in 1982) were the most coveted in the state. YBI was aware of this, and brazenly began to hand out flyers in the neighborhood that stated brand name, price, day, date, and time of sale. Drugs were distributed using Mercedes Benzes, BMWs, taxi cabs, scooters, and 10-speed bikes. Sales areas were patrolled by members of the A-Team in Laredo and Wrangler jeeps, packing Uzis for warding off rival gangs. Jeeps eventually replaced luxury cars for drug distribution — their four wheel drive insured delivery in snow storms, and made it easy to elude cops by escaping into off-road brush.

YBI made bloody examples of those who crossed them. On May 30, 1984, Rickey Gracey, 26, and three accomplices tried to rob the home of Butch Jones. The attempt was thwarted by Jones’s wife, Portia, who wounded Gracey with a shotgun as the other three escaped. While he hobbled on the front lawn, Portia put in a call to Charles Obey and Spencer Tracy Holloway, members of the A-Team, and driver Andre Williams. When they arrived, according to Williams’ testimony, Portia was outside waiting for them. Gracey apologized and asked them for some water. Obey shot him five times with a .38 automatic. After Gracey had revealed the identity of his partners, Holloway shot him with an Uzi. Fifteen times. Gracey bounced up and down on the grass. Later, his body was found dumped in an alley on the north side.

As successful as YBI was, it suffered some major setbacks that appeared to dismantle the enterprise. In 1982, Mark Marshall went deep underground at the height of YBI’s prominence. In 1983 Butch Jones was sentenced to 12 years in prison, as was Sylvester “Seal” Murray, 30, multimillionaire supplier of YBI and other drug syndicates. Murray was wealthy enough that police investigators found $80,000 cached in a safe — it had been there for two years. Murray had forgotten the combination. In August 1985, Raymond Peoples was found in a car with several slugs in his back.

By 1986, the Detroit Police Department, DEA, FBI, and the Internal Revenue Service was congratulating themselves, saying they finally destroyed YBI. What they forgot was that, although 42 people had been indicted, YBI still had 258 people on the loose. It’s true that prosecutors like Hayes, the late Leonard Gilman, and Gary Felder did a great job of attacking YBI — treating it as a multinational cartel rather than some counterfeit gangsters on a street corner — but Young Boys had grown too big to take down in one sweep. This was proven in August, when a grand jury federal indictment of 26 defendants took place in Detroit. The name of the case is Young Boys II. “Nine of the defendants were previously indicted in connection with the Young Boys case,” said attorney Hayes. “Some of the defendants are a Wayne County deputy sheriff, two attorneys hired by YBI, and Milton ‘Butch’ Jones.” Hayes alleged Jones had continued running YBI from his prison cell in a Texas federal penitentiary.

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V.
NEW JACK CITY: ROLLIN’ JEEPIN’ AND JOCKIN’

STOP THE MADNESS

This is a huge advertisement that looms over Woodward, across the street from Palmer Park. One high-schooler told me that the new jacks “look at it and say ‘Fuck the madness. You can’t stop it, so just roll with it.'” The sign has been reduced to a banal slogan, a doofy punch line among the new jacks and front artists. In Motown a new jack is a calculated novice who enjoys killing you, aside from making a name for himself. His imitator, a front artist, pulls out a snapshot of a “nine” (9mm automatic), expecting you to run for your life. It goes without saying that front artists don’t live long.

HOW DO YOU LIKE ME NOW?

This is a personal billboard in red letters on the black spare tire cover mounted on the rear of a triple-black — black exterior, interior, tinted windows — Mitsubishi Montero jeep. Wide Jefferson Avenue is full of jeeps — a new jack posse circling Detroit like crazy sputniks. In sync, the volumes of each Blaupunkt and Alpine stereo are increased at a red light. On green, Rakim and Eric B. sound the charge, the anthem of a new generation, the opus of a new ruling class, the preview of a new rap on the Friday night master mix.

“I ain’t no joke…”

I rode with a high-schooler downtown to the Afro-American Festival in Hart Plaza. He knew some of the crews, has rolled with some of them in the past. Now he wants out of the neighborhood because he is book smart and street aware. But the street is like a Doberman; it can turn on you.

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Finding a parking space near the Joe Louis Arena, we got out and walked. The July night was hot and humid. Renaissance Center stood tall and indifferent, the pallid moon overhead, and the rivers of people beneath; it cooled in the mirrored panes of its hi-tech narcissism.

The people moved like waves of warm water along the sidewalk cafes of Greektown, Woodward’s shopping district, and deposited into the concrete cavern of Hart Plaza. Packs of new jacks — all between 13 and 19 years old — covered the area in designer sangfroid and $2000 portable cellular phones, just in case another crew wanted to “step off” into Uzi conflict. They resembled Nam platoons on maneuvers in Elephant Valley. Their classy gear consisted of Gucci and Bill Blass jogging suits, Bally and Diadora gym shoes, shiny gold Rolex watches. Some were so bold they wore diamond encrusted Krugerrands necklaces, hung from telephone-cable-thick gold chains. That’s equivalent to Nat Turner fashioning a leather-studded belt out of the same cat-o’-nine-tails used to plow his back. But maybe I’m confusing bravado with ignorance.

The festival was too crowded, the jazz band too weak, and the fish and chips booth downstairs was out of its legendary whiting sandwiches. The high-schooler said there were too many crews walking around.

“Something might jump off,” he told me. I asked him if the crews had names. “Some do,” he told me, “but they’re pretty lightweight. If you’re high-powered, you don’t use a name. After YBI there are no more names. Names attract too much attention. Some use hand signals.” I asked him about one group that holds up both hands and flashes peace signs. The high-schooler said he didn’t know about them. I didn’t press the issue; a school security official said later that it’s the code used by the 20–20s.

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So I know a code; I still don’t have the key to New Jack City. I know its inhabitants come from two groups: deracinated middle-class black teens and their less well-off peers. The deracinated black teen knows that being heir to “a better life” resulted mainly in the castration of desire, their confusion of self (Buppie or B-Boy? As Nelson George has said), and their enlightenment that, in 1987, there is no “better life”. Never knowing what it is to want — and, therefore, never growing up, or growing up with nothing to grow into — is a cruel death. New Jack City offers a suicidal lifestyle on the teens’ own terms.

New Jack City for the economically deprived is a crystalline legacy formed by the cooked-down anarchy of their parents in the 1967 riot. Because of the seared riot consciousness, because of heroin’s flip-flop — killer and money-maker — and crack’s entrepreneurial spirit, outlaw is the law. Teen gangsterism has transformed the teen middle and underclass, the children of the E-Lites and Hootie Hoos, into the Get-Over class.

Rap music is also key in understanding the Get-Over class — I think. My trepidation comes from me blaming the ills of the world on L.L. Cool J and rap music. L.L. and rap music are just reflections of New Jack City. As a matter of fact, L.L., Rakim, Run-D.M.C. and other emcees are prisoners of the hard rock image they have triumphantly sold to their Get-Over peers. Once a new jack, actual or dramatized, emcee or murderer — or victim, like Scott La Rock — always a new jack. Even if L.L. tries to deny the street, as he does when showing his frustration in “The Breakthrough,” spitting out to a fanatical crack admirer, “I should take my gun and shoot you/ in your motherfuckin’ face!” — or Rakim tries shallow defection, saying in the December 1987 Spin, that he used to be “robbin’ and stealin’ and all that shit. Normal everyday shit,” when his rapper voice sounds like he’s still ready, like L.L., to “put that head out” — the new jacks won’t allow it, because rap music is their strong-arm negotiator in the world-at-large. It’s no wonder that the switchboard of Detroit’s ABC affiliate lit up like crazy after the July premiere of the Run-D.M.C. Adidas commercial. This telephone vote of gangster stylists proved that not only do clothes make the new jack, they reinforce his being.

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The Get-Over class in New Jack City understands that gangster style is both form and function. To have gangster style, you have to be “gettin’ paid” — making so much gusto (money) until it’s goofy. Then you can have an acquired taste by means of extortion, the ability to buy panache and aristocracy. But that’s what also unnerves me about the émigré’ of New Jack City, the way he flashes his green card. Whether it’s the kid who goes to Gucci to spend $3000 on a wardrobe displayed no further than the L.L. Cool J show, the crackhouse, or the “projects,” or the kid who comes home to a $200,000 cul de sac and a good night’s sleep after killing a rival crack dealer and two of his crew, and all the while mom and dad are in the den doing their taxes on the PC — it alarms me when the need to “show and prove” is that extreme. That’s how I know the teen bodies in the graves of Detroit and other major cities are not surrogates for racist whites or super-provoking parents. Citizenship in New Jack City comes with a very expensive price tag.

“Yo man,” the high-schooler said to me, “I know this one kid who makes $2000 a day. He’s a beastmaster — an enforcer. He’s a big kid, about six-three 230. He carries an Uzi, but he’s def with his hands, too. He just bought a Wagoneer jeep for $22,000, but he parks it two blocks away from his house so that his parents don’t find out. His family has some status and some money, you know, and they expect him to go to college. But he’s making too much gusto. All the skeezers (sexually active girls) are jockin’ him, too. He asked me one time, ‘Know how to catch a skeeze?’ I said no. He said, ‘You say, “Jeep-jeep-jeep-jeep-jeep …'”

We left the plaza. The throngs of crews grew thicker, like shadows coagulating into a nightmare. The street was drowned in cars and people; a police officer directed traffic. Just then, an old and dimpled Pontiac tapped the rear of a sleek Mercedes 300E. Three white guys — mid-thirties — got out of the Pontiac, and they were drunk. Four new jacks jumped out of the Benz, in multicolored sweatsuits and gold everywhere. Two beastmasters, About six foot six and six foot seven, grabbed all three white guys in choke holds. The cop didn’t move. One slim teen, about five foot eight, walked up to one of the white guys and reached for his stuff. The swelling crowd egged the new jacks on. I just knew the white guys were going to catch a bad decision. The cop didn’t move. I covered my eyes, but then I peaked through my fingers. A traffic jam formed and honking horns snapped the new jack out of his homicidal autism. He and his beastmasters jumped back into the Benz and zoomed off. The white guys coughed, choked, and slugged their way back to the Pontiac. The crowd moved on. The cop twirled his hands and blew his whistle. The high-schooler shrugged like a vet. “That ain’t nothin’,” he said. “I know another kid who was working for this crew on the east side, who said he ‘lost’ $75. Quiet as it’s kept, he tricked on crack, making 51s (a crack and reefer joint). When his lieutenant found out, he and his crew took the kid to the basement, took his shoes off, got some carpenter’s nails, a brick, and hammered his hands and feet into the floor. He was still alive when the cops found him a few hours later.”

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Why has murder become a religious observance on the streets of Detroit? How did crack become demonic sacrament? Why is gettin’ paid equal to deification to the new jacks? Dr. Jorge Fleming, chief psychologist at Southwest Detroit Hospital, says that “a lack of spiritual and moral values, values which the black family has historically instilled in their children, has in the last 30 years or so shifted to a heavy emphasis on materialism. When the plants were going full steam, and both mother and father worked in the plant and brought home a combined salary of $70,000, then the kids got anything they wanted. But when those parents were laid off during the auto slump, and when the money wasn’t coming in, there was no spiritual or loving foundation to fall back on, which caused a breach in the family. And the kids, who were used to getting everything, decided they were going to continue having the good things in life — even if their parents couldn’t provide it for them.”

And what does Mayor Coleman Young say? In office for more than 12 years and a wily politician, he has his pat answers. He said in the Free Press three years ago that the exodus of Hudson’s and other stores has caused the high unemployment.

No one can argue with that. But the consensus is that Mayor Young is more concerned with the gloss of downtown than the young bodies found on side streets and in dumpsters. Mayor Young has transformed himself from a man of the people — the unanimous choice after the riot — to a corporate power broker. If prestige has its privileges, though, it also has its problems.

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Between family ties and corporate loyalties, Coleman Young’s political base is draining away even quicker than the city’s tax income. One teacher told me that the mayor should be on the street in a flak jacket with a squadron of heavily armed police because that’s when the kids will know he’s serious. But he won’t do it, this teacher said.

So the new jacks continue to laugh at the advertisement over Woodward, and “wopp” like crazy. It’s the latest dance, a serpentine hump and jerk, a rhythmic self-dismemberment. They wopp-danced fast and fierce back in March, a few days after Lenny Higgins was shot. The occasion was the Motor City Mixer. Given by Dr. Carl Taylor and a few associates and held at the state fairgrounds, it was Taylor’s opportunity to see Aliens 2 up close.

“We thought that these kids were not given a fair shake in the media,” Taylor said, “and there were no outlets for them to have good clean fun. We also thought that a few bad apples don’t spoil the whole bunch.”

The new jacks came in force: mondo-moda sportswear, cellular phones, nines and .357s, pockets bulging with twenties, fifties, and hundreds. Six bucks at the door, and the cashier had a change problem all night.

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From the time the new jacks hit the parking lot to the time they got inside, no one was armed. The security force was 100 men strong.

But Taylor saw the dark side. “Yeah, we stopped the weapons, but we couldn’t stop the mind-set,” he said. After the crowd of 2400 got off of the floor — the deejay mixed in a machine gun sound effect — the party was jumping. “Throw That Dick,” a mixture of Chicago house and rap, began to play. The place went berserk. Fights broke out. A group of 15 boys circled around three girls and molested them. Another crew of 30 new jacks brutally kicked and beat one boy in a corner. While assorted members of Dr. Taylor’s team broke up the fights, the sexual assaults, and other melees, Taylor ran over and snatched the kid, bloody and bruised, to safety.

“I told him,” Taylor said, “I think you should leave. You are going to wind up getting killed if you don’t get out of here. And he told me, ‘Trick it man, trick it. I ain’t no ho. They just gonna have to kill me, ’cause I ain’t no ho and I ain’t runnin’.’ He was just so determined. I didn’t understand it. That’s when we had to pull the plug.”

Taylor said he didn’t understand the kid, but the next day — when all the kids were saying what a success the party was — his words rang loud and clear. It wasn’t so much what he said, Taylor told me, but what he wore. Remember what I said about clothes and the new jack? Well, here’s the motto paid in full. Aside from the new jack’s black color theme — sweats, trench coat, and Ellesse gym shoes — the kid had a black cap with a white stencil that said, Shoot me. I’m already dead.

1987 Village Voice article by Barry Michael Cooper about gun violence in Detroit

1987 Village Voice article by Barry Michael Cooper about gun violence in Detroit
1987 Village Voice article by Barry Michael Cooper about gun violence in Detroit
1987 Village Voice article by Barry Michael Cooper about gun violence in Detroit
1987 Village Voice article by Barry Michael Cooper about gun violence in Detroit
1987 Village Voice article by Barry Michael Cooper about gun violence in Detroit
1987 Village Voice article by Barry Michael Cooper about gun violence in Detroit
Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

The Larry Davis Show: Rambo Rocks the House

Davis and I were sitting in the visitor’s area of the Metropolitan Correctional Center in lower Manhattan. The MCC is a large fortress filled with orange paint, thick Plexiglas partitions, and steel doors that constantly buzz, click, and whine like robots in heat. Davis had entered the visitor’s area through one of those doors, shackled along the wrists, waist, and ankles, a postmodern Kunte Kinte in federal prison browns. He was trailed by five male guards, one of whom held a video camera to record his departure from the holding area. Even in the joint, Larry Davis is a star.

“Sometimes,” Davis said quite seriously, “it’s good to pay attention to movies, because you get what’s really happening.” Before the movie ended on November 19th, what was really happening in the apartment overwhelmed what was playing on the TV screen: Davis, who was wanted for the slayings of four suspected South Bronx crack dealers, faced down almost 30 cops in one of the wildest shootouts in New York history. It was all over by nine, in time for the 11 o’clock newscasts to begin to make Larry Davis an outlaw celebrity. It was the night he became the talk of the town: a muscular young black man bursts his way out of a small apartment seiged by a 27-member team of armed police officers, wounding all of them in the process. It was the night he became an urban legend, a black Billy the Kid, an adolescent gunslinger outshoots an army of cops and lives to tell about it. It was the night Larry Davis became a star.

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In the weeks after Davis shot the six cops, faked out the costly, nationwide manhunt for 17 days, and held a major portion of the NYPD to a standoff in the Twin Parks Houses near Fordham Road, huge black-and-white mug shot-like photos of a starry-eyed, baby-faced killer adorned the front pages of the tabloids under headlines like “They Won’t Take Me Alive” and the local news anchors excitedly invoked his name at the top of every show. He was all the talk between assistant D.A.’s and reporters during court recesses, between rap DJs and MCs during songs at the Latin Quarter, between old Jewish women and their doormen on the Upper East Side. Did Larry Davis shoot and kill dopeboys and take off crack spots? Did he really decide (as a cop testified) that it was too crowded in his van one afternoon, and casually order a flunky to kill a man sitting in an orange Toyota for the extra room? Did he really cook a Chihuahua and eat it?

I started getting phone calls from friends who couldn’t stop talking about the B-boy renegade from the South Bronx. “That kid used to rock the fresh jams in the summertime in the P.S. 145 schoolyard,” one buddy remembered. Another told me that, in addition to playing cops and robbers, Davis had stroked the keyboards on “Goldie’s Hot Tracks,” a hip hop show on Manhattan Cable. I was told that Davis also sang, danced, and virtually, “turned the show out.”

Some of Davis’s acquaintances later told me he used to watch a videotape of that show over and over in his bedroom — a space that was packed with drum machines and keyboards and doubled as an eight-track recording studio — with “that look” on his face, a sly grin and a faraway, star-struck expression. Family members say it’s the look he had playing drums for the choir of the Rapture Preparation Church on Crotona Avenue in the Bronx. It’s the look of an impressionable young kid who sees his name in lights on the marquee of a hit movie with a long line, or his face 70 feet high inside the darkened theater, with the crowd screaming out his name.

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But instead of the customary head-in-the-jacket running crouch of the arrested criminal, Davis kept his head high, his face visible to the TV cameras, as he was hustled through the courtyard. Just before the cops carried him off, he made his now-famous declaration: “It’s a good thing to sell drugs. The cops gave me the guns.”

To would be revolutionaries, Larry Davis was Richard Wright’s Bigger Thomas come to life, a South Bronx native son, a mindless killer spawned by white racism, poverty, and hopelessness. To black nationalists, Davis became a figurehead, an explosive life-sized model that defined the movement’s heartbeat: the oppressed striking back at the oppressors. To old lefties, Davis was a throwback to the Weather Underground and the Black Panthers; William Kuntstler, who took over Davis’s case from a Legal Aid lawyer, said to me, “Any black guy that shoots six cops and puts the fear of God in police officers, I think is great.”

After the police killings of Michael Stewart and Eleanor Bumpurs, and the frustrated rage over the Howard Beach incident and the Tompkins Square Park riot, Davis’s stand against the police served as a metaphorical wheel of justice: whatever goes around, comes around. But much of white New York — and a significant segment of the black population — saw him as a real-life monster too true to be good; a heavily armed creature from the Bronx lagoon.

In all cases, Larry Davis lost his identity to become an ideal that is reviled or revered: Public Enemy and Soul Brother Number One, and nothing more. Mere publicity and hype to justify the ends of each group’s own means. But Davis would never object to being exploited: it soon became apparent that Larry Davis eats hype like some kind of weird food. Not long after he was captured, he began calling newspapers — most notably The City Sun and later New York Newsday — to give his version of his story. “Write this,” he would instruct reporters. If they added details that didn’t please him they would receive phone calls chewing them out. And if here stories didn’t appear, he would refuse to grant them further interviews.

Gradually, a truer portrait of Larry Davis emerged between the lines of the media frenzy. Here was a young kid, a semi-illiterate high school dropout who spent his time chillin’ on street corners but who felt a burning need to be known, to be recognized, to be listened to, to be larger than life. His plans to be a pop star fizzled and his street scrambling produced only a shadowy local celebrity. Then, all of a sudden, he was on the top of every New York City broadcast. What did that do to him? What would it do to anybody? Your heart would pound like a bass drum and your skin would be drenched in cold sweat, knowing you are in the biggest trouble in your life. The rush would play in your mind forever.

Larry Davis didn’t have to use his imagination. The newspapers he read every day replayed the images: the courtyard crowds, the mayor, the police commissioner, the cameras, the lights, the cheers and jeers, the “The cops gave me the guns.” it was splashed across the front pages and he fell in love with it, tumbled into it, became one with it. With the flick of a camera shutter, Larry Davis became the New Narcissus.

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In the street, the Davis legend is very real; Sunday’s triumphant verdict pumped his image larger than the Superman balloon in the Thanksgiving Day parade. The inner city now gazes up at him with a mixture of victimized fear and vigilante pride. It reminds me of a hood from my teen years, who I’ll call “Igor Jackson.” Jackson was the scourge of 148th Street and Eighth Avenue, a wild man fueled by angel dust and barbiturates who killed because it amused him. He was a legend on the streets of Harlem in 1977 because he made more than a few victims — mainly the teenage operatives of heroin kingpin Leroy “Nicky” Barnes — get on their knees and beg for their life, only to see Jackson smirk and savor his response, a cold, dry, “No.”

Like Igor Jackson, Larry Davis personifies a running character in rap music: the cartoonish hood LL Cool J portrays in “I’m Bad” as he taunts cops, buries the faces of musclemen in the sand, and wears a gold nameplate that says, “I Wish You Would.” In a bizarre sense, Davis fulfilled the ultimate goal of any young inner-city black teen who practices rapping over long hours with a microphone and a tape deck: to develop a voice, to make that voice heard beyond the confines of the street corner — as Big Daddy Kane brags in “Set If Off,” “Your vocals go local/on the m-i-c/Mine go a great distance/like A T and T” — and most importantly, to make those listening respect that voice. Davis had accomplished all three and his delivery was loud and bloody.

To those whose only knowledge of rap comes from watching the movie Colors or minicam reports after concert riots, Davis is the final, dreaded proof; the incarnation of the rap ideal, the bloodthirsty, nigger teen with a $3000 gold cable around his stiff neck whose only goal is to put heads in graveyard beds and cold-snatch money like the feds. But to the makers of the music, Davis — who had his own record label for a while, Home Boys Only — is the freakish exception, a flesh-and-blood lyric taken too far.

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In my secret moments, in the midnight of my living room, as the Sony earphones fill my ears with Big Daddy Kane waiting for the fake gangsters, “front artists,” to taunt and step to him so he can destroy them like “Jason” from Friday the 13th. I live vicariously through the sonic violence. It’s a release, a shot of dope that makes my blood race. Kane’s tune “Ain’t No Half-Steppin'” gives me foolish courage every time a young sucker-punk busts a series of clips from his Beretta from the crackhouse from across the street. The tune, and maybe even the street-corner bravado of Larry Davis, whisper twisted, suicidal words of encouragement to me: “If you had an Uzi, you could take care of that problem across the street.” But the line is drawn when I remove the headphones — the violence belongs on the vinyl.

But for Larry Davis, the music never stopped. The sound panned from a Bronx schoolyard full of junior high school kids dancing to the music on his two turntables to a small Bronx apartment full of cops collapsing to the beat of bullets tearing through their bodies.

A tour of the South Bronx would convince anybody that Davis’s tale of night-crawling, street-racketeering, and dealing drugs for dirty cops is possible — in fact, if Davis wasn’t doing all he claimed, somebody is definitely is for some cop up there. The Bronx is a very big small town, a mesh of hills, valleys, concrete atolls, and dead ends. The streets are narrow, the city blocks wide, and the tenements, row houses, projects, and co-ops prop each other up. Flashing patrol-car lights provide 24-hour illumination; police and ambulance sirens mingle with hip hop, salsa, reggae, soca, and r&b like the fragmented strains of some strange carny pipe organ. The Bronx is a sprawling, Third World, urban fun house.

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The raggedy cityscape of East 169th Street is a perfect movie set for the type of clandestine meetings with corrupt cops that Davis describes. Fat and grimy Chevy vans dot the quarter-mile stretch of five-story urban wasteland like rusty camels — who knows what’s going on inside? Grant Avenue has so many abandoned pre-war buildings it looks like an estate of haunted houses. You can feel the action you can’t see: the teen scramblers who bring the crackhouse whores here for tag-team sex. who lure the snitches and rival crack czars for no-name murders; the crackheads who burrow into dank basements to get high and talk to Scotty on the Enterprise.

Not surprisingly, Davis gets a vote of confidence from a young kid I saw hawking “jums” — the abbreviated term for jumbos, the larger pieces of crack — on a 147th Street and St. Nicholas Avenue. “The cops were comin’ to kill that kid that night,” he told me, “and Larry wasn’t with that program. He was about to expose their whole joint, and they had to keep him from speakin’ on it. This crack money is crazy large out here, and you know Five-O is getting put on to all the action. Drugs flow so freely in this neighborhood, it’s like they legal. I know — I’m out here every day.”

Davis’s firefight may have set a violent precedent, declaring open season on cops. In recent months the word on the street is that cops — from Officer Ed Byrne in Jamaica, Queens, to Officer Michael Buczek in Washington Heights a few weeks ago — are not superhuman.

Teflon-coated bullets, now available in the inner city, are made to pierce bullet-proof vests. And not everybody agrees who wears the white hats: with the long standing belief that New York cops are racist and the recent corruption in Brooklyn’s 77th Precinct and allegations of police abuse in Queens’s 113th, many in the black and Latino communities are disgusted with New York’s Finest. They feel it’s more likely than not that the South Bronx cops are dirty, that Davis was working for them, and that they came to murder him because of what he knew.

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To say Larry Davis is intense is an understatement. The day I interviewed him in the Metropolitan Correctional Center, the guy not only stared me down, he appeared to look right through me, and then discard my bodily contents. It reminded me of somebody chewing all the sugar out of a stick of Juicy Fruit and throwing it in the garbage. Davis gave the impression he regards reporters as nothing more than inquisitive ectoplasm that collect and distribute information.

By Larry Davis is no psycho killer. Davis is more insular than he is callous, more calculating that he is crazy. Prince, another self-invented idiot savant, treated me the same way when I interviewed him in 1980 at the Westbury Hotel after the release of Dirty Mind. There he sat (dressed in a gray trenchcoat, black stockings, and black bikini briefs), calmly reanimating his mythos for me: how his mother was white and his father was black, how he was the servant of both the LORD GOD Almighty and “the Other,” how all of his songs were autobiographical, even the incestuous “Sister.” When I pressed him for details, he slyly told me, “the clues are all you need to know.” As he continued his presentation, I began to laugh. The expression on his face changed from surprise to indignation to a self-realization that finally caused him to join in the laughter.

Like Prince, Davis spun me a yarn. He told me how he worked for the cops taking off crack spots, and then sold the drugs. He told me how he woke up one fine day in the Bronx and it was revealed to him that he was wrong, how “through the mercy of Allah, I realized I was brain dead, and I was going to tell the world I was wrong to work for those drug-selling policemen,” and how the cops came to hunt him down at his sister’s apartment to silence his Redemption Song. When I remarked to him that this was the same rap he gave The City Sun’s Peter Noel, and Newsday’s Len Levitt, Davis began to lose his patience. When I asked him to elaborate on the details — especially his whereabouts during his 17-day flight from the authorities — he told me pointedly, “Homeboy, you gonna have to wait for the movie.”

After giving me that look, he and I laughed. But the joke only served as another smoke screen: the interview was over and the real Larry Davis remained in the shadows. Looking at his expressionless face, I realized that was the way he wanted it. All I saw was a blankness that defied filling in. Is he Adam Abdul Hakeem — an Islamic name which means “lifeblood, servant of the wise” — the young, studious, and natty Muslim convert who sits quietly while others accuse him of mayhem and murder, and then sobs softly when vindicated?

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Or is he the frenzied madman who slashed at the Department of Corrections from the inside for 367 days — allegedly assaulting guards, spitting and throwing urine at them — eventually forcing a transfer to the higher security MCC, the federal facility in lower Manhattan?

According to those close to him, Davis is more like Prince than Charles Manson. Once acquaintance told me, “Larry is a musician. That guy knows sound. He’s written 200 great songs, he’s a singer — he sounds like that old guy, Billy Paul — keyboard player, arranger, producer, everything. He had a studio in his house. I couldn’t understand the sound he got from his room, from just an eight-track channel mixing board — it sounded like a 24 or 36-track recording studio.” The man speaks the truth. Davis’s bittersweet, Philly soul ballads “Silly Love” and “Loving You Is So Beautiful” could very well score on the music charts. His hard rocking hip hop tunes, like “I Ain’t No Popeye” and “Vultures of the Subculture,” melodic and rhythmically complex songs written almost three years ago, still seem far more advanced than most of the music on current radio. So is he a disillusioned auteur who turned to wild-style glamour when he failed to land a contract with a major label?

With Davis, like Prince, there are precious few times you are able to find the chink in the calculated persona, to see the true, naked person living behind the costumed exterior. It took me a few months of interviews with Davis before the moment came along. About three weeks before the acquittal in the first trial, he started bugging me for some portraits Voice photographer Joe Rodriguez took during the MCC interview. Since Rodriguez was busy with another project, I couldn’t get the photos. During the recesses, or even when court was in session, Davis would turn around and mouth to me, “Where are the pictures?” outlining a frame in the air with his fingers. All of the spectators looked at me, wondering, “Who is this guy and why is he so important to Larry Davis?” Embarrassed, all I could do was shrug my shoulders. Davis would wave his hand at me disgustedly.

Our Tom and Jerry routine went on for almost two weeks. Finally, during a lunch break, I coughed up the goods. As I handed the white envelope to his co-counsel, Lynne Stewart, Davis grinned. “Yo, man, come and see me,” he said in a stage whisper. “Let’s talk.” Davis smiled so wide, I thought his face was going to break. He took the pictures out and studied them. One by one. I had seen the pictures: four 8x10s, stark black and white close-ups of a young black man in an orange box with no escape hatch. Davis’s smile faded slowly and he stiffened, as if he was unable to move.

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Larry Davis was born May 28, 1966, the youngest of Al and Mary Davis’s 15 children. The couple drove up from Perry, Georgia in 1952 and settled into a weather-beaten white row house on Woodycrest Avenue in the southwest Bronx, a working-class neighborhood with clean, narrow streets and well-kept playgrounds. “Larry was a big and playful baby,” says Betty Patron, his oldest sister. “He was born big, a baby with big muscles.” Al Davis — who died a few months ago — supported his growing family working as a plumber, while Mary took care of the home and children.

Al Davis moved out around 1976; some say he left because of the pressures of raising such a large family (it would later grow to include more than 42 grandchildren). Davis, with a note of sadness in his voice, told me the two of them have stayed in contact. When I asked Davis if his father visits him in prison, he eyes fell, and he looked less like a slick new jack who shoots cops than a sad adolescent who is waiting for someone to come and take him home. “No. I don’t call him,” he replied. “My father would visit if I call him. I don’t call him, because it’s not not his position. Me being a man, I gotta face what has to come, or what won’t. I don’t feel that’s his position.”

Larry was 10 when his father left. Mary struggled on without Al, opening a thrift shop near the house and taking in foster kids, runaways, and homeless children. As her elder sons turned to crime (all four of Larry’s older brothers eventually served time for charges ranging from theft to assault), Mary Davis became increasingly devoted in the Rapture Preparation Church in the Bronx. Larry, who often went with her, had sung with the church choir since he was seven. By the time he was 10, he was also playing drums and piano for the group.

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But after graduating from fifth grade at P.S. 73, the bad times began to roll. He went to J.H.S. 145 where “he was not a good student,” according to principal Bernard Krasnow. “He didn’t come very often. When he did attend he was usually in trouble. He was quite an aggressive young man.” After a teacher found Davis with a weapon — officials can’t remember if it was a knife or a gun — the 12-year-old was transferred to J.H.S. 147. But “he was only here a couple of days,” recalls principal Calvin Hart. Later, Davis was transferred to P.S. 58, a special education high school in Manhattan. At 14 years of age, he disappeared from the school system altogether.

By 18, Davis had supplemented the weapons charge at J.H.S. 145 with arrests for resisting arrests, possession of a hypodermic needle, and harassment. His harshest fine was $60, which he paid; he never served more than 24 days in jail.

Despite its problems, the Davis family remained close and large-hearted. Charlie Addo, a 39-year-old Ghanian musician and part-time cab driver who boarded at the Davis house for a year (until just after the shootout), remembers Mary Davis as a kind woman who occasionally shared her private pain with him. “She used to tell me, ‘It would be a mess without me. They’d kill themselves without me.’ Sometimes she falls apart because she goes through so much. But she’s very strong.”

Addo’s fondest moments of the Davis house were the times he and Larry watched videos in the Davis bedroom. “Eddie Murphy in Beverly Hills Cop was one of Larry’s favorites,” says Addo, “because he liked to laugh. He also liked watching Rambo.

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Davis claims he discussed the deal a few days later with his buddy Rick Burgos. The two were close; Davis was the bossy older sibling, and Burgos was the loyal sidekick. Davis even bragged about Burgos’s fidelity to a confederate on a wiretap during his time on the run: “Yo, Rick will do 30 years before he talks.” Burgos had idolized Davis since hearing him kick bass tempo on Run-D.M.C. records in the playground of P.S. 145. Like Davis, Burgos — a short, scrappy kid with squinty, Humphrey Bogart eyes — came from a large family and started fighting the law at an early age. At 14, Burgos was arrested for spraying grafitti on the D train, and was sentenced to clean Crotona Park every other weekend for six weeks. In August 1986, he was accused of robbing and shooting a man at the White Castle on Webster Avenue.

Both Davis and Burgos knew that crack was catching on in the Bronx and Manhattan faster than the Asian flu. Whether it’s smoked in a glass pipe or mixed in a joint with reefer — the “woo-woo” or “woolahs” — crack hits are not only highly addictive, exhilarating, demoralizing, and deadly, but also big biz. A seasoned hustler who could sniff out money and opportunity, Burgos told Davis to go with the program and make the “stupid” money.

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Guys from my generation would’ve killed for the illicit carte blanche that Davis and Burgos claimed they enjoyed after they went into the business with the cops. Imagine — that is, if what Davis and Burgos are saying is true — using crackheads to make crack in basehouses throughout the Bronx like mad scientists in abandoned ghetto labs. Imagine breaking the law, with the law enforcers’ blessing. Imagine making piles — “coming off” — and Being Untouchable. Friends say the young “stunts,” the gangster groupies, went crazy over them like rock stars, while the fellas whispered and pointed at them with fear, envy, and admiration. It was almost like a bad joke; they dealt drugs and they couldn’t get arrested.

But the sweet scene turned on October 30, 1986 when the four suspected drug dealers were shot to death at a brickfaced apartment building, 829According to Davis, he had been in Norfolk. Virginia, for about two weeks, intending to buy his mother a house. If this were true — and Davis did come up with an alibi in the form of a Norfolk woman he was friendly with — it would make it impossible to place him at 829 Southern Boulevard on October 30. But after questioning by the prosecution before the first trial, the woman was unsure as to exactly when Davis was in Norfolk. Davis’s lawyers, Kunstler and co-counsel Lynne Stewart, filed a motion stating that the prosecution had intimidated her and placed doubt in her mind, thereby ruling out the possibility of her testifying at the trial.

Davis had additional problems in his first trial, and one was Charlie Conway. Many courtroom observers were surprised that he testified, including Davis. In a wiretapped conversation, Davis is heard explaining the finer points of street silence to Conway’s son, “Little Charlie”; “Your pops don’t talk man, that’s what I like about him. He do not say shit.”

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Big Charlie proved Davis wrong. He denied his willingness to testify was connected to any agreement that would help him out with his parole board (he’s currently serving an armed robbery sentence); instead he told the court, “I am tired. I’ve been involved with crime a lot of years, you know the dates. You went back to like ’65. I am really tired.”

Conway’s underworld weariness had not taken effect when he met Davis in 1984 through his son, Little Charlie, who was a student at J.H.S 145 with Davis. Big Charlie Conway, a former U.S. and merchant marine, testified he taught Davis how to bore out the barrel of a .45, making it difficult to trace. (Davis told me that the police showed him: “I got all my training from the police. They taught me how to bore out a gun.”) Conway also spoke of a meeting with Davis and James “J.J.” Patron on October 31, 1986 — the day after the murders of the four suspected drug dealers. That morning there was a knock on Conway’s apartment door. Conway asked who it was, and a voice replied “Rambo, Rambo” — Davis’s nickname. Conway let Davis and his nephew inside. In this meeting Davis asked the elder Conway if he’d seen Burgos. Conway said he hadn’t. Davis then told him, according to Conway’s testimony, “You all should have come up with us last night because we came off.” Patron then displayed a bracelet to Conway, and Davis said, “We had to pap-pap-pap these four guys.”

“Yeah man, one guy jumped on Larry’s back,” Patron chimed in, according to Conway’s testimony. Patron allegedly added that he shot one of the guys and then took all four men into a room where “Larry took care of them.”

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There were inconsistencies in Conway’s testimony. He seemed confused on names, dates, and places of past crimes. On one occasion, defense attorney asked Conway if he recalled an NYPD badge found in his apartment, and if was given to him by Larry Davis; Conway answered yes to both questions. But under questioning by assistant D.A. Brian Wilson, Conway said it was a security guard badge that Davis had given him in August 1986.

Between the time of the Southern Boulevard murders and the November shootout with police, Davis shuttled from place to place. Aside from various friends, he either stayed with his mother, his girlfriend Melody Fludd — the mother of his daughter Larrima — or his sister Regina Lewis. His lodging at Joe and Regina’s was the source of many arguments for the couple. Joe Lewis, a stocky private sanitation worker, didn’t like the fact that Davis stashed guns, blocks of cocaine in plastic bags, and large sums of money in their tiny apartment at 1231 Fulton Avenue; Lewis feared for the safety of his three young children, Joe Jr., Krystal, and Ravon. After one disagreement in the early fall of 1986, Regina reluctantly asked her baby brother to leave. Lewis soon reconsidered and welcomed Davis back into his home a few weeks before the shootout. Davis returned with the guns, drugs, and money in tow.

In early November, according to Burgos and Davis, the cops gave them 40 kilos of coke to sell to a Columbian dealer. Davis told me he met the Columbian and exchanged the drugs for $1 million in a suitcase. Both say that they kept all the money instead of handing the cops their share. The police “became worried” about Davis, Kunstler asserted later; “One, that he might tell on them, and two, that he took their money.”

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On November 19, 1986, Davis, Melody Fludd, little Larrima, Joe, and Joe Jr. were in the apartment watching a cassette. Although Davis remembers it being Rambo, the Lewises say it was Romancing The Stone (another example of Davis’s self-mythologizing?). Meanwhile, the other children, Krystal and Ravon, were playing in a rear bedroom.

Regina Lewis was on the phone in the front of the apartment when she saw the front doorknob begin to twist. She thought it was probably her prankster sister, Helen Mendoza, who lived next door. Regina got up, went to the door, and opened it just a crack. “Who lives here?” came a voice from the other side of the door. Curious, Joe Lewis got up and went to the door. Through the crack, he could see a brace of police officers with shotguns and flak jackets. They questioned Lewis for a second or two until they spotted Davis on the sofa: Davis saw them about the same time and made his move to the back bedroom.

“Somebody ran,” shouted one of the officers. About 13 cops rushed in, filling the tiny apartment with armed men. According to Regina Lewis’s testimony, no one produced a badge or a search warrant, not even Captain John Ridge, who backed her off iinto the kitchen, and told her to get on the floor. She began to scream. Sergeant Edward Coulter, who was called to testify by Davis’s attorneys, continued Regina’s account, saying, “All I could do was hear her screaming. There was a lot of screaming going on.”

The police hustled Joe Lewis, Melody Fludd, and her daughter out of the apartment. Joe said he wanted to run back and get Krystal and Ravon. “But there was no way to get them,” he recalled. “That’s where they were shooting.”

In the back bedroom, Davis said he pushed Krystal and Ravon under the bed. Davis also said that Detective Thomas McCarren — who William Kunstler maintained at trial was the dirty cops’ assassin — was the first officer he saw. “He ran in the back and asked me, ‘Where’s the money, where’s the money?’,” Davis told me. “I said, ‘I got your money, just don’t hurt my family.’ He was trying to act like Scarface or something. Next thing I know, his gun goes off, and he skinned the top of my head. If I get a close haircut, you can see the scar. So I shot back.”

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Sergeant Edward Coulter testified that he was standing behind McCarren when Davis was desperately rummaging around the room for a gun. “The detective [McCarren] kept yelliing, ‘Police, come out with your hands up.'” Suddenly, McCarren yelled, “Get back, he’s got a gun” and waved his arms desperately, falling backwards into Coulter. Coulter claimed Ravon, Larry Davis’s three-year-old nephew, then walked out of the bathroom. “I can draw you a picture of this kid today,” Coulter said on the stand. “The kid walked out of the bathroom, made a right, and started into the bedroom and as the kid got to the bedroom entrance, I heard an explosion. The guy fired a shot at us. We started to retreat. I … I don’t know if that’s the shot that hit the detective or it was a second shot or a … The gunfire, it was unstopped gunfire, just sounded like the range.” Coulter described shooting wildly through the walls of the bedroom at Davis, whom Coulter says he never saw.

Just as dramatic was the second-trial testimony of Officer Mary Buckley, who was shot in the mouth. On a wiretap recorded during his 17 days on the run, Davis told a friend that after Buckley said, “Freeze, you fuckin’ black nigger, I’m gonna blow your fuckin’ ass away,” she caught a bullet “in her mouth.” (Buckley has denied the slur.) Buckley, who has received more than 135 hours of dental work since the shooting, gave a visceral portrayal of the action. “It was like a knife cutting into my lip,” she told the court. “I realized that I was shot, and I thought I was going to die on some strange floor. I could feel all my veins turning to ice.” Within minutes, however, Buckley said she felt “very peaceful. I started to think of my daughter. She was nine at that time, and I didn’t want to leave her.”

Regina Lewis testified that after the six wounded officers retreated from the apartment, she ran to the bedroom and retrieved Ravon and Krystal from underneath the bed. “I started screaming because I heard the door open,” Regina Lewis told the court. “I thought the police were coming back in. And Larry said, ‘It’s me.’ I said, ‘Please don’t start shooting again.'”

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Davis darted out of the front door of the apartment. Outside, he spotted a few more policemen, and sprayed the hallway with gunfire. The cops scurried. Davis then shot the lock off of his sister Helen’s door and went inside. Looking out a rear window, he spied several cops in the backyard. Davis claims they saw his figure in the window but didn’t realize it was him. Mimicking a woman’s voice, he asked the cops what was happening. They gruffly told the “woman” to get back inside. After the cops left, Davis jumped from the first floor apartment window into the backyard and disappeared into the wilds of the Bronx. (This daring impersonation remains unverified; is it another product of the movie that plays in Davis’s head?)

After slipping in and out of safehouses for more than two weeks, Davis was cornered at 365 East 183rd Street in the Twin Parks West projects in the Fordham section of the Bronx on December 5, 1986. After more than six hours of tense negotiations between Davis and the NYPD — conducted over the phone and shouted through the front door of the apartment where Davis had taken two families hostage — Davis surrendered without incident at 7:30 a.m. He later claimed he gave up because he was concerned for his mother’s safety as well as his own. As a ring of cops led Davis down the building’s wheelchair ramp, he was showered with applause and cheers. Mayor Koch and Commissioner Ward patted each other on the back. The minicam crews raced back to their stations with the grand finale to the greatest show in the Empire State.

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Hunting for a conviction in the first trial (where Davis was charged in the Southern Boulevard murders), assistant district attorneys William Flack and Brian Wilson looked like mako sharks in NBO suits. They had a solid case against Davis; not airtight, but strong. In his summation, Flack likened the case with all of its testimony and physical evidence to “building a house.” He asked the jury not to be distracted by Kunstler and Stewart’s “landscaping and shrubbery” — the political dramatics — but to concentrate on the “house” itself.

With more than 50 witnesses, the prosecution’s case seemed stronger every day. There was the testimony of “Big Charlie” Conway, Addo, and a spacey crackhouse steerer named Roy Gray who claimed that, a few hours after the killings of the four suspected drug dealers, Davis, Burgos, and Patron robbed Gray outside a Washington Heights crackhouse (Burgos is currently serving a two-to-six year stretch at Rikers for this stickup). After Gray called the police and they arrived — and handcuffed Gray in the backseat of their patrol car just in case — the police chased Davis’s crew (driving a stolen car) all the way from 165th and Edgecombe in Manhattan to 167th and Jerome Avenue in the Bronx. As Davis and company bailed out and scaled the sloping staircase from Jerome to Anderson Avenue, Gray testified that Davis and his boys fired at the cops. Flack and Wilson had evidence; the shells on the staircase and the fingerprints on the getaway car matched the shell casings and fingerprints taken from the scene of the murders.

Kunstler and Stewart ignored the murder case; their aim was to persuade the jury that corrupt police officers were out to assassinate Larry Davis. Kunstler’s theory was that McCarren, the detective who led the charge into Regina Lewis’s apartment on November 19, was out to “assassinate” Davis because he knew too much about police corruption and drug dealing. The defense team did their best to play to the frustrations and loyalties of the seven blacks and three Latinos on the jury.

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One person who figured heavily into Davis’s defense was his brother-in-law Joe Lewis. Lewis, who testified for the prosecution and later recanted, gave what appeared to be very damaging testimony. He claimed that Davis came to his house a day or two after the October 30 murders and said that he “went to rob some guys, but some static happened.” Lewis said Davis told him that one of the men rushed him and he shot the man. Lewis said Davis explained that the remaining three were shot and killed because Davis “didn’t need no witnesses.” Then the four were stripped of their clothing — one corpse did have socks on — tied up, and tossed into a bathtub full of water.

When I asked Davis what he thought of his brother-in-law’s account, he went off on me. “What’s the use of getting mad at the boy?” Davis asked sharply. “We know what they [the prosecution] is doing to him. The boy’s a punk, he’s scared, they tellin’ him he’s going to jail — he has children. I got a daughter myself. They scarin’ him. But they can’t do that to my family. They ain’t going for it.” And then Davis did something very brash. “Cut the tape off,” he said. Stunned and curious, I complied. “You see that tape recorder, how small it is? if you got a big coat, I want you to go to my mother’s house and interview Joe — but you can’t let him see the recorder. Take a pen and pad, but hide the recorder, switched on, in your coat pocket. He’s been telling people how he was scared, how they made him lie on the witness stand, how he didn’t want to do that, and I want that on tape.” I looked at Davis for a full minute as I let the full shock of his request sink in. Then I told him I couldn’t do that for him.

I did interview Lewis, however. He told me that right after Davis’s capture he kept getting calls from the Bronx D.A.’s office; he avoided them until the morning he was picked up by two detectives who drove him to the courthouse where he was interrogated for more than two hours by an assistant D.A. and a detective. According to Lewis, when he denied any knowledge of the murders or the shootout, the assistant D.A. told him, “You do know something. Why are you being stupid?” The detective allegedly added, “You asshole, why mess up your life for this bastard? Everybody here is telling on everybody anyway. We already know everything.” (The prosecution would not comment on the Lewis interview.)

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Says Lewis, “He had me thinking that it was other people that had already told on him, and they had all they needed to pin Larry. Then come to find out they only had me as a witness. They used me as a little sucker. I didn’t think it would be my testimony that would hang my brother-in-law. Larry used to call me and say, ‘Yo, don’t let them do this to me, don’t let them hang me.’ I told him, ‘I just put shit together from the newspapers. They was threatenin’ me so much, I was scared, tears was comin’ out of my eyes at the time.’ Then he told me, ‘Joe, stand up to them. Tell what they did to you, so people could know.’ They tried to use me, and I didn’t dig that. So I told Larry not to worry about it.” On the witness stand, Lewis avoided looking at Davis, his mother-in-law, and his wife.

On Sunday, February 14, Mary Davis called Stanley Cohen, Davis’s Legal Aid lawyer and one of the architects of his defense. After inquiring about his health, she said, “Somebody wants to ask your legal advice.” Joe Lewis took the phone. Cohen called him back and taped his recantation on an answering machine. Judge Fried did not allow the recantation because Lewis took the Fifth when asked whether his previous testimony was untrue. Fried also told the court that “Mr. Cohen did suggest the answers [for Lewis] outright.” But the next day the papers wrote about Fried barring the recantation. It was discussed on WLIB, and there is speculation that the jurors — who were sequestered upstate — got wind of it.

On March 3, 1988, after nine days of deliberation — the longest in Bronx county history — Davis walked on the murder charges. Objectively, the prosecution should have won, but crack and police corruption have filled the minds New Yorkers like sweet smoke spreading through a glass pipe. When it came down to choosing between “dirty” cops, unsympathetic victims, and poor leadership in the county’s judicial system on the one side and, on the other, a kid who may or may not have been lured into police corruption and no-name murders, Larry Davis was the people’s choice.

Mary Davis rocked with her eyes closed, her family fell on her and cried, her Pentecostal sisters raised open palms, on the brink of an unknown language. An older black man in the back of the courtroom shouted, “Alright now! Next, win, Jesse, win.” Stanley Cohen trembled, and then he cried. Lynne Stewart beamed and hugged Kunstler who tried to remain cool, but said, “I’m delirious. This is great, just great.” And he put his arm around Larry Davis, who sobbed into the sleeve of his lawyer’s charcoal gray suit.

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The acquittal in the first trial not only vindicated Davis, but it also bolstered his credibility, confirming the street-level perception that he was telling the truth about working for the cops. It was also the sort of surprise ending that suggested that the second trial (for the attempted first-degree murder of nine police officers, aggravated assault, use of a firearm, and criminal possession of weapons) would deliver even more drama.

After three months of false starts — involving possible racism in jury selection, subsequent empaneling and dismissals, until not one white sat on the jury — Davis II began in late July with the hoopla worthy of a new Martin Scorsese film. For the first couple of weeks, the courtroom was standing room only. As in the last trial, there was a broad cross-section of spectators: radicals, Muslims, Pentecostals — prayer capped women from Mary Davis’s Rapture Preparation Church — detectives, cops, reporters, and the legion of Davis’s family and supporters. I even remember small wagers made between reporters that Davis II would eclipse the hype of the Brawley mystery, which, at that time, was at it’s peak.

For a while, it seemed that it would. First, there was the tearful testimony of some of the wounded officers. Emergency Service sergeant Edward Coulter, who was wounded in the hand and thigh, broke down as he recounted the story of how he and his fellow officers were felled by the flashes of heat and light from Davis’s gun. Kunstler went as far as to show the courtroom a videotape of a police training lecture that depicted a much calmer Coulter describing the same event to fellow Emergency Service officers in a January 1987 meeting. Indeed, Coulter seemed to have a firmer grip on his emotions when I witnessed his testimony back in February. If anything, his steady delivery held the court spellbound, with his claim of Davis shooting first, even with a tot in the line of fire.

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Four of the other five wounded cops followed Coulter to the witness stand (four cops have filed civil suits against the city for negligence). The injured officers include Captain John Ridge who was grazed in the head (and who, according to a Newsday article, had a trace of alcohol on his breath during the post-shootout hospital examination, though he denied on the witness stand that he had been drinking), Officer John O’Hara, who was shot in the eye, and Detective Donald O’Sullivan, grazed in the head and hand. Throughout their testimony, Kunstler maintained the same position he outlined for Newsday on the day of the opening arguments: “You don’t assemble an entire task force with cops from all over the place, including ESU [Emergency Service Unit], get denied a request for a warrant from the DA’s office, and then still make a raid on the house with bulletproof vests, sawed-off shotguns, and 34 men unless you are hellbent on killing him.”

Bolstering the testimony of these and other officers on the scene that night were the daily sea of blue uniforms in the first two rows of the courtroom, including the wheelchair-bound Steven McDonald. McDonald, the officer disabled by a teen gunman in Central Park, was a quiet but powerful cheerleader for the cops. At the beginning of the second trial, he told the Post, “I consider them [the wounded officers] victims, and I’ll continue to be here as long as I am physically up to it.” Kunstler countered that McDonald’s presence was “a trick to win sympathy from the jury. It’s a shameful exploitation. I feel sorry for him.”

Perhaps the trial became too taxing for McDonald, because he didn’t show up in the courtroom for a while. Or maybe he just lost interest. McDonald’s absence was just one indication of the public’s lethargy during the bulk of Davis II. Despite the police parade of witnesses and the visceral testimony describing the melee, empathy had began to wane not only for the cops, but also for Larry Davis. Most people didn’t seem to care anymore; many said it was because the image painted by the cops of Davis using his toddler nephew as a shield in the shootout. Others said that the cop-shoot had been tried already in the murder trial; once you’ve seen the surprise ending, the thrill is gone.

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The disaffection of the general public grew despite the defense’s theatrical presentation. Davis, Kunstler, and Stewart did their best to pump a case that was in danger of becoming a mundane installment of Superior Court up to the level of a Hitchcock thriller. The most unexpected twist came in the October 5 testimony of Davis’s mother. Mary Davis, 65, told the court that on October 31, 1986 — the day after her son and two accomplices allegedly killed four suspected crack dealers at 829 Southern Boulevard in the Bronx — she was visited by four police officers. She testified that one of the officers, Joseph Nealon, said, “You know what you did? You raised a dirty bastard.” He went on to tell her, “You tell him, we’re going to put a f—in’ bullet in his head. You tell Larry we are going to kill him.” She informed the police Civilian Complaint Review of this harassment just in case “anything did happen,” (Nealon received a minor reprimand from the department for pushing and verbally abusing Mary Davis.)

Two weeks later, Kunstler, former Tawana Brawley advisers C. Vernon Mason and Al Sharpton, and other supporters staged a six-hour sit-in Brooklyn Criminal Court (over a judge’s decision in another case) that ended in a mini-riot and a group sleepover in a holding cell. Next, Davis developed a back problem that delayed the trial for a week. Were these carefully orchestrated blows against the system or were they acts of desperation? Well, Davis’s problem may have been genuine; months before he made the complaint, he told me had injured his back in a car accident that happened when he was being transferred from the Bronx Courthouse to the MCC. But there was widespread speculation that Kunstler was stalling because he had run out of ammunition.

Last week, the defense rested, the jury was charged, and deliberations began. as the trial drew to a close, the public revved itself up once more as if, having slept through the dreary exposition of the movie, the audience was waking up just in time for the car chase. Reporters who weeks ago were filling their notebooks with doodles suddenly scrambled to get to the fourth floor courtroom an hour early, because waiting for the verdict was the uptown ticket that’s as hot as Waiting For Godot. And Larry Davis was the hottest topic on the street corner again.

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Like a sequel that tops the original movie, the verdict in Davis II realized its great expectations. On Sunday afternoon, Larry Davis was found not guilty on all of the most serious charges — nine counts of attempted murder and six counts of aggravated assault — and found guilty of six counts of weapons possession. The press room on the ground floor of the Bronx County Courthouse swelled with reporters who were stunned into silence; meanwhile, shouts of “Hallelujah!” and revolutionary war cries caromed down the halls on the fourth floor. Soul power was alive and well in the Bronx.

Larry Davis will continue to be a figurehead for factions in New York. To the ruling class, he is society’s nightmare, a horror-film monster who keeps coming back every time you think you’ve put him away for good. Worse, he is not a lone gunman: he is the advance man for an urban earthquake that is rocking society from the bottom, a terrifying state of flux that can no longer be ignored or reversed. But to the powerless, Davis is a resistance fighter, decorated with the blood of the occupational forces and crowned with victories on the enemy’s home turf, the halls of justice that have traditionally been nothing more than corridors of white power. By paralleling Davis with Bernhard Goetz immediately after the verdict, Kunstler has (quite brilliantly) forced Judge Fried into choosing between either imposing a minimal sentence that matches Goetz’s penalty or a heavier one that implies the court is racist. If Davis serves any substantial length of time on the weapons convictions or if he is jailed on upcoming murder charges (he still faces two unrelated counts of murder), his name will be invoked the way Hurricane Carter’s was for years: as the patron saint of black victims.

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The triumph of Davis II has fueled the hunger for the kind of black hero that has been missing since the days of urban riots, Black Panthers, and Malcolm X. While Jesse Jackson has assumed the highest profile of any black leader in America today, there are many who feel his careful mainstreaming leaves a vacuum on the radical side; the rally to Davis’s bloody banner is a return to Malcolm X’s credo, “By any means necessary.” How could a crack dealing strongman be compared to a great visionary? “Hey man,” one Harlem professional told me recently, “remember that Malcolm used to be Detroit Red [a pimp and a drug dealer] before he became El Hajj. Everybody makes mistakes. It all depends on what you learn from them.”

I have heard the analogy between between Larry Davis and Malcolm X made so many times recently, it’s almost beginning to sound like an article of faith. But what the hopeful believers ignore is that Malcolm X was weaned on the black struggle through his father, a Marcus Garvey acolyte: Malcolm X was schooled to be a powerful beacon. As much as I believe God can rewrite any soul, and as much as I want to believe in Davis’s Islamic epiphany in prison, I can’t. I don’t think a true prophet would tell me to wait for the movie. ❖

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

Teddy Riley’s New Jack Swing

Harlem Gangsters Raise a Genius

THIS IS THE story of a new Harlem Renaissance — on floppy disk.

My mother told me, that when I was about eight months old, I climbed on top of this old record player, turned it on somehow, and stood on the turntable, go­ing around and around. She said I was trying to find out where the sound was coming from.
— Teddy Riley

‘Round and ’round I go …

THE BASS kicking from the Ken­wood in the golden Acura Legend shook 126th Street like an earthquake traveling on Pirelli tires. The line of special guests, amateur night contestants, and groupies grew longer and longer, stretching like a dancing, human inchworm from the Apol­lo backstage doors to Eighth Avenue. Ev­ery time a Euro/Asian big-money sedan passed the anxious crowd — music sweep­ing over and beyond darkened power windows — they began to dance, hunching their shoulders and jerking their bodies in short, abbreviated versions of the James Brown. It was like the best block· party, diced up into five-second segments.

”Groove me/(Ah yeah)/Baby / Tonight …”

A triple-white Milano zoomed down 126th Street, then slowed to a stylish cruise, and the crowd started to shimmy to its music. The driver — who looked young enough to be in junior high school — wore a tan leather baseball cap with the insignia MCM (Germany’s Mod­ern Creations of München, the emblem that has replaced Gucci as the inner city youth’s status advertisement) and a My Uzi Is My Best Friend sweatshirt. He stared straight ahead, hunching his shoul­ders and rocking in his lumbar-contoured seat.

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“Gina, ain’t that Gee-Money from 122nd Street?” a slim if wide-hipped girl in a white Le Coq Sportif sweatsuit and monstrous gold shrimp earrings asked. “Nah, that ain’t Gee-Money,” answered Gina, a tall, attractive girl wearing a green Nike warm-up suit and around her neck a gold cable thick enough to tow cars or beat elephants. “Gee-Money got a thin beard and whatnot. That’s just a baby driving that Milano. Plus, this boy got that low-budget Milano; Gee-Money got that Platinum Level Milano.” “Word,” Gina’s friend verified. After freaking the crowd for the mandatory five seconds, the young kid and his weak Milano — only the $20,000 Gold Level, not the $26,000 Platinum — sped west toward St. Nicholas Avenue.

Tonight, September 15, was the taping for the late-night TV extravaganza, It’s Showtime at the Apollo (NBC). Since it was a freebie, the theater got very crowd­ed, very fast; everybody wanted to sit up front or in the balconies that framed the stage. It promised to be a high-powered show, with Guy, Al B. Sure!, Pebbles, and Kool and the Gang on the bill. The crowd was getting fidgety, because the once balmy weather had turned chilly, and the person who had the guest list was already 30 minutes late.

“Where’s that stunt with the guest list?” Gina’s friend spat. “It’s gettin’ cold out here.” “Word,” Gina chuckled. “But why you gotta break on the girl like that? She just doin’ her job, and whatnot.” Gina’s friend feigned anger, her voice growing shrill. “Wha’s up, you her lawyer now?! The bitch is late. We tryin’ to get in and see the show, and I got a little some­thing to do with Al B. Sure! before he goes on stage, to help that pretty boy sing better.” We all laughed, while she mock­ingly rolled her eyes. Our appreciation must have been some sort of cue, because Gina and her friend broke into an im­promptu routine.

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“Oh,” Gina said, “I guess you gonna help him out like you helped Biz Markie out that time backstage.” Gina’s friend displayed no embarrassment at this dis­closure. She wore her sexual aggressive­ness like a police badge. “Yo,” Gina’s friend answered matter-of-factly, “I just whispered a little something in his ear.” We broke into giggles until a hush came over the line of star-worshippers-screw­ers-wannabees.

A cliché black stretch limo pulled up. The door opened, and out popped a di­minutive, handsome young man wearing enough gold to throw England’s bullion market out of whack. He was impeccably dressed in a rust-colored designer shirt and pants outfit, sleek brown lizard penny loafers with solid gold buckles across the vamp. There was the obligatory gold cable hula-hooping his neck. For young gang­sters and their facsimiles, here’s the new jack talisman, warding off the evils of poverty, failure, and longevity — eternity is only a bullet’s breath or crack-toke away. So this is about living now, money, and living large. But there was something different about this young man, something elegant, something graceful. He exuded a gangster’s confidence, but he also had a scholarly self-absorbtion about him, like Kant mesmerized by the church’s steeple. The crowd got hyped.

“Oooh, Teddy Riley! He’s so cute I wanna take him home!”

Gina’s friend, licking her lips, took on the look of a python.

“Oooh, I want him, yup-yup …”

Teddy Riley, leader of Guy, simulta­neously bathed himself in the adoration and ignored it all. He grinned, shook my hand. “Yo man, why you waitin’ in line?” He grabbed my elbow and led me away from the star-struck captives. “We outta here, man.”

Gina’s friend tapped me on the shoul­der before I walked away. “I’ll do any­thing for an autograph, word.”

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TEDDY RILEY finds sanctuary in the recording studio, at home with his family, and behind the wheel of his red BMW. He writes songs in his BMW; he previews new tunes for his friends in his BMW. The BMW as solace seems strange, but only if you are aware of the environ­ment that Teddy comes from.

The half-mile stretch of Eighth Avenue between 125th and 135th streets, right around the corner from the 32nd Pre­cinct, is one of drugs, poverty, and con­tract murders (often executed on dope­boys silting in the driver’s seat of luxury cars). The stretch tends to fool people because of the urban renewal of the Lio­nel and Gladys Hampton Houses beautify­ing the area, but those that live here realize this place can be a little Beirut. This was a place where things always happened.

It’s a little quieter now, but during the late ’70s-early ’80s, it was one of the city’s major heroin/cocaine bazaars. I re­member watching one junkie using a Lou­isville Slugger to open up the back of another one’s head like a brown egg, right on 125th Street, and a crew of young, white, undercover cops shut down all of 129th Street between Eighth and St. Nicholas, as if they were filming Starsky and Hutch. Small, glassine bags of white powder stamped “Wizard,” “Snowball,” and “Blue Magic” littered the sidewalk and street. I often heard about bodies turning up in the courtyard and stairwells of the St. Nicholas projects, or the St. Nick.

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Teddy Riley heard about them too, be­cause he lived in the St. Nick. As a matter of fact, he knew a few of the corpses. Some were buddies; the dopeboys, the lullaby specialists — hitmen paid to put heads into eternal sleep — the young guys who wore the Damon knits and Caron­-Champagne cologne from A. J. Lester’s on 125th Street, and drove Mercedes­-Benzes and BMWs before they left high school. Gangsters taught Riley how to play basketball on the courts on the Sev­enth Avenue side of the St. Nick, or up on “the Terrace” — Hamilton Terrace, set­ting for the action in Kool Moe Dee’s “Wild Wild West” and Spoonie Gee’s “Hit Man.” (Riley had a major hand in both songs.)

Gangsters, a few years older than him, Look up for the 14-year-old in fights, sheltering him from the street, from them. Instead, they ordered him to stay in school, and to come off like the Feds with his music.

“I never saw any violence,” Teddy said. “Violence around me had either started or ended by the time I got to the scene. I had a lot of people looking out for me. Guys like Big Al, Stanley, Dwight, and Little Shaun, until he got shot. We all rolled together. And even if they were into the street, they kept me out of it.” So, with the loving and steady hand of his mother Mildred, his stepfather Edward, his godfather Gene Griffin (now his man­ager and consigliere), and friends, Riley stayed out of trouble and into his music.

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GUY’S DRESSING room was on the Apollo’s third floor. Painted pink, with big windows, it was cramped but comfort­able. Kevin Mathis, Guy’s choreographer and lead dancer known as Shake, was dressing for the evening’s performance. His brother, Chris, a rapper and a dancer known as K-Loose, was putting mousse on his hair in the bathroom. Shake has to be one of the best street choreographers in the business. With freaky dope maneuvers learned on the street corner and in the rap clubs, he’s the one who turns the house and block parties out. He’s respon­sible for a lot of the latest dances; the Shaka-Zulu, the Gucci, and the coolest dance on the set today, the James Brown (the funky chicken, the jerk, and the namesake’s sliding shuffle). Shake also choreographed the frenzy in the club se­quence of Johnny Kemp’s video “Just Got Paid,” a Teddy Riley track.

Nearly a half hour before showtime, and the dressing room was crowded. Guy is a sizable band — two dancers, two back­ground singers, a drummer, four key­board players (including Riley, who also sings back-up), and two lead vocalists — ­and it seems like a cast of thousands. While waiting for Guy’s stage call, lead singer Aaron Hall III passed time by cut­ting cameos — a mod, cubist Afro derived not only from the heads of Grace Jones and Cameo’s Larry Blackmon, but from the ancient busts and funerary masks of the African Benin and Ibo peoples — and was doing better than a lot of professional barbers. With his mahogany good looks, muscular physique, and sinewy melismata — that gospel yodel-warble, the stamp of a powerful soul singer when not over­done — this young man might go down in the record books with Sam, Otis, and Jackie. Not only a masterful singer and formidable keyboardist, he cowrote Bobby Brown’s “My Prerogative” with Gene Griffin. He also wrote the potentially clas­sic ballad “Goodbye Love,” on Guy (MCA), the group’s recent debut LP.

If Hall can handle the fame, a rich career seems certain. But so many gospel singers who cross the line into secular wickedness — r&b and pop — go on to mu­tilate themselves, as an act of repentance for turning their backs on God the Father Almighty in Heaven. (Every member in Guy comes right out of the church, and the oldest of them is 24.) Aaron shares the singing spotlight in Guy with his brother Damion, and they’re the sons of the popular Brooklyn minister Aaron Hall Jr. A protegé of the Winans and James L. Cleveland, Aaron III doesn’t show signs of unraveling, and the church still has a powerful tug.

“I’m going to do a gospel album,” Hall said. “Gospel and the church are my roots, my foundation, and I’m definitely going back.”

Teddy Riley came back in the dressing room and said, “Yo, you cutting hair? I could have saved 20 dollars, man.”

Hall said, “I should stop singing and just cut hair.”

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THE CONTROL room backstage was jam-packed. Performers for the ama­teur night segment paced back and forth, puffed Kools, talked al 78 rpm. Friends, family, and observers of the headliners glued their eyes to the TV monitor. Kool and the Gang were winding up their Show­time at the Apollo lip-sync performance of “Rags to Riches,” which sounded like a throwaway from Earth, Wind & Fire. With the departure of lead singer James “JT” Taylor, and their reluctance to couple the raw funk of “Hollywood Swinging” or “‘Funky Stuff” with the pop success of “Celebration,” Kool and the Gang looked like they were going through the motions. The crowd’s applause was courteous.

Next was current king-of-the-charts, Mr. Al B. Sure! I’m not certain about his voice — he sounded a bit off-key at times — but B. Sure! had undeniable pres­ence and the light-skinned, mulatto looks that many women go crazy for. “High yalla” tones and a “good grade” of hair are things that black people don’t want to speak on, but as Spike Lee’s School Daze depicts, that racially twisted itch still scratches my people the wrong way.

Al B. Sure! was up there, though, to get famous, get paid, wet some panties, and kick bass, not genetics. In his toe-up jeans, he wiggled, squiggled, and screeched through the irresistibly dark synth-orchestrations of “Rescue Me,” making the girls at the Apollo bug. When four of them jumped onstage and began humping on his thighs, butt, and hips, B. Sure! cooperated with the eros of the moment and skeezed them. Then he turned vicious.

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With all of his might, he humped each one of them away, the last girl so hard that she toppled off the stage, which drew a shocked “Oh shit!” reaction from the audience, and in the control room. It was a move that jumped up out of nowhere, the epitome of surprise. An exciting show has a way of dulling rationality without narcotics, bringing out the masochist in a crowd, especially if a pretty boy is inflict­ing the pain. So when B. Sure! — in his best jimmy-grabbing, Michael Jackson grimace — told the girls, “All the ladies in the house, say Al,” you know what the young ladies did.

When Guy was performing, the mem­bers of Kool and the Gang, as well as everyone else in the control room, were up on their feet dancing. In this lip-­synced performance, the music was razor-­sharp and tight-computerized, digital hokey-pokey. His recordings have a “live concert” feel. As Riley, Damion, Shake, and K-Loose stepped with the precision of an avant-garde militia, Aaron Hall belted out ” ‘Round and ‘Round (Merry Go ‘Round of Love),” the second single from Guy.

An older stagehand, who had seen ev­eryone from Dinah Washington to Luther Vandross become legends, shouted “Hey, the funk is back, baby!” Bassist Robert “Kool” Bell nodded in agreement, as he shuffled and watched the TV monitor Etch-A-Sketch a figure of his group’s past and future.

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TEDDY RILEY was born on Octo­ber 8, 1967. His whirl around the turnta­ble as an infant must have been one of God’s metaphors. At four, he was playing complex piano pieces by ear. At six, he had his first rnanager. “Teddy was in a group called Total Climax,” says Gene Griffin, who was then a talent agent. “He was only six years old at the time, but I knew he was a genius. I became his man­ager.” To this day, when Griffin makes suggestions, Riley listens carefully. Not many in or out of the industry bestow the same courtesy on the bald and nattily dressed Griffin. Whispers follow him like a shadow; murderer, drug czar, crime boss-cum-record magnate who don’t take no shorts. The 45-year-old Griffin — a powerful, barrel-chested man — is not a murderer, but he did sell drugs.

Griffin, who grew up in Harlem’s Sugarhill and majored in music at Howard University, ran his own record label, the  Sound of New York, which had the hit “Last Night a DJ Saved My Life” by Indeep. He admits he erred: “I did sell drugs at one time, and it was the biggest mistake of my life. Two years ago I went to jail for alleged possession of drugs­ — there were never any drugs found on my person — and served two years of a 6-to-10 sentence. Now I have completely turned my life around. I don’t smoke, drink, or do drugs. I can stand the frisk, because my life is as clean as the president’s.”

Even when Griffin wasn’t around, he made sure Riley was looked after. At nine, Riley was the organist at the Little Flowers Baptist Church on Eighth Avenue near 133rd Street. He left Little Flower, because “everybody was too busy talking about each other, instead of getting into the word,” and joined the Universal Tem­ple of Spiritual Truths on 136th Street. There, Riley added, he had some of his happiest childhood memories. “We used to go a lot of places,” he said, “and play a lot of churches out of town. We also used to go on a lot of trips, like Dis­neyworld, and other places. I felt very protected there.”

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By the time Teddy Riley was 10 years old, he was a solid musician. With other boys, he played keyboards on 121st be­tween First and Second avenues for nick­els and dimes, drawing huge crowds. By then Riley had six instruments down cold: guitar, bass, several horns. In the day­time, he went to I.S. 195, where he learned the three Rs and ran wild during the lunch hour with his buddy, Doug E. Fresh. At night, he would play the smokey Harlem nightclubs with Total Climax­ — the Red Rooster, Lickety Split, Smalls, even the upscale Cellar Restaurant on 95th Street. It was on the club circuit that he met Bahamian transplant Johnny Kemp, who was with the group Kinky Fox, and Keith Sweat, who was with the bar-band Jamilah. In the clubs Riley learned how to please the crowd and how to improvise, turning bits of keyboard vamps into compositions.

“At first, the crowd would do a double­-take,” Griffin said, “at this little kid on a stack of telephone books — he was so small then — playing the piano like an adult. The club owners turned their heads the other way, because Teddy was bring­ing in business.”

As a freshman in Martin Luther King High School, Riley played with the senior band. After having some “static” with another student — “One of my boys from the St. Nick was getting jumped by this crew,” Riley told me without going into the details, “and I just wasn’t going to stand there and let them beat my man down” — he left MLK and finished high school at Park West, where he became very interested in rap music. He was a good student, but “was bored in class. I couldn’t stop thinking about the music.”

After high school, Griffin enrolled his godson in a summer composition and the­ory course at Columbia, and a few elec­tronic music classes at the Manhattan School of Music. Following class, Riley would go up to the Bronx River Projects with his drum machine and Casio key­board and jam with the MCs and DJs in the courtyard. Admittedly, he was nervous about going to the spawning ground of hip hop music — “Yo, some of the knuckle­heads was always trying to house my beat­box and Casio.” Confrontations notwith­standing, it was in Bronx River that the young man mixed rap, gospel, jazz, funk, go-go, and gothic-romanticism by way of synthesizers. After worshiping and playing in several churches, playing and learning in several playgrounds and music classes, he found the elements to put together a totally new form of r&b. I call it the New Jack Swing.

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STANDING ON the patio of Teddy Riley’s rooftop condo-on-the-Hudson, I could hear the music of a new era. If Hendrix, Brown, Stone, and Gaye are the starting point, and Prince the bridge, Ted­dy Riley is the other side. Many stars are biting the New Jack Swing, including pro­ducers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis — ­there’s a story that when they presented New Edition’s latest album to an MCA honcho, he wouldn’t accept it until they had the “Teddy Riley sound on some of the tracks,” a sound you can now hear on the group’s hit “If It Isn’t Love.”

Everybody wants to get paid. Deborah Harry’s getting the New Jack Swing treat­ment on a rerelease of “Rapture,” Boy George is slated for a Teddy Riley-Gene Griffin production, and there’s a Riley tune on the Jacksons’ next album called “She.”

Riley’s music is full of historical refer­ences. If you ask him who he listens to, he’ll tell you Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, P-Funk — his faves — and Big Dad­dy Kane, but the orchestras of Ellington, Oliver, and Basie play in his head, and he doesn’t even know it. In 10 years, God willing, I’ll listen to the Classical Two’s “Rap’s New Generation,” or Kool Moe Dee’s “Go See the Doctor,” or Keith Sweat’s “I Want Her,” all Riley works, and think about the sexual terrorist-trau­ma of the AIDS epidemic, or 15-year-old students toting Uzi’s and cellular phones in their bookbags. As Fitzgerald’s Nick Carraway watched the flappers, gangsters, and social climbers shout “Yowsah!” while spinning around and down the gin-­filled toilet and pegged it as the “hour of profound human change,” so does the updated Teddy Riley, who paints this de­cade as “Monster Crack.” A time of mi­nor chords, dark clouds, and a beat so hard and relentless, it makes me won­der — does Riley have the heart of a killer under his friendly smiling face? Can you really be sheltered from the savagery of the street? Or do you just try to internal­ize, to cage the rage?

In Riley’s case, I think the latter is true. The synthesized orchestral punches of Sweat’s “I Want Her” are not used to soothe; they scream, they shake, they frighten you. Then when I heard the nag­ging bass line of “Groove Me,” I knew I was listening to pure gangster music. Ril­ey used the verbal animus of rap to enter his beastmaster subconscious, and when he found himself inside, he slammed the door and swallowed the key.

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The first time I tried to dance to “Groove Me,” I got more than hot and sweaty, I tired. Riley has so many things happening at once — bass lines, strings, multileveled percussion tracks, computer­ized samples from James Brown and Stax records. Then there’s Riley’s own street mantras: yup-yup and that’s it, that’s it. This is a polyrhythmic community turned vigilante. There is no space to breathe in Riley’s music. The orchestration slams you, the drums tear out your heart. Ril­ey’s music is Robocop funk, in full effect; go-go music gunned down by rap and electronics, then rebuilt with more vicious beats, an in-charge, large attitude. I hear that hubris on Moe Dee’s “How Ya Like Me Now,” the ultimate yuppie-buppie-million-dollar-lottery-winner-new-jack-nouveau-riche anthem, and I hear it on Doug E. Fresh’s “The Show,” a hiphop landmark Riley wrote but didn’t want credit for. Riley’s New Jack Swing is indestructible.

And I heard it in Riley’s $200,000 digital home recording studio, while he worked the last of the keyboard overdubs on Stephanie Mills’s next single, “Fast Talk.” Inside the plush, black and gray carpeted area — once the condo’s living room — he has ceiling-high stacks of gleaming machines, their red and orange lights blipping soundlessly above the pi­ano keyboards. Chlorine-blue VDT screens visually isolated seperale instru­mental tracks.

Riley sat like Huxley behind the master mixing board of his Brave New World, oblivious to everything except his six­-month-old daughter, DeJanee, in the arms of his younger brother Tito. When she called out “Da-Da,” he ran over to kiss the pretty little doll, then hustled back and scooted into the slit between the key­boards and computers. He rifled though a silver Halliburton case, searching for one beat among the 1000-plus he keeps stored on floppy disks. Riley worked qui­etly and very fast — writing not just the drums or bass line or melody in step-by-­step fashion, but using the computer to focus on the mass, the entire work.

Griffin said Riley “thought up ‘Fast Talk’ while he and I were driving home one night from a dinner downtown. We were riding through Central Park, and he stopped the BMW on 96th Street. It took me by surprise when he opened the door and got out. I thought he was sick or something. I asked him, ‘What’s wrong? You okay?’ He tapped on the hood of the car for a few minutes, and then he jumped back inside. ‘I just thought of this new song,’ he said, ‘and I gotta hurry home.’ By the time we got back to the house, he hummed the entire song, from beginning to end, in less than a half hour.”

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ON A FRIDAY night, September 23, there was a crowd of people at the Apollo’s backstage entrance trying to get in and see Guy’s live set. Rap stars pep­pered the crowd — Big Daddy Kane (the current heavyweight speak-ician and sci­entist), Heavy D., Pepa. Inside, there were more celebs, like soul crooner Glen Jones, who Riley is about to produce, and the stone-faced Eric B., who carried a baseball bat, presumably to discourage any new jack’s ideas about trying to snatch the massive gold cable that hung around his collarbone.

Noticibly absent were Keith Sweat and Al B. Sure!, two chart-toppers who, in whole or in part, have benefited from Riley’s New Jack Swing. There’s a nasty feud going on between the Riley-Griffin camps and those of Sweat and Sure! and his manager, André Harrell. This situa­tion is most unfortunate, because a lot of major talent is being distracted. Sweat’s breakthrough last year, Make It Last For­ever, went platinum, and Riley’s contribu­tion to it is much in dispute. Some say Riley, who received producer and writer credits on the LP jacket was only a “rhythm and groove” man. Others say he was the auteur, period.

In the case of Mount Vernon’s Al Brown — a/k/a Al B. Sure! — there were aesthetic differences between Brown and Riley, hired as producer of In Effect Mode, among the year’s best pop albums. The disagreements between Riley and Brown became so intense that Riley left the project. After that, accusations were made that Riley walked off with “You Can Call Me Crazy,” an original tune Sure! claims to have written. The song’s on side one of Guy. In retribution, Riley’s people say, Sure!’s manager, Harrell, pocketed “If I’m Not Your Lover,” which Riley claims to have written, arranged, and produced. (He’s given an arranger credit on In Effect Mode.) Each side of the dispute denies the accusations of the opposing camp. The legalities are yet to be ironed out, but all serious fans of New York’s music are wishing for a truce.

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Besides, it didn’t matter who was or wasn’t in the Apollo audience, not this night anyway. Riley had other things to worry about. Tonight was no lip-synch to a record. This show was the real McCoy. Would the wireless mikes go dead during their performance? Would the sound peo­ple overamplify the keyboards and drown out the vocals? Would the crowd under­stand funk this thick? Would Aaron’s dream he had earlier in the week, which he hoped to dramatize, work in reality? Could Guy take it Lo the stage? Riley fingered the gold Gucci link necklace, closed his eyes, and said a silent prayer. He’d find out in 15 minutes.

After the reggae-rap tease of Shelly Thunder, a young Bronx-via-Jamaica lady who has a killer grassroots hit, “Kuff It,” Guy came on the Apollo stage wrapped in smoke; strains of digital violas, cellos, and violins; and silky, druidic capes. The crowd went crazy, especially the young girls. Aaron Hall, seated in the audience (following the script of his dream), finally jumped out of the crowd and joined the group. Guy broke into Zapp’s “More Bounce to the Ounce.” This showcased Riley’s frightening keyboard ability. He tore into the keys, spinning gospel and jazz runs all over the place.

I hadn’t seen a show like this since P-­Funk played the Garden September 10, 1977, when Riley was a 10-year-old, jamming in the St. Nick. Back-up singers Khadejia Bass and Michelle Hammond wailed in the background, Abe Fogle brought drumsticks down from the sky, Bernard Belle, Arcell Vickers, and Dinky Bingham snatched a holiness-stomp sym­phony from their heads and their hard­disk memory banks. Shake and K-Loose dazzled us with space-age steps. While helping out on syndrums, Damion Hall harmonized with brother Aaron like they were back in church. Riley conducted this New Jack Swing session; it was like watching P-Funk, Kraftwerk, Weather Report, the New York Philharmonic, and Blue Magic blur.

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After Aaron ripped off his shirt and started to hump the floor, many young women ran up to the stage and drooled. Among them was the young woman, Gina’s friend, I saw outside the backstage entrance two weeks ago. In a sprayed-on minidress stretched tight over her ample butt, she screamed, “I want the church boy!” A woman in front of me shouted, “Yo, baby, you got them condoms?” An­other woman shouted, “Later for them condoms, you need a scuba outfit for that bitch!” The entire front row — even the victim of this Apollo vitriol — cracked up.

Yup-yup, Guy were devastating. They ripped. I guess they don’t know that young black men from Harlem are not supposed to put on shows like this. Soci­ety says young black men from Harlem are murderers, dope-sellers, losers. Any other category is an aberration. True enough, Teddy Riley is an aberration. With a loving family and friends — includ­ing the murderers and dope-sellers who protected his genius — he rose above soci­ety’s low opinion of the inner city. But since he’s calm, cool, and collected, a smiling killer who makes us dance to death, one of the fellas, he doesn’t fit contemporary definitions of a freak. Lest we forget, to be a real freak you have to play the jheri curls and plastic surgery, or pose naked with flower petals shaped like a glans penis. And if you ain’t got enough to buy a dead man’s bones to curl up with when you go to sleep at night, then you just as well forgit it, ’cause you ain’t wid it. ■

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New Jack Comeback

In 1987, the Voice published a cover story about New York’s drug trade titled “Kids Killing Kids: New Jack City Eats Its Young,” [PDF 1, PDF 2] by a writer named Barry Michael Cooper.

“Two weeks later I was on a first-class flight to Hollywood to meet with Quincy Jones. My head was huge,” Cooper says today. His meeting with Jones led to a job rewriting a screenplay titled Nicky, referring to Nick Barnes, a 1970s Harlem heroin kingpin. Eventually, Cooper’s revision formed the basis for New Jack City, released in 1991. The film grossed more than $44 million and left a permanent mark on urban culture. Overnight, every two-bit hustler seemed to fashion himself after Nino Brown, the film’s fearless drug lord. The movie was also good for its budding stars: Wesley Snipes, Ice-T, and Chris Rock were all launched into orbit by New Jack City‘s popularity.

“That film showed white movie executives that there was a market for edgy black drama,” Cooper says. And he took advantage of that realization by getting hired to write two more projects, Above the Rim and Sugar Hill, both released in 1994. “I thought I was incredible,” remembers Cooper. “I really did think I was Nino Brown.”

Cooper was soon branching out, directing music videos for the likes of Dr. Dre and writing additional scripts for both television and film that went nowhere. “I got so high on myself that I turned down jobs. My former colleagues at the Voice told me not to quit journalism, but I got turned around by a woman, who made me think I could become a record producer.” That relationship resulted in Barry being arrested for assault in 1997. “Robert Townsend paid my bail,” Cooper says. His plea deal banned him from Los Angeles for a year; by the time he got back, he found that doors were no longer opening for him. Harlem’s golden boy was shut out.

Cooper has continued to write, and he’s been paid for projects, but none that have reached the small or large screen. And now, he’s trying something that is either very desperate or truly creative. Or both.

Using a $250 Fuji Finepix digital camera, Cooper has produced a 14-part film series [“Webisodes” one through five here], each episode just a few minutes long (reflecting the limited capacity of the digital camera, which can only record video for about 15 minutes at a time). Like any other schmo with a home camera and an idea, his plan is to post his videos to the Internet.

Unlike other homemade dramas, however, Cooper’s first episode [here] actually stars a recognizable face: Sugar Hill actor Michael Wright, who turns in a remarkable performance as a celebrity who is not happy that a friend has pointed a Fuji Finepix camera on him.

Actually, Wright is acting out the sequence, with Cooper, filming the scene, pretending to be a Source magazine journalist named “Cooper Michaels,” who, flashbacks establish, was once riding high as a Hollywood producer but is now down on his luck and, Wright assumes, high on drugs.

Annoyed at Wright being several hours late for the interview, “Michaels” complains: “I’m being put on hold in my career again by cats like you, Dr. Dre, Kurupt, Robert Townsend, Benny Medina. All of whom, mind you, blew up on my TV show.”

After doing a slow burn, Wright eventually blasts back with what looks like completely sincere rage: “Life is not no damn TV show! Time for you to change the channel.”

On a first viewing, the six-minute film is disorienting. Is this a real-world encounter between a bitter ex–Hollywood producer and an actor he helped make famous? Or is Cooper pretending to be a bitter ex-filmmaker confronting an actor-friend who’s in on the gag? Either way, it’s remarkable stuff for an iFilm freebie.

Cooper has given his series the unfortunate name Blood on the Wall$, and later episodes has his character spinning out (and exaggerating) other chapters from his own rise and fall as he tries to solve a mystery—the suicide of a talented painter.

The real Barry Michael Cooper does want to return to Hollywood, but on his own terms, he says. He recently finished co-authoring pioneering urban-music mogul Andre Harrell’s autobiography and has plans to release his own book, a collection of essays from the past 30 years. Cooper says that Blood on the Wall$, meanwhile, is more than just a better-than-usual series of Web shorts. “I’m a very eccentric person,” he says. “During the making of this film I found myself. I had to face myself.”