Ethan Brown has an extensive writing resume, with pieces appearing in numerous publications, including Wired, Vibe, GQ, Rolling Stone, Details and The Village Voice. His debut book, Queens Reigns Supreme: Fat Cat, 50 Cent and the Rise of the Hip-Hop Hustler, was greeted with widespread critical acclaim. The book dives head first into the drug-dealing saga in Queens, New York in the 1980’s, covering everything from the crack epidemic to the rise of 50 Cent, Irv Gotti and Murder Inc. Along with the critical acclaim has come a harsh backlash from several key figures in the book, in particular from Gerald “Prince” Miller and Irv Gotti.
TSS Crew’s DJ Sorce-1 recently got a chance to speak with Ethan about the criticisms of his book, as well as the lessons he’s learned since writing it. The Smoking Section is proud to present an exclusive interview with the man behind Queens Reigns Supreme, Ethan Brown.
TSS: I’ve been doing some research on your previous work covering the drug scene in New York. It seems like you have a solid background. What made you decide to write your first book about drug culture in Queens?
Ethan Brown: I actually had another book project before this one that went as far as auction but didn’t sell. That book went by the wayside, and I went back to my usual stuff at New York Magazine, which is a lot of reporting on the drug business. I started reporting on the beginning of the Murder Inc investigaton in the spring-fall of 2003. That’s where the seeds for Queens Reigns Supreme where planted. I did a cover story for New York Magazine in the fall of 2003 called “Got Beef?” that was about the war between Ja Rule and 50 Cent and the very beginning of the feds looking at Murder Inc. As I was researching for “Got Beef?” I was doing Lexus Nexus searches and looking at all the news clips from the 80’s about the Supreme Team and Fat Cat. I’d seen just a few things and thought that it was a vastly under covered subject in every way and that it would be a great book.
TSS: There was an extensive amount of research that went into Queens Reigns…. From start to finish, how long did it take to write the book?
Ethan Brown: If you count the legwork that was done in the fall of 2003, it took from fall 2003 to fall of 2005.
TSS: It seems like you conducted a lot of the interviews one-on-one with the people quoted in the book. Is that correct?
Ethan Brown: Most of the first half of the book actually came from a gigantic document dump I was able to get from the feds. I put in a request to have a look at all the case files for Fat Cat, Thomas Mickens and Supreme. I expected maybe a couple hundred pages for each person, and it turned out to be 1000’s of pages each. There was everything from file transcripts to wiretaps. I remember when I got that document dump I thought, “This is the entire book right here.” I knew how valuable it was, and it was astonishing. A lot of people who have read the book say, “It seems like you were actually there in some parts.” All those quotes and specific details come from 1000’s of pages of documents. Those documents gave me an unbelievable window into this time period, and 80 to 90 percent of the first half of the book comes from them.
TSS: Did you have to get a special clearance legally to publish any of this information?
Ethan Brown: No, it’s all public record. If they wanted to keep stuff sealed I wouldn’t be able to see it.
TSS: That’s amazing, it’s literally the entire case laid our right there for you.
Ethan Brown: I should add, especially in light of the Don Diva piece with Gerald “Prince” Miller, that I really didn’t want to make the book “Hustlers Reminisce About The 80’s.” I felt like a lot of writing about this stuff had that kind of tone and the only way not to do that was to go to the hard documentation. Those documents not only gave me the story, but they also helped me avoid the pitfalls of a lot of this writing. When you have to go to these guys and have them reminisce about this time, it gives an overly sentimental version of what happened. You also have to realize that people are human, and their memories aren’t always very good, and they aren’t going to remember certain specifics. Hard documentation gives you something personal testimony can’t. As much as I like F.E.D.S and Don Diva, that’s what I felt was missing from that kind of writing.
TSS: Since we just touched on the Don Diva article, there are some questions I want to ask you about their recent interview with Prince. There is one particular excerpt where Prince claims he sent you and Curtis Scoon some proof of Fat Cat being a rat.
Ethan Brown: That’s not true at all. That’s absolutely false.
TSS: I just wanted to give you a chance to respond to that claim. Did he send you anything?
Ethan Brown: No. This is what’s been frustrating about these interviews that have come out lately. People are inventing stuff about me that has no relationship to reality at all. I reached out to Prince, just as I reached out to everyone who I was going to be covering, to see if he’d like to talk for the book. I initially contacted him by mail, and then we ended up talking by phone. I spoke to him from prison. He basically said to me, “I’m not gonna talk to you at all unless you pay me.” I said “No, I don’t pay people for interviews.” I’m happy to cover people’s expenses. If people have documents they want me to see and there are xeroxing expenses and things like that or phone expenses, I’ll happily pay for those. But he was just basically asking me for money. When I told him no, he said, “Well, if you’re not gonna pay me I’m not gonna talk to you.” Then he essentially attempted to sell me some videotapes and photographs from the 80’s. I again told him no. He said, “Well, if that’s your stance on this I’m not going to cooperate in the project.” I said, “That’s fine, I totally understand. But let me say to you that I’m giving you the opportunity to do an interview with me to respond to anything I’m reporting in the book.” And he passed.
Those are the facts of the conversation I had with him. He has now completely misrepresented what was said in that conversation. I don’t want to speculate about his motive for doing that, but I think the reason he’s portraying that conversation as he is now is that he’s frustrated he was given the opportunity to say his piece, and he passed. Those are the cold hard facts regarding our interactions for this book.
TSS: So there was never anything sent to you?
Ethan Brown: No, absolutely not. And I think as far as my portrayal of Fat Cat in Queens Reigns Supreme is concerned, I did address the choices that Fat Cat was faced with after he was indicted in terms helping out law enforcement. I don’t think I soft peddled what happened with him. I certainly didn’t ignore evidence regarding Fat Cat in any way.
TSS: There was another question that Don Diva asked about you writing stories in communities that you aren’t from, about people you don’t know. Prince responded,
“Ethan Brown and his likes represent mainstream media who only wish to exploit, expose, and capitalize off of the negative imagery of Black Americaâ€¦I read Ethan’s book, and not only were his accountants taken from the mouths of government snitches and their allies, but he glamorized the destruction of the black on black populace throughout his book. Therefore, Ethan only sought to benefit from the suffering, destruction, and death in those urban communities that he doesn’t live in.”
What is your reaction to these comments?
Ethan Brown: Prince’s comments are false on so many levels. As anyone who read the book knows, I did not glamorize anything that happened in the 80’s. In fact, I made it as ugly as possible. I’m from the Martin Scorsese school of violence. Violence is incredibly ugly and needs to be portrayed as such. What’s interesting is that Prince is accusing me of glamorizing this stuff, when people from the Supreme Team and a lot of the old hustlers were angry with me because they felt I didn’t glamorize it enough. They felt I essentially made that whole life look bad.
As far as exploitation of Black Americaâ€¦this line of work, what I do, is far form a lucrative path of work to take in terms of money. Anyone who does investigative journalism is not in it for the money. Investigative journalism by nature is the most work intensive kind of journalism you can take on. That’s why you see less and less investigative journalism at newspapers and magazines. No matter what you’re paid for it, you put in so many man-hours it’s one of the least lucrative aspects of journalism you can take on. I don’t want to dissuade anyone from doing this stuff, but when Queens Reigns Supreme was brought out to publishers in the spring of 2004, basically everyone passed on it. The book was published in paperback original, which is the least lucrative way to publish a book. I was really happy it came out through Random House, and I worked with an incredible editor. But the fact is that if you’re doing investigative journalism, and you’re doing investigative journalism of the kind that is very street orientedâ€¦most people who cover this stuff are city hall reporters and people who have great relationships with law enforcement. That’s a much more lucrative, establishment way to go. I’ve taken a very anti-establishment path. To say that it’s an exploitative path is just ridiculous. It’s not a statement based in fact. If I was making six figure book deals and things like that, maybe you could make that argument. But that’s not even the case. I think even if I was, and I’m not, the amount of investigative work it takes to put together a project like thisâ€¦in the end it doesn’t turn out to be some big payday. I’m not in it for the money. I’m in it to tell great stories, to talk about moments of history that are forgotten, and also to get into the nitty gritty of drug policy that you don’t really see written about anywhere else.
TSS: To follow up on what you said about drug policy, the book really highlighted how American drug policy had a lot of rhetoric about drawing a hard line and coming down with an iron fist on people involved in the drug world. Queens Reigns Supreme showed that arrests and imprisonments went through the roof, but in terms of actual deterrence, nothing really changed. There were still lots of murders, innocent people were still being senselessly killed and drug addition continued to be rampant. Essentially the government and law enforcement imprisoned a lot more people, and there wasn’t any real positive return for the increase in imprisonment.
Ethan Brown: That’s part of what my second book deals with. I have a long chapter in my second book on the history of the sentencing guidelines. We had sentencing guidelines in â€˜86, â€˜88, and â€˜94 increase substantially for drug related offenses. Every time there was a flashpoint in the drug crisis, whether it was Fat Cat in â€˜88, or Len Bias’s death in ’86, you have lawmakers and congress scrambling to put more people in prison for longer periods of time. That whole history is something that is of huge interest to me and it’s going to be explored in great detail in my new book.
TSS: And the name of the new book is Snitch, correct?
Ethan Brown: Right. The thesis of the book essentially is that the sentencing guidelines for drug related offenses are so severe, even at the small level of drug possession and distribution, that basically just about everyone in the federal system is going to cooperate with prosecutors. That’s the overarching thesis of the second book. Part of that comes from studying the history of the crack wars of the 80’s and what came out of that legislatively.
TSS: To touch on a couple things regarding Queens, I’m assuming you’ve heard of the recent murder of Stack Bundles, who was murdered in Far Rockaway Queens. There seems to be a variety of rumors floating around the cause of the murder. Is Queens forever doomed to this kind of seemingly cyclical violence?
Ethan Brown: I don’t know. Queens is such a fascinating place because it’s the true immigrant borough of New York City. You have really strong immigrant areas like Jackson Heights, but at the same time you have really strong middle class black neighborhoods, like Hollis. In fact, there was a study recently in the New York Times recently that talked about how certain parts of Queens have the strongest black middle class in the entire country. And then you have some really deep pockets of poverty like South Jamaica. Within the deep pockets of poverty you have really nasty neighborhoods that are perpetually nasty. They’ve been troubled for a long time and haven’t seemed to turn around in the way that other neighborhoods in New York City have. The whole borough isn’t doomed to a cycle of violence, but there are definitely certain areas that are really troublesome and seem to defy all the crime decreases of the past decade.
I remember when I went out to do some research for the New York Magazine cover story about Southeast Queens, I was naÃ¯ve enough to think I could go to this really bad area of Southeast Queens during the day, and because it was during the day, I would be safe going out there. I remember taking the subway out there, getting off the subway, and walking for a while. I stumbled on a drug block where there were lookouts blowing whistles when I walked down the block. They thought I was a cop. It was a full on, open-air drug market. At the time I was like “Wow, this is really crazy.” It wasn’t at all what you sort of think about New York now. There are definitely some parts of Queens that are really rough and seem to stay that way.
TSS: Does it seem like there is a solution for that, or is it impossible to eliminate crime at some level in urban areas?
Ethan Brown: I don’t know. It’s something I’m dealing with for my second book. It’s really depressing. Philadelphia is having a huge homicide increase right now. Baltimore is having a huge homicide increase right now. New Orleans is having a crazy increase in homicides right now. If you look at those individual cities, what you’ll see is highly concentrated pockets of crime. Obviously it isn’t any big news that there are really bad neighborhoods in any of these cities where a lot of the crime occurs. The thing that’s depressing is I think that the crime is becoming more concentrated and we are moving very quickly towards a two-class society. Income and equality are both becoming gigantic issues, even in the presidential campaign. I think if anything we are going to see crime getting worse in these areas. Because income and equality, and all the other factors that drive this stuff are only getting worse. At the same time, there is less and less money for the states and localities for anti crime programs because we have this gigantic war on terror. I think the crime situation in a lot of these neighborhoods is only going to get worse. We’re seeing that all over the country right now.
TSS: I’ve been following rap music since I was young, and to be honest I knew very little about the subjects covered in Queens Reigns Supreme before reading the book. One thing I found to be kind of shocking was the response to Jam Master Jay’s death. There were a lot of cries for action, but then when people looked to individuals with the money and the clout to make something happen, everyone wanted to wash their hands of the situation. Even Jam Master Jay’s nephew seemed somewhat apathetic to the whole thing.
Ethan Brown: I mean, it’s toughâ€¦if you look individually at the cases of Jam Master Jay, Biggie, and Tupac, which are all unsolved, you see a lot of reluctant witnesses, terrible police workâ€¦there are a variety of factors for why the cases are still unsolved. It’s not any one thing. There were reluctant witnesses and witnesses who changed their stories in the Jam Master Jay case, and there was a rush to judgment. People wanted to say Supreme did it because of Jay’s affiliation with 50 Cent.
On one hand its annoying and depressing that people get so mad about the cases and then forget about it, but at the same time these are harder cases than one would think because of all these fuck ups. Yeah, Jay was killed in front of a bunch of people in his own recording studio, so this should not be difficult to solve. But when you have a lot of mistakes made by law enforcement, and then unreliable witnesses, it becomes really hard all of a sudden. You start to wonder if it will ever be solved. Let’s say law enforcement announces they have an arrest in the Jam Master Jay caseâ€¦if you were the attorney representing the suspect, don’t you think your job isn’t that hard in convincing the jury that your client isn’t guilty? I’m not an attorney and I can think of a million things one could say to cast doubt on a suspects guilt. So it’s tough.
TSS: I agree with what you’re saying, I just get frustrated with these cases. Like the Busta Rhymes limo driver shooting, there just seems to be a general view of apathy. People act like, “This shit happens, its just part of the game.” To me, that outlook is bullshit. Things like this shouldn’t happen.
Ethan Brown: I think you have a good point. I hope I can say very loud and clear to everyone in the hip hop businessâ€¦you are not in the streets. You’re insane if you think you live by street rules. This needs to be said repeatedly. You’re not in the streets and do not be confused about that. You’re in legitimate businesses. You can call the police if there is a problem and you should call them if there is a problem. If someone near you is attacked or killed, talk to the police. It’s crazy how these hip-hop guys have convinced themselves that they are somehow like street guys. What’s even worse is they are going around like, Cam’ron did on “60 Minutes” and giving a completely distorted interpretation of what actually happens on the streets. When people say “Oh, no, no one snitches on the streets” and “There’s a stop snitching code on the streets”, that’s absolute bullshit. There’s no “stop snitching” anything on the streets. Everyone’s snitching. If you knew anything about the streets you would know that.
This is where hip-hop has become so doomed lately, in this confusion that rappers are street guys. You are not street guys. Get out of that mentality. It’s killing hip hop creatively, and it’s killing morally. I just think it’s a disaster. A big part of what my first book is about is the historical moment in which hip-hop began to adopt all these street ideas and street icons like Supreme and what the consequences were. I think now were living with those consequences.
TSS: Going back to the Don Diva article, the interviewer of Prince asked, “What do you think about people like Ethan Brown writing about communities they haven’t lived and people they’ve never talked to.” Do you think the interviewer has a point in what he was saying to Prince?
Ethan Brown: No, I don’t think it’s a valid point, at all. I’m a journalist and a historian. I just had this discussion with someone very recently who brought up that point. If you were going to take that point of view you’d have to say journalists could not write about the Nazi era unless they lived in Germany in 1942. A journalist could not write about the mafia wars of the 70’s in New York if they were not Italian and lived in Long Island in 1975. If you want to make that argument, that’s fineâ€¦but you have to apply it fairly, to all different circumstances. Yes, I was not a black drug dealer in Queens in 1986. I never said that I was.
I’ve made it very clear over and over again – I’m a white kid from Washington D.C. I wasn’t born or raised in New York. I’m a journalist. I’ve been very above board about who I am. Yes, there are some people or perspectives that would be very different then mine that might add layers to the story that I might not. I even said before my book came out that it would be great if my book opened up the door for other people that actually lived during that time period. They could write books or magazine articles about it. In fact, that’s happening now. Prince told Don Diva in that interview that he’s working on his own book project. And that’s great. If anyone who wants to add his or her perspective on that time period I think that’s great. The more the merrier. Everything has its inherent limits, so different perspectives help.
TSS: One person can only tell a story so well.
Ethan Brown: Exactly. And that’s kind of the point. Everyone who’s involved in this circular firing squad on me needs to just put the guns down for a second and realize that this sort of writing has thousands and thousands of miles to go before it becomes as established as writing about something like the mafia. Writing about the mafia is like the most tired fucking thing in the world now. We have Soprano’s and gazillions of book deals and mini series and The Godfather. Writing about the mafia became a huge field of study. Whether you were Coppola doing “The Godfather” or the recent Mafia Cops book, it’s huge. The world that I’m writing about hasn’t gotten that toehold yet in the culture industry. I think it should have a bigger toehold. It’s much more relevant and interesting. But it’s got a long way to go. But by piling on me, attacking me, and seeking to discredit me, that doesn’t do anything to open up the door to more people doing this. I just hope that what I do or what projects like the recent Ricky Barnes documentary might do is slowly open up the possibility to people who might want to write about this sort of stuff.
TSS: It sounds like writing Queens Reigns Supreme was a rewarding project and a learning experience. But you’ve had a lot of tough things to deal with and you’ve taken a lot of shit after writing it. Taking all of that into account, is there anything you would have done differently? Would you have not tackled the project at all?
Ethan Brown: I was just thinking about this recently. Maybe because of the King interview that Irv Gotti did. I was thinking about the things I regretted doing in the book. I boiled it down to two big things. One is that I feel I didn’t portray Supreme correctly in the book. Factually, his portrayal is correct. It’s not like anything in his past was misrepresented. But I don’t think I captured how charismatic he is. And the reason I didn’t capture that, primarily, is I hadn’t met him in person until after the book came out. I had some sense based on the people who liked him, but I was sort of skeptical. It was a mind-blowing experience to see how charismatic he actually is.
The other thing is that I wasn’t skeptical enough with the government’s case against Irv Gotti. I worked with what I had. When the feds are investigating something, they’re not really showing their hand. And they aren’t willing to show it until the trial starts. But I feel like I should have been a lot more skeptical given what an absolute disaster their case was when they brought it to trial. And I vowed to myself to never approach the government’s claims with anything less then total skepticism because of what they did to Irv Gotti. That was a life changing experience. Not because I love Irv Gotti or because I was personally hurt or angry about what they did to him. But our federal government spent years of time and millions of dollars investigating this person and all they came up with was a bunch of crazy informants telling absolute lies. I didn’t see literally any investigative work done in that case. It was a total sham. That experience has led me to regard just about everything the government does with total suspicion and skepticism. I feel like I should have been more skeptical earlier. I learned my lesson about that.
It would have done Irv some good to have actually read the book, and I say that not sarcastically, but seriously. He would have seen that when the government did show its hand and made crazy claims like Supreme owned Murder Inc, I was skeptical on those brief flashes of evidence. I wish I had presented a stronger criticism of their overall case. In a way I was naÃ¯ve. I was thinking, “They’re going to present accounting books and spreadsheets to prove money laundering. They’re not showing their hand now, but they’re going to bring out all this investigative work that I can’t see.” None of that happened, and I wish I had been more critical of their case.
TSS: What sort of things can journalists, both new an old take from these experiences you’ve had?
Ethan Brown: When the federal government announces these indictments, weather it’s a terrorism indictment or something else, it’s almost like it’s taken like gospel. My message to anyone who wants to do any of this kind of work is we desperately need a new generation of journalists who do not regard these indictments as gospel. Not to say they shouldn’t be fairly reported on, but we need to start asking, “Is this really true?” I hope this can happen more in the future. That ties into your earlier question about Prince’s claim that I’m being exploitative. That’s not at all how I approach any of this work. The exploitative way would be to just regurgitate the government’s talking points on all this stuff. And that’s really what I’m diametrically opposed to.
TSS: Ethan, thank you for doing this interview with us.
Ethan Brown: Thank you man, take care.
Ethan’s next book, Snitch: Snitch: Informers, Cooperators, and the Corruption of Justice, will be published by Public Affairs Books and is available for preorder on Amazon.com.
For more information, visit www.ethan-brown.com
Five Books that influenced Ethan Brown & other suggested sites…
www.gorillaconvict.com – Website of Seth Ferranti, an inmate and writer.
b.rox.com – Incredible blog documenting post Katrina life in New Orleans.