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And some of hip hop's biggest stars have gone to jail: On June 12, 1997, The Source reported, police pulled over two $60,000 black Lexus cruisers for tailgating and speeding along 125th Street in Harlem. Among the passengers were Naughty By Nature's Treach and Vinnie. Treach had a 9mm semiautomatic pistol and was wearing a body vest. Vinnie also was found with a 9mm pistol. Both were charged with second-degree possession of a weapon. They later pled guilty to fourth-degree criminal possession of a weapon, a misdemeanor. Each was sentenced to an undisclosed fine and probation.
On December 10, 1997, Ghostface Killah and two associates, Hezeciah Hunter and Jason Hunt, were busted on gun charges in Harlem. Police retrieved a .357 Magnum, fully loaded with hollow-point bullets, from a nook behind the glove compartment of a rented Dodge. They were charged with third-degree criminal possession of a weapon. In addition, Killah was charged with wearing a body vest. (As the Voice went to press, the Manhattan D.A. had not ascertained the disposition of the case.) In March 1998, he pled guilty in an unrelated robbery case. He was sentenced to six months in jail.
"Some of these rappers carry guns around for defensivenot for offensivepurposes," Thomas told The Source. "A lot of young people in the neighborhoods where the rappers come from are very jealous of the cars they drive, their money, and the women who show them favor because they are famous." Thomas pointed out that some rappers who "go about their business strapped" can't get gun permits because of their criminal pasts and wind up toting illegal weapons to thwart robbery and carjacking attempts. "If they were alive today Tupac and Biggie would attest to the numerous death threats they received," he argued.
In many instances, the threats come from obsessed fans or disgruntled concert promoters. "Ghostface Killah told me that during concerts, when he and members of his group bend down to rap to or shake hands with individuals, petty gangsters would leap from the crowd and snatch gold chains from off their necks or slash them," Thomas said. The attorney recalled that in 1994, Ol' Dirty Bastard was shot in the stomach during an argument in Brooklyn over rap music. "They feel this threat from unknown faces and they don't know when and where it would become a reality," he asserted. "Rappers are not the roughest and toughest guys in the 'hood; they wear bulletproof vests or carry brass knuckles, baseball bats, and guns because they are scared."
But rap critics like Richard Harvey say it is the ghetto griots who court trouble. He sees it in their ever-changing behavior and music. "In the mid '80s and early '90s, there was variety in hip hop, including political artists at the forefront like Public Enemy and X-Clan," Harvey explains. "Gangsters were there, but in the background. Now gangsters are in the foreground and advertise black-on-black crime, and they are well paid for it. The music is no longer an expression of angst and rage at the system or aspirations for a better way of life.
"In fact, the main message of [best-selling] white-owned Hot 97-style hip hop [artists] like M.O.P., Capone & Noriega, the Lox, Mob Deep, Shyne, and Memphis Bleek is, 'We are proud and dangerous criminals who dominate and exploit our own neighborhoods.' These artists are [chart toppers] because they provide the advertising for the prison-industrial complex. White racists say, 'Thank you!' 'Fuck up your own neighborhoods!' 'Act like criminals and we'll lock you up.' "
As far as D.A. Morgenthau is concerned, there is no question that Sean "Puffy" Combs was acting like a criminal when he waved a gun on the night of the Club New York shooting. But in court papers, his attorneys, Cochran and Brafman, argued that the grand jury did not indict Combs on any gun charges. This contention baffled lead prosecutor Matthew Bogdanos.
"Frankly, this argument has me rather confused," Bogdanos says in a May 9 letter to Brafman, addressing the defense attorney's "misplaced concerns about the nature of the gun charges against" Combs. "It has always been alleged that your client possessed and brandished a gun in the club," Bogdanos adds. "This position was set forth in the felony complaint. It was repeated unchanged at Criminal Court arraignment, and substantial evidence supporting this position was presented to the grand jury. Your client was thereafter indicted for possessing two separate guns (what you and I have been calling the gun out of the window and the gun in the car). These charges comprise your client's conduct before, during, and after the [shooting]. This position was again repeated at [a] hearing and yet again in [subsequent documents]."
Combs's attorneys, Bogdanos suggests, erroneously assumed that prosecutors were backing off pursuing gun charges against the rapper. Bogdanos made Morgenthau's position clear. "Given the remarkably consistent and unchanging position on your client's criminal conduct," he writes, "you can understand my confusion when you claim that there is a change in the [prosecution's] allegations. Quite simply, and notwithstanding your repeated averments that there are witnesses who told the grand jury that your client did not have a gun inside the club (and apart from whether this belief is accurate), grand jurors, like petit jurors, are perfectly at liberty to accept truthful and accurate testimony and to disregard patently false or demonstrably inaccurate testimony."