By Bob Ruggiero
By Hilary Hughes
By Peter Gerstenzang
By David R. Adler
By Devon Maloney
By Brian McManus
By Jessica Hopper
By Harley Oliver Brown
Irv Gotti is not hip-hop's scariest man. The Queens-born CEO of Murder Inc. (now known as The Inc.) Records (real name: Irving Lorenzo) rose to fame as a producer, crafting calculated r&b romance jams like Ashanti's "Foolish" and guttural sensitive-thug power ballads like Ja Rule's "I Cry." Gotti's pillowy, soft-focus confections were ubiquitous early in the decade, staples of high school proms. If Gotti was notorious for anything, it was his genius for turning forbidding East Coast street rap into toothless mass-market piffle; rappers like Eve and Fat Joe never seemed the same after working with him. And that's why it remains shocking seeing Gotti and his brother, The Inc. president Chris Lorenzo (a/k/a Chris Gotti), on trial for laundering money for the infamous Queens drug-ring leader Kenneth "Supreme" McGriff, even after years of federal investigations.
The trial began last Wednesday morning at Brooklyn's federal courthouse. With Ashanti and Ja Rule looking on, Assistant U.S. Attorney Sean Haran laid out his case: Supreme acted as the Lorenzos' benefactor and protector early in their careers. In exchange, the prosecution alleges, the Lorenzos gave Supreme the money to buy the book rights for his direct-to-video movie, Crime Partners. Afterwards, Haran argues, the Lorenzos convinced rappers to donate songs for the soundtrack, then persuaded Def Jam to buy the album from Supreme for $1 million. The Lorenzos, said Haran, created "the appearance of legitimacy" for Supreme.
The Lorenzos' masterful defense attorneys created a different picture in their opening arguments.
Gerald Lefcourt, Irv's lawyer, spoke of Irv as an "American dream success story," a working-class family's youngest kid who went on to become a hugely successful music executive solely on his own talent. The weathered, bellicose Lefcourt assured the jury that Gotti's music was "not gangsta rap" but "the kind of music that would cross over to all" and that Crime Partners was legitimate.
Chris's lawyer Gerald Shargel was more bullish, calling the government's case "a pathetic attempt to prove guilt by association." Shargel said the Lorenzos had used Supreme as "a prop" simply because he was a romanticized street figure. He reiterated that Murder Inc.'s biggest hits were love songs, that their hard image was "a cartoon." Both defense lawyers are extraordinarily fun to watch; gradually their indignation builds toward mini-crescendos. All the lawyers, of course, are playing roles. Haran is the honest young crusader taking on the phalanx of slicksters, while Lefcourt and Shargel are the weary old guns condescending to tear apart the pathetic arguments of this young guppy.
In the first two days of the trial, the prosecu-tion's main witnesses were Phillip Banks, a former member of Supreme's gang testifying to receive a lesser sentence on a racketeering charge, and Donell Nichols, a former Murder Inc. employee. Banks is a truly terrifying figure, an enormous guy wearing jail coveralls who stared hard into the middle distance and grunted monosyllabic answers. Banks claimed that he'd given Irv thousands of dollars on Supreme's orders early in Irv's career. In cross- examination, Lefcourt made much of Banks's criminal history, which includes perjury; he even lured Banks into admitting that he'd be willing to lie to get himself out of prison.
The heavyset, well-spoken Nichols had worked at Murder Inc. for six months in 2000, and he claimed he'd seen Supreme delivering cash to the offices several times, after which Chris would cut checks for Supreme's film company. Shargel responded by brutally cross-examining Nichols for hours, taking him to task for every bad check he had ever written and every time he'd exaggerated his experience on a résumé. Much of Shargel's bom-bardment seemed gratuitous, but he'd clearly done his research, and some of his charges stuck. Nichols had claimed in front of the grand jury that he'd seen Supreme deliver "probably $70,000 or more" in small-denomination bills to the Murder Inc. offices in a shoebox, and Shargel used fake cash and a shoebox to show that the money could never fit. Shargel also implied that Nichols would be willing to lie in order to get back at the boss who had fired him, though Nichols claimed to have left Murder Inc. voluntarily.
Aside from the eventual verdict, the biggest question is whether the prosecution will bring the legendary 2000 shooting of Murder Inc.'s rival rapper 50 Cent into the trial. With the jury out of the courtroom on Thursday, Haran argued to Judge Edward Korman that Supreme had ordered the shooting. Since the alleged money-laundering scam started three months after the murder attempt, Haran claimed that it would establish motive. Shargel responded that the evidence was irrelevant and that it would drag the trial out for days: "Do you think that since someone sang some lyrics, [the Lorenzos] wanted this man shot?" Whether the judge will allow the crime to be discussed remains to be seen.
Outside the courthouse on Wednesday, reporters flocked around Ja Rule, who claimed that the trial was part of the federal government's war on rap, a claim the Daily News dutifully trumpeted from its front page the next day. But, as Shargel noted, Irv Gotti is a man famous for love songs, and the appeal of Murder Inc. has always been bound up in the friction between gooey pop sentiments and the signifiers of criminal culture. As the trial progresses, we may learn how far beyond the music that friction goes.