By Albert Samaha
By Amanda Dingyuan
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In Harlem, it's Dipsetthe short handle for Cam'ron and Jim Jones's group, the Diplomats. Staten Island, on the other hand, is Wu-Tang territory. The Marcy Projects claim Jay-Z. And 10 years after his death, Bed-Stuy is still the home of Biggie.
New York's neighborhoods have a powerful hold on their rappers, and Bed-Stuy's Brevoort Projects are no different: home to John Jackson, a/k/a Fabolous. But in his case, it's been hard to shake the notion that his connection to home is a little too strong.
Fabolous, who first rose to prominence with the single "Can't Deny It" from his 2001 debut album, Ghetto Fabolous, promotes his ties to the projects with constant references to his "Street Family." The name is used as a reference to both his entourage and his independent record label, and it also graces merchandisenamely gold necklaces that bear "SF" pendants.
But for years, Fabolous has had to fend off accusations that "Street Family" is really a reference to a Brevoort street gang that has capitalized on his fame by targeting celebrities in robberies. Fabolous has been characterized as either the bait that the gang uses to gain access to high-flying targets, or, in less charitable versions, as a kind of godfather to that gangwhich would explain why he ended up being targeted for a shooting in 2006 and lost a close friend in a nightclub stabbing last year.
And while Fabolous denies having any connections to crime organizations, police not only consider Street Family a menace, but the latest incarnation of a Brevoort cabal that goes back years and has had various namesBGS, for example, which stands for "Brevoort G-Squad." Growing up around BGS, this theory goes, Fabolous couldn't help but take his neighborhood thugs with him as he began to live the good life. His crew, redubbed Street Family, then saw that their friend's success put them in contact with sports figures and other celebrities who tend to walk around with enough flash to make an assault worthwhileand who tend not to go to police when they are victimized, making the crime even more attractive.
Fabolous has repeatedly denied that anything of the sort is going on. But, frustrated that his version isn't getting out, he invited the Voice to spend some time in his fabulous world, to see that he's come a long way from the Brevoort Projectsand that he hasn't brought the worst elements of that life with him.
It's Fashion Week, and Fabolous is making his rounds. He's rolling out a full clothing line with Rich Yung Society, so he needs to be seen. Which means showing up at the screening of the documentary Marc Jacobs & Louis Vuitton at the Tribeca Grandfashionably late. Throwing a peace sign at a phalanx of photographers, he heads in and settles into the back row, the film already rolling.
Later, en route to another party, this one for Tyra Banks, he offers his thoughts on Jacobs: "He's not the most attractive-looking man," he says. "He has all this prestige to his name, but it's all for what he creates." The documentary had apparently fascinated the rapper. "We're sitting in a theater watching him work, looking at his mind. Even when he comes out on the walkway, he comes out in a Mickey Mouse T-shirtand he's supposed to be Marc Jacobs."
The idea of being rich, yet not showcasing that wealth in the most ostentatious possible way, seems to baffle Fabolous. "Maybe he's attracted to the simpler things in life. I think a lot of black people are attracted to the big names and flash because we don't come from itwe always looked at material things as a status symbol or the object you could never afford. I looked at this car as that. Now if I ever went back to having nothing, I could say, 'I drove a Bentley.' It's also why those guys go out and rob celebrities or whoeverbecause they want that lifestyle too."
Fabolous's career began in 1998. He was a senior in high school and, through some luck, ended up rapping live on the famous DJ Clue radio show, then on Hot 97. He hadn't thought seriously about pursuing a career: He had no connections in the record industry, wasn't related to people in the business, didn't know any established artists. He was just a kid with some natural talent. Three credits shy of graduating from high school, he decided to get serious. Four albums later, including last year's From Nothin' to Somethin' , he's sold more than three million records.
So he now lives in New Jerseya typical destination for rappers, no matter how much they still extol the 'hood. Brevoort, meanwhile, hasn't changed much since his departure. It's long been known as one of the most violent projects in the city. Last September, a sniper took aim at an NYPD officer in his patrol car from the roof of one of the buildings. The project is known for its strong Crip gang affiliations. And in the 1990s, it produced a gang with a taste for snatching coats.
The Breevort G-Squad, or BGSa/k/a "the Commission" to the police, from a slang term that gang members used about "commissioning" coats and other thingssoon moved up to stealing brand-name clothing from department stores. Then, says Derrick Parker, former NYPD detective, the stakes kept rising.
"They started as a bunch of kids who stole coats and clothes off racks in stores," says Parker during a phone interview with the Voice. "Then they graduated from robberies to selling drugs to murder. . . . They had someone who was older and showing them how to rob rappers."
As a kid growing up in Brevoort, Fabolous can't deny that he was aware of BGS, a crew whose history he downplays. "I've heard of them," he says. "It's like a childhood nickname of people in my projects. It's a group that made a name for themselves, like if you were to call yourself the Breakfast Club. It's not a mafia or anything like that."
In the late '90s, robbing rappers was seen as a way to make big money, Parker says, and BGS had a unique way of getting access to its victims: One of the group's leaders was a bodyguard for a rapper and knew the ins and outs of some of Manhattan's more exclusive clubs and studios. The bodyguard would instruct the crew when to attack. "I had confessions from all of those kids," says Parker. "This case should have gone federal back then. We had them linked to providing stolen jewelry to a famed hip-hop jeweler. When the case grew larger, the problem was I didn't have much of a crack team, the funds, and the help to get things done.
"Street Family is a continuation from the Commissionthey're just an older group of guys now. Some of the members are the same," Parker says. "For example, the kid that got killed in Duvet, Shamel McKinney, he was one of the original members. He and one of his brothers were the original members."
On Thanksgiving night, Duvet, a swank club in the Flatiron, was having a hip-hop party. After enjoying dinner at his mother's house, Anthony Taylor, 25, and his friends arrived from Brooklyn to celebrate with a few bottles. A friend of Taylor's knew a bouncer, and the group bypassed the long line and was ushered in. By 3:30 a.m., Taylor and his friends were ready to head out.
What then led to the death of reputed Street Family member Shamel McKinney was initially unclear. Newspapers first reported that McKinney, 25, had been stabbed when he found himself in the middle of a girl fight. Other reports had him fighting with Taylor over causes unknown. But Taylor insists that McKinney attempted to rob him of a gold chain that, with its medallion of a horse in red, white, and yellow diamonds, was worth about $3,000.
Taylor says that as he struggled with a group of men, including McKinney, he heard someone shout the words, "Poke that nigga!" As he was slammed against a wall, he felt the chain around his neck pop. Taylor says he pulled a knife in self-defense; his thrust caught McKinney in the heart. The fight spilled out onto 21st Street, where cameras caught Taylor slashing McKinney from behind. McKinney fell on the street; around his neck was his own diamond-encrusted medallion, with the letters "SF."
Newspaper reports have Duvet employees claiming that Fabolous was at the scene. But the rapper insists that he was home in New Jersey on Thanksgiving night and first learned of the death of his childhood friend the next morning from an e-mail on his BlackBerry.
Fabolous hasn't been questioned by the police, but the connection to him was quickly cemented for some because of McKinney's medallion. Fabolous admits to buying some of the chains for friends, but doesn't know where Shamel's came from. "I don't even think it was his chain, but he had one on," he says.
"The prosecution theory is that this is not a robbery," says Taylor's attorney, Spiro Ferris. "To me, it's shameful. The handwriting is on the wall: They should know from their own detectives that this crew has this history and connect the dots from Fabolous to McKinney to Street Family." Taylor has been charged with second-degree murder for the fatal wound and attempted murder for the non-fatal wounds. "I know Shamel. He was never someone to rob anyone, number one," counters Fabolous. "He's definitely not big enough to rob anyone with his bare hands, number two." McKinney, a father of two, stood at five feet six inches.
"And if he was robbing somebody, he'd have a gun and wouldn't have gotten stabbed to death, number three," Fabolous adds, in a sort of logic that could only make sense in Brevoort Projects or somewhere similar. As if to reinforce that point, he throws in: "Shamel had on a chain. Why is he getting accused of snatching one?"
Fabolous goes on to explain that although he makes shout-outs to Street Family when he performs, and wears a chain similar to the one found on McKinney, and named his indie label Street Family, and considers the artists signed to it Street Family members, the group calling itself "Street Family" that the cops say has been prowling upscale nightclubs to snatch gold chains is entirely unrelated.
And even if they happen to hail from Brevoort Projects, or turn out to be friends of friends, he certainly shouldn't be punished for their actions, Fabolous insists. When you come from the 'hood and have reached a certain level of success, he points out, it isn't easy to keep tabs on all the people keeping tabs on you.
"Without my name, [Shamel's death] would have never been a newsworthy story," he says as he cruises around the Flatiron in his Bentley Coupe. "It would have just been another New York City murder. For my sake, I'm not trying to let them devalue me as this so-called head of an organized-crime family that they have accused me and a few friends of. If somebody steals a cookie right now and it's across the street from my old neighborhood, the headline would read: 'Street Family Robs Cookie Store.' "
Fabolous slips into a booth at the Palms, the famous Times Square steakhouse. He's without an entourage of any sort, but he is adorned in yellow diamonds. The businessmen ripping into their lunches don't appear to recognize him. There's no one to interrupt as he begins to tell the story of taking a bullet in his left thigh on a night in October 2006.
"We were exiting Justin's [Sean 'Diddy' Combs's restaurant, named after his son, which happens to be just a few doors down from Duvet, where McKinney was killed a year later] and were across the street in the parking lot," he remembers. "There was an argument going on, andI'm not sure if it was spiteful or randomlysomeone got out of a car and shot me."
If the motive remains a mystery to Fabolous, one was quickly supplied by the hip-hop public. That same night, Sebastian Telfair, a Coney Island native who had become a Boston Celtics point guard (he's now with the Minnesota Timberwolves), was robbed of a $50,000 gold chain outside Justin's.
"I saw him in the restaurant and said hello," says Fabolous, laughing at the assumption that he had anything to do with the snatch-and-grab.
Fabolous was arrested with three other men for having unregistered weapons in their SUV. Telfair, meanwhile, was questioned about reports that he'd been seen making cell-phone calls after being robbed and before Fabolous was shot. The NBA later said that Telfair's phone records had been turned over, and police didn't believe he had anything to do with the shooting.
Fabolous says he had nothing to do with the Telfair robbery. But he also acknowledges that NBA players and other pro athletes make tempting targets for chain-snatchings, since they often don't report losing even very valuable items. To do so, he says, means admitting that the financial loss was meaningful.
"I got robbed before, in L.A.," he says. "I mean, it was a big deal, but not a big deal."
Such chains sell for thousands, with some appearing for sale on MySpace or YouTube. And some cunning thieves eventually find a way to sell the jewels back to their victims.
Despite his protestations that he's not fronting a robbery ring, Fabolous knows that on the nightlife circuit, that's exactly what people think. Other reputed victims of the Street Family include boxer Zab Judah, former Giant Frank Walker, and Knicks player Stephon Marbury. "Fab's boys have been robbing people for [years]," says a nightclub security expert who asked to remain anonymous. "That is how they get their money. He's not paying all of themthey're just guys from the neighborhood. He's just creating an access to greener pastures."
But Fabolous, when he refers to the robberies, is careful not to call the perps "Street Family." "They say I get these guys into clubs," he says. "Some of it is people who grew up with me. Some are people who just rep Street Family; others I've never met before. All of this negative attention has made me more watchful of my surroundings and inner circle. Sometimes, when you're a celebrity, you have people around you who try to prove themselves, prove to other people that they know you or that they have some pull."
Fabolous hasn't been arrested or questioned for any of the robberies, and there have been times when he's been linked to such crimes unfairly. On a recent ski trip that Fabolous took with some friends, someone at their resort was robbed of his chain and accused them of the crime, Fabolous says. Turned out the culprit was a local man.
Parker himself, the former hip-hop cop, says Fabolous may be getting a bad rap for things beyond his control. "So many of these guys get around, and they get to know people, and they also become intimidating to where they will intimidate their way into the party. Fab is taking a bad hithe's good guybut when you hang out with certain people, you're being watched. The people he runs with are no angels. There are a lot of people in his crew who have to pay for crimes they've done, and that means jail time."
Fabolous, meanwhile, says his celebrity friends tell him they don't blame him for what's going on. "I know them, and they know it's untrue, so there's nothing for me to worry about. This thing was kind of sensationalized."
Over time, he says, his reaction to it has changed. "It was never funny, but it was like, 'Wow!' Then, after a while, it was like: 'OK, you guys are laying it on kind of thick,' " he says, referring to the hip-hop cops, who he wishes wouldn't consider him such a prize. "To me, some of these police units, they need something to keep them going. If they don't have hip-hop juiceleads or whateverI'm sure they wouldn't exist.
"If any of this stuff was true," he adds, "I'm sure something would be done about it."