The Hiphop Cop
Damon Dash, longtime partner of rap icon Jay-Z, is the CEO of a Hiphop empire that includes the brands Roc-a-Fella and Roc-a-Wear, and produces music, films, clothing, and vodka. He also is a man known to travel with an entourage of family and friends, the kind of company police rap intelligence has been watching and documenting in recent years. Interviews with former detective first grade Derrick Parker, who claims to be the founder and architect of the New York Police Department's rap intelligence unit, reveal that in the 1990s Parker thought it was important to monitor people who were starting to "latch on" to rappers and entertainers, some of whom, Parker says, may have been known to him as "a shooter, or a strong-arm guy."
"To a degree you got to understand where we are from," says Dash, "and once we become famous and get in a place where we don't have to hang out where we are from, we didn't dis any of our friends [from those areas]." The entourages are shaped in part by socioeconomic realities, he says. "If you don't have enough money to take the proper precautions to where you know you're safe, you still kind of live like a criminal because you're still dog food for the wolves," says Dash in reference to rappers being preyed upon by parasitical elements. "You're the one who has more than the next, so people can come at you in that kind of way. A lot of these dudes roll with entourages because they feel safer like that."
But Dash finds the criminalization of an entire industry objectionable. "What [our friends] are doing on their own personal time shouldn't actually affect people's opinions of us as a whole and definitely shouldn't make it to the point where we are getting all kind of [police] pressure put on us."
Parker told the Voice that those old neighborhood ties were the very associations that got his attention years ago. The NYPD's recent admission that it has "an intelligence division and . . . detectives that monitor the music industry and any incidents regarding the music industry" is simply the verification of a long series of police efforts that began in Brooklyn.
After 14 years of climbing the ranks, from patrolman to undercover narcotics officer during the height of the crack era to homicide detective in East New York and Bedford-Stuyvesant, Parker became a part of the famed Brooklyn North homicide squad. In 1996, he was recruited into the newly formed Cold Case Squad (CCS), a detective unit investigating backlogged homicides. It was in CCS that Parker discovered his niche.
"I saw a pattern," says Parker. "The pattern was that the rap music industry was becoming more like organized crime. It was running side by side with the traditional steps of organized crime. . . . What interested me was I saw a lot of these guys that were really bad dudes in Brooklyn starting to latch onto rappers and entertainers. So I used to monitor the incidents, department-wide, of anything that happened."
According to Parker, it was from these initial observations and activities that he began to cultivate the expertise and a database that were the roots of the NYPD's rap intelligence unit. "That was my job," says Parker. "When I was in Brooklyn North and in CCS, I always had an instinct to open things up and look at them. . . . The police department wasn't really prepared for the rap music industry violence. They really weren't."
As time went on, Parker says, his knowledge of the industry became more crucial as rap exploded into the headlines. "While I was in CCS, a lot of the bosses were calling me, requesting me to come to their crime scenes, [or] their commands," he says, "and to assist them on any violence that had to do with the rap music industry, because they didn't know what was going on. There were a lot of problems that were starting to happen in the industry. [Like] the shooting that happened at Quad Studios with Tupac [Shakur]." When Shakur was killed in 1996 in Las Vegas, Parker says he was there to consult.
But it was the murder of the Notorious B.I.G. in Los Angeles the following year that marked a turning point in Parker's career. "It wasn't until Biggie Smalls's murder that everybody's eyes became open," says the detective. And while the murder occurred in L.A., there were strong implications for the NYPD. "I don't care if Biggie got killed in L.A. or Anchorage, Alaska," says Parker. "His burial, his fans, his home base, [were] all in New York. He's a Brooklyn boy. Everything comes back to Brooklyn."
By 1999, the perception of an increasingly violent rap industry and Parker's acumen resulted in his becoming a one-man rap shop. "There was a lot of resentment and a lot of problems with me leaving to go and work with these other units in the police department," he says. Parker recounts that after he had made a presentation on Hiphop and its connection to gang culture at a police convention, then-chief of police Louis Anemone pulled him aside. "Anemone said, 'Look, Derrick. I'm going to have to put you in this unit, under the Gang Intelligence Unit.' He goes, 'Your unit doesn't really have a name. You're just going to be under Gang-Intel, but your specialty is going to be the rap music industry.' "
And so the Hiphop intelligence unit was created. "I did observations. I was at concert halls. Man, you name a rap event, I was there. The rappers got to know me after a while," says Parker. "We did databases. I had pictures, magazines . . . files on everybody. I knew everything about everybody." People got so used to seeing him, he says, that some dubbed him the "Hiphop Cop."
"When I was in the intel unit, Puffy was a big thing because Puffy was always in trouble all the time," Parker recalls. "Puffy had everything going on with him, [an April 1999 assault on record executive] Steve Stoute; [a threatened] baseball bat assault. . . . The police department perceived Puffy to be like their number one enemy in the rap industry, and he really wasn't. . . .
"Puffy and J.Lo, I was called three in the morning. 'Get up, you got a shooting up at midtown,' " says Parker, referring to the December 1999 shooting at Club New York. "When ODB [Wu-Tang Clansman now known as Dirt McGirt] got pulled over in Queens with the drugs and he was sleeping on the cell floor, I was there," says Parker, referring to the rapper's August 1999 arrest.
All rap-related incidents in New York City had to be reported to him, he says. "Everything got so big that all the chiefs knew who I was. Now everybody started dropping in like parachutes . . . every single precinct in the city was reporting that they had some kind of contact or non-contact with a guy who was a wannabe rapper, a musician, an artist, or a group," he says. And Parker's reach was not confined to the five boroughs. "Detectives from Miami called me. Detectives from Georgia, Chicago, L.A., Las Vegas." Eventually other cops were put into the same work.
Parker says that in 2001 he was the officer the NYPD sent to consult with the Miami Beach police, as recently reported in The Miami Herald. He says that the Miami Beach cops had just had some serious incidents and met with the NYPD in preparation for the Source Awards. In 2003, Miami cops came to New York for a training session. By then, what had been "a booklet" on rappers during Parker's tenure had become a six-inch binder, cited in the Herald.
According to the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU), the legal issues associated with rapper surveillance aren't completely clear. "If what they are doing is engaged in a good-faith investigation into criminal misconductthat they could do whether it's in the music industry or any place else," says Chris Dunn, an NYCLU attorney. "Where they get into trouble, and this has happened in other places, is when they start targeting people for other reasons, whether it's race, music, or anything else like that; that's not criminal but is simply controversial."
However, Dunn also acknowledges that there are risks when one associates with recognized criminals. "People who, for instance, associate with people who are involved in known criminal activity . . . don't have any immunity from criminal investigations because they are musicians or engaged in any other line of work."
Karl Kamau Franklin, an attorney who currently represents two artists who allege police harassment in connection with their arrests N.O.R.E. of rap team C-N-N, and Stic.man of dead prez questions the effectiveness of collecting data on artists and their associates. "How many people have they arrested at this point based on these logs of different Hiphop artists?" asks Franklin.
"The [intel] squad wasn't to do that; the squad was primarily set up to assist. I was there to help other squads go out and capture people," responds Parker. "We prevented certain crimes because when you started talking to rappers and you knew they had hits on them and you were onto them [as was reportedly the case with rap superstar 50 Cent], people wouldn't go and shoot them or rob them if they knew you were around. . . . Most of the times it's not always the rappers; it's the guys in their entourages that cause the problems."
In its initial stages the unit wasn't as meticulous in its observations. "First, it was rap music, and the rap investigations, and then it expanded. The reason it expanded itself was because of the Lil' Kim and Foxy Brown shoot-out at Hot 97," says Parker. The February 25, 2001, shooting followed an on-air appearance by Lil' Kim and involved more than 20 people, five guns, and 22 shots fired. One person was injured. The incident reportedly stemmed from a beef between the two female MCs. "That's when the rap stuff went global. We found out every club the rappers attend, every bar, every place where they hang out, what kind of cars they drive; all that stuff came up."
Parker says that his unit then began to investigate record labels as if they were crime families, with pictures, files, and charts outlining rappers and their entourages. On hearing this, Dash is both amused and disturbed. "Did they have me as the don?" he asks with a laugh. "That's kind of hilarious, funnybut it's not funny," he says. "To know that you are being watched on your personal timeif they're tapping your phones or just observing you, no one likes that feeling. And they're wasting a lot of money and time doing it."
Surveillance was conducted at major events like Hot 97's Summer Jam concerts. "We were in the parking lot. We compiled photographs, tapes," says Parker. Asked whether wiretaps were employed during any investigations, Parker says, "In order to get wiretaps, you have to have really big cases, but yes, those were some things that we did down the line. I'm not going to lie to you. I'm dealing with you straight up; we did a lot of stuff and if it warranted us to do something where we had to video or film or do things, then we did it. It all depends on the case."
Franklin finds this practice unjustifiable. "I think he's only within his job to do something about these situations if he has specific evidence that these people are engaged or involved in something," he says. "Otherwise he's giving rationales and excuses for witch hunts."
Murray Richman, an attorney who represented several rappers in high-profile cases, including Jay-Z and DMX, offers another perspective. "I don't want to make the police big bad guys, because they don't think they are and they don't do it for bad reasons. They do it for all the reasons that we want," he says. "But those reasons may indeed be wrong. So don't make it into a situation [of] 'us against them' or 'them against us.' It may be a series of misperceptions and it should be stopped before these misperceptions harden into an attitude of real hostility."
Chuck Creekmur, a journalist with bet.com and allhiphop.com, says the policy sounds racist and bears a striking similarity to Bush's "preemptive strike" doctrine. Rappers should also be smarter, he says, about how they behave. "Sometimes you make it easier for them to do stuff to you," says Creekmur.
Parker makes a similar assertion. "If it just so happens that we are looking around and we see you and you're carrying a gun, then shame on you," he says. He maintains there are many misconceptions about his work. First, neither the outfit in which he worked nor the current investigators are a "task force," he says, but a couple of officers within a larger intelligence unit. "We were based in a warehouse building with other private companies to make it look like we were just an office, a covert-type location within the five boroughs."
Also, he warns, the police that rappers may see around them are not always specifically connected with the intelligence unit. "There are other units that are on too [including] various undercover unitsthat are on the rappers," says Parker.
"There's this one guy from [the former] Street Crimes [unit]; he makes a lot of arrests of rappers. . . . It's like when you want to go fishing and you know there's trout in the water. All you got to do is hang out by these events and you know that you'll get somebody with a gun or something. He got Jay-Z. He got 50 Cent. Same Street Crime guy," says Parker. "The only reason he gets his stuff is that he's knowledgeable enough to go where events are and just observe. It's not like he's in any kind of unit where he's profiling them."
Whether it is a squad or individual officers, many in the Hiphop arena are disturbed by the surveillance, and the number of arrests in the rap community underscores the concern. Since 1996, there have been several arrests of rap superstars, including 50 Cent, Jay-Z, B.I.G., N.O.R.E., and Fabolous, under questionable circumstances that fuel suspicions of profiling. "This is the same excuse they used back in the '60s or '70s for COINTELPRO," says Franklin on the rationale of gathering info to prevent crime. "We think these activists are dangerous. We think they are going to do a, b, c."
Parker responds by stressing that the unit was not concerned with Hiphop culture as a whole, but specifically watched the criminal element that aligned itself with rap stars. "I knew if you ran with a certain guy, there was bound to be trouble somewhere or there was bound to be something happening," Parker explains. And there were legal obligations. "We couldn't just look at everybody as a whole, but we could look at people who had criminal records or got arrested before."
Benjamin Muhammad, head of the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network (HSAN), isn't convinced. "What the history of intelligence and counter-intelligence law enforcement has shown is that innocent people wind up getting dossiers, getting their phones tapped, [getting] targeted for unjust and illegal searches," he says, "and at some point, somebody is going to get hurt." HSAN, he says, is "going to take legal action against police departments for violating the constitutional rights of Hiphop artists."
Parker says that countless incidents that never made the papers led to the surveillance. "You had three major murders [of rap icons] and I can honestly tell you thisyou have over 100 incidents in different boroughs where [rappers] have either been the victims of crimes, or they've assaulted someone. There's been robberies, shootings, stabbings . . . a number of things that you had to be concerned about."
Despite any legitimate intentions behind Parker's initiative, Parker's critics are opposed to the Hiphop squad for many reasons. Russell Simmons, Hiphop music and fashion titan, thinks that there are far more serious concerns than rap music stars with which the NYPD needs to contend. "They should be following around all these drug dealers that are real obvious," he says. He points out that despite these intelligence units, Tupac, Biggie, and Jam Master Jay's (JMJ) murders remain unsolved. "That whole thing is ridiculous," says Simmons. "We want our celebrities to be protected, but what about their communities that are not protected? Jam Master Jay's mural is surrounded by a whole lot of other dead people. Who killed those people?"
Parker says that if given total control of the JMJ case, he would solve it. "All I would ask them to do would be to supply me with the following [unnamed specifics] and I would have the case solved, and you can quote me on that," says Parker. "I know the case that well."
Rosa Clemente, a longtime community activist and co-convener of June's upcoming Hiphop political summit in Newark, has concerns over the legality of the surveillance. "It is illegal for them to profile and that's what they're doing. It's a method of profiling whether it's racial, economic, or a record label," she says. "This goes back to counter-insurgency within our communities."
Not everyone reacts to the existence of this unit in a totally negative manner. Tracy Cloherty, vice president for programming at radio station Hot 97, whose concert events were named as one of Parker's specific venues and whose proximity to rappers makes her a potential surveillance target, isn't disturbed by this prospect. [The author was also a station employee from 1999 to 2002.] "I don't think about it," says Cloherty. "I'm not doing anything illegal, so it's of no concern to me."
Parker says he was simply doing his job to the best of his ability. "Shame on me if I didn't know what was going on out here and I allowed somebody to get hurt and I could've prevented it," says Parker. "Shame on me if I had a job to do and I didn't know what was going on in my own backyard."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.