NYPD keeps tabs on rappers

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Officially, the New York Police Department makes no special effort to keep tabs on rappers. Officially, the department has no binder of dossiers on the performers.

Officially, detectives do not comb lyrics of music's fastest-growing genre for signs of past or future crimes.

Yet, hundreds of pages of police documents and interviews with detectives inside the department and with those from around the country trained by the NYPD show that city police have quietly collected information about top rappers for the past six years and continue that work today.

The NYPD has pulled together dossiers that contain photographs, arrest records and biographical information of hip-hop stars and their associates, as well as lyrics that make specific threats or brag about past wrongdoing, according to the retired detective who did most of the research, and documents obtained by Newsday.

The entries for recently retired superstar Jay-Z, for example, contain information about his arrests (an assault charge from 1999), the license plate numbers of his vehicles, where he likes to hang out (nightspots including Joe's Pub and Club NV) and who he hangs out with (business partner Damon Dash).

Joining Jay-Z in what has become known as "the hip-hop binder" are many of the genre's biggest stars -- including 50 Cent, Sean "P. Diddy" Combs, Ja Rule, DMX, Nas, Fabolous, Busta Rhymes, Cam'ron, Li'l Kim and Public Enemy's Flavor Flav.

Cops 'know the players'

NYPD spokesman Paul Browne denied there is any organized effort to gather information on rappers, saying there are one or two officers in the Gang Intelligence Unit who "know the players," and are often called upon to aid in rapper-related crime but aren't assigned to that job full time and aren't collecting intelligence on the hip-hop scene.

Browne also said that the department didn't sanction the creation of the so-called hip-hop binder, saying the dossiers were collected by now-retired Det. Derrick Parker on his own.

But police departments from around the country have received copies of the binder during training with the NYPD since Parker retired, and Parker said the dossiers, copies of which were obtained by Newsday, have been updated since he left the force in 2002.

Law enforcement sources say that while police are wary of speaking about their efforts to keep track of hip-hop performers and the people around them, it is necessary because many of them have criminal records.

"No one can say that the rap industry is rife with crime because that's not politically correct," said an NYPD detective familiar with the department's efforts, speaking on condition of anonymity. "Everyone would say that's racial profiling. But it is what it is."

Civil libertarians say that's a lot like targeting all CEOs for investigation because of high-level wrongdoing at corporations such as Enron and Tyco, even though there is no evidence executives at all companies have committed crimes.

"If musicians are engaged in criminal conduct, an investigation of course would be appropriate," said Christopher Dunn, associate legal director of the New York Civil Liberties Union. "But police cannot and should not be investigating musicians because of the controversial nature of their music."

Hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons calls it "cultural profiling."

"It's illegal, and it's a waste of the taxpayers' money," said Simmons, who has produced a show on the topic for Court TV. "They think it's a statement of some kind, and if they can catch someone, then it becomes high-profile and newsworthy. It's insane."

Law enforcement officials argue such monitoring became especially important after the violence from rappers' songs turned into real life mayhem.

Hip-hop's violent images suddenly attracted more attention when musical rivalry between West Coast and East Coast rappers escalated into a battle that many believe resulted in the still-unsolved murders of two of hip-hop's biggest stars, Tupac Shakur in 1996 and Brooklyn's Christopher "The Notorious B.I.G." Wallace in 1997.

It was Wallace's Brooklyn funeral, Parker said, that brought him into the world of hip-hop. He was in the borough's cold case squad, solving old homicides, when he was asked to brief police supervisors before the funeral procession because of death threats against Combs, Wallace's friend and producer.

The detective -- who once recorded an R&B single "Single Man" and was the grandson of legendary Harlem entertainer Willie Bryant -- was passionate about the industry and was familiar with even obscure rap artists. Soon, though, the music fan gave way to the police officer.

"I would recognize the artist and say, 'Wow, look at the guys he's going around with. Those are some bad dudes,'" Parker recalled. "So, I started to get to know everybody. ... I wanted to know what was going on in case I came across these guys and had to investigate them."

After Wallace's funeral went off without any problems, Parker became the go-to guy for rap-related investigations in the country's largest police force. By 1999, he and another detective were tapped to work on hip-hop full-time as part of the Gang Intelligence Unit. Parker coined an informal name for the pair, the Rap Intelligence Unit.

"We weren't officially Rap Intel," he said. "... They didn't want to make it like we were going after rappers, which we really weren't. I was just investigating all the problems they had."

Parker said that during the time he investigated hip-hop crimes, he shared the intelligence he gathered with police from Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Miami, Atlanta and New Orleans, as well as several New Jersey agencies and the FBI.

Officer Bobby Hernandez, spokesman for the Miami Beach police, said representatives from his department went to the NYPD first in 2001 for an informal training after disturbances on Memorial Day of that year.

"We recognized that we were getting a lot of rappers coming here, and we thought it would be a good idea to get some more information," he said. "... We wanted to be more hip-hop savvy. If we didn't do that, we would be irresponsible."

Miami Beach officers came back in 2003, when they received the 600-page binder. But Hernandez said the training was more important.

"They told us which groups had a criminal side and which did not," he said. "They told us, 'This guy is so pro-police, you don't even have to worry about him,' They told us, 'You don't even want to have this guy in your city.'"

Interest in crime, not lyrics

Parker said a police department collecting intelligence on rappers sounds more Orwellian than it is. It's the crime -- especially drug and gun possession -- that often goes with the hip-hop industry that he said police are interested in, not the lyrics.

However, civil-rights and free-speech advocates worry about law enforcement monitoring what entertainers say and possibly using their words against them. For example, in 1989, after N.W.A. released its protest song " -- -- -- tha Police," the FBI issued a bulletin to police warning that the song encouraged violence against them.

The NYCLU's Dunn said that in the world of rap, where most lyrics are based on braggadocio and fantasy, "It's a dangerous thing when police start assuming musical lyrics are evidence of criminal activity."

Will Griffin -- president and chief operating officer of Simmons Lathan Media Group, which produced the show "Hip-Hop Justice" for Court TV -- said he wants to help end "hip-hop profiling" because of the impact it has on young fans.

"We want them to believe in the system," he said. "We don't want them to think, 'Look at those guys, they are successful, and they didn't get a fair shake. What chance do I have?'"

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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