Who is the real Irv “Gotti” Lorenzo?
To federal investigators, he is pure trouble. They contend that Lorenzo opened the door of his legitimate business -- the Vivendi Universal-funded Murder Inc. record label -- to a convicted street criminal, Kenneth “Supreme” McGriff. McGriff, they say, used the company to launder cash from illegal drug sales.
Lorenzo, in his first public discussion of those claims, tells a much different story.
He describes himself as a loyal friend who did nothing worse than help the financially strapped ex-con go straight, and fulfill a dream, by producing a low-budget action film called “Crime Partners.”
Which view prevails could have consequences not just for Lorenzo and McGriff but also for the French media conglomerate Vivendi, which has been embarrassed by a federal investigation of its rap affiliate just as it seeks buyers for its entertainment properties, including giant Universal Music Group.
No charges have been filed in the case. In January, however, a federal task force raided Murder Inc.'s New York headquarters. Prosecutors believe McGriff financed the label’s launch with drug money, extorted its rivals and delivered bags of cash to Lorenzo’s Manhattan headquarters. During the raid, authorities seized $30,000 in alleged drug proceeds from a safe in the office, government sources say.
Lorenzo denies wrongdoing. A recent audit commissioned by Murder Inc. indicates that he spent about $300,000 to help finance the making of “Crime Partners,” including the purchase of a $75,000 Range Rover for McGriff.
The music entrepreneur, who earns millions of dollars a year running his label, discovered such stars as Jay Z, DMX, Ja Rule and Ashanti, generating nearly $1 billion for Universal and its Island Def Jam division over the last decade.
Breaking a five-month silence, Lorenzo spoke about his dealings with McGriff and the devastating effect that the investigation has had on his business.
Question: Why would a guy making millions of dollars a year producing hit records risk his career to launder $300,000 in drug money?
Answer: I didn’t. In the end, the truth will come out. There is no money laundering. There is no extortion. There is no racketeering conspiracy. I put out hits that make millions of dollars. I don’t need to do anything illegal. In my work, I hire lots of street guys and I always preach the same thing. I say, “Why do crime when there is so much legitimate money out there? Use your brain. The same effort you’re putting into crime, put it into something legitimate -- like music. You’ll get a better return. Crime is stupid.”
Q: Then why call your company Murder Inc.?
A: It’s a metaphor, man. I’m sitting at home. I’m watching Arts & Entertainment. I know Def Jam is about to give me my label and I need a name. A&E; is running this thing called “Gangster Week” and they do this special on “Murder Incorporated.” I see the name riddled with bullets flash across the screen, and I think, man, that is one ill double meaning. You see, in the record industry, when you have a hot record, people say you put out a hit. Murder Inc.: what a beautiful play on words. I thought, “I’m going to call my artists murderers, because they put out hits.” This is the whole psyche behind it, man. Nothing more.
Q: The government says McGriff brought bags of drug cash directly to your office.
A: I never saw Supreme with no bags of cash. To be honest with you, though, I can’t swear he never sold drugs after he got out of prison. I’m not going to sit here and say I definitely know he didn’t. But I’m going to tell you this: If he did, he wasn’t doing it very good. Because he was always broke. That much I can attest to. The Supreme I know in 2003 isn’t the rich, powerful drug dealer with the $200,000-a-day crack enterprise the government busted in the 1980s. The Supreme I know did not have a dime.
Q: The government says you laundered McGriff’s illicit drug proceeds in exchange for phony checks and other gifts, such as plane trips, hotels and limousine rides.
A: I never wrote phony checks to Preme. I did pay for some trips, but anyone who studies the accounting records pertaining to my activity with Preme will see I did it immediately after he learned that he was going back to jail on a parole violation. During his last days of freedom, he comes to me and he says, “Yo, Gotti, I want to go see my nephew. I’m going into prison and I may never come out.” I say, “All right, Preme, go see your nephew.” I paid for the trip so he could see his family. Plus, I took him with us to video shoots and other places to show him a good time before he went back in.
Q: You also bought him a $75,000 Range Rover.
A: It was a gift. If I know my friend is going to jail and he wants a Range Rover, and it’s the last thing he gets to do is drive around in the Range Rover, I’ll buy it. He may never get out the rest of his life. Understand? I’m feeling bad for the guy. My goal is to do all I can for a close friend of mine as he gets psyched up to deal with incarceration.
Q: The government thinks the truck was exchanged for drug cash.
A: The government is wrong. Do you think Supreme is the only one I’ve ever bought a gift for? If the government went back and looked at my accounting, they’d see that when I got the first $3-million check from Def Jam to start my label, I took care of my brother. I took care of my mother and my father. I took care of a few close friends I love and respect. When I get money, I spread the wealth. If you’re a loved one of mine, I’m like, “Yo, you need 20 grand? Here.” “Yo, my man wants some rims for his car? Get my man some rims for his car.”
Q: Why do you call yourself Gotti?
A: It’s a nickname. I didn’t think it up. It was given to me by [rap star] Jay Z. One day when I go pick Jay up at his house in Brooklyn, he walks out and says, “You know what, man? I’m going to call you Gotti from now on. Irv Gotti!” And it just stuck, like any other nickname. Not because I was this criminal mastermind and wanted to be like the Gambino crime boss. You understand? I come from a family of eight kids. My father and mother are good-hearted people. I don’t come from a family of criminals. Not one person in my family has ever been charged with a crime.
Q: How long have you known McGriff?
A: I met him after he got out of prison, around 1995. I was shooting a video in front of a cleaner’s across the street from a Kentucky Fried Chicken stand where Preme used to hang out. Like everybody else in Queens, I knew who he was but had never met him. A friend of mine introduced us. And Preme says, “Yo, so you know how to shoot videos?” I said, “Well, not exactly. This is actually my first video.” And he was like, “Well, do you think you could shoot a movie?”
Q: The first time you met him?
A: The first conversation we had, he talked about how inspired he was to make a movie. He asked me if I knew about Donald Goines, the great street novelist. Then he bought me some Donald Goines books and told me to read them: “Black Gangster,” “Whoreson,” “Crime Partners.” You know how big Stephen King books are in the horror flick world? That’s how big he thought Donald Goines was going to be in hip-hop. From the moment Supreme got out of jail, he wanted to buy the rights to a bunch of Donald Goines books.
Q: The government has a different view of how you guys hooked up. They say McGriff financed the start-up of your label with drug money and he still calls the shots behind the scenes.
A: That’s crazy. There is accounting that proves my label was launched with legitimate money from Def Jam. Preme doesn’t own Murder Inc. He isn’t calling the shots here. Do they think Supreme was in the studio working on this new Ashanti CD I got coming out? Despite all of the stress they are putting me through, I’m still putting out hits.
Q: Has the probe hurt your business?
A: Hurt? It’s crippling me. You have no idea. The bank cut us off. The landlord kicked us out. I love America, man, but this here, I don’t understand. Still, I have faith. I believe when the prosecutors finish reviewing everything, they will learn I did nothing wrong.