Friday, July 1, 2011

On the Front Lines: An Interview With Writer Douglas Century (Part 1)

Having a front row seat to an era that becomes the stuff of legend for subsequent generations is a privilege.  It’s even more of a privilege to have the talent to articulate what you saw and preserve it for posterity.  Douglas Century is one of those lucky few.  He got to witness a side of New York City that is now largely extinct.  During the 1990’s, he hung out with surviving members of Brooklyn’s fabled Franklin Avenue Posse.  He documented that experience into his first book “Street Kingdom: Five Years Inside the Franklin Avenue Posse.”  It predated many of the true-crime novels that now populate “urban” book stores across America.

Since then, Douglas has built up quite a resume as a documentarian.  He has written for the New York Times on many an occasion and is contributing editor for Tablet Magazine.  He also assisted Rick Cowan in chronicling the downfall of a mob dynasty with the bestselling “Takedown: The Fall of the Last Mafia Empire.”  Most recently, he helped rap legend Ice-T organize his thoughts and experiences into the well written autobiography ‘Ice: A Memoir of Gangster Life and Redemption-from South Central to Hollywood.’  That book is easily one of the most entertaining and insightful of its kind (read my review here).  Douglas took time out from his busy schedule to chat with your truly about how it came to be.  He also shares much of the backstory behind “Street Kingdom.”

Ice-T (left) and Douglas Century (right).

Scott Tre: Do you think that Hip-Hop has more of a connection to criminality and gangsterism than other forms of pop culture, or is that characterization a media fabrication to try and demonize it?

Douglas Century: Well, we kind of saw this with the ridiculous reaction on the right wing to Common coming to the White House.  Obviously, Hip-Hop is coming generally from impoverished communities and there are a high percentage of songs that will deal with street life—people going to prison, hustling, or whatever.  That’s reflecting the socioeconomic reality. I think that Jon Stewart did a great takedown with Bill O’Reilly quoting the Johnny Cash lyric, “I took a shot of cocaine and I shot my woman down.”  If you go back, you can find songs by Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan—classic American folk songs about murdering people, cowboy gunslingers and gangsters like Pretty Boy Floyd.  

Let’s be honest—people are fascinated by gangsters.  What I find with guys like Ice-T and Jay-Z is that they’re doing a kind of street-level reporting.  Maybe they didn’t personally do all the criminal stuff they’re talking about but they know the dudes that did.  I think that Hip-Hop gets an unfair knock as overly focused on criminal activity.  You can easily take it out of context.  You hear N.W.A saying “Fuck the Police” or Ice-T shouting “Cop Killer”—some people slammed that as one of supposedly most “offensive” Hip-Hop records ever and it was actually a hard rock record by Body Count.  If you’re not knowledgeable about Hip-Hop and you don’t know what Common really represents when he’s doing a song like “I Used to Love H.E.R.,” you could easily take one phrase out of context and say, “Dude, this guy’s defending a cop killer.”  It’s bullshit to me, to be honest with you.  Hip-Hop is just reflective of the communities the artists are coming from.  If you remember De La Soul and Tribe and those guys, they weren’t reflecting that crime life.  They were completely suburban. 

I think the only problem I have with Hip-Hop is when guys are completely bullshitting, when they tell you about murders they did and you know they’re full of shit.  You know it’s fraudulent.  It’s glorifying it.  But the best artists don’t need to do that.  When I think of Rakim—who to me is the greatest MC—I can’t remember him dropping a curse.  The guy was hard without it being vulgar.  

Ice-T (left) with Douglas Century (right)

Scott Tre: How did you end up writing Ice-T’s autobiography with him and what drew you to the project?

Douglas Century: It’s kind of a crazy story.  Now, Ice has management and agents, but he also has a camp—he’s got a crew of guys.  He’s got his mob.  They’re not the illegal mob but they’re just dudes that have been with him from back in the days.  A good friend of mine basically said, “You want to have a meeting with Ice?”  We were in his crib in New Jersey, talking about some other project actually.  I did a little Google research and I was like, “Damn.”  I mean, I knew “Colors” and all his classic rap records, but I didn’t know he was orphaned and came from a middle class home.  A lot of people don’t know that he had a middle class upbringing in New Jersey and then his folks died.  By the time he was 11 he was an orphan.  Then he gets sent to L.A. and thrown into the birth of West Coast gang culture, he was there for that when he was in high school.  He got his first girlfriend pregnant so he went into the military for four years. He was infantry.  Before that he did airborne Rangers training.  There’s all this shit about Ice-T that people didn’t know.  I said to him “Dude, have you ever told these stories?” and he said “Nah, just in my lyrics.”  He did this song called “How I’m Livin’” and a few others that are autobiographical. 

To me, it’s just a classic American story of a self-made man.  I didn’t want to focus on the Decoded-type of book which is more-or-less pure Hip-Hop.  It’s really about the language and the subtleties of the art.  Ice is more interesting as an American phenomenon than as just a lyricist.  He’s basically been there and done it all.  He got taken down by the government.  The way that whole Time Warner situation unfolded when he released “Cop Killer,” there’s no doubt he had some of the most exciting situations in pop culture.  But now he’s a fixture on Law & Order: SVU, which is about as mainstream as it gets.  Ice’s whole career arc was fascinating to me.  

Coco (left) with Douglas Century (right)

So we met and we vibed.  And he’s just a really good dude.  He’s a gentleman and the easiest guy to work with.  I’ve interviewed a lot of rappers, done a lot of stories for the New York Times and different places.  A lot of times rappers will schedule an interview and then flake out on you.  They won’t show up or whatever.  Ice is a consummate professional.  You have to be if you’re working for a guy like Dick Wolf for more than ten years.  Shooting Law & Order, he puts in these 14-hour days, a brutal schedule.

Ice’s story to me was a real big American story.  He sort of transcends easy categories.  It wasn’t just a Hip-Hop story or a criminal story.  Personally, I fixated on the gang stuff.  I love the stuff about the Crips because he was around all those first-generation guys like Tookie.  He was part of that world.  That was really some of the craziest shit that ever happened, the birth of those L.A. gangs.  And Ice was there for all that.  He’s an American original, an American classic.  I think the book will stand up.  I hope people will read this book, even years from now.  Ice does a lot of lectures at universities, all kinds of schools, and he’s something of a philosopher—as you can probably tell.  It’s street-level philosophy, but he’s got an unmistakable way with words.  In essence, I assisted him in telling his stories the way he would tell them.  One of the things I’m happiest about is that from time to time people will quote a line from the book and I’ll say “Oh shit—that was actually my line.  I put that in Ice’s mouth.”  I’ve done a few of these books were your job is to give the illusion of the person talking to you.  The reader should come away saying, “Dude, it’s like I just had this five hour conversation with Ice.”  That’s the effect you want to get with a book like this.  I wasn’t trying to make it too literary or too polished.  It had to flow like Ice talked.

Scott Tre: In the book, Ice offers some of the first real insight into his criminal past.  Was he reluctant to reveal any of that stuff, or was he mostly forthcoming?  

Douglas Century: Ice is an open book about his years being on the other side of the law.  But he had to do it in the right way.  Like he said in his rhyme, “I speak on this with hesitation even though we’ve passed the statute of limitations.”  He’s been around some of the real hardcore bangers, so there was a definitely a lot of violence.  But Ice’s main hustles weren’t violent—he was known for jewelry store robberies and bank heists.  He’s rapped about them quite a bit.  “6 in the Mornin’” is seen as the first gangsta rap song because it’s such a hard record, so specific about the criminal life in LA at that time.  There really hadn’t been something like that, that had been that lyrically explicit.  

We just had to change some of the details.  There were some issues that we had to be real careful about—not naming certain names.   He’s pretty skillful in the way he tells his stories.  For example, talking about pimping, he’ll preface it by saying “Pimping is not an honorable thing to do.  It’s a hustle.  It’s not a positive aspect of society, but here’s my insight.  There are things you can learn about the square world from pimping.”  He cracked me up by saying he considers himself a “ho” working on Law & Order because his boss Dick Wolf, the creator of the show, is the guy making the real money.  He’s like “I’m a top-shelf ho, but I’m still a ho.” 
He doesn’t have a lot of ego.  He won’t claim that he’s the hardest guy in the world or whatever.  He told me at one point, “Dig, I never wanted to be the toughest guy in the room, I just wanted to make it out of the room.”  He’s a survivor.   Some critics said there’s actually too much “how-to,” if you go back to how to lay out a robbery and what Ice and his crew would do.  But the truth is a lot of what Ice did, in terms of the criminal life, you can’t do anymore.  Near the end of the book, his own kid, Little Ice, gets busted for a little robbery.  Little Ice says, “Well, how did you get away with it, Dad?”  Ice was pissed and said “First of all, you fucking dumb ass, when I was doing it there weren’t cameras on every palm tree in southern California!”  The rules have changed, so you couldn’t do a lot of the stuff they used to do. 

Douglas Century (left) with Sean E. Sean (right).

They used to do these bash robberies of Rolexes and fine jewelry.  In terms of Hip Hop, Ice was a trendsetter.  They were taking that high-end designer shit like Niemen Marcus.  “If you look at Breakin’,”  Ice told me, “I’m wearing a Neiman Marcus hat.  Nobody had seen that shit in Hip-Hop.  All the B-Boys were wearing Kangol.”  But Fendi, Gucci, Neiman Marcus—that’s what he was stealing.  When he first met Grandmaster Caz and those guys, they were like, “Why do you want to do this, Ice?”  Because when Ice got into the game, nobody in Hip-Hop had made enough money to buy a car [from their music income].  Meanwhile, Ice already had the Porsche—I mean, the guy’s had some nice rides long before rap.  This was from his illegal life.  

Now it’s kind of flipped and guys like Jay-Z are worth tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars, but those early rappers weren’t making that kind of money.  Ice was a pure hustler.  He was doing rap as kind of a sideline until he was in a near-fatal car accident.  That story is pretty well-known, but he hadn’t really gone into the details of how he almost died.  He nodded off at the wheel and his Porsche was totaled.  Lucky for him, he’d been an athlete and had the four years of military training, ‘cause if he hadn’t been in such good shape he would have died in his car wreck.  As he was lying in the hospital he realized that his hustling life was a dead end; all the gangbangers, all the pimps, all the hustlers that he hung out with didn’t really come through to see him.  He realized maybe that’s not a life where people really care about me, so let me give this Hip-Hop thing a try.  That’s the moment he devoted himself to rap. 

The cover art for Street Kingdom: Five Years Inside the Franklin Avenue Posse.

Scott Tre: Street Kingdom was kind of a unique book in the marketplace when it first came out.  That side of New York City street culture and street lore wasn’t really well known, even in Hip-Hop circles in some cases.  How did the book come about?

Douglas Century:  It came about because I had met Kawaun, who is the main guy in the book with me.  He ran with a crew called the Franklin Avenue Posse.  They were from Franklin Avenue and Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn, New York.  One night he was doing a Hip-Hop show in this place called the Nuyorican Poets’ Café on the Lower East Side.  He was still in the streets.  He was still gangster at that time.  He wasn’t actively selling drugs anymore but he had a gun on him and shit when I met him.  He was rapping and I was just trying to help him with his music career, and we were doing little showcases and open mic gigs.   I remember one night under the Time Café, Dave Chappelle was the host—he was still an underground comic at that time.  I was just hanging out with him for two years before one of my journalist friends said “Dude, you’re around all these serious guys in Brooklyn.  Why don’t you write about this?”  

Being a white Jewish guy from Canada, it’s not like I could go out to this part of Brooklyn and just start asking a bunch of stupid questions.  It had to be that we became friends first, you know what I mean?  I wouldn’t say I was part of the crew but people knew me.  K would vouch for me wherever we went in Brooklyn.  You know what it’s like.  I guess you call it a hood pass.  You’re with the right people and people accept you.  

Kawaun aka "Big K" (left) with Douglas Century (right).

One of my favorite things about that book is that it just reflects a period of a few years in my life where I was really hanging with these dudes.  I was observing what was going on.  He would get locked up and I would go help him out if I could.  I wasn’t pretending to be a gangster or anything.  I wasn’t part of that life.  A couple of times he stupidly gave me his gun to carry because there was a cop around.  Well, he wasn’t stupid; I was stupid for carrying it [laughs].  He looked at it like, “Dude, you’re a white boy—ain’t no fuckin’ cop stopping you.  Cross the street!”  It was an interesting experience.  

K and I are still great friends, like family really.  We consider each other brothers.  It was something that had to happen organically.  You don’t go around street guys—and I don’t care if it’s Jamaicans, Chinese, Italian mob, whatever—you don’t go around with the intention of infiltrating and all that shit.  It can’t happen.  I mean you could try, but you wouldn’t get very far.  

Douglas Century (left) with Big K (right).

K’s son, who was just a baby in the book, he’s now a rapper.  He’s a teenager in Philly.  He’s doing his own recording and live shows.  He’s a talented young guy.  He’s my godson, actually. But Big K and me, we’re in our 40’s now.  That book was a reflection of a period of being in out 20’s.  Hard to believe it was that long ago.  K was one of the main tough guys/gangsters from that block.  His folks are Panamanians, and in that part of Brooklyn, in Crown heights, the dudes from Panama—the cats a few years older than him—were making a lot of money back in the day.  

Another guy from Franklin Avenue—a couple of years younger—is Buckshot from Black Moon.  Buck reps the F.A.P. on those early records.  That was a great period.  If you remember—and I’m sure you do, because you write about this stuff—the music being made in ‘93-’94 was really strong.   K was recording songs—they never really came out unfortunately—and he had a deal with D&D Studios, owned by Doug and Dave.  Great dudes.  D&D was sort of the epicenter for the underground New York sound.  That’s where Premier was making all those classic beats.  Gang Starr was up in there daily.  Biggie was up in there.  Nas, Jeru, M.O.P.  Damn near everybody in the New York Hip-Hop scene was up in there.  Great beats, lyrics and clouds of smoke.  I mean, K doesn’t smoke, but everybody else was constantly blazing. 

In a classic "beatdown" photo from his "rude boy" days, Big K (lower right) points a .45 caliber semi-automatic pistol at the camera.

I wish Hip-Hop was still like it was back then.  For me the greatest era is ’86-’88—that’s the high-water mark for Hip-Hop in my book,  but in ‘93 and ‘94 there was some amazing things happening, especially in New York, Biggie and Mobb Deep and all those guys.  Buckshot and all the Boot Camp, that was some of the strongest stuff.  It’s kind of slept on today because it wasn’t commercial, but if you hear some of the classics of Smif N Wessun or the original Black Moon album Enta Da Stage, it still holds water. 

The beats that DJ Premier was making at that point were giving New York this unmistakable sound.  And then Dre comes out with The Chronic and blows everybody’s mind with this West Coast vibe.  

I didn’t write about it in the book, but I remember one time when there was the New Music Seminar.  They’d selected about 20 MC’s for this battle—the “world championship” MC battle—and K was up in there.  He ended up losing to King Sun in one of the later rounds.   At one point, we were in one of the halls of the Sheraton Hotel and K makes a beeline toward this other huge cat, saying, “There’s this dude, we gotta go talk to him.”  And it was Suge Knight.  Next thing I know, he’s handing me his business card.   I’ve still got Suge Knight’s card somewhere, by the way [laughs]. I didn’t know what the fuck to say to him.  Most dudes would have been intimidated but K just stepped to Suge and was like, “Yo, how do I get on?”  Obviously, that’s before all the beef happened and the [West Coast artists] were out here chillin’ in New York.  At that same seminar I remember Biggie being out front on the sidewalk.  They had these street placards—Puffy’s guys used to walk around doing street marketing.  I remember Biggie himself was out front with these dudes holding up placards.  Just before his record came out. 

The Notorious B.I.G circa 1994.

If I tried to write that book today, it just couldn’t be the same.  Because Hip-Hop isn’t the same.  So it’s a reflection of my being a 26 year-old guy, K being 24, and Hip-Hop being this inspiring culture to both of us.  Those parts of Brooklyn—Crown Heights and Prospect Heights a lot of those neighborhoods are now gentrified, but at that point New York was still funky, especially Crown Heights, East Flatbush, East New York.  K spent his early years in East Flatbush with the Jamaican guys in Vanderveer projects.  That’s some real shit, dude.  Especially when he was coming up, he was with some serious gangsters.  Jimmy Henchmen and those guys—that’s their world, man.  And Crown Heights was like the Wild West.  They called it “Crime Heights.”   Everybody knows about Mike Tyson coming up in the streets of Brooklyn.  I remember reading a book about Mike by Jose Torres called Fire and Fear.   At one point, Mike says something like, “You know, it was tough out in Brownsville, but the real gunmen, the real hardcore gangsters were in Crown Heights.”  They were the real rudeboys.  

I was lucky enough to make friends with a very charismatic, talented guy.  K’s a big dude, with a big presence.  He’s the kind of guy that walks into a room at 6’3”, 270 lbs.  And I mean, yeah, he’s a big guy with very fast hands.  He was a professional boxer.  So wherever we were, no one would fuck with us [laughs].  Occasionally, things popped off, but that’s just because guys had guns.  A couple of times I would question my sanity, like, “How deep am I into this world here?”  Looking back on it, I really think it was a great experience.  

Various pictures of Big K and others from his world.

Scott Tre: You’ve written about the Mafia and some really tough characters.  How does Big K stack up to some of those other people that you’ve written about, talked to, or interviewed?

Douglas Century: That’s tough to say because he’s so different now.  I’d hear these wild stories about him when he was 18 or 19.  Basically, if you’re gangster there’s a power in acting crazy, being completely unpredictable.   That’s true of guys in K’s world, or even if you go back to the days of Dutch Schultz and Bugsy Siegel.  There’s a power in being the guy who just doesn’t give a fuck about the immediate consequences of his actions.   That was a bit of K’s reputation.  But there were a lot of other guys like that too that I met.  Other guys who were just as scary and intimidating.  It’s tough to compare that to [traditional] Mob guys.  Some of the Mob guys have a different level of cold bloodedness.  They’ll be real gentlemen, real soft-spoken, and then you’ll find out later, “Oh, he’s a murderer?”  Because he was the quietest, most polite guy at dinner. You’d never guess it.  With K at that time, it was really upfront.  He would brawl with anybody.  He didn’t give a fuck.

I went to see him in some pretty tough places.  He was locked up, whether it was The Tombs or Rikers Island or upstate New York.  You’d see him come into the visiting room with this swagger and you would know that nobody would fuck with him in the prison [laughs].  From my perspective, that’s the bottom line to being a gangster: Can you do time?  A lot of dudes talk tough in the streets but can you go upstate for three or four years and be willing to fight if somebody wants your fucking sneakers?  Half the time when I’d go to visit K he’d be on lockdown for 60 days because he’d been in a fight.  

Cover Art from Enter The Cipher.

Yeah, I would say he’s a tough individual.  He can hold his own anywhere.  I would want him to have my back in any situation; he’s a very protective guy.  I’ve been around Italian gangsters, and I’ve been around Israeli gangsters, Chinese dudes, Russians—and there may be guys who’ve made more money hustling.  That’s just sort of the structure in place with some of these other organized crime groups.  Generally, that’s because they get into legit businesses—whether it’s construction, garbage-hauling, various unions or whatnot. 
Out in Brooklyn, I would see a little of that while hanging with K.  I would see these guys, mainly Dominican guys, that owned little Laundromats and car services out in East New York.  That’s the same principal as the Italian mob.  The dude may be a Dominican or Panamanian coke dealer rather than a wiseguy, but he’s shrewd enough to channel his street money into a legal operation.  Still, there’s a little more flash to it.  I remember going to dinner at one of K’s apartments in this really rough block in East New York and on the corner you see a Laundromat with all these fucking huge flat-screen TV’s, looking more like an electronics store in midtown Manhattan than a laundry in the hood. This Dominican kingpin, he’s set up his Laundromat to clean up his money, but he’s got to keep it fly, you know?  [laughs.]  

People get caught up too much in the mythology about the Italian Mafia, in terms of the fierceness and intimidation.  I would think that there’s nothing scarier to correction officers than young guys from the hood, whether it’s African American guys or young Puerto Rican guys, Mexicans or Salvadorans.  Guys who are still kids—like 17 or 18.  They’re coming from an environment where the violence is usually a product of low self-esteem.  That’s the root of the gang problem, of course—the lack of love, the lack of self-esteem.  Dudes who honestly don’t care about themselves.  They just don’t give a fuck, so they’re willing to do a lot of things that maybe some 60-year-old Mafia guy wouldn’t do because he’s got too much to lose, too much on the outside that he’s trying to protect.  I think that most correction officers would tell you that the guys running the jails are like the 18-year-old gangbangers.  I don’t think it’s actually fearlessness.  It’s about being a kid who hasn’t lived long enough to know that there’s more to life than being in jail.  

When I met K he was about 23.  His wildest era was a little bit behind him.  The Franklin Avenue Posse was coming up when crack first hit.  So these guys were driving down to Virginia and D.C. and the Carolinas.   Getting the ki’s up here in New York and bringing them down south was extremely profitable.  And of course, back in ’88 and ’89, there were a lot of shootouts.  I’d hear these crazy stories.  There was a place I went to a few times called Empire Roller Rink on Empire Boulevard.  And there was a reggae club nearby called Love People.  You can go back and read the newspapers from those days; there used to be shootouts there all the time.  K told me there were so many murders inside Love People that they started calling it “Dead People.” Going out to a club, even going out roller skating, was basically a life or death proposition.  New York has really calmed down since those days, you know?  People who read the book and meet K nowadays always say he’s such a gentleman, he’s so calm, he’s so businesslike.  That’s probably the aging process too.  He’s mellowed out a lot.   We all have.                                                    


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