Saturday, May 26, 2012

Book Review: Seth Ferranti - The Supreme Team: The Birth of Crack and Hip-Hop, Prince's Reign of Terror and The Supreme/50 Cent Beef Exposed


Queens, New York has a storied Hip-Hop history.  It has produced some of the most popular and influential rappers of all time.  It also has another legacy, albeit one much darker.  During the 1980’s, it served as ground zero for New York City’s drug trade.  The Southside was a hotbed of activity, lorded over by a new generation of violent and ambitious hustlers.  The most fearsome and remarkable of this new breed was the fabled Supreme Team.  Headed by the charismatic Kenneth “Supreme” McGriff, the team set up shop in the Baisley Park housing projects, from which they instituted a reign of terror.  Their style and swagger left an impression on a generation of rappers, many of whom would take their crack game gospel worldwide.


Back in 2005, Ethan Browne’s Queens Reigns Supreme: Fat Cat, 50 Cent, and the Rise of the Hip Hop Hustler examined the mythic history of the Queens underworld and its relationship to Hip-Hop.  Though a captivating read, it was clearly done from the perspective of an outsider.  One could tell there was surely much more to the story.  True Crime author Seth Ferranti, whose Street Legends series has covered such drug game luminaries as Frank “Black Ceaser” Matthews and Wayne Perry, takes one particular aspect of that vast tapestry and puts it under a microscope.  The Supreme Team: The Birth of Crack and Hip-Hop, Prince's Reign of Terror and The Supreme/50 Cent Beef Exposed sets its sights squarely on the team, particularly its governing body.   It’s comparatively limited scope gives it considerably more depth than Brown’s effort.

Like Queens Reigns Supreme, The Supreme Team offers a brief pre-history of the Queens underworld as it is known today.  It doesn’t just focus on the usual suspects like Fat Cat and The Seven Crowns gang, but even makes mention of lesser known legends such as “Pops” Freeman.  That attention to detail is the books greatest strength.  It goes deeper than just court records and newspaper articles.  Ferranti crafts a narrative largely from insider testimonials as well as more traditional media sources.  The testimonials aren’t of the rambling variety.  They are mostly relegated to tiny sound bites that directly relate to what is being discussed at the moment.

A good example of Ferranti’s strengths as a writer is the portion of the book that deals with Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson’s ongoing war with Supreme and the Murder Inc. label.  He treads where traditional media outlets dare not go, dealing with rumors regarding Supreme’s alleged involvement in the murder of 50’s mother.  Though he comes up with no definitive answers, Ferranti manages to cover enough ground to give the reader a full picture of the complex relationship between these two men.  The story isn’t that different from the one in Carlito’s Way, with a seasoned hustler harboring resentment towards a promising young upstart.

My only real complaint about Supreme Team is that it gets repetitive at points, making the same observations one too many times.  I suspect this is because Ferranti, being the resourceful and thorough journalist that he is, had so much material to choose from that he wanted to include all of it.  He wanted to leave no stone unturned.  Regardless of that one misgiving, the book delivers exactly what its press materials promise.  It’s strengths significantly outweigh it’s weaknesses.

Too often, true crime novels that focus on the hood read as though they were written by a tourist.  They lack a true insider’s perspective to make the reader feel as though they are in good hands.  The Supreme Team: The Birth of Crack and Hip-Hop, Prince's Reign of Terror and The Supreme/50 Cent Beef Exposed goes above and beyond the call of duty to leave the reader both informed and entertained.  It actually makes a nice companion piece to Queens Reigns Supreme, as it shows a more aggressive and knowledgeable approach to the subject at hand.

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