Cash from Baltimore's drug trade helped bankroll a rising New York record label that is now at the center of a federal money-laundering investigation and a heated war of words between some of rap's biggest stars, newly filed court records allege.
The probe by authorities in New York casts the well-worn drug path to Baltimore as a trade route that provided start-up funds for music company Murder Inc. and portrays the label behind the careers of performers Ashanti and Ja Rule as secretly run by a convicted drug lord currently jailed in Maryland on a federal gun crime.
That man, Kenneth "Supreme" McGriff, is linked in court records filed by federal prosecutors in Brooklyn to violent incidents ranging from the well-publicized shooting of rap star 50 Cent to the unsolved double slaying of two men outside a Baltimore County apartment in 2001.
No charges have been brought in the broad money-laundering investigation, and officials with Murder Inc., the rap label overseen by Universal's Island Def Jam division, have denied any wrongdoing. In the June issue of the hip-hop magazine XXL, Murder Inc. founder and chief executive Irving Lorenzo, known by the nickname Irv Gotti, dismisses the suggestion that his long-standing friendship with McGriff meant his business was illegitimate.
"Seed money? Def Jam gave me seed money. I [expletive] helped them make $250 million," Gotti told the magazine. "I make hit records. I make a lot of [expletive] money. [Federal authorities] don't understand that, yeah, 'Preme is my man, and he is just that: my man."
The only pending criminal charges against McGriff, meanwhile, are a pair of handgun violations - one a state charge in New York, where officers stopped McGriff driving a BMW in Harlem and found him carrying a .40-caliber pistol in his waistband, along with about $10,000 in cash; the other the federal charge in Maryland, where he was accused of possessing a gun as a convicted felon after taking target practice at a Glen Burnie firing range.
McGriff wasn't carrying a weapon - court records indicate he wasn't wearing anything at all - when federal agents caught up with him and a female companion in a Miami Beach hotel room last November to serve the arrest warrant on the gun charge from U.S. District Court in Baltimore. His hotel bill hinted at a relationship that federal authorities would plumb deeper:
According to a forfeiture action filed this week in Brooklyn, records at the Loews Hotel in South Beach show that McGriff paid $1,000 in cash at the start of his stay and informed the desk clerks that he expected the money to be returned when he checked out - the room would be paid for by then, he said, by an entity called Murder Inc.
Irv Gotti - the nickname is a nod to the notorious Mafia boss, John Gotti - founded the Murder Inc. record label in 1997 and quickly signed stars such as rappers Ja Rule and Jay-Z and rhythm-and-blues singer Ashanti, who made big names for themselves and for Gotti's business. By 1999, federal prosecutors alleged in last week's civil complaint, Gotti also had been joined by childhood friend McGriff, who over the next three years funneled large amounts of drug cash through the Manhattan offices of Murder Inc.
The record label, in turn, paid for McGriff's air travel and hotel stays across the country and provided him with a two-way, text-messaging pager, something federal investigators monitored as part of their investigation, according to the complaint and a sworn affidavit by a criminal investigator with the Internal Revenue Service that was unsealed earlier this month.
The affidavit quotes an informant as saying that while Gotti is the "public face of Murder Inc., McGriff is the true owner." According to the document, McGriff was regularly inside Gotti's offices and knew where to find the chief executive's hidden keys. On the Murder Inc.-produced CD Irv Gotti Presents the Murderers, the name "Supreme" is listed on the album credits under the title "Murda Management," investigators noted.
Federal authorities also say McGriff secretly controlled a string of bank accounts created to launder profits from drug trafficking and an extensive credit card fraud scheme, accounts that appeared to be connected to a low-budget gangster drama called Crime Partners. The government is seeking forfeiture of those accounts.
The line between creative expression and real-life violence, illegal drug sales and thuggish machismo long ago blurred in rap music, where rhymes frequently refer to weaponry by style number and drug dealers by first name. Street credibility is no small factor in CD sales, and if nothing else, Irv Gotti gained that in his acknowledged friendship with Kenneth McGriff.
McGriff, 42, is credited by federal authorities as the founder of the "Supreme Team," a tightly run drug gang that operated from the brick high-rises of the Baisley Park housing project in Queens and controlled the burgeoning crack cocaine trade there during the 1980s.