January 14th, 2009
See a preview of the Romper Room Gang episode.
Most of our “American Gangster” shows haven’t featured hip hop or a lot of music. It’s been hard to clear music for a crime show. With the Romper Room story we were able to mix hip hop, a bank robbery crew and a tragic murder, because we found a story where all these elements intersected. The late Mac Dre never became a national star, but in the Bay Area he is a legendary figure, both for his music and his affiliation with a crew of boyhood friends who robbed scores of Bay Area banks. DJ Vlad, a fixture in hip-hop circles known for his probing videos and the documenting hip-hop happenings, co-produced the Romper Room Gang episode.
“I grew up in the Bay Area. In 2002, a series of good and bad events triggered national exposure to the Bay Area music and lifestyle called ‘Hyphy’. E-40 released the song ‘Tell Me When to Go’. MTV did a special on the Bay called ‘My Block’ and Mac Dre died,” Vlad recently told me. “When I saw my hometown getting all that love, I picked up a camera and started documenting the various players involved in the movement – Mistah Fab, Keak da Sneak and Thizz Nation. This footage eventually turned into the movie ‘Ghostride the Whip’, which was released in July 2007 from Image Entertainment. During this filming, I spent a lot of time with Thizz Nation members J-Diggs and Stretch, and from their interviews the life and death story of Mac Dre was formed.”
“The main focus is on Mac Dre’s crew – The Romper Room Gang. The Romper Room gang had robbed over 50 banks in California. Most of them had gone to jail, and some were still locked up. The main hurdle we faced was getting the Romper Room members to talk about the robberies. Most didn’t want to. In fact, in the middle of our first day of filming they all showed up to the set, stopped the filming, and had a three-hour meeting on whether or not they want to give their story away for free. Eventually, it was agreed that J-Diggs and Coolio da Undadogg would be the spokesmen for the crew and the project continued.”
The Romper Room story — a blend of hip hop, posse affiliation and the Bay Area — is the most youthful “American Gangster” to date.
January 7th, 2009
In our three seasons of “American Gangster,” we’ve done several stories about Chicago’s deeply- ingrained gang culture, but none has an ending as tragic as Willie Lloyd’s, the Vice Lords’ one-time “king of kings”. From the 1960s to the 1990s, Willie was the charismatic and cunning leader of this infamous West Side Chicago gang. The Vice Lord’s propensity for drug dealing, extortion and murder made them feared. Lloyd himself spent time in jail for the 1971 murder of an Iowa policeman. Upon release he became even more powerful and seemed to fear no man, whether rival gang leader or officer of the law.
While doing a stint in jail in the ’90s for gun possession, Willie underwent a transformation and, after his release in 2001, announced his retirement from gang life and became a spokesman for Cease Fire, an anti-gang crusade in Chicago., Bbut his change of heart did not go down well with old friends and foes. In 2003, he was shot multiple times on a Chicago street and ended up. As a result he is paralyzed from the neck down.
C.P. Mortensen, who has produced several of our finest “American Gangster” episodes, recalls the special challenge of putting this show together.
“The biggest difficulty with Willie is that we had complete access to him, but he didn’t have ‘access’ to himself,” says Mortensen. “The spinal injury and the drugs he must take to control his diabetes (and other complications we are not privy to) have made it hard for him to communicate with those around him. After each question I had to wait long periods of time for him to answer. Sometimes he got the answer out. Sometimes he did not. That’s why we did the interview as a “two-shot” including his wife Willa, who served very nearly as an “interpreter” for Willie. Some of the questions provoked Willie to the point where he was able to summon the strength to reply on his own. The answer he gives at the end – his last sound bite in the show – was long in coming and very forceful when it arrived. “Turn away,” he says. “Turn away from the gangs.”
Willie Lloyd’s saga is a tale of Chicago that is both violent and bitter, probably one of the roughest “American Gangster” tales to date.
December 16th, 2008
This is one of the most complex and violent shows in “American Gangster” history. The Shower Posse was born in the rough and ruthless ghettos of Kingston, Jamaica. From the ’70s well into the ’80s they were one of several gangs used by Jamaica’s mainstream political parties as tools for extortion and intimidation.
The Shower Posse expanded into the international smuggling of marijuana, sending shipments of ganga to secret air strips throughout the Florida Keys, but they didn’t become a truly feared force in this country until they became heavily involved in the trafficking of crack cocaine. Using Jamaica as a transportation stop for product moving from South America to the U.S., they then routed it to cities and towns from Miami all the way to Seattle, quickly becoming one of the most feared organizations on the streets.
The name Shower Posse grew out of their reputation for “showering” their opponents with indiscriminant sprays of gunfire from automatic weapons. Vicious shootouts were their specialty. Multiple homicides in Miami, New Jersey and other cities around the U.S. made them more feared than the Bloods and the Crips in many cities. This episode’s producer, Curtis Scoon, says the biggest challenge to putting this show together was the Shower Posse’s enduring reputation in Jamaica and the U.S.
“So violent is the Shower Posse’s history and reputation among the Caribbean immigrant community that even now, more than a decade after their reign in the US, getting people to talk on camera took some serious effort,” Scoon says. “The mere mention of the name still invokes unbelievable fear.”
December 3rd, 2008
Guy Fisher was the first Black man to own Harlem’s Apollo Theater, a proud day in Black history. Except that Fisher brought that historic showcase for Black talent using money generated by sales of thousands of kilos of heroin. Fisher had been the protege of the legendary Nicky Barnes. Later Barnes’ testimony would send Fisher to prison for the rest of his life. Fisher is the third Harlem kingpin to appear on “American Gangster” and he’s just as compelling as Nicky Barnes and Frank Lucas.
The show’s producer Diane Paragas was surprised at the duality of Fisher’s life.
“When we first heard that Florence Fisher, Guy’s sister, agreed to let us tell the official Guy Fisher story, we didn’t really know what to expect,” she said. “All we knew was that he was the protege of Nicky Barnes and that he was the first Black owner of the Apollo. At first
Florence and Guy’s associates who we interviewed did not even want to mention Nicky’s name and had obvious feelings of betrayal and contempt for the man that put their beloved Guy in prison. They spoke easily about Guy’s accomplishments in prison, getting his PHD writing books, teaching classes and his gentlemanly compassionate demeanor. When we interviewed DEA agents and prosecutors, they painted a very different picture of a ruthless ambitious killer, whose charm and intellect allowed him to get rid of the powerful Nicky and take over his empire.
“As a producer, it was hard to tell which of these two sides was the real Guy Fisher. The love that his friends, associates and family feel for him is real, and they speak of him as if he has reached some zen-like status in their eyes. In many ways, I found him to be a more interesting and complicated character than his counterpart Nicky Barnes because he appears to be a thinking man, a gentleman not a thug as one of his friends put it. In the end, when we asked Guy about his feelings about Nicky, he said that he had made peace with it. The tragedy of the Guy Fisher story is that I believe that he really was trying to go legitimate when he purchased the Apollo. I don’t know if he would have achieved it or his gangster life would have and probably should have caught up with him, but I was impressed that he managed to make a second life from behind bars and his life is testimony to the fact that you can still achieve and change after your sins.”
November 19th, 2008
Since we first began working on “American Gangster,” the idea of profiling J. Edgar Hoover has been floating around. Using the levers of official power, Hoover made the Federal Bureau of Investigation his personal gang, particularly in pursuing an agenda of White supremacy that began with his role in the deportation of Marcus Garvey, through his snooping on Dr. King’s sex life and his counter-intelligence campaign against the Black Panthers and numerous Black leaders. What we’ve been able to do with this episode is connect the dots to Hoover’s lengthy career as an enemy of Black advancement to show a pattern of behavior with the U.S. government’s top law enforcement agency as his tool.
Henry Shipper, who’s done many of the hardest hitting “American Gangster” episodes, found it wasn’t as hard to indict Hoover as he expected.
“I was really surprised,” Henry says, “when I asked Nicolas Katzenbach [former U.S. attorney general] what the FBI did right during the Civil Rights Movement, he replied, ‘I would have a hard time saying there was anything they did very right.’ I was so startled; I circled around a few minutes later and asked him again. This time, he gave me a bite that’s in the show: ‘It’s very hard to say anything good about the FBI. I uh, ¬ I don’t think it’s a question of how much good you can say about them. The question is how much bad you can say about them.’”
Henry’s first draft script was 75 pages, and the show could easily have gone two hours. He says, “The nitty-gritty on MLK was unbelievable, including serious plans by FBI to replace King with their own designated leader. They actually settled on a rising young attorney, Sam Pierce, who would later serve in Reagan’s Cabinet.”
Revelations like this are provided throughout the J. Edgar Hoover episode, making this one of the most profound shows we’ve done in three seasons. With “American Gangster,” we always feel like we are providing a shadow history of the United States and the Black community. No one’s shadow loomed larger and more destructive over us in the 20th century than that of the late director of the FBI.
Visit the “American Gangster” main page.
November 13th, 2008
One of the unique qualities of the “American Gangster” series is our ability to look at the history of a big city from several angles and different periods of time. In our three seasons, we’ve done three episodes on Harlem drug kingpins of the ’70s, two on notorious South Central gang bangers, and three on criminal masterminds based out of Chicago.
In our third season we return to the nation’s capitol for a look at Cornell Jones, a figure who pre-dates the man we profiled in season two, Rayful Edmonds. Where Edmonds led a violent gang of enforcers in the late ‘80s, Cornell Jones’s illegal business in the early ’80s specialized in heroin and, most famously, “butt naked,” a mix of marijuana and PCP that literally drove his smokers into intense states of hyper-reality and, even madness. Where Rayful was high profile and showy, Cornell kept a low profile, ruled by charm as well as fear, and maintained strong ties to Washington, D.C. Cornell is the rare “American Gangster” subject who can give a detailed history of his city’s Black community, including a visit to D.C.’s oldest Black church.
Where Rayful was viewed as a threat to Georgetown University’s dynamic basketball program under John Thompson (when he befriended several star players), Jones was a peer of that legendary coach and, in fact, helped protect the team from any taint of scandal. That is why one of Georgetown’s first star players, John Duren, and Thompson himself, willing came on camera to talk about Cornell Jones, the man they knew and respected. Today Jones is still a part of D.C.’s Black community, working hard to rebuild the communities his criminal activities so deeply damaged. At some point, fans of “American Gangster” should watch the Rayful Edmonds and Cornell Jones episodes back to back to get a panoramic view of a drug drenched era in the city of Mayor Marion Barry.
November 7th, 2008
There was a time when Atlantic City was what Miami is today – the spot for sea, sun and fun on America’s East Coast. Along its boardwalk and beaches, families from New York, Philadelphia and throughout the Northeast came to see Sammy Davis, Jr. and the Rat Pack perform, and to crown Miss America. But Atlantic City began to collapse in the ’60s, and all that glamour went away. In a desperate attempt to revive its boardwalk, in the 1980s the state of New Jersey approved casino gambling at the hotels that lined that coast. The effort to revive the hotels was a success, but the gambling and hotel money didn’t trickle down to the city. In fact the multi-million-dollar casinos that dominated the Atlantic City skyline actually destroyed the rest of the city. Visitors didn’t venture out of the hotel “safe zones” and spend money in the rest of the city. Nor did the hotel/casinos generate the number of jobs for residents needed to stem the rest of the city’s decline.
Into this vacuum stepped a short, native son with a big smile and a huge ego. He may have been nicknamed Midget Molley, but this man saw himself as an A.C. version of Harlem’s Nicky Barnes, a drug kingpin. Midget was so caught up in his own “largeness,” he even wore a crown around Atlantic City. His up-and-down career as a creator of a drug empire is the hook for the show, but there is more to Midget’s story.
Midget first came to my attention via MySpace, where he and his reps send info about the work he does today protecting the rights of prisoners within the correctional system. He saw much brutality and injustice when he was incarcerated. Now he works to aid those, like himself, who while serving time are beaten by the authorities. He doesn’t seek sympathy, but fair and honest treatment under the law. You see the arc of Molley’s life is rich and sad, a story that began before his criminal career and continues on well after it. Today, he walks the boardwalk of his hometown, haunted by his past and the history of Atlantic City, seeking a way to find hope and meaning in the present.
October 31st, 2008
Watch this BET.com exclusive.
October 28th, 2008
This season’s second show deals with one of the most feared, and revered, LA gang bangers of all time, Sanyika Shakur, aka Monster Kody. He’s a convicted murderer and noted children’s author, a contradiction that goes to the heart of the man and the story we’ve told. P. Frank Williams, a former LA Times reporter and Source magazine contributor, produced the episode and, crucially, gained the trust of Monster and his family.
“After finding Monster’s relatives and connecting with his set, the 8-Trey Gangsters, I was able to speak with Monster on the phone from jail,” P. Frank recalls.
“He was funny, down to earth and very optimistic. This was a radically different person from the cunning and vicious killer that most people imagined him to be. He connected me with his homies and was very helpful. My biggest goal in producing this piece was to show how Monster’s family situation (abuse and violence at home, lack of a father) affected his mentality and behavior.”
Now that the episode is about to air, P. Franks feels, “an amazing sense of accomplishment about the piece but, unfortunately, a huge sense of despair. Because even as he spoke to youths about avoiding the streets and made a huge transformation from gangster to Black freedom fighter, Monster remains in jail and couldn’t avoid drugs and the lure of kicking it with his gang and staying involved in street life. I remain hopeful that one day soon he will get out and fly right. Only time will tell.”
P. Frank Williams’ next piece for “American Gangster” is on Tupac Shakur’s revolutionary stepfather, Mutulu Shakur, which airs in a few weeks.