"Freeway" Rick Ross by Daniel Funaki
Meet “Freeway” Ricky Ross. As the face of the crack epidemic that exploded on LA's streets and decimated America’s inner cities throughout the 80s, his reputation already precedes him. He is a drug dealer's drug dealer. Or at least he was.
If you've heard of this man then you almost certainly know of William Leonard Roberts II, or, as he's known in the entertainment world, Rick Ross. The rotund Miami rapper has courted no end of controversy over the last five years. In 2008, months after the release of his second studio album Trilla, he was outed as a former correctional officer. First, a photo of a fresh-faced Roberts in full correctional officer regalia leaked, only for him to claim that he was framed.
Next, graduation documents from the Florida Department of Corrections training academy with Roberts' social security number turned up. The rapper went quiet on the subject for a year before making an admission on “Valley of Death” from his third album, Deeper Than Rap. And he pressed on to become one of hip-hop's central figures. In any other field of music a short stint as a rookie in the judiciary wouldn't matter. But in a genre in which authenticity counts for everything and labels turn profits off of street credibility, Roberts is as famous for flouting the rulebook as he is for his music.
In spite of an incriminating CV and allegedly taking another man's government name and likeness as his own, Roberts continues to rack up YouTube views, move units and push his MMG record label (which incidentally cribs carmaker Maybach's name and logo) like nothing ever happened.
While some may beg to differ, few would argue that Roberts is talentless. He has a panache for the kind of cocaine decadence and Mafioso chest-beating that can only be make believe. He plays a character, even if he's never out of character, in the ultimate hip-hop spectacle. It's one that listeners keep coming back for. It's unsurprising then that since his release in 2009 Freeway has not only joined the chorus of those out to discredit the rapper, he also took legal action in an attempt to win compensation for plagiarism.
Of course, rappers have been lifting the names of notorious criminals for decades. Curtis Jackson took his handle from Brooklyn stick-up kid 50 Cent, who, at just 5' 2”, terrorised New York's boroughs in the 1980s, robbing drug dealers with a pistol in each hand before his eventual murder.
And there are no prizes for guessing who former Roc-a-Fella recording artist Freeway (who Ricky is cool with) jacked his alias from. Even Nas (Escobar)'s one-time partner AZ was sued right after his debut and most successful album to date, 1995's Doe Or Die. The infamous Sugar Hill, Harlem hustler Azie Faison didn't take kindly to the rapper's single...”Sugar Hill”. The lesson in all of this is that living street legends don't like having their names taken without, at the very least, their say.
“When I was in prison I got letters from guys from Miami who were also in prison, asking me if I was going to be able to stop [Roberts] because they didn't want him using their names in his music and videos and so forth,” says Freeway Ricky Ross. “These guys were like, 'I'm going to court, I'm still fighting my case and he's putting out documentaries saying that I did this and I did that and I never gave him permission'.”
Despite breaking all of the codes, Roberts has his fair share of supporters, even in nefarious circles. By 2010, what in hindsight looks like the prime of his career until now, the MTV mainstay had a hit song with “Blowin Money Fast (BMF)”, in which he flagrantly compared himself to Big Meech and Gangster Disciple capo Larry Hoover.
While Roberts has since been threatened by Hoover's goonies, forcing him to cancel a concert, Meech appreciated the recognition and gave the entertainer his approval. The name “BMF” itself was a nod to the drug trafficking organisation Black Mafia Family that Meech ran until his incarceration in 2005.
“I don't know if Meech talked to him or not, he may have. I could understand that. Meech is making peace with himself and is trying to change his life. He's trying to be a different guy, so maybe [Roberts] reached out to Big Meech and Meech reached back out to him, I'm not sure,” says Freeway. “At the same time, it doesn't change the fact that I know where he come from; I know what his music is doing.”
Freeway believes something unsaid is at work; something far more grave and conspiratorial than taking a name and a rep. He believes that behind the scenes Roberts is payrolled by his former employers for a greater purpose–leading young black men and boys astray in order to enrich others.
“The police union gets a lot of laws passed in this country so they can build up the union. It's a strength in numbers gang. The more people that commit crime, the more police officers they get to hire and the bigger the union gets.” he says. “[Roberts] would be the first one that you start to look at because he was part of the union. This goes to the heights of the music industry.”
Freeway believes the plot runs to the depths of the judicial system, a theory that others are also running with. An anonymous account of a secret meeting that leaked last year caused a stir. In that meeting, allegedly held in 1991, music execs were made privy to a scheme to make rap the biggest music in the country. In doing so young black men would become desensitised to crime, be lured in to the life and on to jail, channeling dollars to the music industry from its early investments in the burgeoning private prison sector.
It's impossible to validate an entirely anonymous tip-off such as this, just as it's impossible to disprove it. Still, people have been joining the dots and tracing cross-shareholdings ever since. Some have noted that BlackRock owns stakes in both Vivendi (the parent of Universal Music Group) and Corrections Corporation of America. That may be true but the $4trillion asset management giant also holds interests in Wal-Mart, Chevron and owns 5% of nearly half of all companies traded on America's various stock exchanges.
“I look at what makes sense,” says Freeway. “If something doesn't make sense to me then I question what’s really going on. When you look at the justice system here in America, is it working? We got 2.2 million people in prison. After you think about it you see that it's absolutely working the way the people who put it in place wanted it to work. They wanted to lock people up. They don't want it where people are not going to jail because then they make less money.”
Prison is big business in the US. America has the highest rate of incarceration in the world, with roughly one in every 107 adults imprisoned. The nation accounts for 5% of the world’s population, and yet 25% of its prisoners.
Astoundingly, this recent phenomenon emerged as crime rates were falling. In the mid-1980s Congress and state legislatures began quietly updating the law, creating a gaping disparity between the punishments for possessing or distributing cocaine in its rock and powder forms.
At the heart of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act was the 100:1 ratio, meaning that 1g of crack was the equivalent to more than 3oz of coke in Uncle Sam's eyes. Even today, the ratio has only been relaxed to a crudely disproportionate 18:1. This has penalised the poorest the hardest. All the while America's private prisons have been filling, shareholders watching their stock rise.
This overpopulation is the direct result of the crack epidemic that Freeway supplied. During his seven years in business up until 1989, he grew an empire that spread across the country from LA, down to Texas, through the Mid-West and stretching as far as New York.
Federal prosecutors estimated that over this time he purchased and sold on tons of cocaine. Literally. Adjusted for inflation, he is believed to have turned over as much as $2.5bn and pocketed some $850m in profit in the process. Eager to hide these vast illicit gains, he earned his nickname for laundering money and buying real estate up and down Los Angeles' Harbour Freeway.
Little did he know at the time he was a small piece in a big game. Freeway's connect, Danilo Blandón, imported cocaine with impunity and sent the proceeds back to his native Nicaragua where a proxy war was being fought. On one side, the Russia-backed Sandinista revolutionists, and on the other the Contras.
The White House did not want communism on its back door at any cost and so the CIA covertly armed the Contras, violating the Boland Amendment. At the same time the US government turned a blind eye to Blandón, effectively sanctioning his imports to support the cause in Nicaragua. The whole messy business eventually came to a head when the FBI arrested Blandón, who Freeway accuses for his own eventual capture.
The facts of the CIA's involvement with Blandón specifically, and role in the cocaine trade more generally, are fuzzy. But following an internal investigation, the agency's one-time Inspector General Frederick Hitz testified before a House congressional committee that:
“There are instances where CIA did not, in an expeditious or consistent fashion, cut off relationships with individuals supporting the Contra program who were alleged to have engaged in drug trafficking activity or take action to resolve the allegations.”
More incriminating still, Ronald Regan was forced to broadcast a message to the nation, assuming responsibility for his administration's involvement in what came to be known as the Iran-Contra affair. By the government's own admission, it had engaged in arms-for-hostages trading with Iran and aided guerilla militants in Nicaragua for its own ends.
Freeway's story is as unbelievable as that alleged music industry meeting back in 1991. And yet an overwhelming cache of evidence says it's true.
A free man, the reformed drug trafficker now lives in a topsy-turvy world. For him it's a place where fraudsters are paid to rap mobster tales to grease the wheels of a capitalist prison machine. And where there is no place for rehabilitated men with guidance to offer.
“There is nobody alive right now in America, for sure, who has more experience in selling drugs than I do,” says Freeway, without a hint of pride. “Who better than myself to tell the kids that selling drugs is not beneficial?”
As for the Rick Ross deception, and as it is for debunking any conspiracy, it's impossible to prove a negative. Does the music industry have a financial interest in the US penitentiary system or not? It almost doesn't matter. Either way, corporate America continues to profiteer from selling profoundly negative stereotypes. But in William Leonard Roberts II, Freeway Ricky Ross sees more than just a stereotype. He sees himself.