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Rap Label Offices Raided in Probe

January 04, 2003|Chuck Philips | Times Staff Writer

Federal authorities Friday raided the Manhattan offices of record label Murder Inc. -- home to such pop stars as Ashanti and Ja Rule -- as part of an investigation into the expanding empire of music mogul Irv Gotti.

The early-morning action was undertaken by a federal task force that for the last year has been investigating whether Gotti, whose real name is Irving Lorenzo, has financial ties to Kenneth McGriff, the convicted head of a notorious Queens, N.Y., drug gang called the Supreme Team.

Sources said the government was examining whether the seed money that Gotti used to launch his music-industry career came from drug trafficking. Officials also are probing allegations of money laundering and gang ties and a recent series of violent attacks in the rap music world, sources said.

Murder Inc. is in partnership with Def Jam, a New York arm of Vivendi Universal, the world's largest music corporation.

Gotti, whose street moniker is a reference to the late Gambino crime-family boss John Gotti, could not be reached for comment. But sources close to Gotti say he has reaped no financial benefit from his relationship with McGriff. Over the last three years, Gotti has earned millions legally by running Murder Inc. and producing hit records for such pop stars as Jennifer Lopez and Mariah Carey, his associates say.

McGriff, who was taken into custody last week on a parole violation, was unavailable for comment. Executives at Def Jam and Vivendi Universal declined to comment.

Federal authorities also would not discuss the raid or confirm the investigation. The probe was launched by the U.S. attorney's office in Brooklyn and is being handled by prosecutors Tracy Dayton, Carolyn Pokorny and Richard Weber.

Law enforcement sources said about a dozen FBI agents and New York Police Department officers confiscated computers and documents during the raid early Friday.

McGriff, 42, and Gotti, 31, grew up in the same Brooklyn neighborhood -- the former as a developing drug kingpin, the latter as an aspiring gangsta rap entrepreneur.

During the 1980s, McGriff became famous in crime circles for organizing the Supreme Team street gang, which ran the crack cocaine trade in Jamaica, Queens. The gang, which had more than 100 members, made more than $200,000 a day selling crack and terrorized the neighborhood in armor-plated vehicles, court records show.

Under McGriff's rule, the Supreme Team allegedly committed murder, torture and other acts of violence to maintain its stronghold on the area's lucrative drug business, according to documents filed by the government in connection with an appeal by McGriff and others. McGriff and other gang leaders were admired by many youngsters in the crime-ridden neighborhood who went on to attain success in the rap music industry.

In 1988, the government arrested most of the gang's leaders, including McGriff, on various charges. McGriff was convicted on federal narcotics conspiracy charges and served 10 years in prison. According to court records, a McGriff relative continued to run the Supreme Team.

In July 2001, then out of prison, McGriff was arrested when police recovered two loaded weapons and more than $10,000 in cash from his vehicle just months before Justice Department officials launched their investigation of Gotti.

McGriff pleaded guilty to gun possession in September and was expected to be sentenced soon.

Before his parole violation arrest last week, McGriff often was seen with Gotti inside and outside Murder Inc.'s Manhattan offices, sources said. Murder Inc.'s first film, "Crime Partners 2000," was produced and co-written by McGriff.

The movie, which stars Murder Inc. acts Ja Rule and Charli Baltimore, was not released to theaters but is expected to arrive in stores on DVD as part of a Vivendi Universal distribution deal arranged by Gotti, sources said.

Gotti has come far since starting out as DJ Irv, a teen making mix tapes and selling them on New York streets. In 1995, he began producing records and took a job as a talent scout for Blunt/TVT.

That same year, Gotti joined Def Jam's artist and repertoire division, earning about $30,000 annually. He soon discovered DMX and brought Jay-Z to Def Jam. The two rap acts have sold millions of CDs for the label.

In 1999, Def Jam gave Gotti more than $3 million to launch Murder Inc. One of the label's earliest releases was "Irv Gotti Presents the Murderers."

In October, after Gotti produced a string of multimillion-selling CDs by Ja Rule and Ashanti for Murder Inc., Def Jam renegotiated his deal and advanced him about $5 million more, sources say.

In recent months, Gotti has been seen in Los Angeles with Marion "Suge" Knight, the controversial co-founder of Death Row Records. Knight, recently jailed on a parole violation, was the target of a six-year federal racketeering probe in which the government investigated his alleged ties to street gangs, drug running, money laundering and violent acts.

That investigation resulted in a misdemeanor tax charge against his company, which pleaded guilty to failing to file a tax return.

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