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Music Executives' Thug Image May Play a Part at Their Trial

Opening arguments are set for Tuesday in the case of Murder Inc.'s head and his brother, who are accused of laundering cash.

November 14, 2005|Charles Duhigg | Times Staff Writer

Last January, representatives from five law enforcement agencies gathered to triumphantly announce indictments against some of rap music's highest-profile executives.

Authorities claimed they had evidence that the president and vice president of "gangster rap" label Murder Inc., Irving "Gotti" Lorenzo and his younger brother Christopher Lorenzo, had laundered $1 million in illegal profit from a narcotics empire overseen by convicted drug dealer Kenneth "Supreme" McGriff.

Investigators called the indictments of the Lorenzo brothers -- as well as those of seven other people including McGriff -- a major victory in the battle against corruption in the music world.

"They don't call it gangster rap for nothing," FBI Special Agent Fred Snellings said at the time. "It's pretty clear that the image isn't accidental."

But as the Lorenzos' money laundering trial begins this week in a federal courtroom in New York, their lawyers say the government has confused image with reality.

"The prosecutors have been taken in by the same gangster images Murder Inc. used to sell records to 13-year-old kids," said Gerald Lefcourt, who represents Irving Lorenzo. "Murder Inc. did nothing wrong."

Representatives of the U.S. attorney's office refused to discuss the case, except to say that they expect to prevail in court. Both Lorenzos also declined to comment.

The case against the Lorenzos has suffered numerous setbacks in the last six months. Two key prosecution witnesses have decided not to cooperate with the government and most likely will not testify, according to defense lawyers. And a federal judge has ruled that certain evidence about the Lorenzos' involvement with alleged drug deals and assassinations will not be admissible.

"The government desperately wanted to tell jurors about drug offenses and murders," said Gerald Shargel, Christopher Lorenzo's attorney. "Now they won't have that chance."

Irv Lorenzo, 35, began his rise in the music industry in the mid-1990s, when he helped discover rap superstars Jay Z and DMX for Def Jam Records, a division of Universal Music Group.

In 1999, the music giant rewarded him with $3 million to start his own label, Murder Inc., which he billed as "the world's most dangerous record company." He began using the last name "Gotti," after the infamous Gambino mafia family, and cultivated a gangster image by donning ivory suits and fedoras.

All along, the elder Lorenzo claimed that his artists' album covers, which often pictured gun-toting rappers, were merely window-dressing designed to sell "thug love" music that lionized drug dealers, hookers and hoods.

The name Murder Inc., also used by Jewish gangsters in the 1930s, was just "a metaphor, man," Irv Lorenzo told The Times in 2003. He said he chose it while watching the Arts and Entertainment cable TV channel.

"A&E is running this thing called Gangster Week and they do this special on Murder Incorporated.... I thought, 'I'm going to call my artists murderers, because they put out hits,' " he told The Times.

The label scored quick successes with artists Ja Rule and Ashanti.

For his part, McGriff had become famous during the 1980s as the leader of the Supreme Team street gang, which is said to have run the crack cocaine trade in a housing project in New York's Queens.

In 1989, McGriff and many of the gang's leaders were jailed for drug offenses. Upon his release six years later, McGriff asked the Lorenzos, who had grown up in the same Brooklyn neighborhood as he did, to help finance a movie based on the ghetto noir fiction of Donald Goines. "Crime Partners 2000" was released on video in 2001 and featured such rap superstars as Snoop Dogg, Ice T and Ja Rule.

Authorities contend that McGriff and associates also laundered about $1 million in drug money through Murder Inc. by delivering cash to the Lorenzos in duffel bags, gym satchels and plastic sacks.

In return, according to the January indictment, Lorenzo issued McGriff checks totaling about $281,000 and persuaded Def Jam to reimburse him for tens of thousands of dollars in travel and hotel expenses.

Def Jam has not been accused of any wrongdoing. Early this year, Universal Music severed its relationship with Murder Inc., which in 2004 changed its name to The Inc.

In court filings, federal prosecutors have indicated they might offer evidence of other instances of money laundering not previously disclosed.

But a 2003 investigation by auditors retained by Murder Inc.'s law firm, Kaye Scholer, painted a less sinister portrait, according to several people who have read it. The law firm refused to discuss the audit or to reveal which company conducted it, but sources familiar with the document said it found that Murder Inc. was solely funded by Def Jam, and not by money from McGriff, as government indictments allege.

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