Distinguished historian David Farber recently scribbled a scholarly, yet highly entertaining codex showing the solid economic stability reaped by crack dealers.
In Farber’s latest opus, Crack: Rock, Cocaine, Street Capitalism and the Decade of Greed, the Kansas University history professor writes against the backdrop of Ronald Reagan’s Reaganomics, a tax cut that enabled the rich to spend and invest more. While Reagan’s trickle down effect theory locked desperate Black and Latino men out of jobs, many young men created corporate-like drug businesses at the expense of their death-defying neighbors who became addicted to the crack they sold.
Despite Reagan cutting funds from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission—an organization designed to keep a sharp eye out for discriminatory practices— many determined men amassed enough money from their drug empires to create legal businesses, establishing a space at tables that originally shut them out.
Using interviews from men and women who fell into the snares of addiction—to both crack and money—and historical accounts, Crack reads like an absorbing straight-to-video narrative and a hollywood-esque television special with a slight academic voice.
During the late 1980s, then-aspiring rapper Shawn Corey Carter dropped out of high school to become a full time drug dealer. Carter, popularly known as Jay-Z, allegedly moved a kilo a week before breaking into the rap game. As Farber outlines in Crack, Jay-Z never took his eye off the music business. He saved more money than he spent. Farber writes that while many drug dealers were driving extravagantly expensive cars, Jay-Z got by with a Lexus. Not too outlandish, but fly enough to show that he was getting money. By the time Jay-Z hit big with singles “Dead Presidents,” and “Ain’t No Ni**a,” he’d amassed more than $900,000 in drug money, writes Farber.
At 50 years old, Jay-Z has been steadfast about encouraging aspiring rap artists to build their own record labels, as opposed to looking for a deal. This can be heard in songs like “Moonlight” and Meek Mill’s “What’s Free?” This way of thinking speaks to Jay’s self-sufficient lifestyle as a former drug dealer, and now as owner of music streaming service, Tidal.
Everyone in the drug game didn’t fare as well as Jay-Z. Queens-raised hustler, Kenneth “Supreme” McGriff is just one of those people. His Supreme Team was one of the largest and most notorious drug crews in New York City, based in Baisley Park Housing Projects.
Former Supreme Team employee Corey Pegues said: “Working with the Supreme Team was like working for a Fortune 500 company. There was a hierarchy and strict channels of communication,” You’d get your package, work your package, turn in your money, and get paid once a week, on Friday.”
Like any legitimate corporation, the Supreme Team ran three shifts—morning, afternoon and night shifts. At its height, the Queens crew pulled in $200,000 a day. The shrewd Supreme even divulged a security system, and coded language to help his business thrive.
Located on rooftops, Supreme Team’s lookout boys, equipped with walkie-talkies, watched the traffic down below, and would alert dealers when police entered the projects.
The Supreme Team were also members of the 5-Percent Nation, who believe the Black man is god personified, and that each black man could cultivate and realize his godliness through meditation, study, physical and spiritual fitness. The 5-Percent Nation also use numerical system to understand the world. With hopes of throwing off police, McGriff’s Supreme Team used 5-Percent numerological language when discussing business.
McGriff sponsored basketball teams, opened a barbershop, and made connections in the music and film industry with hopes of establishing legitimate income. McGriff even purchased the rights to Donald Goines’ novel Crime Partners, and filmed the self-titled movie which included appearances from Ice T, Snoop Dogg and Ja Rule.
In 1976, brothers Bill Joe and Larry Chambers left Lee County, Arizona for Detroit, where the brothers hoped to escape poverty. A few years later, the Chambers Brothers, in their early twenties, returned to Lee County as self-made multi-millionaires. Upon Billy Joe’s return, he “stacked enough money from his drug business to rank as one of the wealthiest men in the entire state of Arkansas,” Farber writes.
The Chambers Brothers used capitalist models like advertising “buy one, get one free.” They also rewarded loyal customers with free drugs if they introduced new customers. The Chambers were big on treating their customers with respect.
“When a crackhead comes to you and his woman is on his back, he hasn’t eaten in two days, and he’s about to spend his last five dollars on crack, you have to make him feel good about spending his money,” Larry Chambers said.
The Chamber Brothers, Supreme Team, and Jay-Z, among others are just a few examples of underworld heros, whom British Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawn calls “Social Bandits.” These men’s stories are captivating among the poor because they rose from the mud to become millionaires, yet they remain close to their environments.
Not only are social bandits popular among the hip-hop community, but these stories are plastered throughout spaces in hollywood: American Gangster, Hoodlum, Godfather of Harlem, Paid in Full, New Jack City, among others.
Farber also offers valid critique of Reagan and George H.W. Bush’s “War on Drugs,” which jailed a large number of black people for small amounts of crack. In Oct. 1989, Chicago’s Cook County created five nighttime non-violent drug courts with their own judges, public defenders and assistant district attorneys. This drug court encouraged Chicago police to arrest more small time drug dealers, enabling the city to prosecute a larger number of minorities for minor drug charges.
Farber begins Crack by explaining the history of cocaine, originally known as coca alkaloid. For centuries, Native Americans chewed coca leaves for energy. In 1860, a German chemist isolated the alkaloid, the ingredient that gives coco its spunk, and named it cocaine. Shortly after, cocaine was monetized and used in wine, and tooth medicine. In 1885, when alcohol was banned, Atlanta pharmacist John Peberton removed the alcoholic beverage, added sugar, caffeine from Cola Nut, and a bit of cocaine to birth Coca-Cola, writes Farber.
Pharmaceutical companies used coca in cough medicine and toothache drops, which were accompanied by appealing advertisements. But by 1922, cocaine became regulated as an illegal substance.
By the late 1970s, cocaine dealers figured out how to cook crack, much cheaper than cocaine, and market it those who were desperate to escape. Magazines also cashed in on the then-new crack. Farber writes: High Times advertised freebase kits that provided a user with all the information and tools he or she needed to make and smoke [crack].” Farber’s narrative explores successful drug crews and shows how they became heroes in their respective communities.
Farber does what he sets out to do with Crack, and that’s to show how poor men and women created multi-million dollar avenues of revenue within a larger consumer market.