As Notorious B.I.G. so adroitly noted, the rap game is a lot like the crack game. Ethan Brown's compulsively readable new page-turner Queens Reigns Supreme explores the ways in which the dope game and the rap game have inspired each other in Queens, documenting how the crack kingpins of the '80s gave way to the rap superstars and moguls of the '90s and today. In Brown's telling, rappers looked up to (and often borrowed liberally from) the flashy personas of legendary crime bosses, who in turn envied and emulated rap's mainstream success, legal riches, and legitimacy.
The plucky street entrepreneurs of Brown's book are forced to deal with the kind of tricky variables they don't cover at Yale Business School, like the corrosive impact that widespread crack addiction can have on a business. Many of the kingpins Brown documents embody a compelling, ultimately fatal combination of street savvy and stupidity, like the crime boss who was smart enough to launder his drug money through seemingly legitimate businesses, but shortsighted enough to name those fronts, and himself, after Al Pacino's iconic Scarface gangster. Queens Reigns Supreme is full of juicy anecdotes, telling details, and larger-than-life characters, like the boss who had his car custom-made to dispense oil slicks and clouds of smoke, having seemingly gleaned the idea from a few too many lazy afternoons at the arcade playing Spy Hunter.
Brown smartly juggles a huge, sprawling cast of hoods, rappers, and hoods-turned-rappers, focusing on the friendship of legendary hustler Kenneth "Supreme" McGriff and Murder Inc. head honcho Irv "Gotti" Lorenzo, and the beef between Gotti protégé Ja Rule and 50 Cent. Gotti and Supreme founded their relationship on mutual exploitation and self-delusion: Gotti thought his ties to Supreme gave him the street cred he so desperately sought, while Supreme saw Gotti as his ticket to show-business success. In the end, Gotti embodied a blend of smarts and stupidity not terribly dissimilar from that of the self-defeating Scarface fan. His strong commercial instincts helped save Def Jam, through smart signings like Rule and DMX, but his need to dabble in the underworld had disastrous consequences. Unlike a lot of reporters who write about the intersection between crime and rap, Brown boasts a solid grasp on hip-hop that serves him well, as the action moves from crack empires to recording dynasties. The only real problem with Brown's enjoyably hard-boiled tome is that it's too short. But with Gotti's recent acquittal on money-laundering charges, maybe it isn't too early to start pining for a sequel.