At 6 a.m., the midtown Manhattan offices of the Universal Music Group are usually quiet; the music industry has never been known for its early risers. But on January 3, hours before some of music's most powerful executives clocked in for work, a team of FBI agents, NYPD investigators and drug-sniffing dogs arrived at the Universal building with a warrant to search the offices of Murder Inc.
While the label's employees were turned away, investigators worked well into the evening, coming and going in waves. They rifled through desks, ripped out computer hard drives and drilled open company safes, keeping track along the way by marking each office with a lettered tag (see "Murder Inc. Offices Raided By Feds").
Though officials confiscated documents and laptops during the search, they didn't arrest any Murder Inc. employees or charge anyone with wrongdoing. What they were looking for, somewhere amidst the Ashanti marketing plans and Ja Rule posters, was a link between the self-proclaimed "Most Dangerous Record Label" and a 42-year-old man named Kenneth McGriff. So who is he?
On the surface, the answer to that question seems pretty unremarkable. Armed with more creative ambition than professional experience, McGriff, better known as Supreme, spent the past few years making a name for himself in the hip-hop business, building up his business contacts, creating an independent production company and calling in favors — just like so many self-starting hip-hop entrepreneurs before him.
But McGriff's hip-hop dealings aren't what are making him and those associated with him the focus of a joint NYPD and FBI probe; it's his previous line of work that put him on their radar.
According to court documents, McGriff was once the leader of the Supreme Team, a gang that controlled crack cocaine distribution during the late 1980s in the Baisley Park housing projects of South Jamaica, Queens. The Supreme Team was responsible for more than $200,000 in drug transactions a day.
According to a former law enforcement official who investigated the narcotics trade in Queens during that time, "The Supreme Team had really perfected the street distribution system. They had the people out there selling. They had the people preparing the drugs. And they had a seven-by-24 operation, which means seven days a week, 24 hours a day.
"They were certainly, if not the top, one of the top groups throughout the city, not just in Queens," he added. "And I think they had the arrests and the body count that would indicate that."
McGriff's street activity landed him in jail in 1987 after he was arrested on federal narcotics conspiracy charges. It also immortalized him in the eyes of Queens' urban youth. Hip-hop artists have often made mythological ghetto heroes out of crime figures, rhyming about Harlem drug lords Alpo and Rich Porter, Chicago gang leader Larry Hoover, Latin American cartel head Pablo Escobar, and even fictionalized characters like Nino Brown ("New Jack City") and Tony Montana ("Scarface").
Supreme was no different. In Nas' "Memory Lane," on 1994's Illmatic, he rhymes, "Some fiends scream about Supreme Team, a Jamaica, Queens, thing." 50 Cent's "Ghetto Quaran," from last year's Guess Who's Back, details many of Queens' notorious criminals, including a line about McGriff and his Supreme Team associates: "When you hear talk of the South Side, you hear talk of the Team/ See n---as feared Prince and they respected 'Preme/ For all you slow muthaf---ers, I'm'a break it down iller/ See, 'Preme was the businessman and Prince was the killer."
While many of the infamous figures heralded in hip-hop lyrics are either dead or in prison, Supreme served his 10-year sentence and was released in 1997. His re-entry into society was accompanied by a re-entry into rap's lyrical lore. Supreme is name-checked in Ja Rule's freestyle intro on a Survival of the Illest bonus CD: "Funds unlimited/ Backed by my 'Preme team crime representatives."
McGriff gets a different type of shout-out from rap's newest star, 50 Cent, on the mixtape track "Order of Protection." The controversial lyricist, who has beefed publicly with Murder Inc. for years, suggests McGriff is more like a bully than a brother to the CEO. In a verse directed toward Gotti, 50 raps, "Don't nobody respect you, n---a/ You 'Preme's son, n---a/ Muthaf---er's been getting extorted since day one."
Though perhaps only Gotti and McGriff know the true nature of their relationship, sources say Supreme was a frequent visitor to the label's offices and a member of the Murder Inc. CEO's wedding party.
Aside from having his name thrown around, McGriff has made legitimate strides in the rap industry. After his release from prison, Supreme optioned one of his favorite books, "Crime Partners" — a gritty urban novel by well-known '70s author Donald Goines — and set out to turn it into an independent film via his Picture Perfect Films production company. Not surprisingly, Supreme looked to Irv Gotti for a helping hand.
The popular and powerful Gotti, who is credited with the success of both Ja Rule and Ashanti, not only found a resourceful director for the low-budget film in J. Jesses Smith, but he even lent McGriff some of his label's talent, including Ja Rule, Charli Baltimore and Cadillac Tah, for small roles.
According to the director, McGriff's first film was a labor of love and little else. "'Preme made this movie by stretching out every single dollar he had," said Smith. "But he believed in this project, and so did I. 'Preme was on set every day. He was very hands-on."
While it's taken two years for the film, which also stars Snoop Dogg, Ice-T and actor Tyrin Turner, to reach its current straight-to-DVD release date of March 15, McGriff already had plans for future film projects. Picture Perfect Films bought the rights to four more Goines titles ("Black Girl Lost," "Death List," "Kenyatta's Revenge" and "Kenyatta's Last Hit").
If the FBI and the NYPD think Supreme is making real-life crime partners out of his hip-hop friends, they aren't telling. All they'll say is that Murder Inc. and Supreme are the subject of an ongoing criminal investigation. New York newspapers, though, have reported that allegations of money laundering and drug trafficking prompted the recent raid.
Recently, authorities froze the bank accounts of Picture Perfect Films and arrested McGriff's film production partner Jon Ragin on charges of credit card fraud. Those bank accounts reportedly included a $500,000 payment from Murder Inc. parent label Def Jam. Smith insists those funds reflect a deal between Def Jam and McGriff to produce a soundtrack for the "Crime Partners" movie.
While Supreme sits in police custody, awaiting hearings on two unrelated gun possession charges, his lawyer, Robert Simels, claims the government is unfairly targeting his client. "Despite his past notoriety," Simels said, "Kenny McGriff is a man who is now trying to make an honest living."
So is this the case of one man, Irv Gotti, helping a friend, Kenneth McGriff, fly straight, or has the Murder Inc. mogul compromised his career by letting a convicted felon into his inner circle?
A police expert warned that, "If you know somebody that's in a pattern of criminal behavior and you're with them all the time, you can very easily get caught up in that." Others say the Murder Inc. raid is another case of guilt by association prompting police to target hip-hop.
Smith, who's worked with both McGriff and Gotti, said, "I heard Irv say, 'I always believe in helping the men around me. I can't be the only guy with all the money. I gotta help make millionaires.' That's not a crime. That's just somebody trying to build a unity."
Neither Gotti nor Def Jam would comment on the case.