Like a lot of people, Don Sikorski had long heard rumors of a "hip-hop squad" within the New York Police Department set up to investigate ties to money laundering, drug trafficking and several violent incidents involving rappers. But it wasn't until the first-time director picked up a camera and began asking rappers about their experiences that he realized there may be more to the story than he thought.
Sikorski's three-years-in-the-making documentary, "Rap Sheet: Hip-Hop and the Cops," features interviews with everyone from Kanye West and Cam'ron to RZA, Fat Joe, Snoop Dogg, Ja Rule, Game, Wyclef, Freeway, Russell Simmons, Suge Knight and Beanie Sigel, some talking for the first time about their experiences with authorities in the shadowy squad.
"About three years ago, there were these rumors going around about some sort of covert unit out of the NYPD, and I had some friends in the hip-hop industry, so I started poking around to see what the story was," said Sikorski, 27, who ended up shooting 300 hours of footage for the project. "Around that time, the FBI raided the offices of Murder Inc. and I started hearing about some other 'hip-hop cops,' which sounded like a good story to me. It had the aura of violence in hip-hop, the laundering of drug money, the NYPD, the FBI and a music that has captured American popular culture."
What Sikorski didn't envision was a project that would take over his life for three years, put him in contact with more than 150 of the most powerful people in hip-hop and result in him being trailed and photographed in the same way his subjects claim they have been. He also didn't expect to get his hands on the fabled 500-page dossier on hip-hop figures that contains home addresses, license plate and Social Security numbers, profiles of the people they associate with and a raft of other highly personal information on many of his subjects, some of which he began to fear was so privileged that it might spark the very kind of violent incidents the squad was set up to investigate.
Though Sikorski was able to get former law enforcement and FBI agents to speak to him, no current law-enforcement agents would go on the record for the film, especially the members of the secretive New York/ New Jersey High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Program, an agency formed in the early 1990s to combat high-end drug trafficking. Sikorski said HIDTA is the lead intelligence-gathering agency in the hip-hop cop program, but a spokesperson for the NYPD said the department had no comment on Sikorski's film or his claims. The NYPD has also previously denied the existence of any special hip-hop task force.
"I actually sent pages of this 500-page book with the HIDTA logo on the top of every page to the NYPD and FBI asking for comment, and every call was denied," Sikorski said. "And I wasn't taking the side of hip-hop or saying this is wrong. I wanted the story from both sides." The story of how Sikorski got the dossier is itself a bit of a mystery. He said that after more than 15 failed Freedom of Information Act requests, one day he got a call out of the blue from someone at the Miami Police Department who asked for his FedEx number. The book showed up a few days later.
In the film, Death Row Records boss Marion "Suge" Knight is heard saying, "I ain't seen the book, I ain't read the book, I ain't heard about the book." That kind of paranoia is warranted, according to Sikorski, who said that when he went to Los Angeles to meet with Knight, he was followed by undercover police cars and spotted someone photographing him from the roof of an adjacent building.
"These guys are watched," Sikorski said. The director added that halfway through the filming of the movie, he suddenly stopped receiving his mail for a month and a half. "And I got a few phone calls here and there saying, 'Don't put this film out.' "
Sikorski ended up spending so much time on the movie that he used the raid of the Murder Inc. offices and the eventual acquittal of Inc. bosses Irv and Chris Lorenzo on money-laundering charges in late 2005 — as well as a recent murder on the set of a Busta Rhymes video — as framing devices for the film (see "Gotti Brothers Found Not Guilty Of Money Laundering" and "Police Want To Question Busta Rhymes About Fatal Shooting At Video Set"). "A lot of these guys were scared to talk to me at first," he said. "But they opened up eventually and it became easier to get their candid thoughts. What I found was that there were people within hip-hop who said they deserve this scrutiny if they're going to be talking about drugs and guns and carrying guns."
The message is brought home by Beanie Sigel, who says, "Anybody in hip-hop that's got a name, got a voice, is a target."
A rough cut of the film, which features performances from Eminem, Fat Joe, Jadakiss and Lloyd Banks, will have its first public screening at the IFC Film Center in New York on April 6.
Check out "Hip-Hop Cops: Is The NYPD At War With Hip-Hop?" for an in-depth look at the NYPD's alleged clampdown on the rap industry.