The wad of crumpled $20 bills stashed under Ollie North's pillow had Freeway Rick Ross' fingerprints all over it when the CIA got caught slanging rocks in South Central back in the '80s. Grimy, crumpled and smeared with ghetto tears, the deal bought Freeway Rick a very public trial. His drug-trafficking sentence went from life to 20 years after he took the lead prosecutor over his knee in open court and spanked him with his own law book. Although the CIA connection has never been proved, the story surfaces in a biopic about Ross that Nick Cassavetes wrote and will direct. Ross has the new draft of the script in his pocket on this day, which might be why he's laughing.
Ross is on the freeway heading north toward Santa Monica from LAX. He is just back from Philly with the sniffles, and the sparkle in his eye is the maniacal megalomania that drives kings of industry and heads of state. The former undisputed Donald Trump of crack is deceptively understated in a black hoodie, cap and jeans, with the meticulously maintained beard of a Fortune 500 CEO. Back in the day he was annually banking a sum that would equal $3 billion in today's money.
“I got a cold” is his mantra for an evening of opting for elbow bumps in lieu of handshakes at Highways Performance Space in Santa Monica, where the other LAPD (Los Angeles Poverty Department) is putting on State of Incarceration. The nonprofit performance group is made up primarily of homeless people. Their show is a multimedia uprising that includes a life-size prison dorm complete with some real-live former inmates mixed in the cast.
As soon as his feet hit the pavement, Ross is swarmed by fans who want a piece of the underlord's magic. The hood loves Rick like Queens loves Gotti. He's the patron saint of South Central. “How the fuck do these people like me here like this … a fucking guy who sold drugs.”
Ross did the thing the government wouldn't do: He brought real money into South L.A. communities, which put food in the refrigerator and paid the rent. “Transgenerational poverty,” he explains. “No financial infrastructure, and then along comes somebody like me. When you break down on paper, 100 kilos of cocaine turns into, like, $8 million that circulated in our community.”
The socially conscious website he masterminded in a prison cell after reading about Facebook in The Wall Street Journal is getting 3 million hits a month. The Freewayenterprise.com agenda is simple: education, not incarceration. “You can't get rid of the dope dealer and solve the problems. They'll find themselves another dealer. This is not a problem you can incarcerate your way out of.”
Ross is focused on the road ahead. Still, there is a visible scar just under the social skin, which needs some scratching. A part of him is still standing at the podium in the courtroom the day he got a life sentence. “My mom broke down crying. Everybody in the courtroom was hoping that they didn't give me life, except the prosecutor and the DA — they loved it. Right now I'm going to punish him [Assistant U.S. Attorney L.J. O'Neale] with success,” he laughs. “I don't wanna punch him in the face or shoot him, but I know it's going to kill him when I get a Grammy or an Emmy. He can't take it.” Ross laughs again.
“They had never seen anybody think like me. I beat him at his own game. A guy who grew up in South Central, who couldn't read or write, in a courtroom debating the law with a Yale grad … and I showed him in his law books where he was wrong and I was right.”
He laughs till his laughter feeds itself and then laughs some more.
The father of six sons, Ross offers a legal analysis in child-size bites. “If you got a kid and you come in and he spilled the milk on the floor and he had cereal and he poured them out, he knocked the cookie jar over and broke out a window … you know, he just acted a fool that day. You can whup him for all those things, but you can't whup him separately for each. You get one whupping and that's it. He's been punished. You don't whup him in a year and do it again and say, 'I'm whupping you for the milk this time. Last time it was for the cereal.'”
As a schoolkid Ross pursued a tennis scholarship, but the whole thing evaporated when his coach discovered he was illiterate. Later, in college, he started selling cocaine to pay for tennis lessons.
“I never was a drug dealer. I was a businessman who sold drugs. I used to hustle bottles and cans, wash cars and cut yards when I was a kid. I was looking for opportunity. Everybody wants to be a person of means. Nobody wants to be a nobody. Everybody wants to be loved and cared about. That's what I was after all my life.”
Ross is still smiling as he gets in the car with his lawyer, former prosecutor Antonio Moore, Esq. They're heading to the 10 East to meet a guy named Gizmo at the Kress nightclub on Hollywood Boulevard for the Cage vs. Cons party.
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