An interview with former drug boss "Freeway" Ricky Ross
Former cocaine trafficker and C.I.A./Contra/crack-conspiracy fall guy Rick Ross only refers to the rapper "Rick Ross" by his real name, William Roberts. You can understand why. It must be pretty strange to be sitting in a jail cell back in 2006, and hear of a new rapper out there with your name, claiming to know all about the cocaine connections that got you sent to jail for a very long time. It must be even stranger to find that rapper and his record label claim that their artist has never heard of you in a court of law, or to read a recent Rolling Stone cover story on Ross, which simply avoided the issue of how William Roberts became "Rick Ross" altogether.
And so, "the real Rick Ross" has taken to the Internet, penning a response to the Rolling Stone article (read it at AllHipHop) and preparing yet another lawsuit against the rapper and his record label. Whether the lawsuit goes to court or not, it's undeniable that the rapper's lavishly appointed Scarface-on-steroids version of the life that "Freeway" Ricky Ross actually lived perpetuates myths about the drug trade, and threatens to dismantle the real Ross' lived-in critiques of the drug war and the prison industrial complex.
Rick Ross (@FreewayRicky) is currently at work on a documentary called A Crack in the System about his life and how it intertwines with the so-called War on Drugs, and he runs the Freeway Literacy Foundation, which helps young people get the education that he never received. We spoke last week over the phone about how he went from a tennis-playing teen to a dealer bringing in hundreds of thousands of dollars a day, plus his involvement in exposing the C.I.A.'s alleged connections to the cocaine and crack that was flooding into the country, and what it's like to go up against a music-industry behemoth.
You were pursuing a tennis career as a kid. How did you end up as a cocaine dealer?
When I was growing up in Los Angeles around 1978, I had been playing tennis, but it was discovered that I couldn't read or write. My dream was to become a professional tennis player and to do that, I needed to go to college. If you weren't rich, you needed college to help you out. So, I found myself out of that career because I couldn't read or write, so I couldn't get to a college. I found myself back in the neighborhood where I grew up, with friends I hadn't associated with a whole lot because I was playing tennis.
Your situation made you ripe for getting involved.
It put me right in the sights of the drug game. I'm back in that neighborhood and exposed to all the things they were doing. All my friends were smoking weed and gang banging, and so forth. I saw a system that was oppressing me and my friends. Not giving us opportunity. I thought that cocaine was just another one of those things that whites didn't want us to have, as blacks. Just like they didn't want us to live in Beverly Hills and have a tennis court in our backyard. I thought that it was the same thing with cocaine.
When did your attitude towards drugs start to change?
When I started making just tons and tons of money. I started seeing more money than I thought that I would ever see in my life. When I first started selling drugs, my goal was to make five hundred dollars. And then I started to make hundreds of thousands of dollars a day. It started to become about the money and the power, rather than rebellion. Then, it started to become about how many people I could help.
At the same time that you were dealing, you were putting significant amounts of your money back into the community. Where did that impulse to help, even as you hurt, come from?
I come from a big family and I saw my uncles working together, you know? I also used to study the Bloods and Crips. How they all bonded for a cause, right or wrong. I really admired that type of bond. So, when I started with my guys — they were called "the Freeway Boys" — I wanted us to be tight like that. There were guys who didn't have the $300 they needed to start in the drug business. I was willing to give those guys that money. What would happen is those guys would be really loyal to me.
You began to realize that not only was cocaine not very glamorous, but it was scourge to the community. When did that happen?
I just started seeing the people I was hurting. I started to see people becoming addicts. People going to prison. And then I started to rethink the whole way I thought about the drug business. Maybe it's not what I thought it was. Maybe it's not this glamorous Hollywood thing.
Part of that realization came through your indirect involvement in revealing the C.I.A.'s alleged involvement in the drug trade, detailed in journalist Gary Webb's series of articles and then the book, Dark Alliance. How did you meet Oscar Blandón, your cocaine connection, and the man who would eventually set you up?
I grew up without my father, so I was always attracted to men that were successful. For me, that was a man named Mr. Fisher. He was a school teacher at my school. Me and him were hanging out, but then I left because of tennis. When I came back around, I told him that I had been selling drugs. He told me he used to sell drugs, and all the things he got, he didn't get from being a teacher. He made a quarter of a million dollars selling drugs. And he still had his connections, so he introduced me to a guy by the name of Ivan, from Nicaragua. I went from Ivan to maybe three or four other people, and then I finally got to Blandón.
And through Blandón you were able to take on a major role in cocaine trafficking.
Absolutely. Blandón and the Nicaraguans gave me a pure product at a good price, which is all I ever needed. I wasn't aware of the C.I.A. I wasn't aware of the Contras. I didn't know what a Nicaraguan was! I thought they were Mexican. But when Blandón testified later on, he said some things on the witness stand like, "Ronald Reagan gave us $18 million to buy medical supplies and weapons and we took the money and bought drugs." So, my antennae went up a little on that, but it didn't really all click until Gary Webb's story.
How did Webb reach out to you?
Gary Webb contacted me when I was in prison. He came in telling me that I was involved in something bigger than I even knew. I was like, "I know I was in some big stuff, I made a lot of money. I was doing two or three million a day." But he's like, "Bigger than even that. It's bigger than you know."
For many, the C.I.A.'s involvement is fact. But Webb was also challenged on a lot of his assertions. What do you think about what he said, as an actual participant in the story?
I don't doubt Gary's story. I think where Gary caught most of his flak is people were trying to say that Gary said the C.I.A. deliberately dropped the drugs into the black community. I don't think that's what was said. But the C.I.A., under their own investigation, did admit that they knew that these guys were selling drugs inside the United States.
What's your take on the C.I.A.'s involvement? Was it as nefarious as Webb and others suggested?
I believe it all really worked as a double-edged sword for the C.I.A. Because they were able to raise the money for the Contras and then, they were able to pass [mandatory sentencing] laws to arrest the undesirable people. The people they wanted to get rid of. Plus, it created jobs! Right now, the prison industry is booming.
Webb died in 2004. It was ruled a suicide. Some think he was murdered. Do you?
Last time I talked to Gary was a few months before he killed himself or got killed. I think it is hard to shoot yourself in the head twice. I would like to see the reports. I don't want to be a conspiracy theorist who just says the C.I.A. killed Gary, but at the same time, I do know that it's hard to shoot yourself in the head twice.
When did you first hear of the rapper Rick Ross?
2006-2007, maybe. I was sitting in my cell and one of the young guys came in with a magazine and he's like, "Rick, look at this guy, he's stolen your name." My first thought was that he didn't ask for my permission. Another thought that came to my mind was that someone thought enough of me to name himself after me. Pretty amazing. My feelings were mixed. I mean, I wasn't mad at him, but I was. I wanted to know more.
As someone who is in prison while this guy builds his name using your name, how did you feel when you found out he had been a correctional officer?
There were rumors. Around 2007-2008, I started receiving letters from Miami. From guys in prison and stuff like that. And they were mad at him and they were telling me that he was an ex-corrections officer, that he was saying things in his records about real people from the drug trade that he really didn't know. But I didn't know how true it was. You know, you get a lot of mail. I didn't have the pictures to substantiate that he was a correctional officer.
One interesting detail in the rapper Rick Ross' story is that it was 50 Cent who "exposed" him. 50 Cent himself took his name from a criminal, Kelvin "50 Cent" Martin. You've used that example to explain why Ross' name swipe is even more egregious.
It's different. With 50 Cent, the guy was a local guy who was building his name up in the hood. Roberts is using the name I was indicted under. Not a nickname. Also, my name was nationally known. A lot of drug dealers don't speak out about drugs. They don't come forward and talk about the mistakes and changes they're going to make to their lives, like I have. I had been in Time, I'd been on Dateline, 20/20. I had been in these magazines and on these TV shows.
In the Rolling Stone cover story, Ross explains that he became a correctional officer at the advice of his friend's father, a career criminal. Or something? It's very confusing.
He made up some cockamamie story in Rolling Stone about his friend being in prison and him deciding to become a correctional officer because of that. I don't know who dreamed that story up. The last thing you want is for another guard to show up that keeps you in prison. A lot of time in prison, you're with prison guards who are not as smart as you are, who are not as caring as you, and these people are running your life. Every person in jail imagines they'll wake up one day and that everybody else on the outside will wake up one day and be like, "This drug war is over. It's illegal, it's not doing anything but hurting society."
With your lawsuit against the rapper Rick Ross, it seems like you're up against a machine almost as big and powerful as the C.I.A.: A major, corporate-owned record label.
With the C.I.A., there were so many things [connected to the C.I.A. and the Contras] redacted. It's the same kind of thing here. When we walk into court, Universal has nine attorneys, Warner Brothers has two, and William Roberts has one attorney. When you're fighting someone this big and this powerful, they have connections in places that are unbelievable. That's what we're running up against. They're just buying their way through the system.
What's most frustrating here, I think, is that Ross' form of street rap is antithetical to your approach. You helped show how far into the system the drug trade reaches and that Reagan's "War on Drugs" was a farce. And here's a rapper telling coke-rap fables, using your name.
Absolutely. He doesn't talk about any of the struggles or heartaches. He doesn't know what it's like to walk out of prison, and when you walk out, you just left ten or 15 of your childhood friends that you're never going to see again because they got life sentences. And you gave them their first drugs to sell. I feel responsible for some of my friends being in prison right now.