interview by Alix Lambert
This interview is an outtake from Alix’s book entitled “Crime.”
About “Crime” – Through a series of exclusive interviews with artists, authors and actors such as Ben Affleck, David Cronenberg, Elmore Leonard, Viggo Mortensen, Ice-T, David Mamet and Takeshi Kitano, as well as real life bank robbers, gangsters and current prison inmates, editor Alix Lambert explores the gaps and overlaps between real crime and its representation in the arts, each commenting on and assessing the impact of the other.
What was is your earliest memory of crime?
I think my first memory of crime was me stealing bicycles. My father wouldn’t buy me a bike. Oh, wait, you know what happened? My first memory of crime was I got my bike stolen. I didn’t just go out and start doing wrong. I had gotten my bike stolen on Christmas day. I was living in NJ at the time. I had gotten this bike and I was really excited about it and I ran down to my friends house to show it off. I parked it in front of his house. When I went to knock on his door his mother came to the door so, I had my bike like parked, she ended up talking me into coming into the house because I think they had racing cars inside, and I wanted to see them. I got caught up racing the cars. When I went out my bike was gone. I had to be like around ten years old, maybe. I first thought it was a joke. I thought somebody had hid it. But it was gone. I never got it back. We went to the police station, filed a report, all kind of stuff. Then my father was like: You’re not going to get another one. I started to steal bikes. Other people had these old bikes and I would get up earlier than I had to to go to school, cause nobody would watch me. I couldn’t stay out late, but I could get up early. I would go creep into people’s backyards. I would take the bike. I had my own little chop shop. I would take the bikes back and I would take them apart and I would paint them, and change the colors. It sounds so crazy. I haven’t thought back to this since – ever. I kind of put a bike together. But then I had to hide it from my father. One time he came in the back and was like: What are you doing? And I lied, and said: Yo. My friend gave me this bike. That was my first introduction to criminal activity. I would paint them with model paint, like these little spray cans that you got for models. I knew how to take the Schwinn emblem off and paint them and them put them back on. Pretty crafty. A one man operation so nobody could snitch. From there I didn’t do any crime, I went to elementary school, I guess mischief and stuff, but actually starting to break the law wasn’t truly introduced to me until high school.
What happened in high school?
When I got into high school you start to see people have things that are beyond their means. You see guys in the 12th grade that got cars and you’re looking at everybody going: what’s really going on around here? Drug dealing and all that kind of stuff really hadn’t come into play. But my boys started to sell weed. They would buy like pounds of what would be called today, homegrown weed. Just the cheapest weed. You could get a lot of it cheap, back in the day. They would take it and roll joints and sell dollar joints. That was like an operation, but I never got into that. I was like: Yo, I’m not running around high school with drugs. But they were hustling like that. Then my other friend, his sister, used to steal the lunch tickets from the school. The big lunch ticket roll, she would steal the tickets from the inside of the roll, like tickets that weren’t going to get used til way later in the year and then she would sell them. She was making a lot of money. Then she put us to work. She was like: You guys sell them, and I’ll give you half the money. I was like this little broad’s running an organized crime ring. So all this stuff started to happen at our school. Then I learned how to steal textbooks. Every year people would turn up at the end of the year and have to pay for the textbooks. But we had access to the book room. The print class, we turned that into a counterfeiting ring. We learned how to make special cards, which you could use to get into every event. They cost like 50 dollars. We forged them and we were selling them for like ten dollars. As a kid hustling and making 5 or 6 hundred dollars, that’s a lot of money. So then what we did, we figured out like the science book cost 25 dollars so if you would meet us at nutrition and tell us what the book number was that you lost we would get one from the book room – they were stamped in the front and they were stamped on like page 25, we would rip out page 25 and then we would re-stamp the book with the number of the book you lost. But what happened was, some of the lost books started to show up. So in other words, two books with the same number showed up. That’s how we got caught. What they did was they busted us, they ran a sting. They figured it out, they figured the books had to be coming out of the book room, and they caught us on this like elevator thing with the books one day. It was ugly. We told them we just started to do it and fortunately only a few books showed up even though we had probably ran through like 500 books. I was learning that you could outsmart the game at an early age. But it really didn’t escalate to any serious money. It was very petty. Then what happens is you start to hang around with people who really take pride in beating the system. That’s the scary part. Like if you ain’t a hustler then you’re not cool. That’s where you really start getting sucked in. You start to believe that the only money that’s good is stolen money, working money is not cool.
I was out on my own at 17 years old. I was living with my Aunt. My mother and father had passed. I was living with my Aunt in Los Angeles and I wasn’t getting along with her and I was getting social security checks so one day I just told her: give me that money, which was $250 a month, and I’m gone. And she gave me the money and I bought a hundred dollar a month apartment, I put another hundred dollars into food and I had fifty dollars left. I was living on my own when I was in the 12th grade. So that made me the coolest kid in the whole school. I had my own place, are you kidding me? It was like the size of a closet but it was still my own place. At that point they were doing little corny things like selling fake jewelry. We’d go down town to the jewelry mart and get the fake shit, you know, you’ve seen people do it, the fake chains and they put the 14 kt. gold thing on it, we’d hustle that. Then we ran scams, we learned how to run cons with like fake diamond rings at the bus station down town you walk up on a guy and you tell them that you just bought this for your mother and now you’re stuck out of town and you can’t get home, and they’d give you some money to get a bus ticket or whatever and a little extra money. They always thought they were beating us for the ring, we would tell them the ring was worth 800 dollars and the guy would end up giving you a hundred dollars and the ring only really was worth like ten dollars. That’s the key to the con. The only people that get conned are greedy people, you know. You never get conned if you’re honest. Once your brain kicks in to thinking you’re beating somebody, that’s when you get took. Honest people be like: Oh my God, you only have that ring, that’s your mothers, you’re going to give it to me? No. Here’s fifteen dollars, get the bus ticket. They’d help you. And they’d be out fifteen dollars whereas this other guy: Oh, well you know I’m gonna have to take that from you. I’ll give you a hundred and fifty bucks. They’re the ones that’re greedy trying to beat a poor kid. So, fuck ‘em. Rule one: if it sounds too good to be true, it’s not true. So that basically was my life.
What happened that started to change things?
What happened was I got my girlfriend pregnant at the end of 12th grade and I was living alone and I started to feel a little bit of responsibility and that’s when I went in to the military. Now when I came out of the military my small time friends had elevated the game and they had decided that jewelry stores were the target and they had all kinds of ways to beat the jewelry store. Eventually it just escalated from going in and what we would call playing the jewelry store to…well there’s about ten ways you could rob a jewelry store. The favorite one is what we call playing. Playing a jewelry store is really confusing them and lifting jewelry out of the store without them knowing. That requires a team, and there’s a lot of ways, but what it was was there’s a lock that used to be on jewelry cases that we called a pop lock. It was a lock that if you inserted a piece of metal into it, basically a nail file called a trim, you could file it down in a way that it became like a lock pick and you could reach over; and these locks you’d push em in, turn em and they would pop out. When they popped out, that disengaged the case and now the jewelry case was open. With teams of people and confusion we were able to throw the jewelry store off long enough for somebody to reach over, what we used to call: reach over and bust, reach over, pop the lock, reach in, take the jewelry, close the lock back, lock it back and get out. Usually you’d use a girl and a guy and usually they would be wearing jewelry, they’d come in looking very non-criminal. Back in the days we used to wear Fila and carry tennis rackets and portray yuppie kids. Like: Oh, my father, he’s a developer, he’s building the building down the street. There’s always a building down the street. Or I used to come in and say: my father, he’s a white guy, he’s a state trooper based in Fresno. Cause I’m light. So, we would come in and con them and distract them. It’s not like a one minute lick. It’s really planned. At the end of this game they’re not even supposed to know their shit is gone until later. And that was a victory to us. That was finesse. That finesse later elevated to a lot of different things from what they call bashing which is really just walking in with sledge hammers during the day and taking the whole jewelry store down. And that jewelry store only needed to be cased out to the point that there were no guns. Burglary, which is where you’re trying to find certain jewelry stores, like if you really look they don’t put the jewelry up. It’s like, they’ve put sheets over the cases instead of taking the time to put them in a safe. Usually you’ll find those out of town. Like not in NY, but if you go two hours out, they don’t have crime. That would be a 459. There’s a lot of ways to get into the stores, there’s all kinds of techniques you can use. Then they got the basic one which you still hear about which is called the snatch and grab. Which is more or less, you have to almost have them put the jewelry in your hands. They bring it out, and you say: Can I see this watch? Can I compare this one against that one. What they do now, is as they give you one, they put that one back in. But some fools will bring all that shit out.
Have you ever spent time in prison?
I never been to prison. I never been caught. It’s like the getaway is more important than the actual crime. You have to figure out what you’re going to do with it before you do it. If you’re going to get something that’s very expensive, pre-sell it. Talk to the people that want it and have it sold before you do it.
Who buys it?
You’ve got drug dealers. You’ve got drug dealer’s girls. Drug dealer’s girls are really the best…they want every fucking thing. They want minks, they want this, they want that, and the guys that’re selling the drugs, they’ve got illegal money that they can’t really spend in stores. They want things, you know what I’m saying. In this game a lot of casing goes on. Casing is pre-looking at places. I could be like in Salt Lake City Utah and I could go and check out faces and I could find what we call in the game “a lick.” A lick is not a store with armed guards and dogs and bullet proof glass, that’s not a lick. A lick is a little store with an old lady that just happens to have a lot of shit and there’s no one around. It’s a situation that lends itself to being taken. And that’s why I tell people today, I’m like – criminals are very opportunistic. They’re looking for something that lends itself to whatever they do. Like in a Mall, a jewelry store that might just happen to be right by that exit door, that’s a great lick. Because if I hit em, I don’t have to run through that mall. I duck out and I’m through those emergency doors and then it’s me and whoever’s after me.
I saw a lick recently in Vegas. I basically went through withdrawal trying to not tell any of my friends because I don’t want anybody to go to jail. But I looked right at it. I told my wife, I’m like: Yo, this could get got, really, really easily. I was like: well, somebody else will probably do it but if I tell my friends, I’ll bring somebody out of retirement. I don’t care what you’ve done in your life, if it ever was a part of your life that part never leaves. If you were a guy that used to knock guys out for talking shit, and somebody’s talking shit and maybe you don’t do it no more, your brain still says: I would knock this fucking fool out. If you were a girl who used to hustle guys and knew how to get up on guys and get money and you see a guy throwing his money around, you go: I could take this idiot off. That element will never leave your brain if you’ve ever done it. You just don’t do it no more because you know there’s probably ramifications.
In crime there’s a million ways to do things. In bank robbery you have what they call playing a note, you have: take over, you got people that want you to go in the vault, you got people that just want to play the door, you know, you got people that want to catch the night deposits, you got people that want to try to take one of the trucks which is really risky, there’s a lot of different levels of it. You gotta know the elements of banks too. They’re told to give you the money. You just don’t want to get too greedy. But what happened with me was, everybody that I was rolling with started to go to jail. One of my friends was in the middle of a bank robbery and his friend got killed by the police so they ended up giving him the murder. You know, in L.A. California, if you’re with somebody and me and you go out and commit a crime, you get killed by the cops, I get the murder. You know I say in one of my records: You raise the risk, you raise the profit. What happens in the game is that eventually those small crimes aren’t going to sustain the lifestyle you live. When you’re young and you want to hustle and you sell a little weed here and there, you try to get some rims, okay, it’s a great hustle. Now, if you move up to Benzs and Ferraris, you can’t sell joints, you gotta sell pounds. The more the crime escalates the more violence escalates. Whether you’re fighting against your own crew, getting double crossed, or being set up, because, in the game you have hustlers and then you have predators. You got the one guy who says: Hey, I’ll sell the dope. And you got the other guy who says: I’ll rob the dope dealer. Let him sell it, fuck it. You’re dealing with professionals. This is what they do, they lie, they deceive, they cheat. Like a lot of times in a game, there’s two games going. One game is for me and you to hit the lick, the next game if for me to beat you. I was in as deep as I could get and my friends started to go under. Cats I really admired were catching really long sentences. My boys were going to jail and I’ll never forget, I went on this one lick in the Pacific Palisades with all these cats that I normally wouldn’t fuck with. It was like the most slapstick disastrous shit I ever been on. We got away, but I was like: Yo, no. No. This is why I never fuck with these guys.
It gets crazy. All my friends went to prison. I’m looking at all these cats that I admired, I started to ask myself: Do I think I’m smarter than them?
Thank God this music called Hip Hop came along, and then Rap came along, I was doing a lot of things, you know what I’m saying. We was pimping. We was in the game. We had girls doing stuff, making money. When people say “Pimping” they think about a guy standing on a corner with girls. That’s one form, but another form is just basically having females around that are hustling and they doing all types of things to get you money. In other words if a guy is in a room with a girl, and that girl has another guy that she’s more dedicated to than him; he’s in a bad situation. As long as they know that I’m the top dog, then that’s pimping. They’re following my instructions to the T. So, we doing all that and rap came along and I was like really idolizing Iceberg Slim, I really was into him. I took my name from him. The whole symbolism and the style and the flair of his conversation, the way he talked, but at some point I realized: Yo, as much as I want to be a pimp, dude is a writer. So, if I’m really idolizing this dude I not only gotta live the game, I have to document the game. So that’s when I started to rap. Cause I didn’t really feel I could be a writer, so I felt like here’s a music where I can talk about the life.
What about gangs?
Gangs are a whole nother fucking structure. Gangs are basically war. I mean gangs aren’t really criminal organizations until they actually start to move drugs. A gang is just male units that are at war. So in Los Angeles, you got Crips, you got Bloods, but then you have sets and the sets are, like there’s hundreds and hundreds of sets, which are divisions of the gang. In L.A. Crips are fighting Crips, Bloods are fighting, Bloods. Your real age for gangbanging is between the ages of 15 and 25. Once murder has come into the game you carry that murder code with you and that’s what gangbanging is based on. If you were going to join my gang immediately I would indoctrinate you with what the other sets did, or who’s our enemies. You’d be out to retaliate, that’s how you get stripes.
I was affiliated with rolling 60 Crips. And what I mean by “affiliated” is I knew all the shot callers, I grew up in the hood, but I never jumped into a gang, but I wear the colors. I got it in my record, you know, but an affiliate would be somebody who would have juice with the gang, know the gang but wouldn’t necessarily go out and put in work or do any of the drive-bys, or whatever is required to be more of a hardcore member. I always been kind of intelligent, so I always knew how to get with the shot callers and they liked me.
If you really go deep in, I mean them kids are at war. They’re not at all like thinking about making rap records or nothing, they just want to move on the enemy. Because somebody close to them probably got killed. These babies are slowly being indoctrinated into the belief that this other gang is somebody to hate. Because they killed his uncle. So, it’s deep.
The thing about Ice – T music that’s different is I always try to show both sides of the game. That’s what makes my music different from pretty much any body else’s rap. If you listen to my records, even though I might say, hey I’m this guy, I usually die at the end of the record. I tell you about the fun in the beginning but there’s pain in the end. So, anybody who tells you about crime and doesn’t tell you that there’s pain and you know, they’re full of shit and they never been there. If you’re talking about it but you’re not telling me that there’s any down side to it – you’re lying. Because if you’re a real criminal, you know a lot of people in prison, you getting them phone calls, you’ve been in situations where you could have been dead, you know what it’s like to have people after you, I mean, you have to be pretty crazy to really like it. I mean, I’m not that guy. I’m not. I think when I was younger, you know, you’re a little bit more fearless. But as you get older you look at it like: This shit is crazy. Usually when you go to prison, finally you figure this out. Half of my crew is locked up. So, they telling me what’s going on, and I listen. I live by the code that: dumb people learn by experience, smart people learn by others experience. I’ve always been like a sponge and I listened to it and I had to kick it real and the thing of it is is that you know, when you deal with the press, I could go and say: Yo, and homelessness and this that and the third and AIDS and education, but then the same cat after that will go: so what’s it like to rob a bank? Then at the end of the article they say I’m promoting it. I didn’t even bring it up. I think the more you talk about it and the more you express it, you know, it’s kind of like, to me, I felt that was my retribution. I tell people in my life I feel like I was running down this road, this hustling road, where I think it’s going to be roses and money and everything at the end; all that good shit. And I got to the end of the road and I seen there’s a cliff, and off the edge of the cliff there’s fires burning. Now I’m like running back up the road yelling at people: don’t go down that road. It looks good, but honestly, I cannot tell you a crime story with a good ending.
From an artists perspective, those rappers and artists that do get out of it they got great stories and experiences to share. It’s extremely entertaining. See I think the thing of it is, is that, people can be entertained with other people’s pain. I think that’s really what it is. This is exciting and it’s fun to listen to but to actually live it is something totally different. A great story about being stranded in the desert is a great story to read or watch, but to be the actual people that do it; that’s not a good place. To watch the Mafia is a great exciting thing, but to be in it and to live every day with potentially somebody blowing your brains out is not so sexy. There’s also another side to it, you know, it’s fun to tell war stories. And a lot of these cats, these aren’t even their war stories. This is something that they fabricated in their brain. I mean, come on, Tarantino writes some of the most crazy movies but he’s a nerd. I mean look at Quentin, I mean he’s never done nothing, I mean he’d probably be the first one to tell you that. But in his brain with his characters he can create these very cool images and theories of how things would go. Like Pulp Fiction probably was one of the greatest movies ever and this is Quentin’s imagination. Because he has a great imagination he’s considered cool. So you can actually become cool by living through other people. I mean you can only ask a kid to speak at his intelligence level. So you take an eighteen year old kid; he don’t know about world politics, you can’t teach him that this may be negative, cause he’s selling dope, he doesn’t even see that as a problem. So as you get older, sure, you get to see the world in a different way. But when you dealing with these young kids they on that shit. If you had interviewed me when I was seventeen years old I’d be like: fuck, square ass motherfucker, man. I’m hustling. This is what I do. I don’t have any conscience. I’m getting paid and fuck you. And I’m winning and I ain’t got caught I mean, what’s to tell me it’s wrong? Until you see the pain, or you get that other side of it, A lot of these kids, some of them don’t even know no better, they don’t know. And you gotta stay out of their way. Because when them kids is moving at that speed and they don’t know no better, they’re invincible, and they’ll murder you.
When did you get into acting?
I got into acting, really my first movie was in the movie Breakin’, my role, I was a rapper, they came into a club that had break dancers and stuff in L.A. and I was on the stage rapping and they said: Would you like to be the rapper? I wasn’t really a good rapper but I was kind of like one of the first rappers people ever seen because that movie came out really early in the genre. After that I did New Jack City. Where I was really an unseasoned actor who got a chance and I just tried at it. People enjoyed it and I’ve been doing it ever since. I’m very fortunate. New Jack City, at that time I had already like, deprogrammed myself from the streets and I was learning that it’s all about opportunities and the real hustler is going to take advantage of an opportunity. So I had to re-format myself. Which, at the end of the day means, I’m not trying to break the law, I’m just trying to get money, if I can do it without breaking the law that’s even better. I elevated myself to that. I started to play cops, people were like: Well, that’s a paradox, you didn’t like the cops. I’m like: Well, I didn’t like the cops when I was breaking the law. They were the opponent. I didn’t have no hate against the police. Of course I got hate against certain people who have civil right infractions, and doing things wrong, but just a basic cop, it’s like the movie Heat, man, he’s out to get me; I’m out to get him. Touché, let’s go. So I always respected the cops to an extent. A real criminal can take a pinch. You know: You got me, motherfucker. You don’t turn around at the end of the day and say, oh the laws are wrong, when you robbing somebody. You know what you doing. Nowadays, I’m like, I don’t hate the police, I have no problems with the police. I don’t like cops that bring their personal issues to work, or whatever their doing, if they’re racist or all that, I mean, we can’t tolerate that but an average cop, I’m not mad at him. I don’t have any allegiance to crime.
I just sucked up every bit of game from the actors around me. I just worked with Ludacris and he’s the same way, I asked a lot of questions. They were just like: you can memorize shit, you’re a rapper, just try to put the voice on it that they want. You get better and better at it and after a while you start learning tricks. I enjoyed it. I enjoyed it a lot more after the response I got from it. I’ve been very, very fortunate doing it, I feel like I can say: I am an actor. Before I felt like I’m a rapper that’s acting. But I’ve been on Law and Order now 9 years acting every single day, I’ve been in over fifty movies so I think I know what I’m doing now, finally.
Law and Order, the show I’m on, I mean really? Are there that many homicides in New York City? I mean, if you really watch my show, you’ll think rapes and serial killers are running around here every day. (my wife) Coco’s mother came and was scared to go in Central Park, from watching Law and Order. Movies and TV do give you a warped reality. A lot of people aren’t intelligent enough to read into that. They just believe it at face value. Me, myself, I know a movie is a movie, cause I watch the movies, I’m in movies, I know that the blood ain’t real. I know all that. The average person gets caught up in this stuff, so a lot of this stuff can enforce stereotypes, the angry black man, and all that kind of stuff. I don’t know if you ever going to be able to change that.
I love video games. The best one is Grand Theft Auto, which is just fucking mayhem. It’s just mayhem. I’m in the Scarface game which actually teaches you how to sell drugs. It’s crazy, it teaches you how to sell grams. It’s pretty interesting how you move the drugs from the Islands to Miami and drop them off at dope houses. I was in San Andreas (Grand Theft Auto). I played a cracked out rap star and somebody had stole all my lyrics and he became a star. So, I went on crack and then the end is me getting my reputation back and getting my mansion back. You start off in San Andreas as a kid in South Central L.A. Then you build up your rep and then you get a gang, I mean, it’s definitely like some crazy shit. I will say honestly the Vice City Games are like the worst shit ever – in a good way. It’s so intentionally wrong that you’ve got to just get into it. Rick Ruben one time told me there’s an art in saying the worst shit. Some people in entertainment know how to do that. Comedians know how to do it. Eminem is a great example. And I’ve always done it. I’ve done the interviews where I’ll say kids are top priority and AIDS and this that and the third but I got to run right now because I got to get to a Pit bull fight. Just say the most wrong shit. Because it’s funny. Because it’s wrong. In a way these games are just so over the top that you got to laugh. It’s like: Oh my God if I’m out of money I rob a liquor store? Inside this world, all the things that you think about, you can do. But, does that make you really want to do it in real life? No. To me it kind of diffuses it. I think they work opposite. People say: Oh, they make kids violent. I don’t think so. I think honestly, it’s like an outlet for that aggression. You get to do it on the video game. I think all of us have this aggression, and you’ve got to have an outlet. Video games do it for me. I think it’s a very masculine thing.
I think human beings have some weird blood lust. I mean I watched this show called 48 hours where it’s about murder. It’s about the wife that killed the husband and I’m like what the fuck am I watching this shit for? But I want to see, and then they show the crime scene, I mean I don’t know, maybe you got to get with a psychologist but I think there is something in humans that is triggered by death and violence like they say: why when we’re watching the car races, everybody wants to see the wreck? We watch boxing, what is all this? What is it? I do Metal, I do hard rock, and the kids mosh in the front. There’s a pit. What in the fuck is going on? You’re banging into each other. That’s not dancing. What are you doing? And then guys get bloody and it’s kind of like if you go in a rap studio and one guy gets up and says: Yo, peace …and the guys kind of go: ok, that’s great …and the next guy goes: I’ll blow your mic hand off, and the motherfuckers like: yeah! It’s like what is that? I think since the beginning of time people have been intrigued with this warrior spirit.
I was at the movies the other day and I watched this big commercial for the Army. And they were showing people jumping out of planes. I was in the military. Every single picture the motherfuckers had a gun. And I told Coco, they’re recruiting killers. They’re telling you that there’s honor in killing for your country. The guys who are our best killers are our most honorable people. It conflicts itself so many different ways. I think it just roots back to us being animals. It’s ill though, it’s ill.