After grabbing a grammy last year for his 13th studio album Kings Disease, Nasir Jones a.k.a Nas, has begun a docuseries in concert with Mass Appeal. The three-part series documents The Supreme Team; wealthy drug dealers and neighborhood legends during the rise of Queens hip-hop. I was lucky enough to see the Tribeca Festival premiere and to hear the panel afterwards where directors Nas and Peter Scarelett fielded questions about the impact of the Supreme Team.
The documentary opens and LL Cool J tells Nas that the atmosphere was dangerous. It was live, it was dangerous, it was before crack, but during the heroin epidemic. It was Jamaica Queens, in the late 70’s. Before Alpo and Paid in Full. It was just after the fall of the first major Kingpins like Frank Lucas and Nicky Barnes, who got himself caught when he decided to grace the face of The New York Times Magazine. The camera lets the cover sink in. Nicky Branes, gray suited against a white background. A black man next to red letters that said “‘Mr. Untouchable,” at the time it was unthinkable.
The Supreme Team were a crew that grew out of the Seven Crowns Gang. An attorney called their all encompassing operation in Baisley Houses a fief. A paid security van guarded the entrance, the back door was equally cut off, and the rooftops were regularly covered. Early members recount figures like 30k a day. Easily a multi-million dollar business being run out of the projects. All the old Supreme Team parties look like borough-wide celebrations.
Nas and LL witnessed this at a young age, a dramatic experience with wealth. Although there are many poorer places, New York City is uniquely unequal. During the panel Nas said “rappers and street guys are cut from the same stuff.” In the doc LL said “they were just like rappers, with more pull, and more juice.” It makes me realize I grew up in a time without neighborhood heroes.
It’s empowering to celebrate, and history is guilty of ignoring black success, but did they really give more than they took? It’s a valid question, but never mentioned in the same breath as the corporate interests behind the United States’ forever wars. Who’s called a criminal and who’s called a company is usually decided by whichever has an army and a navy. In the history books most slave revolts were remembered as criminal endeavors. During the panel, after the screening, while most of the Supreme Team is dead or in jail, Nas says some of the Medellin Cartel bosses are free now.