Say Hello to Rick Ross

1980: Crack was just turning up in the United States. The contras were seeking funds to support their civil war in Nicaragua. And an L. A. kid was looking for an opportunity. The combination would change America.


The real Rick Ross is not a rapper. That’s what it says on his T-shirt, silk-screened attractively in two colors. The bold letters in black ink frame his image — bald, bearded, and somewhat bug-eyed with the fervor of his comeback. The gold ink requires a second stencil. Depicted on his head is a crown, cocked just so and perfectly aligned, the kingpin in exile, and below that his autograph, the excessively flamboyant signature of a man who once made millions a day selling cocaine but only began learning to read, behind bars, at age twenty-eight. Eventually he would read himself to freedom.

On a sunny morning in southern California, Rick Ross is driving from his cramped but rent-free apartment along tony Ocean Avenue in Long Beach toward some pressing new business in blue-collar Riverside, an hour away. We’re talking here about the real Rick Ross, born Ricky Donnell Ross in 1960, one of three Ricks from ’round the way, this one the Rick who stayed on Eighty-seventh Place where it dead-ended at the 110 Freeway, in the shadow of a massive concrete abutment where you could feel the earth vibrating beneath your feet, hence his nickname: Freeway Rick Ross… as opposed to the rapper known as Rick Ross, a blubbery former college football player and corrections officer whose birth name is William Leonard Roberts II. When Roberts entered the music game, he appropriated the name and tattooed it across his fists: RICK RO$$. He rose to prominence rapping about a fictitious criminal past while the real Rick Ross, Freeway Rick Ross, a man iconic enough to have his name jacked, was serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole in a federal penitentiary.

Having brought suit against the rapper for copyright infringement and failed in several courts, Ross came up with the idea of these T-shirts. Over the past five months, with the help of a gangbanger turned silk-screener, he’s printed five thousand. Offered in a rainbow of colors, in sizes up to 6XL, they are folded painstakingly and fitted into plastic bags by his older brother in a mini-warehouse to which Ross has managed to secure the key, one in a seemingly endless series of fuzzy handshake arrangements through which he operates his portfolio of legal enterprises.

Everywhere he goes — to give testimony in a storefront church in Ontario; to lecture a law-school class at the University of Southern California; to make a personal appearance at an open-mic night in Inglewood; to have lunch at Denny’s in Carson (he’s a vegan; the chain features a garden burger); to attend a party for a Korean rapper who worships Ross as an American folk hero; to take a meeting at Warner Bros. studios in Burbank or with an Epic/Sony vice-president in Beverly Hills—Ross rolls behind him unself-consciously a battered suitcase full of merch, the zipper toggles missing, his Willy Loman smile unwavering as he digs through the slippery packages to find the proper size and color, no charge for a photo. If you don’t have the twenty dollars, more than likely he’ll sell it for less. Taken by the moment, by the recognition and adulation, he’ll often make it a gift.

If you meet Rick Ross and you tell him you’re broke, broker even than he is at the moment — there is $11.15 left in his savings account—he’ll spot you a ten-pack of T-shirts, a $200 value on the streets. (If you live out of town, he’ll mail you a ten-pack; someone else donates postage from his company’s postal machine.) His manufacturer’s price is about four dollars per piece. Wholesale is ten dollars. On the Web the price is twenty-five dollars. Sell those shirts, pay him back a hundred dollars, and you get to keep the profit. If you’re smart like Rick Ross, the real Rick Ross, Freeway Rick, you’ll reinvest. Just like that you’re in business.

Back in the day, Ross would offer the same deal with crack cocaine — to start you out, he’d give you $100 worth for free and you could sell it for $300. Between 1982 and 1989, federal prosecutors estimated, Ross bought and resold three tons of cocaine. In 1980 dollars, his gross earnings were said to be in excess of $900 million — with a profit of nearly $300 million. Converted roughly to present-day dollars: $2.5 billion and $850 million, respectively. As his distribution empire grew to include forty-two cities, the price he paid per kilo of powder cocaine dropped from as much as $60,000 to as low as $10,000. This was partially due to his exponentially increasing network of distributors, as Crips and Bloods struck out across the country to franchise the trade, spreading their gang culture with it… and partially due to his sweetheart connection with a Nicaraguan national who would later be said to have ties to both the CIA and the contra rebels supported during the 1980s by the Reagan administration. (Later this same connect — Oscar Danilo Blandón — would be hired by the DEA as an informant; it was he who would bring Ross into the deal that led to his life sentence.)

Fueled by the findings of an investigation by San Jose Mercury News reporter Gary Webb in 1996, many would come to believe that the CIA had actually created the crack epidemic in America by allowing (or turning a blind eye to) massive shipments of cocaine into the country, the profits from which went to arming rebels fighting a Latin American regime disfavored by our government. Webb also theorized that much of the contra coke (cultivated in Colombia) ended up in the hands of Freeway Rick Ross.

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