Rick Ross, multitasker, is doing a million things: film projects, recording projects, speaking on college campuses, directing, acting, teaching, all of which he ticks off as we have breakfast in a low-profile Belizean restaurant on the west side of Inglewood. Ross doesn't look the part of a dealmaker. He's wiry and on the slight side, with a shaved head and thick beard. He's laid back, dressed this morning in shorts and tennis shoes; he smiles reflexively. He drives a beat-up car, one that makes my arthritic Chrysler (yes, I still have it -- long story) look newly minted. But his most valuable asset is a distinct intensity that never shuts off; he's restless even when he's sitting still, and there's a perpetual glow in his eyes that borders on a burn. He also has an utter lack of ambiguity about all of his work that is both impressive and a bit scary.
At one point, I ask him idly if he has any pets; he said in his recently published memoir that he grew up in small-town Texas with a beloved dog. It seemed like a strong bond, one that he hated to break when he moved west. "No dogs," he says. "Why? You can't put them to work." He's not kidding.
I should have known. For those of you don't know or don't remember, Rick Ross in a former life was the crack cocaine kingpin of Los Angeles whose work, if you will, extended well beyond Southern California. Known as the notorious "Freeway Rick," Ross almost singlehandedly introduced the crack epidemic in the '80s, a phenomena that devastated black communities and made him and his cohorts very rich. Ross was so notorious, law enforcement formed a task force devoted to bringing him down, but it proved difficult.
As a crime figure, Ross was low-key, almost nondescript, much more a work-obsessed CEO than the bling-crazed player/dealer of budding gangsta rap fantasies of the late '80s. Indeed, he was so nondescript that law enforcement often didn't even know what he looked like. After years of dodging real time he finally got nabbed by the feds in a drug-selling sting operation in 1996, just as he'd decided to get out of the business for good. He first faced a lifetime sentence, which was later reduced to twenty years. He got out five years ago.
The moral implications of fueling the crack trade are serious and many; Ross is the first to say that. He doesn't excuse his starring role in the overwhelming tragedy that crack has been in poor black communities, and still is. But he's also quick to say that it was bigger dealers from Central America who were supplying him, selling the stuff at irresistibly cheap prices
(One key dealer was Danilo Blandon, Ross' main supplier and the central character in an explosive 1996 story about how the CIA was allowing crack to flow into South Central in the '80s and '90s to fund the contras -- see Gary Webb and the San Jose Mercury News. The local response by the L.A. Times to the story was to vehemently and consistently deny it as false. That denial began with a dramatic retelling -- note: not a retraction -- of an earlier story that Times reporter Jesse Katz had published about Ross. Katz' original story described Ross as the indisputable king of crack cocaine, a one-man Walmart of crack retailing, but the retelling diminished Ross' role in the narrative to dilute Webb's assertions.)
He also saw it purely as a business, the best chance for a kid who graduated from Dorsey High School: smart, but too poor and illiterate to make it big. Ross was a gifted athlete who dreamt of being a tennis star, but was told in his senior year that his illiteracy made it impossible to get any scholarship anywhere. He was crushed and humiliated, he said, but more determined than ever to make it big -- very big. He didn't think small and never had; no working at McDonald's for him. And so when crack came onto the scene in the early '80s, you could say talent met opportunity. Before the '80s closed out, Ross was making more money than he could count.
All of this is described in Ross' new book, "Rick Ross: The Untold Autobiography," out this month. It's fascinating for its unsentimental, inside look at his career on the streets of South Central, which started for Ross with car theft and quickly shifted to drugs and the big time. The book is most notable for how Ross charts his own learning curve, how he swiftly figured out a kind of multilevel marketing structure and how he was always reinvesting in the business instead of just buying stuff. Like any good CEO, he understood the importance of human capital -- he was always recruiting lieutenants and currying talent himself -- and he also gave generously to the community.
He still gives back, though legitimately. Ross says virtually nothing has changed in South Central since his heyday, and that's not a good thing. "It's worse now than ever in terms of jobs for black people," he says, true even though the black populace is greatly diminished, replaced by a growing Latino population. He believes that the black wealthy should focus more developing inner-city economies, partly to offset the black flight that followed white flight and hollowed out once-stable neighborhoods and left them unstable and poor. "I tell the students, 'You have to help those less fortunate,'" he says. "Unfortunately, black people as a group are broke. We fall for crap, but we haven't been taught. We can't be rehabilitated until we're 'habilitated' in the first place, as a friend of mine says."
Another huge change is having a black president; Ross shrugs and says that's made no difference either. In the restaurant above the counter where the cash register sits is a row of framed, official-looking photos: the prime minister of Belize is on one end, President Obama is on the other. "I was happy to see him elected, but we gave him the presidency," Ross says ruefully. "Black people didn't ask for anything. We gave everything away." Bad business, to say the least.
Ross also teaches at a school in Watts, where he says he advises students to think critically. "I tell them they've got to be able to sacrifice -- I did that as a dealer," he says emphatically. It's interesting how he can't resist using drug dealing, which of course he warns young people against, as a model of ethics as it applies to his own practices as a dealer. It's true: in his career Ross stayed disciplined, stuck to a successful growth plan and, on an individual level, lived the American dream. "Sacrificing taught me to save money," he continues. "Money isn't king, but people don't listen to you if you don't have money. It's weird. People would rather hang around people with money than make it themselves."
Book, movie, speaking -- what's next on Ross's agenda to conquer the world, to habilitate himself? His prospects are much better since he learned to read; prison was good for that, as many former prisoners can attest. Once again, he doesn't hesitate. "The sky's the limit," he says. "Maybe I'll run for office."
Rick Ross and his co-author, Cathy Scott, will be at Eso Won Books in Leimert Park on June 17 at 7:00 p.m. to discuss the book and sign copies.