This article appeared in the November issue of VICE magazine.
The FBI has always had a hard-on for gangsta rap music, specifically the creative forces behind the genre's most iconic and provocative hits.
Back in 1989, for example, the bureau's assistant director of public affairs sent a letter to Brian Turner, the president of Priority Records, home to NWA, vehemently objecting to the lyrical content of the group's now-infamous protest song "Fuck tha Police."
"Law enforcement officers dedicated their lives to the protection of our citizens, and recordings such as the one from N.W.A. are both discouraging and degrading to these brave, dedicated officers," wrote the FBI's Milt Ahlerich. "Music plays a significant role in society, and I wanted you to be aware of the FBI's position relative to this song and its message. I believe my views reflect the opinion of the entire law enforcement community."
More than 20 years later, the FBI went a step further and directly linked rap music and "gangster Rap culture" to an increase in gang membership and crime, an unsubstantiated claim made in a 2011 report produced by the FBI's National Gang Intelligence Center.
"Law enforcement in several jurisdictions also attribute the increase in gang membership in their region to the gangster Rap culture, the facilitation of communication and recruitment through the Internet and social media, the proliferation of generational gang members, and a shortage of resources to combat gangs," the report said. "Gangster Rap gangs, often comprised of juveniles, are forming and are being used to launder drug money through seemingly legitimate businesses."
For decades, the FBI has probed legendary musical artists, including Jimi Hendrix, the Doors, the Beatles, and the Grateful Dead. The bureau even launched a separate investigation into "Louie Louie" by the Kingsmen, looking into whether the unintelligible lyrics violated obscenity laws.
But the FBI's investigation of black artists—particularly rap groups—stands out. VICE recently filed Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests with the FBI for its files on some current mainstream rap and rock groups (including Slaughterhouse, Army of the Pharaohs, Blink-182, and Radiohead). While we wait for those records to trickle in (if they exist), it's worth revisiting one of the most notorious case files in the FBI's "popular culture" collection: that of Ol' Dirty Bastard, and Staten Island hip-hop superstars Wu-Tang Clan.
Between 1999 and ODB's death in 2004, the FBI worked alongside the New York Police Department to investigate Wu-Tang Clan for a wide range of alleged federal crimes. They never filed any charges, but the FBI devoted substantial resources to the inquiry in an effort to take the Wu down. In 2012, in response to FOIA requests, the FBI released a 95-page file on ODB and "WTC," which is how the agency referred to the group. The inflammatory allegations leveled in the file (drug dealing, gang ties, murder) have been written about in the past, but little attention has been given to the scope of the FBI's investigation and how it began.
1. This page is an electronic communication that was used to open the case. It indicates the investigation originated in New York and stemmed from a referral by the NYPD, which was investigating the murders of two drug dealers. The police suspected that RZA of Wu-Tang Clan had ordered them, with Raekwon's complicity.
2. This "281F" classification code shows that the FBI had labeled Wu-Tang Clan as a "major criminal organization."
3. "OC/DI" is an FBI acronym for organized-crime/drug investigations.
4. These are FOIA exemptions, which the FBI uses to protect an individual person's privacy. In this case, the privacy exemptions protect the NYPD detective who requested assistance from the FBI and the person(s) who the agencies believed to have "funded" Wu-Tang Clan's alleged criminal acts.
5. The last paragraph on this page contains the most explosive bits. NYPD detectives sought the FBI's assistance in order to mount a RICO prosecution against the Wu-Tang Clan "organization." Congress passed this legislation, the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, in the 1970s to make it easier for federal prosecutors to dismantle Mafia families.
The file notes that Ben Campbell, then the assistant US attorney for the Eastern District of New York (the office that prosecuted infamous Cosa Nostra figures and al Qaeda terrorists), "is willing to seek prosecution of the WTC." In other words, according to these files and the FBI's and NYPD's preliminary investigation, Wu-Tang Clan, a highly regarded hip-hop group that had sold millions of records, was also a criminal organization engaged in conspiracies such as drug running and executions.
6. This page shows that the FBI requested permission to travel to Allentown, Pennsylvania, where the "RA" (resident agency) would "provide and compare information relating to the drug business of the Bloods street gang and the Wu-Tang Clan."
7. This is arguably one of the most important and overlooked pages in the FBI's Wu-Tang Clan file. It reveals that in April 2000, less than six months after the FBI launched the probe, the bureau sought the assistance of the New York FBI's FAST Unit in investigating the group and "the businesses or entities controlled by the WTC." The inclusion of the FAST Team underscores the seriousness of the investigation. It's impossible to find anything about the FAST Unit through a simple Google search. But with assistance from our FOIA attorney, Jeffrey Light, we discovered what "FAST" meant: financial analysis strategic targeting.
The team was referenced during a June 25, 1990, Senate subcommittee hearing about New York's "high-intensity drug trafficking areas." According to a transcript of the hearing, David J. Ripa, the assistant regional commissioner for enforcement at the US Customs Service, Department of the Treasury, testified that the FAST Unit was developed "as part of the New York region's anti-money laundering investigations and intelligence strategy… in coordination with the mission and objectives of [the US Treasury's] FinCen [Financial Crimes Enforcement Network].
"This team reviews operational case reports, seizures, and evidence and utilizes a vast quantity of sources to develop major targets for investigation and/or interdictory pursuits. The FAST team, which is comprised of Customs analysts, agents and inspectors complemented by investigative resources from IRS, HHS [United States Department of Health and Human Services], DEA, Brooklyn District attorney's office, New York State Police, and the Manhattan District attorney's office, provides a mechanism for target identification, preliminary evaluation, intelligence collection, and dissemination to a variety of US Customs operational investigative groups and multiagency task forces—that is, southern district task force, Long Island task force, and Customs/New York State Police task force."
8. The second and third pages of this part of the file go on to identify all of the businesses incorporated by Wu-Tang Clan, including a management and production company, record label, and clothing line. It's clear the FBI was suspicious that Wu-Tang Clan was laundering drug money through these businesses. Indeed, the last paragraph on this page says Campbell, the assistant US attorney for the Eastern District of New York, requested the FAST Unit's assistance. It also notes that a special agent who's assigned to "RIS" (which we suspect may be a mistyped reference to the IRS, as no agency official was able to elaborate on what RIS is, and it is not referenced in any other documents) was tasked with "identifying the flow of monies through the assets and entities controlled by the WTC and will work in conjunction with the FAST Unit."
9. The mention of the New York FBI's C-30 squad here is noteworthy. According to a Justice Department Office of the Inspector General report, Squad C-30 was part of a violent-crime task force whose mission is to "disrupt and dismantle the activities of identified FBI National Gang Strategy violent street gangs that operate within the five boroughs of New York City."
10. In July 2004, the FBI closed its "281F" case file and investigation, "major criminal organization," against Wu-Tang Clan, noting that NY FBI's Squad C-30 would handle the probe. Moreover, the FBI file says a special agent who assigned it the "267C" classification code, which is a drug-related homicide, was in charge of the case.
Wu-Tang Clan's FBI file resurfaced again in late 2015 in the case of a pair of Staten Island drug lords—brothers who were convicted on drug charges, one of whom was also found guilty for the murders of the drug dealers that the NYPD and FBI suspected RZA and Raekwon had ordered. As the sentencing of the brothers approached, a lawyer for one of the accused said in court that his client, Anthony Christian, wasn't responsible, and he referenced the FBI's five-year investigation into Wu-Tang Clan.
"These [FBI] reports seem to suggest someone else was liable for those murders. I'm not suggesting that Wu-Tang committed these crimes. The FBI did," lawyer Michael Gold told the Staten Island Advance. "What I'm trying to ascertain is their stated belief in an official file that Wu-Tang ordered this homicide."
Despite a nearly yearlong effort by Gold to get federal prosecutors to reopen the investigation into the alleged role Wu-Tang Clan, RZA, and Raekwon had in the murders, Brooklyn federal judge Eric Vitaliano rejected the defense's appeals. Last July, Christian was sentenced to life in prison on murder and other charges.
And with that, RZA, Raekwon, and Wu-Tang Clan were cleared. The lesson here for the FBI, NYPD, Christian, and his attorney? Wu-Tang Clan ain't nothing ta fuck wit.
This article appeared in the November issue of VICE magazine.