A Bay Area rap label, long linked by East Bay law enforcement to armed robberies, drug dealing and murder, has been implicated in a nationwide drug-trafficking distribution network after a four-year federal investigation, prosecutors said Tuesday.
Twenty-five individuals -- including the CEO and numerous rappers associated with Thizz Entertainment, the label founded by slain Vallejo rapper Mac Dre -- have been charged with distributing Ecstasy, cocaine, heroin, marijuana and codeine cough syrup across the East Bay and the country, according to a federal prosecutor.
The head of the organization, Michael Lott, 47, of Vallejo, who raps under the name Miami the Most, remains on the lam, along with nine others.
Thizz Entertainment's business model was simple: sell drugs to finance the record label, said Vallejo police Lt. Ken Weaver.
For many in law enforcement, Thursday's bust marks the end of a dangerous few decades in Vallejo involving the rap label, which started as a street gang committing robberies and selling drugs to finance fledgling rap careers before turning into a nationwide criminal enterprise, authorities said.
"The main players that belong with Thizz Entertainment now have warrants for their arrest for the drug-trafficking trade," Weaver said. "The streets of Vallejo will be a little safer this summer because of this."
Agents seized about 45,000 Ecstasy pills, 4 pounds of crack cocaine, a half-pound
The bust also spotlighted the deadly history of Thizz Entertainment, including the slaying of Mac Dre, whose real name was Andre Hicks and who was shot to death in 2004 after a performance in Kansas City, Mo., sparking a brief Vallejo-Kansas City rap war.
Romper Room Gang
In the 1980s and 1990s, a group of young men calling themselves the Romper Room Gang began knocking off pizza parlors. The gang, which formed in a small Vallejo neighborhood across Highway 37 from Six Flags Discovery Kingdom, moved on to hitting banks, slinging dope and committing killings, police and DEA officials said, to raise money to fund Romper Records.
"It was an explosion of rap music and rock cocaine," Weaver said. "That was a huge deal to us because it was the first time we saw such organization by this culture and it was new to us. We learned from them and they learned from us."
Many members were put behind bars, as police locked in on rap lyrics detailing and glorifying their robberies, including from Mac Dre, who in 1992 received a seven-year prison sentence.
Upon his release, Mac Dre formed Thizz Entertainment. The word "thizz" was derived from the feeling one gets while on MDMA, or Ecstasy. Many of the label's lyrics, the DEA said, promote Ecstasy use. The label's popularity grew and it put the Bay Area in the national rap spotlight.
"Thizz, when Mac Dre was on the label, were a major factor. They were coming out of a transformative time in the Bay Area," said Davey D, a Bay Area journalist and hip-hop expert. "It was a resurgence of having national attention refocusing on the Bay."
As Mac Dre and his label's popularity soared, he went on tour and played a show at a Kansas City club Nov. 1, 2004. As he left the club in a van, he was hit in a hail of gunfire and killed.
Police named Kansas City rapper Fat Tone as a person of interest in Mac Dre's death, but by May 2005 Anthony "Fat Tone" Watkins and Jermaine "Cowboy" Akins were found shot to death at a construction site near the Palms Casino. Bay Area rapper Andre "Mac Minister" Dow was convicted and sentenced to life in prison in 2008 for their murders, and authorities said his motive was to avenge Mac Dre's murder. He is also accused of killing a prostitute who was a witness in Fairfield.
Lott, who was with Mac Dre when he died, took over Thizz Entertainment after his friend's death and produced albums for more than 60 artists, some of whom were arrested in the drug probe, including Gaylord Franklin, 32, who raps under the name "Geezy," Bruce Thurmon, 41, aka "Little Bruce," and Major Norton, aka "Dubee."
In July 2008, Drug Enforcement Administration agents found a confidential informant who led them to Lott. An undercover agent made his first buy of 200 Ecstasy pills from Lott in a Vallejo gas station parking lot.
After numerous undercover drug buys and hours of surveillance and recorded phone calls, the DEA pulled the agent in December 2010. During the year and half that the undercover agent infiltrated the gang, members of Thizz Entertainment and its associates were killed, according to the DEA.
Gang members began to spread the enterprise to other states, making connections while on tour, Weaver said. Drug shipments were sent from the Vallejo area to Oklahoma City, New York, Atlanta and Milwaukee, the DEA said.
Using drug money to finance a rap label is a strategy not uncommon to many young men trying to leave tough urban neighborhoods, Davey D said.
"Do my dirt and invest it into something legitimate and graduate," he said. "It's a longtime formula that doesn't hold the stigma because it's looked at as bettering yourself and getting yourself out of danger. This is not an unusual story. I've heard that story lots and lots of times."
The story ended Thursday, as agents cascaded into Vallejo and other East Bay cities to serve arrest warrants on 25 Thizz Entertainment associates.
Arrested on suspicion of multiple drug counts in the two federal complaints and in custody were: Norton, Lawrence "Bodine" Nelson, Narco McFarland, Eric "Pay Pay" Robinson, Eileen Knight, Ung Duong, Phat Nguyen, Marcus "Killa" Davis, Michael Smiley, Anthony Young and Anthony Payton.
Charged and not yet in custody were: Lott, Franklin, Thurmon, Clifford "Black" Bullock, Latroy Cunningham, Dante Barbarin, Beshiba "Pebbles" Cook, Damian Peterson, Mikel Brown and Andre "Dre from the Bay" Cawthorne.
Charged and released from custody were Nicholas "White Boy Nick" Ramirez and Tiffany Brown.
The suspects, most from Vallejo, also were from Oakland, Hercules, Stockton, Fairfield, Los Angeles, New York and Oklahoma City.
A preliminary hearing has been scheduled for May 4 in Sacramento federal court.
Contact Matthias Gafni at 925-952-5026. Follow him at Twitter.com/mgafni.