NEW YORK - When a brash disc jockey named Irving Lorenzo decided to call himself "Irv Gotti" and start a music label called Murder Inc. in the late 1990s, he said it was all about selling records. Records by stars like Ashanti and Ja Rule sold in the millions, turning Lorenzo into a rap mogul.
The problem, according to federal authorities, was that his gangster persona wasn't mere hype.
Lorenzo, 34, and his brother Christopher Lorenzo, 38, were scheduled to go on trial Wednesday, accused of laundering drug money for a notorious crack kingpin. The federal racketeering case mixes elements of corporate scandal — Murder Inc. is partly owned by Def Jam, a subsidiary of Universal Music — with inside glimpses of feuds in the rap world.
Prosecutors say that the kingpin, Kenneth "Supreme" McGriff, was allowed to secretly funnel more than $1 million in drug money into Murder Inc.'s coffers in exchange for being the label's protector and enforcer. They hope to introduce evidence that the Lorenzos knew about an alleged plot by McGriff to assassinate rapper 50 Cent.
"What the facts show is that they didn't give just give themselves names like Gotti," prosecutor Sean Haran said Monday at a pretrial hearing. "They wanted to be gangsters."
Lawyers for the Lorenzos say their clients' relationship with McGriff, a childhood friend, gave them "street credibility." But they also insist their business was legitimate.
"These two defendants did not receive cash from McGriff," said Gerald Shargel, who represents Christopher.
The brothers, who are free on $1 million bail, were charged in January in the same indictment as McGriff. But U.S. District Court Judge Edward Korman agreed to grant them a separate trial after the defense argued that prosecuting them with McGriff, who faces murder counts, would prejudice the jury.
McGriff, 44, and Lorenzo met on the streets in the 1980s as McGriff rose to power at the head of a ruthless crack-dealing crew called the Supreme Team. The crew employed scores of dealers, took in $200,000 a day and was responsible for at least eight murders in 1987 alone.
McGriff served about 10 years in prison.
Once released, he renewed his association with Gotti by helping Murder Inc. produce "Crime Partners 2000," a straight-to-video film starring Ja Rule, Snoop Dogg and Ice-T. Prosecutors say the film was financed with drug cash.
McGriff allegedly ordered the shooting of 50 Cent in May 2000 amid the rapper's ongoing war or words with Ja Rule. Investigators believe 50 Cent, who survived the shooting, had angered the drug lord by writing a song about him, titled "Ghetto Koran."
Murder Inc. changed its name to The Inc. last year after executives said the label's image was hurt by the racketeering case. If convicted, the Lorenzos face up to 20 years in prison.