The real Rick Ross is not a rapper. The outsized rapper has little in common with the small South Central Los Angeles native, the high school dropout turned entrepreneur who grew a small business into a massive multi-state empire. “Freeway” Rick Ross’ reign of the crack game lasted more than a decade before his CIA-affiliated cocaine wholesaler attacked him and he was sentenced to life in prison.
Ross is now five years away from nearly twenty years behind bars, a period cut from life thanks to an appeal that helped rally the once-illiterate drug dealer behind bars. He’s famous – boxer Floyd Mayweather picked him up from a shelter after he was released – but he’s now crisscrossing the country telling his story to an enthusiastic audience, teaching at Fresno City College – and he’s also on look for involved in the cannabis industry.
His angle? Vegan edibles.
Ross discussed all this and more with SF Evergreen after a lecture at Laney College’s black student union. He is also promoting a book, “Freeway Rick Ross: the Untold Autobiography,” and was the subject of a two-part documentary, “Freeway: A Crack In The System,” which premiered on Al Jazeera in March.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
SF Evergreen: We saw you at the International Cannabis Business Conference in San Francisco in February. What is your interest in the marijuana industry?
Rick Ross: I want to participate. People have approached me (with offers)… It is a lot of money and I would like to open a pharmacy. I want to open one in my neighborhood, in South Central.
SFEG: What would the Rick Ross pharmacy look like?
RR: It gets fair… it has great prices, great service. I believe in giving consumers something they can’t get anywhere else. Just like how I ran my other business (laughter).
SFEG: Are you concerned about the image of “Rick Ross, the convicted crack dealer” selling another drug?
RR: New. They don’t say that about (prescription drugs) and they sell drugs that kill more people than illegal drugs combined.
I can find benefits in providing cannabis to the community… You can see, it’s been on TV, little girls have seizures. Cannabis helped them, solved their problems. I have no problem doing that.
SFEG: What special product would you offer?
RR: We want to make a vegan edible. We’re working on a business… we want to offer a whole line of vegan edibles. I’m really on a health journey – no sugar, no butter, no glucose. You don’t see many vegan, healthy edibles… That’s the kind of product I want to come up with.
SFEG: You do a lot of interviews and a lot of conversations. What do people ask you about the most?
RR: Well, the first thing people ask is, what do I think of the rapper who uses my name (Editor’s Note: Ross sued the prison guard turned rapper Rick Ross, but lost under the First Amendment). The next thing they ask is, what did I do with all the money.
SFEG: They are still fascinated by how you managed to dominate the crack trade. They’re not mad at you? Black crowd isn’t mad at you?
RR: New. People aren’t as mad at me as the general public would think. Most people understand. Especially when you come to a place like this (Laney College black sorority), they really understand why I did what I did.
It’s really amazing how quickly the black community forgave me. I’ve sold crack to the mothers, fathers and brothers of so many people – and they don’t blame me. They understand that it is something that many young people in this country have done.
SFEG: Your story has been out of print a lot lately. It was in a big Hollywood movie last year (“Kill the Messenger,” starring Jeremy Renner as real-life San Jose Mercury News journalist Gary Webb, who discovered that Ross, played by Michael K. Williams, is known for ” The Wire” provided cocaine with the knowledge of the CIA). But some people are still surprised to learn that the CIA knew where all the crack came from.
RR: Gary said it best. He said, “What happened to the news media when the CIA admitted they knew these guys were selling drugs, and the general public still doesn’t know?” That’s a blow to reporters. They have not reported. They didn’t tell the people. It should have been in every newspaper.
It’s still a story people don’t want to tell. The movie didn’t do well. It was shown for two weeks and they took it out. My story, nobody wanted it. I had to go to Al Jazeera. CNN, CBS, ABC, NBC… they wouldn’t touch it. They didn’t want the story. It’s too controversial.
I still have problems. Fresno City College, they let me come there to teach the kids, help them stay motivated… the teacher who wants me there is having trouble coming. I have to remind them, ‘You teach Malcom X, he went to jail too. He’s also a criminal.”
SFEG: Meanwhile, you’ve spoken at Brown University, at Stanford, at UCLA Law. The public, the white public, is fascinated by you.
RR: I don’t know if it’s fascination, but they want information. They want knowledge. And that’s what we’re making the black community understand. When you have more knowledge, you start to make better decisions. When I started making money in the cocaine trade, I got knowledge. When I didn’t know anything, I didn’t make any money. You must be thirsty for knowledge.
SFEG: Some people see you as a role model. Is a drug dealer giving life lessons the wrong message?
RR: I do not advise anyone to sell cocaine. It’s dangerous. It could cost you your life. I risked the lives of my entire family. I certainly don’t think anyone should imitate that.
But I went to jail because I couldn’t read. I learned how. I read every day, I read newspapers, I read law books. And now I’m getting paid to speak. For a man who was totally illiterate to speak at Brown University… what I’m doing now is unbelievable.
Teachers now ask me to come to their high school because they can see that I don’t come to kids to tell them how to be a drug dealer. I tell them that shit ain’t working. I’ve tried it. I was one of the best who ever did – and it didn’t work for me. So you won’t succeed.
SFEG: Your message now is hard work and passion will move you forward. Does it resonate?
RR: It’s worse for black people now than when I sold crack. Then we had jobs. My uncle, he drove a garbage truck. Now all garbage lanes are Spanish. All our wealth, it’s all lost. There aren’t any black businesses in South Central anyway…and that’s across the country. I travel all over the country, I go to the ghetto, and things are bad for blacks now. Worse than they did before. Probably worse than in the 60’s. They’ve lost everything, everything is gone – no property, no business.
Black people don’t even have control over the drug trade anymore. Even there, economic opportunities have been deprived.
It’s hard (convincing people that hard work pays off). They have to believe it works, and they really don’t believe it yet.
I tell these kids to work really hard. More difficult. Right now, some of these children are on their last legs, one step from prison. I tell them they have to go to school because their next step could be prison.
Photo by Gabrielle Lurie