Jonathan Green spent years researching the people, places, and events of the 1980s and '90s crack epidemic and specifically one of the Bronx's most ruthless gangs, Sex Money Murder. His book, Sex Money Murder: A Story of Crack, Blood, and Betrayal, distills all that research into an outstanding example of how powerful narrative non-fiction can be.
I vividly remember the bold headlines and somber news specials of the time about this new drug that spawned unprecedented violence and turned housing projects into war zones. Green's book is an intimate, insider's view of the young men like Pistol Pete and Suge who were coming of age in a time and place where the neighborhood symbols of wealth and power were drug dealers and gang members. Green also introduces the agents of law enforcement involved—some of them from the same neighborhoods as the gang members.
There are so many interesting aspects to the story as Green adds layer upon layer to paint the big picture. In the piece below, written exclusively for the Amazon Book Review, Green talks about the intersection of the new black celebrities of the time and wealthy young gang members like the Sex Money Murder crew.
The Cultural Power of Sex Money Murder
By Jonathan Green
On almost every drug raid back in the 1990’s—just after the police rushed through a splintered door hanging on its hinges—cops were often greeted by a poster of a snarling Al Pacino as Tony Montana in Scarface, often accompanied by a well-worn copy of the film in the video recorder, a de rigueur home decoration for hustlers in the cocaine trade, and perhaps an indication that the police were in the right house.
Drug dealers loved the rags-to-riches story of the Cuban refugee who came to US shores with nothing and built his drug empire through guile and ruthlessness. Those same young men who revered Scarface were to become underworld cultural icons of their own, none arguably as famous as Pistol Pete, the head of Sex Money Murder, one of the Bronx’s most dangerous drug crews. On Sunday nights at the Tunnel, one of Manhattan’s most famous clubs and normally a bastion of androgynous club kids and transgender disco queens, the racial makeup of the club completely changed when impresario Peter Gatien gave the club over to Mecca and the new form of the early 1990s: East Coast hip-hop.
Outside, the pavement pounded with the bass thundering from a flotilla of Range Rovers and black SUVs as the club flooded with a constellation of emerging black celebrities like Puff Daddy, the model Tyson Beckford, and the soon-to-be-famous rapper Nas, who rubbed shoulders with ascendant drug dealers making fortunes from crack cocaine at their head of their crews, notably Pistol Pete and Sex Money Murder. The gangsters wore custom gold chains emblazoned with the legend, "The World Is Yours," the words Scarface embraced as his credo. The rappers looked for the outlaw chic that an association with legendary gangsters could confer, while the dealers looked for the glamour, fame and cultural power that links to the newly-arrived rap elite offered. And in time, rappers like Nas would pay homage to these infamous gangsters on albums like God’s Son and the track "Get Down." He sang:
“New York streets where killers’ll walk like Pistol Pete.”
The legend has since blossomed. In 2018 Kendrick Lamar won the Pulitzer for his album, Damn., and its track, "DNA.," which contained a reference to Sex Money Murder: the new creed:
“Peace to the world, let it rotate
Sex Money Murder – our DNA”