Why Are the NYPD ‘Hip-Hop Police’ Spying on Rappers?
In the midst of calls to defund the police, the NYPD still has a unit dedicated to keeping tabs on rappers. Here’s a closer look at the "hip-hop police."
Image via Getty/Andrew Burton
The current nationwide uprising against police violence is changing everything. Protests in cities around the country, and the violent law enforcement and military response to all of it, have affected almost every aspect of American life, from laws about police disciplinary records to NASCAR. For the first time in years, many Americans are beginning to really reckon with what policing is and how it works.
While police violence against Black people is finally being debated and responded to in the halls of power, there is a related aspect of policing that, many feel, is due to be re-examined: how the police deal with hip-hop. And for one very big reason: for over two decades, the largest police force in the United States has had a unit dedicated to keeping tabs on rappers and the people around them.
The story of the New York Police Department’s so-called “hip-hop police”—now known as the Enterprise Operations Unit—begins with Derrick Parker. Parker was a detective in the NYPD who, in 1996, joined the department’s Cold Case Squad. He was also a longtime hip-hop aficionado who knew a lot of players in the industry. Following the Notorious B.I.G.’s murder in 1997, Parker says he caught up other members of the NYPD on rap’s major players, giving them a four-hour presentation about the East Coast/West Coast rivalry. (Interestingly, Parker claims that when Biggie went to L.A. for the trip that would get him killed, he was followed there by NYPD officers from the department’s Major Case Squad—he remembers only that it had to do with “some robberies or something.”)
In 1999, the “rap intel” unit, a subset of the NYPD’s Gang Intelligence Unit, was officially created, with Derrick Parker at the helm. Its main job was to gather information on everyone in hip-hop. “I was at clubs. I was at concerts,” Parker told Complex last year. “Wherever there was a party or an event, I was there watching, looking.”
The top brass asked for easily digestible information about big artists. Parker put together files on figures like Jay-Z, Cam’ron, Damon Dash, Busta Rhymes, and 50 Cent—files that he would then share with police departments in other cities.
The rap intel unit’s existence was revealed in a blockbuster 2004 Miami Heraldarticle (the NYPD initially denied the unit’s existence after the article’s publication, but ended up copping to it days later). In 2005, their files would leak. This public exposure led many to decry the unit’s existence, saying it engaged in racial stereotyping.
Piecing together old mugshots and arrest records was far from the rap intel unit’s only job. Derrick’s approach of constantly “watching, looking” remained protocol even after he left. To this day, officers create reports about rap shows in NYC, naming artists they believe are gang members or that have rivals who may show up looking for trouble. Parker makes a point to defend the unit he started. “Their job is to prevent things from happening,” he says. “I know people think they’re monitoring [rappers], but actually, it’s for their safety.”
But the rap intel squad, now known as the Enterprise Operations Unit, takes that approach too far, according to many.
“They’re a shadowy specialized unit that conducts overly aggressive investigations that monitor every move of entertainers,” says Dawn Florio, who has represented a number of rappers including Remy Ma and 6ix9ine. “To me, it's like stalking at the highest level.”
Florio recalls the NYPD placing undercover cops in the audience when Remy was performing at Irving Plaza in 2018. The Enterprise Operations Unit was concerned not only about Remy, but about a man named Jahmeek Elliot, who they said was part of the rapper’s entourage. All of this came to light in a May 2019 New York Post article that revealed information about the cops’ surveillance of Remy that Florio characterizes as “very disturbing.”
She denies that her client knew Elliot at all, much less was aware he was at Remy’s concert. In fact, Florio continues, the NYPD’s entire reasoning is flawed.
“[Remy] doesn't travel with an entourage,” Florio says. “She travels with her husband, Papoose.”
“They’re a shadowy specialized unit that conducts overly aggressive investigations that monitor every move of entertainers. To me, it's like stalking at the highest level.” - Dawn Florio
The hip-hop police don’t just make reports about who is going to be appearing at a club. In conjunction with local cops or other units in the NYPD, they also intimidate club owners into canceling events.
Parker is open about this. He says that if cops believe an artist’s appearance is likely to create violence, the NYPD will threaten the club owner with a raid.
“This is how you hurt the club,” he divulges. “You approach them and you tell the clubs, ‘If you allow this rapper there and, God forbid, he shoots somebody or something happens, we're going to take it out on you. We’re going to have a M.A.R.C.H.’”
M.A.R.C.H. stands for “Multi-Agency Response to Community Hotspots.” It’s a type of raid by the authorities that can destroy a business. The “multi-agency” part, Parker explains, means that the fire department, the building department, the State Liquor Authority, and more all show up. “There’s no way they leave without giving you a summons,” he says.
Sometimes, he continues, M.A.R.C.H. raids can be called even if there’s no violence—they happen simply if the club books an artist the cops don’t want them to.
“If you defied the police, that could happen,” Parker admits. “If they told you not to and you did it anyway, they could still come in and M.A.R.C.H. with you.”
The NYPD’s aggressive approach towards rap concerts exploded into public view last October, when the department sent a letter to the Rolling Loud festival, asking them to remove five local artists (22Gz, Casanova, Pop Smoke, Sheff G, and Don Q) from the bill of their NYC show. The letter became public, and the festival organizers caved to the demands.
While the letter came from NYPD Assistant Chief Martin Morales, who worked in the Queens neighborhood where the festival was taking place, Parker says that the police got information on which artists to ban from the Enterprise Operations Unit.
For those rappers, and other New York City artists judged to be dangerous by a few officers, performing in their hometown has become effectively impossible. In the wake of Rolling Loud, both Casanova and Pop Smoke had NYC shows canceled (“I know they’d be fucking with me” if he tried to perform in the city, Pop told Complex in his final interview). And 22Gz told Complex that the police have effectively banned him from performing in the city (“If they see me post a flyer, they’ll call the venue. They’ll say, ‘If he performs here, we’re going to harass everybody at the venue.’”) Not only that, he claimed the cops even tried to shut down a turkey drive he was taking part in at a local school.
The NYPD has been known to take things even further. Parker remembers one time years back when his unit placed an informant in the entourage of L.A. rapper The Game when he visited New York.
“Game was like, ‘How did these guys know [that I was in New York]?’ Well, we have detectives that work in the airport and we knew that this guy was coming and we had a tracking device on him. We had somebody in an entourage that we knew was driving a car that we could attach something to [so] wherever they went, we would know where they would be.”
That type of intense surveillance is worrying to civil rights advocates like Kamau Franklin. Franklin is an organizer and activist, and spent years as a civil rights attorney, specializing in issues around police misconduct. To him, the hip-hop police aren’t just a few people gathering files and keeping track of who’s hanging out with who. The fact that they’re watching a genre of music made largely by young Black men means that the ways the NYPD as a whole treatsBlackmen is playing out in this unit as well.
“This is a continuation of how folks in our community are watched [and] targeted by the police,” he tells Complex. “If you don't have actual, real probable cause to arrest somebody, then you should not be following them.”
Franklin continues, “It's supposed to be, if you have evidence to believe that someone is involved in criminal behavior, or someone has committed a crime, then those are the bases for getting a warrant. In these cases, none of that was established. It was based on the whim of: we think these people are potentially violent because of what they rap about or sing about in their music. Therefore, we think that gives us justification to follow them, to question them, to basically interrogate them at times around what they were doing in the community.”
“This is a continuation of how folks in our community are watched [and] targeted by the police. If you don't have actual, real probable cause to arrest somebody, then you should not be following them.” - Kamau Franklin
Dawn Florio has seen this interrogation up close. One of her clients, whom she declines to name (“It’s a rapper that has a hit in the top 10,” she teases) was pulled over after leaving a concert. But that wasn’t all. Not only was the rapper stopped, all of the cars in back of him were as well. And, she continues, the rapper was questioned and all of the cars were searched.
“That, to me, is violating your constitutional rights,” she says. “They think that they have carte blanche, and they don’t.”
Cedric Muhammad sees that attitude of carte blanche extending back far beyond Derrick Parker’s time on the force. Muhammad, a 48-year-old economist and CEO of The Hip-Hoppreneur who has a long history in the rap world, first noticed the police presence in hip-hop back in 1996, when he says NYPD cops began following him on his way to recording studios. But in his mind, the story goes back even further, to the FBI’s infamous COINTELPRO (COunterINTELligence PROgram) that aimed to spy on, infiltrate, and disrupt people and organizations ranging from the Black Panthers to the American Indian Movement to the Communist Party USA. The program, governed by J. Edgar Hoover, had a particular animus against Black activists and Black-led organizations. Along with the Panthers, it targeted Martin Luther King, Jr., the Nation of Islam, Ron Karenga’s United Slaves organization, and many more.
One of COINTELPRO’s main objectives, Muhammad reminds Complex in an email, was that “no political activist or somebody with an ideology that was perceived as a threat to the establishment should have access to a mass communication media.” And by the 1980s, with many Black radical organizations destroyed—in large part by these very FBI efforts—rappers were becoming viewed as spokespeople. So to Muhammad, the NYPD’s rap unit, whatever the intentions of any individual officer (“There are many well-meaning and professional police officers who do care about the artist, their families, and entourage,” he allows), is part of that same effort to deny mass communication tools to people perceived as threats.
Muhammad backs up his thesis by pointing out that as the rap intel unit was getting its footing, the idea of “gang intelligence” was gaining currency in policing circles around the country (and remember, the rap intel squad was originally a part of the Gang Intelligence Unit).
“You can’t really separate the hip-hop cops from the quote-unquote ‘gang cops,’ and there were many who recognized the convergence of the two,” Muhammad clarifies in a follow-up interview. “They saw the rapper as the spokesperson for the gang.”
This is not something that Parker denies. “These gang members had a big control of the rap industry back then” is how he recalls the scene in the late ‘90s as his unit was getting off the ground.
One issue, though, is that as the police continue to gather intelligence on rappers and everyone around them, pressure builds to make use of it.
“If you’re building this index, then you're basically trying to figure out ways in which to try to charge people in conspiracy and so forth,” Franklin explains. “You want to make sure that all this investigation, and time, and energy potentially leads to something. It’s human nature.”
Or, as Cedric Muhammad puts it, “Data can’t think. It is only as good as the ability of the person collecting and analyzing it to overcome their own biases and come to proper conclusions. Aside from privacy violations, that is what makes counterintelligence operations so dangerous. They potentially reinforce stereotypes, justify violence and institutionalize prejudice.”
So what should be done about the Enterprise Operations Unit? As talk of defunding the police picks up momentum across the country following the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and many others, there’s a growing sentiment that this is one of the first units that should be disbanded. Even some of its strongest critics recommend that other policing reforms would need to accompany such a move, though.
Franklin, who doesn’t shy away from calling the hip-hop police “overtly racist,” expresses fear that disbanding the unit would lead to, in his words, “the same thing under another name.”
“You would find some other justifications to have these kinds of investigations happening, and that they would just be smarter next time,” he says. “I’m for disbanding, but by no means do I think that means that that’s going to be the end of the surveillance.”
Florio admits that she does see value in the police trying to protect rappers’ lives. But she argues, “I think they have to tread more carefully and they have to be more respectful of people's rights.”
“This unit is really out of control.”