But Torain won’t pull any punches with the rappers on his shit list. “I took my gloves off years ago,” he says. On the debut episode, Torain plans to call for a national boycott of Busta Rhymes, who just signed to Cash Money Records—home to hip-hop superstars Lil Wayne, Drake and Nicki Minaj—in hopes of resurrecting his flagging career.
“I think Busta Rhymes is a real piece of shit,” says Torain. “He watched a guy get gunned down, a father of three, and he won’t talk to the police because he wants to keep his street credibility. What a fucking idiot.”
Torain’s still seething over the 2006 incident in which Busta’s bodyguard, Israel “Izzy” Ramirez, was shot to death outside a Brooklyn warehouse where Busta, 50 Cent, Missy Elliott and Mary J. Blige, along with 500 extras, were shooting the video for “Touch It.” Though Busta maintained he was inside the building at the time of the shooting, witnesses placed the rapper right next to Ramirez when the bullets started flying. Busta refused to cooperate with the investigation, angering police—at the time, NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly publicly berated the rapper for withholding information—and the murder remains unsolved.
Other targets, whose songs or videos, Torain says, promote anti-snitching messages: The Game (“He’s a fucking clown—we’re gonna go after his dumb ass”), Lil Wayne (“Fuckin’ ignorant”), and Kreayshawn (“She’s out there talkin’ that silly shit: ‘I’m in the VIP with the chopper,’ which is a gun. Really?”)
“We don’t wanna beat up on hip-hop, but it does have to be pointed out that hip-hop glorifies ignorance, and people need to see how stupid this shit really is,” says Torain. “Maybe when they start really seein’ that, they’ll start to think differently.”
But if the streets are any indication, getting people to start snitching is going to remain an uphill battle.
At the Kingsessing Rec Center in SW Philly, where six people were shot when a gunman fired into a crowd of hundreds watching an adult league basketball game last summer, a group of teenage boys standing near the courts laugh about the idea of cooperating with police if they’d witnessed that or any other incident.
“I ain’t talkin’ to no police,” says one.
“Snitches get stiches,” says another, repeating the mantra. “I don’t wanna get shot too,” agrees his friend.
Near King’s Water Ice In North Philly, not far from where Linwood Bowser was gunned down, a 37-year-old man who declines to give his name also balks for similar reasons. “I got three kids—they need they father,” he says, adding that he has no confidence in the police to properly handle witness cooperation. “Cops say they’ll keep it quiet, then they roll up to your house to ask you questions and the whole neighborhood knows you did it.”
There’s skepticism inside Philly’s rap game, too. “I respect [Torain’s] sentiment and I guess his heart’s in the right place, but what he’s saying isn’t realistic,” says Sharif Lacey, aka Reef the Lost Cauze. “I don’t think people are gonna go from not trusting the police to talking to the police because someone started a campaign.”
Reef says mistrust of the police, more than any kind of allegiance to street code, is at the heart of the “no snitching” mindset. Citing the negative relationship many young black men have with police, and his own experiences being hassled by cops for no reason, the 30-year-old Lacey—a prodigious freestyle rapper and veteran battle emcee who’s never run afoul of the law, and is known for his work mentoring kids in Philly—says it may be too late to repair the fractured trust between cops and the hood.
“I know that in order for anyone to ever want to cooperate with the police, the police have to ensure that people are gonna be treated with the respect they deserve,” says Reef. “What happens when you call the police is you end up being interrogated by them like you’re the one who did something wrong—‘Do you know these people? How do you know them? Where these people at?’ All this shit.”
And, he says, the fear factor is very real. “[Police] let you fend for yourself after they get the information they need. I’ve known people who’ve tried to do the right thing … and they end up getting killed. People think it’s the movies where there’s two cops outside your door every day. Naw, man—maybe the day before you’re supposed to testify they’ll come and get you. But the idea that the police are protecting you from whatever’s out there is bullshit … you’re on your own, and everyone out here knows that.”
While Reef concedes that hip-hop bears some responsibility for promoting “no snitching,” he says there are rappers out there who address the harsh realities and repercussions of snitching, without coming off corny, soft or preachy. Reef’s one of them—on his new track “Devil’s Advocate,” he spits about a “real nigga” who “wasn’t the violent type but he would see evil on all kinds of nights and chose to remain the silent type,” even after witnessing thugs robbing and killing an old lady:
Seen the whole thing and just shut his blinds/But he couldn’t get the image of her busted spine from his blunted mind /Time passed and the summer was sick/That was until his little brother got hit/Now he’s out for answers but niggas stick to the script/So when he asked what happened ain’t nobody seen shit.
Lyrically, Reef’s message isn’t that far removed from Torain’s. But he still can’t get behind Start Snitching.
“My whole thing is, and it might sound a little bit crazy, I’m not opposed to vigilante justice,” he says. “I feel like that’s where we’re at in this time. I’m not saying people need to go out and start shooting at criminals. But there was a period where you couldn’t do things in certain areas because they knew the brothers there weren’t having it. We need to get back to that. We need to tell kids that if you see something, tell an adult and we’ll handle it. I know you can’t take the law into your own hands, but if people don’t feel like they can talk to the police then nothing gets done at all. So I’m looking at it like the lesser of two evils.”
You can add that perspective to the list of things Torain’s not trying to hear. “That’s retaliatory shit, you can’t do that shit. Then you get people shooting into a crowd. I could be in the club when that goes down. I could be in the bar that night.”
He’s not buying the fear argument, either. “Not an excuse,” says Torain. “That cannot be the overruling decision, that if I speak [to police] I’m gonna be retaliated on. I say that’s a small, distorted reality. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen, but that fear is magnified more than what it really is. You can’t let fear keep you from doing the right thing. You have to strive to do more, to do better.”
The cops may have her killers, but friends and neighbors of Aguirre-Alonso insist that in the weeks before her death, cops put the 29-year-old’s life at risk by making it obvious to everyone on her violence-plagued Badlands block that she was being questioned as a witness to Chevere’s murder.
First Person Arts Podcast: Proud Mom