Regardless of how the meaning got twisted—street thugs using witness intimidation to protect their own hides; hip-hop sending out a message that anyone in league with the po-po for any reason isn’t to be trusted; or the media getting it wrong and broadcasting misinformation—for the current generation, “Stop Snitching” is understood to mean that if you see something and say something, you’re liable to catch a slug as payback.
That’s the attitude Murphy’s trying to quell. “People have a responsibility to tell,” he insists, “and we’ve stopped educating our youth about civic values—your roles and responsibilities as a citizen.”
It’s the same message Dorothy Johnson-Speight, founder of Mothers in Charge—the organization of local women who’ve lost children to street violence (Bowser joined not long after her son’s murder)—has been struggling to deliver for a decade. She estimates that of the hundreds of mothers in her group, at least half of the homicides that claimed their kids remain unsolved, many because of “no snitching.”
Two weeks ago, Mothers in Charge, joined by the PPD, led a large motorcade around the city to denounce the escalating homicide rate. Along the way, they stopped to read the names of the murdered and essentially beg people to talk to the police if they have information about a killing—to help bring closure and begin to heal a mother’s grief.
“That code of the street makes me so angry because nobody should have that kind of loyalty to criminals,” says Johnson-Speight, whose 24-year-old son Khaaliq was shot in 2001 by a man who’d killed 19-year-old Justin Donnelly six months earlier, but remained out on the streets because witnesses wouldn’t “snitch” to the police. “It’s a mentality they have that’s very hard to penetrate,” she says, “so trying to convey our message [of cooperation] is always a challenge.”
Ross knows that frustrating feeling all too well. “I never turn down an opportunity to talk to young kids, but I realize that most of them are not paying me any attention,” he laments. That’s why he was thrilled when Torain approached him and Mayor Nutter to get behind “Start Snitching,” and invited them on “Star & Buc Wild” last summer to talk about the campaign.
“He’s one of those guys that can touch them in ways that we can’t, since he’s got a lot of credibility with the youth,” says Ross, whose daughter is a dedicated “Star & Buc Wild” fan, going back to when the show was syndicated on Power 99 from 2004 to 2006. “I had to get up every morning listening to it whether I wanted to or not,” he laughs. “[Torain] calls things like they are. Sometimes it made me cringe a little bit,” Ross adds, alluding to Torain’s liberal use of the N-word and rough street slang.
In fact, Torain’s initial meeting with Nutter and Ross had to be brokered by Barry Mayo and E. Steven Collins—widely respected bigwigs at urban media giant Radio One, which owns 100.3FM—because Torain’s outrageous and sometimes disturbing reputation had preceded him. The NYPD arrested him in 2006 after he made on-air threats to urinate on the 4-year-old daughter of radio rival DJ Envy and offered listeners $500 to tell him what school the girl attended. In 2001, he was suspended by Hot 97 after he broke the news of the death of R&B star Aaliyah with sound effects of a plane crash and a woman screaming. And during a 2004 gag gone way wrong, he dialed a call center in India and proceeded to call the customer service woman a “bitch” and a “rat-eater,” garnering widespread condemnation and a suspension from Power 99.
“I’ve said some fucked-up shit on the radio,” Torain admits. “People hear my name and they go, ‘Whoa, that guy. Whoa, whoa.’ So [Nutter and Ross] were looking at me at first, like, ‘I don’t know about this guy’ … but within three minutes I convinced them that I’m a serious guy and I was here to assist in Philly.”
Though he’s ramping things up with the Internet TV show, Torain’s “Start Snitching” campaign goes back nearly 10 years, when he started promoting a pro-snitching ethos on the air at Hot 97. “There was no single case, no great epiphany,” he says. “It’s just something that I’ve always wanted to do ever since I first started doing radio. I have a fascination with crimefighting.”
Torain’s a walking paradox. Growing up in an upper class household in Scotch Plains, N.J., he went to private schools, had an in-ground swimming pool, “got a brand-new moped every year,” and was the only black kid in his neighborhood into heavy metal and playing ice hockey. And yet, he says, when this seemingly soft, coddled kid started running on the crime side of New York in the early ’80s, “I never got my ass kicked, but I kicked a lot of niggas’ asses who were from the projects. A lot of niggas’ asses. I pistol-whipped people. I choked motherfuckers out. I beat motherfuckers’ asses on Nostrand Ave. in Brooklyn.”
He says that for most of the ’80s and into the ’90s, he snorted mountains of cocaine and committed various petty crimes. “There have been situations in my life where I could’ve gone to prison for five or 10 years,” he says. “But I’ve been a clean, rational man for many, many years now.”
In cleaning himself up and building the “Star & Buc Wild” brand from cable-access phenomenon to a syndicated radio juggernaut, he pulled off the singular feat of repping hip-hop to millions of listeners daily and being a central, celebrated figure in the hip-hop world, all the while ruthlessly criticizing myriad aspects of that world which he found objectionable.
He’s bringing a similar mindset to Start Snitching . “I’m addressing this from inside hip-hop, from the eye of the tornado, deep inside the culture that’s responsible for this ‘no snitching’ bullshit,” says Torain, noting that too many rappers are trying to “keep up the old gangsta persona” to make money, regardless of the ramifications their rhymes have on the street.
“I’ve spent a lot of years grindin’ that microphone,” he says. “People know I know what I’m talking about, they know where I’ve been and what I’ve done, and they’re gonna listen to me and respect what I have to say.”
“He’s fearless, and when he gets involved in something he gives his all, so I know it’s gonna be huge,” says Helene Sola—aka “White Trash Helene,” one of Torain’s sidekicks on “Star & Buc Wild” since 2004—who says he’s got a knack for relating to the kids that they need to absorb his message. “He knows the dance moves, he knows the forms, the lyrics … He looks like he’s 25 years old, he dresses like them. He knows what’s up, and he doesn’t talk down to them but he tells it like it is.”
Torain says the 30-minute show—the first episode of which is still in production and doesn’t have a firm air date yet, other than “mid-January”—will be a serious affair, which is why he’s divorcing himself from the Star name and persona.
“It’s going to be very similar to Bill O’Reilly or Nancy Grace,” he says. “I’ll be sitting at a desk. I’m not gonna be dropping F-bombs and N-words. It’s gonna be a very upscale show.”
Assisted by a small staff, including four NYPD officers acting as consultants, Torain will show sometimes-graphic footage of unsolved murders and other crimes—“people need to see what’s really going on out there”—and try to persuade viewers to snitch. The idea, he explains, isn’t just to right moral compasses, it’s about appealing to self-interest, too. “The animal you let get away with murder might come after you or your family next, even if you don’t say anything.”
He intends to keep moralizing to a minimum. “I’m not telling you to pull your pants up,” says Torain. “I’m not telling you how to wear your hair. I don’t care if you smoke weed, or if you drop it like it’s hot. I just don’t want motherfuckers out on the streets pullin’ triggers and people getting shot down. I’m not trying to hear little savages shootin’ up a SEPTA bus in North Philly. That’s all. John Walsh isn’t out there telling people how to hold a fork at the table. He just wants to get the bad guys off the streets.”
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.
PW's Summer Guide 2015