This story was produced by The Center for Investigative Reporting.
This year, nearly two dozen people are scheduled to enter a federal courtroom to face charges related to the sale of Ecstasy and other drugs, including heroin, across Northern California and the country.
On its face, the case appears like any other federal drug sting. It was built over four years and began when a man named Michael Lott pulled a silver Mercedes-Benz into the parking lot of the Hiddenbrooke Golf Club in Vallejo, a struggling city about 30 miles from San Francisco, and allegedly tried to sell heroin to an undercover agent.
At the time of his arrest, Lott was the self-proclaimed CEO of Thizz Entertainment, the rap label started by Andre Hicks, the late rapper and mogul widely known as Mac Dre.
The label once promised to put the Bay Area hip-hop scene on the map, bringing with it a tight-knit group of rappers from the Crest, a working-class neighborhood in Vallejo notorious for drugs and gang violence. Hicks' crew helped popularize the Bay Area brand of party-centric hip-hop music called hyphy, launching rappers to major record stores and MTV.
But Hicks was killed, his violent death left unsolved. And now a decade of law enforcement scrutiny has cemented the fate of the independent label and the Bay Area rappers who once aspired to mainstream success.
For police, the record label's dramatic decline was predicted by listening to the music. Over two decades, Hicks and his rapping associates virtually taunted law enforcement.
Amid the rising popularity of gangster rap, prosecutors increasingly mined its lyrics for evidence in criminal matters. In 1990, prosecutors tried three members of 2 Live Crew on obscenity charges after a lurid performance at a Florida nightclub. Prosecutors used Snoop Dogg's "Murder Was the Case" during the rapper's 1996 murder trial. The rappers were acquitted in both cases.
In 1992, some of Hicks' songs, released through his own Romper Room Records label, implicated him in a series of robberies associated with the Crest's Romper Room Gang. Although Hicks' friends claimed the rapper was never an active participant in the crimes, he and two others were arrested and sent to federal prison. Hicks served five years.
Upon his release, Hicks quit rapping about robbery and moved on to partying. He dubbed his new entertainment company Thizz, a slang word for Ecstasy.
The new in-your-face branding caught on quickly and gave police a reason to keep following Hicks' career. It was only a matter of time, they surmised, before they'd catch the Thizz crew with the real thing.
"They were all rap artists first — they had some pretty big names on that label," said Sacramento County sheriff's Detective Brad Rose, who helped crack the case. "But those drugs are highly profitable."
Federal authorities would highlight the Thizz Entertainment connections when they announced their big takedown in April 2012.
But in the end, hundreds of pages of court records reveal that most of the people arrested in the operation had no connection to the label. A few were Thizz rappers and friends from the Crest. Michael Lott was not, in fact, CEO of the company, Hicks' mother said. And as a businessman and a drug dealer, he was pretty much a failure.
Vallejo's Musical Roots
During the heyday of funk in the 1970s, international stars like Con Funk Shun and Sly Stone had connections to Vallejo and its Crest neighborhood.
"We always have been a neighborhood where we get down with each other. We come from a city that has nothing," said Jamal Rocker, a Vallejo-born rapper known as Mac Mall and a contemporary of Hicks. "Like, when you hear the word 'cuddie,' it means cousin and friend. Even 'cutthroat,' that's a term of endearment."
Both Macs — Mac Dre and Mac Mall — are named in honor of one of the area's first musical successes, Michael "The Mac" Robinson, a rapper with a pimp persona who was shot and killed in Vallejo in 1991. According to Rocker, Robinson provided the mold for many kids from the Crest — "it all started with Michael Robinson" — and fondly remembers once getting a ride in Robinson's white Cadillac, where "there was so much bass I could barely breathe."
It was within that small world in the mid-'90s that a group of around a dozen kids who grew up together became known as the Romper Room crew, first for general neighborhood mischief and then later as a criminal enterprise.
The core group consisted of Jamal Diggs (J-Diggs), Simon Curtis Nelson (Kilo Curt), Andre Cawthorne (Dre from the Bay), Troy Reddick (Coolio Da'Unda'Dogg) and Hicks.
Hicks, lean and outgoing, had been known as a rising star from a young age, making waves with a cassette tape featuring a standout single, "Too Hard for the F—-in' Radio," in 1989 as a student at Hogan High School. His flow was fast and confident, and he built upon the bouncy bass that had its roots in the funk era.
But by that time, some of Hicks' friends and collaborators had begun robbing banks. Vallejo police began focusing on the Crest with newfound intensity, and as they struggled to solve the crimes, Hicks rapped about it.
In one song, Hicks described a harrowing credit union robbery. In another song, which he dedicated to Vallejo police Detective Dave McGraw, Hicks taunted the department: "Punk police, what a one-track mind, man you can't even find who's been robbin' you blind."
In 1992, Hicks already had several arrests under his belt, for assault and weapons possession, when the department and federal authorities decided to follow him, a wired confidential informant and two fellow rappers, Diggs and Nelson, to Fresno, where Hicks recently had performed with Ice Cube.
For two days, more than 35 officers and FBI agents trailed the friends as they picked up girls, shopped for sneakers and purchased deodorant at Wal-Mart.
On the first day, surveillance agents said the group cased a downtown Bank of America by driving in circles around the block. The friends parked an extra car nearby. Agents suspected they would use it later for their getaway.
After a late night of playing dice with several women in their motel rooms, Hicks stayed behind as Diggs and Nelson returned to the bank, according to the surveillance notes.
But authorities had not been careful: A television news crew monitoring police radio traffic had heard officers as they prepared to disrupt the heist. As surveillance agents watched Diggs and Nelson park the car and take out masks, a news van arrived.
Spooked by the cameras, the two sped back to the motel for Hicks and headed home. Police pulled them over two hours later on a deserted stretch of road somewhere near Los Banos.
Prosecutors charged Diggs and Nelson with attempted robbery and Hicks with conspiracy. They dubbed Hicks the ringleader and played some of his songs in the courtroom to bolster their case.
"They were bragging about it on a rap CD," Lt. JoAnn West said at a Vallejo Police Department news conference at the time. "It's kind of brazen for them to brag about it as though they were untouchable."
Agents claimed the trio was responsible for 13 robberies, alleging that proceeds from the crimes netted $1.5 million. In a pattern that would continue after Hicks' death, police sought to tie his success as a rapper to criminal enterprise. While it never was proven, police went on the record with statements alleging that the heists paid for Hicks' studio time.
Friends and fellow musicians disputed allegations that Hicks had anything to do with the heists. Still, he refused to implicate anyone else and did the time — and was celebrated for it. As Hicks grew in popularity, he brought his friends — less-popular performers like Michael "Miami the Most" Lott — along for the ride. Long after his death in 2004, they remained loyal devotees.
Parking Lot Meetings
In August 2009, Brian Nehring, an undercover agent for the Drug Enforcement Administration, called Lott to set up a buy.
Surveillance agents in nearby cars watched as Lott arrived in a silver Mercedes-Benz and greeted Nehring. He handed him a plastic-wrapped Kilo Curt CD and Mac Dre DVD from his Thizz label — on the house.
Lott, a muscular man with gold-plated teeth, didn't know much about Nehring. Their relationship consisted of intermittent drug sales in and around gas stations and parking lots near the Crest, where Lott had grown up. After their first meeting — a confidential informant for the DEA introduced them — Nehring appeared to conduct his business with Lott alone. He'd call him with requests and pay in cash — $6,400 for seven ounces of cocaine base, $4,400 for 600 Ecstasy pills.
Nehring, on the other hand, knew a lot about Lott. In addition to the shared intelligence from Vallejo police, who had long known Lott as a member of Hicks' crew, Lott continually bragged to Nehring about his connections to Thizz.
During a meeting in January 2009, Lott had told Nehring that he needn't be wary of him; he was well known worldwide as Miami the Most, the famous rapper and music executive. He told him about his appearances on Jamie Foxx's radio show and in a BET documentary about the Romper Room crew. He claimed to have been best friends with Hicks, Thizz Entertainment's founder, according to the agent's notes.
In fact, Lott bragged on this particular August day, the silver Mercedes he had driven to meet Nehring once belonged to Hicks.
Lott handed Nehring 189 grams of heroin, and Nehring paid him $5,200. Over a nearly two-year period, he would pay Lott $100,000 more. Lott told friends and acquaintances that he owed his success to Hicks and Thizz, he was busy in the music studio and he entertained visitors at his upscale Hiddenbrooke home.
But Lott was not the man Nehring described in his notes. In subsequent months, the self-proclaimed mogul would be evicted from his house after he failed to pay nearly a year's worth of rent. He'd find himself without a car. He'd bury his friend and Ecstasy supplier, Marico Whitemon, who was shot dead outside a liquor store at the entrance to the Crest. A man accused of killing Whitemon, a small-time marijuana dealer, would walk away unscathed. And friends and former associates said the status Lott claimed to have — as a successful music executive — fell away.
Birth Of A Record Label
After the Romper Room arrests in 1992, the prison time could have crushed Hicks' up-and-coming career, but he capitalized on the attention. Longtime Bay Area hip-hop producer Khayree recorded new raps from Hicks over the phone from inside prison, releasing another album on cassette while Hicks remained behind bars. In addition to the $5.99 recording, the duo also sold $10 T-shirts and $12 caps.
"They try to keep me down, keep me in a ditch, but the only thing they doin' is makin' me rich," Hicks rapped.
Eventually, Hicks decided to give himself some distance from the Romper Room Gang. In 1999, Hicks, Nelson and a San Rafael-based distributor called City Hall Records formed a new record label: Thizz Entertainment.
Hicks gained a diverse following, selling thousands of CDs in places like France, South Africa, even rural parts of the United States. One of his largest contributions to the new reigning hip-hop vernacular and crossover scene was the same word he gave to his record label: thizz. Already emerging as a more popular street drug, Hicks popularized the word and the experience, transforming the tone of the local hip-hop scene from hard and gangster to more wild, fun and carefree.
"He really was on Ecstasy pills and thizzing," said Reddick, also known as Coolio Da'Unda'Dogg, an original member of the Romper Room crew who produced and rapped with Hicks.
Hip-hop journalist Davey D said it was less a paean to the experience of taking Ecstasy than part of Hicks' character. The rapper was famous for his "thizz face" — a variant on "funk face" or "gas face."
"It has that double meaning that the music is so nasty, you gotta squint your face," Davey D said.
A Sudden Blow
In November 2004, hyphy's rise, and the accompanying rise in all things Thizz, was dealt a shocking setback.
Hicks had just left his concert in Kansas City, Mo., when a car pulled up alongside his van — driven by Major Norton, a Thizz rapper known as Dubee, who is also a co-defendant in the current drug ring case — and opened fire. Police, who never solved the crime, found Hicks' bullet-torn body alongside the vehicle.
For a brief period, Hicks' death reinvigorated the hyphy movement, and he became its larger-than-life symbol. Tattoos, decals, shirts and more bearing his likeness proliferated. Diggs wore a gigantic "Mac Dre" chain around his neck; Lott began driving a black Hummer with Hicks' face on the side.
His birthday, July 5, became known as Dre Day, an annual holiday that drew hundreds to the Crest. When MTV showed up to film a special about hyphy in 2007, the stars gave respect to Hicks, calling him the "grandfather of hyphy."
Hicks' label, Thizz Entertainment, immediately pivoted upon his passing. The label's leaders accelerated plans to spin off the distribution arm, Thizz Nation. Hicks' mother, Wanda Salvatto, took control of Thizz Entertainment as a way of controlling his large musical catalog — overnight, Thizz Entertainment transformed from an active record label to the estate of Mac Dre.
Under new leadership, Thizz Nation expanded. Imprints such as Thizz Latin launched, and Nelson, also known as Kilo Curt, recruited many from the Crest to record under the Thizz umbrella.
"Mac Dre kept the Bay Area rap scene alive for years after his death," said Walter Zelnick, vice president of distribution for City Hall Records, which had invested in Thizz Entertainment. But Nelson "signed too many people to his label. Some of them did well; most didn't."
Ecstasy Finds New Market
As hyphy caught on, local authorities began to notice a steady uptick in the drug's street-level sales.
"It used to be real popular with the rave clubs, and then it became more widespread on the streets," said Capt. Ken Weaver of the Vallejo Police Department. "It became the drug choice of the rappers. They started singing about it in their lyrics."
In Vallejo, detectives already believed some Thizz rappers had made the transition from rapping about Ecstasy to selling it. They kept their eyes on the Crest and the rappers' latest releases.
Their big break came in 2008, when Steve Davison, a Thizz rapper known as PSD, was caught at the Sacramento airport with 6,000 Ecstasy pills hidden in his pants. Nehring, the undercover agent, was called to the scene.
At the time, Vallejo detectives already were following Lott and other Thizz associates. Authorities said Davison's arrest confirmed their suspicions. They began working with the DEA and other agencies on an undercover operation that extended as far as Wisconsin.
Using a confidential informant, Nehring got an introduction to Lott as a potential customer in August 2008. Soon, he and Lott began meeting and talking regularly on the phone to schedule drug transactions, with agents monitoring the rapper and his associates, many who still lived in the Crest and other Vallejo neighborhoods.
Over the next two years, Lott unknowingly led the DEA into the heart of the local drug operation, in which he played the role of disorganized middleman. During their second meeting, Lott went inside his friend's apartment complex and returned with 400 Ecstasy pills, which he sold to Nehring for $1,600 in cash. The pills turned out to be a mixture of caffeine and dextromethorphan, a cough suppressant, according to court records.
Later, Lott called Nehring and told him that if he was dissatisfied with the quality of the pills, he would provide a full refund because "he wished to keep my future business," Nehring wrote in his report. But Nehring did not ask for a refund and continued placing orders, soon over the phone. Surveillance agents recorded Lott as he often scrambled to deliver, calling various connections until he found someone who could meet Nehring's needs.
After Nehring placed an order for 4,000 tablets, agents intercepted Lott making a series of harried phone calls, hoping to find a supplier on short notice. He found Nicholas "White Boy Nick" Ramirez, an alleged Ecstasy dealer from the neighboring Vallejo suburb American Canyon, according to authorities.
Ramirez made frequent trips to Vallejo, Houston, Las Vegas and Atlanta and had his girlfriend ship gift-wrapped packages containing marijuana and Ecstasy to addresses in Oklahoma and New York, according to court records. Ramirez had no hip-hop credentials.
Nor did Ung Duong, charged with supplying Ramirez and ultimately Lott with the Ecstasy Lott sold to the undercover agent.
Ramirez's alleged associate Frank Alioto, a descendant of a former San Francisco mayor, was producing hip-hop records at the time of his arrest. But Alioto's former label, Wash House Records, had no connection to Thizz Entertainment.
Yet upon announcing the arrests, authorities highlighted Lott's self-proclaimed status as Thizz Entertainment's chief executive. Listed among the 25 defendants preparing to go trial, Lott is No. 1.
Separating The Music
After the arrests, Hicks' mother and business partners immediately sought to distance the label from Lott.
"It was quite upsetting. I was pretty shocked," said Zelnick, the City Hall Records vice president. "When I saw Miami (on the list) and they said he was CEO of Thizz, I just couldn't believe it. He's a character, he makes a lot of claims, but he's definitely not CEO."
Although Lott ran his own Thizz imprint, rap music fans said they hadn't seen new music from the rapper in years. Law enforcement officials, according to Thizz spokesman and producer Jay King, have their facts wrong.
"This isn't rocket science. It just takes somebody doing a little bit of police work and a little bit of investigation to recognize these are kids that are just calling themselves Thizz Entertainment because everyone wants to be associated with Mac Dre," he said. "You see a bunch of guys who dress up as Elvis Presley. But are they Elvis? Thizz has only one artist, and his name is Andre Hicks. Anybody else using the name Thizz is just using it arbitrarily, without merit and without authorization or permission."
While Lott bragged about his connections to fame and fortune, in the small city of Vallejo, others knew the Thizz Entertainment craze, and Lott's stake in it, was largely over.
"Vallejo is not a huge city, so everybody knows everybody," said Earlissa Ellis, whose boyfriend, co-defendant Eric Robinson, is charged with supplying heroin to Lott. The two grew up together in the Crest. "Thizz wasn't doing a whole lot of entertainment from what I was seeing."
Lott had claimed to own his own house, but court records show a series of evictions from various homes throughout Vallejo. Among Solano County landlords, Lott was considered a scam artist, a serial renter who would pay one month's rent and squat in the house until a judge ordered him out. He and his wife had trashed the Hiddenbrooke home, on a serene street overlooking the Vallejo hills, before they were forced to move on in the summer of 2011, leaving thousands of dollars worth of damage and angry neighbors.
"Garbage, maggots, it was gross. Disgusting," said Nicole Cheverier, property manager at Vallejo Realty Management, from which Lott rented one of his homes in 2008. "I was scared to deliver the eviction notice, so I had two officers come with me."
According to Ellis, the family moved into a downtown motel. Lott and his family did not respond to a request for comment.
By the time federal authorities went public in April 2012, Lott had disappeared. He was found seven months later in Las Vegas.
"It's unfortunate, him getting into the narcotics business," said Nelson who is still producing Thizz Nation albums. "We work so hard. We friends. But to come to 2012 and be labeled a drug label, it's a bad taste in my mouth. We maybe should have monitored a little bit."
As the court case inches through the system, the Crest's musical future remains uncertain. According to Zelnick, Thizz Nation and Thizz Entertainment's output has slowed to a trickle. Even their upcoming works, like a documentary on Thizz, are about memorializing the past rather than moving toward the future.
"We're still looking for the next Mac Dre," Zelnick said.