August 28, 2015

The Streets, Hip Hop, and Comic Books: An interview with writer Seth Ferranti

By In Interviews

Outlaws occupy a prominent place in the American cultural landscape.

Wild West legends like the thieving Butch Cassidy, the gambling Doc Holiday and the murderous Billy the Kid have been the subject of many songs, writings, and films. Great Depression-era anti-heroes such as Pretty Boy Floyd and Bonnie & Clyde have received similar treatments. In addition, our continual obsession with the Mafia experience cannot be dismissed. Storytellers have long used a multitude of contexts to detail the exploits of American bad boys and girls.

One such storyteller is Seth Ferranti (@SethFerranti), whose written work captures the experiences and exploits of inner-city street legends. These urban outlaws, like New York’s Kenneth “Supreme” McGriff and Washington D.C.’s Wayne Perry, ruled the metropolitan underground with iron fists and have become mythologized through oral history within their communities as well as hip hop culture. Ferranti has published articles in Vice Magazine, the Daily Beast, the New York Daily News as well as his own site, Gorilla Convict. He is also the author of several books including Prison Stories (2007) and The Supreme Team (2012), all published through his company, also called Gorilla Convict. 

Ferranti’s own story is one of legend. He is a self-proclaimed “All American boy” who somehow ended up serving over twenty years in the federal penitentiary for drug-related charges. He published much of his work behind bars.

His newest project is a comic book called Supreme Team: A Comic About Crime, Crack and Hip HopIt is based on the story of The Supreme Team, the Queens, NY-based crime organization that ruled the streets in the 1980s-1990s. Though they flooded the streets with crack and were responsible for much bloodshed, many idolized the Supreme Team for what Ferranti calls their “style and swag.” In impoverished Jamaica, Queens, The Supreme Team’s fine clothes, fancy cars, expensive jewelry reflected their relative “power” and captivated many youth. They also impacted New York hip hop culture in the late 1980s and have been immortalized in song by artists such as Nas, 50 Cent, and Ja Rule. Currently raising money for the project through a Kickstarter campaign, Ferranti seeks to explore the Supreme Team’s complicated story through the medium of comic books.

Street Folk talked to Ferranti about getting education in prison, the complexities of telling street stories, why he turned to comics, and much more:

You have an incredibly fascinating life story. So, to start, can you talk about where you grew up and what your life was like as a youth? 

Seth Ferranti: I would say, basically, I grew up in the suburbs. So I was almost like—my dad was in the military, so I was a military brat. We were stationed mostly in California ‘cause my dad was in the Navy, but I lived overseas. I lived in Germany when I was a little kid. I lived in England. I lived in Virginia Beach. So we got transferred around. But my parents owned a house in San Diego, so we actually kept moving back to San Diego and [didn’t] station there. You know, we’d go some place for a couple years and then go back to San Diego. But, basically, you know, I come from a middle class background. Grew up in the suburbs with both parents. You know, I was involved in sports. You know, really involved in school. You know, involved in church. Not to say that I was an All-American boy, but you know I was pretty close.

From what I’ve read, you spent over 20 years in prison. How’d you go from being an All-American boy to spending 20 years incarcerated? 

SF: My dad retired when I was 16 and he got a job as a defense contractor in Northern Virginia, like right outside of D.C. And we moved to like a real upper middle class area in Northern Virginia, Fairfax, Virginia, ‘cause my dad was making a lot more money, probably like double what he was making in the military. So, when I moved out there, I was like the quintessential California kid, you know, coming into this lily-white, you know, area. Which was—it was different for me too ‘cause California, even the middle class areas in California, everything’s pretty multicultural and that’s kind of how I grew up. And then being like a military brat too, you know, living on bases and stuff, it’s pretty multicultural too, you know, for like the different races and ethnic groups and stuff. You know, ‘cause a lot of military families. So, going to like this lily-white area in the mid-80s was a lot different for me. It was basically like a bunch of little rich kids that, you know, when they were 16, their parents—they got the hand-me-down Mercedes or the hand-me-down BMW or their parents bought them like a brand new Mustang 5.0 or a Jimmy 4×4.

So when I came there, everybody wanted drugs. They were going around looking for drugs like weed and LSD and couldn’t find or it was real expensive. So, because I was trying to be popular, I told people that I could get it. I’m like, “Man. I can call. I got family members. I got friends in California. I can call them. I can get whatever sent.” You know, I mean? A couple of kids, who actually became my co-defendants for my case, brought me like a couple thousand dollars each and they’re like “Man, get what you can get.” So, I called up my cousins and I got some drugs sent out. You know, I sent them the money and I got some LSD and marijuana sent out. And that was probably when I was 16. Three years later that turned into me supplying 15 colleges in five states with LSD and marijuana.

So what led to your arrest?

Man I never thought I was like a big drug dealer. I mean, for a kid I was a big drug dealer. But in the big scheme of things, you know, I wasn’t. At my best I was making $20,000 to $30,000 a month.

What sparked my arrest was that in Fairfax they used to have these big field parties out in this area called Clifton where there were million dollar homes. The cops went out and raided one of the field parties. And there was a kid, a young kid like 15 years old who was tripping on LSD and ran from the cops. Like, I think he was running through the woods naked or something. And when the cops tackled him, he grabbed the cop’s gun and shot the cop in the arm. So it turned into an LSD witch-hunt. You know, the cops got all up in arms ‘cause one of their own got shot. And, of course, the young kid who was tripping, he snitched about where he got it and that led to a whole bunch of cases and federal indictments. And then eventually, about three cases later, they figured out who I was. I got indicted in September ’91. I was 19 years old, about to turn 20.

Also, I took off. I was a fugitive for two years. I was actually on the US Marshalls’ Top 15 most wanted fugitive list for two years. They eventually caught me, brought me back and I got sentenced. I got 25 years. I received a twenty-year mandatory minimum for a “kingpin charge” because that’s what they charged me with. But I got five extra years tacked on for running.

I understand that you received a college education while in prison. Can you talk about what it was like to go to college in prison? 

When I first went in, they would to bring college instructors to the compound and had classrooms set up. The classes were real small, maybe like 8-12 students and a teacher. It was just like a regular college class except it was set in prison. And they would bring the books, you know, and you’d have to turn in your assignments. I did that for my first year in. And then they abolished the program, ‘cause they abolished the Pell Grants. The government had been giving us money for education through he Pell Grants.

So then, you know, I was kind of at a loss for a moment ‘cause I really enjoyed taking the college classes and learning stuff. Being in prison with all that time, I felt like I was doing something productive with my life. And my parents were happy that I was doing stuff like that. So, I talked to my parents and I found some correspondence courses first through Penn State.

I earned my A.A. degree from Penn State. Then I got my B.A. through another program at University of Iowa. And then, eventually, I found a program at California State University and I got my Master’s Degree, probably around 2010. I stretched it out though, you know. I started taking college classes like around ’93 and I didn’t get my Master’s Degree until around 2010.

Seth Ferranti

So, how did you get into writing? Was it something you did as a youth or did you pick it up in prison? 

In the prison college classes, you basically have two routes you can go. You can get like a business administration type of degree or you can get like a liberal arts degree. I went the liberal arts route and I did a lot of writing. I took like creative writing classes, article writing classes, you know, novel writing classes, and screenwriting classes.

And it culminated in me writing a thesis on outlaw heroes, America’s fascination with outlaw heroes. Also, I was an avid reader. When I first got into prison, I began reading every prison book I could find, you know, because I didn’t know anything about prison. I was just reading every prison book I could find that was written by a prisoner. There was this book called Inside the Belly of the Beast by Jack Henry Abbott. It was about a dude that did time. It’s like a classic prison book about a dude who did time in the 70s and 80s in the New York system.

I read that and I really dug that book. Except the system that he described was different than the time I was doing. So I wanted to write a book that reflected the time I was doing—the feds in the 90s. And so I wrote my first book Prison Stories.It actually started off as a paper or project for a creative writing class and then I turned it into a whole book. And then in the same regard, how I started writing about the gangsters.

What sparked your interest in writing about street life and legends?

I was really into rap music and I used to go, you know, and watch the Yo! MTV Raps and the BET. And in the mid-90s, when gangsta rap was real popular, artists were dropping the names of a lot of dudes that were on the compound with me. You know, different dudes I’ve written about like Supreme, Fat Cat and Pappy Mason. I was real curious about them. I was like, “Who are these dudes?” I tried to get books about them, but there were no books about these dudes.

I was right there with those guys and they had a big buzz on the compound. They were part of hip hop’s lyrical lore and had this mythology about them. And I thought to myself “Why can’t I write these books?” So I approached a couple of the dudes that I was on the compound with, gave them a little proposal, and they decided it was ok. So we started doing stories. And then I got hooked up wit the dude from Don Diva magazine and the guy from F.E.D.S magazine and I started running my stories through them first. And then eventually when I had enough material, I put out my first street legends book in 2008.

The thing I love about your work, especially the Supreme Team book, is that you present these really deep first hand accounts from these street figures. How are you able to get them to tell their stories? I imagine some of them could be kind of guarded or hesitant. So how do you extract these stories, these rich stories from these street legends? 

Well, I mean, a lot of them were guarded, but I mean I was locked up with them, so it wasn’t like a mainstream journalist. And then I would tell them that I’m going to let them read whatever I write before I publish it. This is going to be a collaboration between me and you. I’m not here to exploit you.

I got to know a lot of these dudes and I formed friendships with them and we worked through their story together. You know, sometimes what I originally wrote would be way different than what actually got printed up. Because sometimes they would read quotes and would be like “Ah. I don’t like the way that sounds” or “Naw. I can’t say it like that.” So we would have to change everything around. But it was a process. It was a lot of work. But most of my articles were collaborations. So, really, that’s how I got them involved.

How would you respond to some critics who would say that your work glorifies destructive people or behaviors? How would your respond to those critics? 

I admit it. I do glorify and romanticize stuff. I mean, that’s stuff that I like. I like gangster stuff. I like Mafiosos. I like stories about Colombian drug dealers. I like to read that stuff and watch those types of movies. So I do glorify it and I do romanticize it. And I enjoy the mythology of the street legends. But at the same time, I give voice to the people that are doing life and the people that are in there that committed these crimes. And in all my interviews and writing you can hear all these dudes say, “Look, man. What I did is not worth it.” So at the end of the day, even though I’m writing with the hype, my stories are a cautionary tale. Not one dude that I have interviewed has said that at the end of the day that it was worth it. Every dude, some of them did ten, twenty, thirty years in prison, they admit, “You know what, I should’ve done something else. This wasn’t the route to take, but I was young. I was blinded by the power. I wanted to be the man.”

You know, I’m not just doing a fictional ass Scarface. I’m showing real dudes that, at the end of the day, are doing life sentences and they’re speaking out to the people that are reading their stories saying, “Don’t do what I did. This isn’t the route to take.”

Hip hop also seems to be important to your work. What the relationship between the street life that you document and hip hop culture? 

Well I would say that the street life that I have documented and wrote about has directly affected rap and hip hop. Rappers like Run DMC, LL Cool J and all of them were trying to emulate the New York street guys. Even 50 Cent and Nas. They idolized the street guys like Supreme and the Supreme Team, Fat Cat, Pappy Mason and Rayful Edmund. They’re still dropping these dudes’ names today. Jay Z just had that song “Tom Ford” where he dropped Wayne Perry’s name who’s been buried in the belly of the beast for like 25 years. So, I would say, you know, that those street dudes lived the real life and they had the style and swag that the rappers kind of took and turned into international success.

The same is true for the guys from California. You know what I’m sayin’? If you watch the new NWA movie, Straight Outta Compton, Ice Cube and Dr. Dre were the talented guys, but Eazy E was the attitude. Eazy E and MC Ren were Crips. They were the street guys. They brought the image, you know. Ice Cube went to college and Dr. Dre was always into music. They were good kids. They weren’t street guys. But that street element is what made their music take off.

Now, your newest project is Supreme Team: A Comic About Crime, Crack and Hip Hop. You’ve written articles and books and you mentioned screenplays before, but why a comic?

I grew up reading comics. I love comics. I was a big Marvel dude. I liked the X-Men. You know I started out with like Secret Wars when I was a little kid and then I got into X-Men, like Wolverine. Back in the 80s, when I was reading comics, I always used to always say “I wish they would make movies about this type of stuff.” But I guess back then they didn’t have the computer graphics or whatever to pull it off. And then you know, lo and behold, what happens 20 years later while I’m in prison? They start doing these superhero, Marvel, and DC movies and they are like the biggest movies on the market. So, doing a comic for me is something that I always loved.

I read comics throughout my whole bid, you know. And I noticed that its always superhero stuff, but they don’t really have a lot of true crime comics. I was into Mafioso and stuff so I was always looking for comics like that. I would always ask my mom to go on Amazon and look for that stuff, but she could never find it. So then, when I started writing the type of writing I’m doing, I had a vision. I was like “Man, I want to do comics.”

The inspiration for your comic book is The Supreme Team. What makes their particular story a good fit for the subject of your first comic book? 

SF: I just think its ‘cause of their all around class, style and influence. Plus, I mean they were big. They had like over 200 members. Also, I got a real personal connection with their leader Supreme. I was with him in Gilmer [Federal Corrections Institution] from 2004-2006, before he got a life sentence. I still talk to him and write him today. I was on the compound with him two years. And he’s just a real classy dude. This dude had a big name. He was was riding shotgun with Murder Inc. through their heyday. You’d think a dude like this would have like a real big ego, but he’s just the most humble, classiest dude.

Can you talk about your partners on this project? Who are you working with? 

SF: I’m working with a comic publisher called Stache Publishing. And the people that run it are a guy named Jordan Williams and Anthony Mathenia. They’ve done more fantasy type of stuff up to this point, but both of them, especially Anthony, grew up on hip hop like I did.

We also got a real nice artist. He’s actually from here. He’s an ex marine named Joe Wills and his art is phenomenal. I met him at the Kansas City Comic-con in February, you know, and I approached him about my project because Jordan from Stache was like “Dude. I know this man. He’s an awesome artist.” He said, “You better get him now, ‘cause in two or three years this dude’s going to be drawing for Marvel or DC.”

So who or what’s the intended audience for the Supreme Team comic and what do you want your readers to get out of it? 

Well, I want a more mainstream audience. I think people that like read Batman or read The Punisher. I think they would enjoy a book like this. Or even the dudes who read like Brubaker and Phillips’ series called Criminal. I think people that read that series will really like mine, because it’s true crime and it’s hip hop. But, at the same time, it’s offering something different, something that hasn’t really been seen in comics before. So, I think it’s something new. It’s fresh and it’s energetic. A lot of people are going to be really turned on by it, you know, if they just give it a chance.

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