New Jack City Is Turning 25. New Revelations From Its Writer Will Blow Your Mind.
Twenty five years ago this month, New Jack City opened to the public. The film, starring Wesley Snipes, Allen Payne, Ice-T, and Chris Rock, was Hollywood’s first and arguably its most enduring cinematic glimpse at the crack cocaine epidemic. At a time when Operation Desert Storm dominated the news cycle, mainstream America was blindly stepping over the junkies, and reading past the inner-city murders in the obituaries.
One man who observed it unfold before his eyes (and notebook) was journalist, author, and screenwriter Barry Michael Cooper. “B.M.C.” grew up in Harlem at a time when drug dealers were prominent community members—part role-models, and part poison peddlers. A student of his surroundings, Cooper would eventually pen the definitive writings on crack’s vice grip on its smokers, and the trade behind it—first in print, and then in the script to New Jack City.
Cooper–who later wrote Above The Rim and Sugar Hill spoke with Ambrosia For Heads. More than just the screenwriter, the music journalist had a heavy hand in the soundtrack, and the seasoned Harlem native gave valuable direction to Snipes’ portrayal of “Nino Brown” and Payne’s “G-Money.” As the conversation reveals, these are characters Cooper knew—with stories he is still telling. This interview explores the true history behind New Jack City. The film began attached to one of cinema’s most celebrated franchises, featuring a superstar lead before becoming what it is. Great actors and comedians were considered for the film, while others proved their greatness within it. Although he never sold drugs or led cartels, Barry Michael Cooper brilliantly sprinkled his bookish, street-smart youth into a film that defined Uptown in the 1980s—Good versus Evil, and all the illusive smoke between.
Ambrosia For Heads: How does it feel to watch such a benchmark of your career reach a milestone like 25 years old?
Barry Michael Cooper: I thought about this for most of the beginning of this week. Let me contextualize it like this: The Oscars—which has had a lot of issues and controversy, as we both know, over the last month and a half [were] hosted by the guy who played a crackhead in my movie: Chris Rock. That in of itself…when I step back to think about that…a little tidbit about the whole “Pookie” thing: [Chris Rock] was not the original “Pookie.” The original “Pookie”—who secured the role, who nailed it at the audition was Martin Lawrence. Chris Rock…and he’ll admit it himself, his audition wasn’t great, at all. Even during the audition he had to stop to say “let me do this again.” You could see the look on his face of “Man, I screwed this up.” Martin came in…Martin may have auditioned before him, because the late George Jackson, God rest his soul, and Doug McHenry, they were the producers. Jackson McHenry Productions had a bungalow on Warner Bros.’ lot in Burbank, [California]. So I was at both of those auditions—the ones in Burbank, and the ones at SIR Studios [in New York City]. So I saw all of the auditions. Martin came in and destroyed it. He took the words that I had on the page… I want to get in touch with Doug McHenry to get the Warner Bros. archives to release some of those auditions, man.
From Vivica Fox to Big Daddy Kane to…I can go on and on. Vivica Fox, man, actually…she auditioned for both Celina and Keisha. She killed it! It was just that she was on her soap opera at the time, called Generations. She wasn’t really that known. I told George, “This woman is incredible!” She had the New York accent and everything; she just didn’t get [the parts].
Getting back to Martin Lawrence, he came in and killed that audition. The person taping had to shut the camera off; everybody was on the floor [laughing]. But what happened was, his mentor Robin Harris died [in March of 1990]. Martin, he didn’t take it well. So he opted out of the movie. He stepped out of the movie, and that’s when they gave the role to Chris Rock. So when people talk about that New Jack City [“Suspicious Minds”] episode on Martin, he never forgot that movie, man!
Chris Rock may have not given a good audition on New Jack City, but once the cameras started rollin’ on April 16, 1990—either a Monday or Tuesday, he destroyed it. That guy became iconic. Once we got to the scene where him and Ice-T’s [character “Scotty Appleton”] is on the staircase, when he’s trying to take the turkey back from the crackhead girl, he’s looking up to the sky. He says, “You know what? It keep callin’ me, it keep callin’ me, it keep callin’ me! I want to get away from it!” … Mario Van Peebles, we used to [review the] dailies at Magno Screening Room. I remember when the lights went up, people were cryin’, man. They were cryin‘ and applauding his performance. So what he became…he doubled down, man. He took it somewhere else. From the day we started shooting, the six o’clock in the a.m. call time at the Arthur Ashe Tennis Courts in the Harlem River Projects in Harlem, [he showed up]. Then, we went across the bridge, ironically, where we shot the “say a prayer before I start scramblin'” scene of him and Ice-T—that was on the same block where Larry Davis had shot the cops, on Woodcrest Avenue. It was crazy, man. It was really, really crazy. Chris Rock, to me, is a lot like a modern day Jack Lemmon. Jack Lemmon could do Some Like It Hot, and then he could turn around and do Days Of Wine And Roses with Lee Remmick. This dude…if you give him the right script, and the right vehicle, he could do damage as a dramatic actor. He’s incredible. One of my favorite films of 2014 was Top Five. This dude’s talent is limitless.
When I think about 25 years, I think about a guy like Chris Rock, who started off…he can never live down “Pookie.” He made that. When you go on the New Jack City Twitter timeline and see so many references to “Pookie,” that’s how great his performance is. So that’s what it means to me…to look back over the tunnel of 25 years of when that movie was released, to today, it’s crazy. I can’t even really put it into words.
Ambrosia For Heads: New Jack City opens with “Nino Brown” dropping the man from the bridge and then a pan of the building with I Corinthians 6:9 painted on the side. That verse is again recited at “Pookie’s” funeral. “Nino” dies after being shot and falling in a similar way as his victim in the beginning. Can you explain the significance of the verse and what it foreshadowed for the film?
Barry Michael Cooper: You’re very perceptive. Originally, this is what happened: when I got hired to write New Jack City, I was doing my thing with Spin magazine as an investigative journalist. The first story I did was the crack-story [Crack, a Tiffany Drug at Woolworth Prices], which was the first national piece on crack cocaine—before Time, Newsweek, New York Times, anybody. I lived in West Baltimore, [Maryland] at the time. I lived up around this area called Mondawmin Mall—which is not far from where the  riots originated. I’m out jogging on the track at Frederick Douglass High School, a block from me. I’m joggin’ and these kids was like, “Hey! Hey! Hey! There’s Fat Albert!” I [dismiss it]. They’re kids, man. I’m on my last lap, my 40th lap to eight miles. [Laughing] I’m coming around and this kid goes, “Look at you, you fat mothafucka!” I’m like, “You know what? They need spankings.” [Laughing] I went over to the kid, I said, “What’s your problem? What are you doing right now? I oughta come over there and [kick] your ass.” They couldn’t have been 15 years old. He said, “Stay right there. I’m gonna go home and get my shit. Stay right there, you talkin’ all that shit…” I thought to myself, “A gun?” I ran like Usain Bolt up the staircase. That very night, I saw on the news, where two kids were murdered a few blocks away from me near Fulton and North Avenue. [I saw that the crack trade and violence] was an epidemic. Long story short, I contacted a guy who I consider a mentor, an editor at The Village Voice and Spin magazine. He also produced Sugar Hill. His name is Rudy Langlais. I said, “Rudy, there’s an epidemic. There’s kids killing kids down here in B-More. It’s crazy. I don’t know how they’re getting access to these guns.” I wrote the story [for the February, 1986 issue of Spin], won some awards. I was on the loading dock, at a place called Lexington Market, here in Baltimore. I got a call. My supervisor said, “A guy called from the Howard Bloom Agency in New York”—a publicist in New York, I took the call. He said, “A guy named George Jackson wants to speak to you.” I’m still a little confused as to what’s going on. I take the call. The guy says, “I’m a big fan of your work; I saw the Baltimore piece. You need to be writing movies.” I said, “Who are you?” He said, “My name is George Jackson, and I work for Indigo,” which was Richard Pryor’s company. I still think it’s a joke [until it becomes clear we knew some of the same people in Harlem, which notably included the onetime Bad Boy Records artist Loon]. He and Rudy brought me on. Initially, “New Jack” was the Nicky Barnes story—[written by] Thomas [Lee] Wright. He wrote it for Francis Ford Coppola, for Paramount. That actually was supposed to be part of The Godfather, Part III; Eddie Murphy was supposed to play Nicky Barnes. [Paramount President] Frank Mancuso, Jr., who had hired Eddie Murphy and given him that huge contract—Eddie Murphy was the first actor to get $15 million for a film. [Mancuso] said, “We hired you to do comedies. You’re not doing this.” So the script went into “turnaround”—so they sold it to Warner Bros. Quincy Jones and Clarence Avant from Grio Productions, they bought the script, and it landed in George Jackson’s lap, who said, “[Barry Michael Cooper] is the guy who should write it. He’s from Harlem. He knows the streets, and a he’s a really visual writer.”
So long story short, when I was thinking about “Nino Brown,” I was thinking about the dudes I grew up with—but not one in particular. I was also thinking about myself—”how would I be as a dude sellin’ drugs?” I used to see dudes…there used to be a spot—which is nothin’ but million-dollar condos now, but a block on 123rd Street—known as “23rd Street,” between Seventh Avenue and Lenox Avenue. The hawkers would be outside saying, “Dust! Dust! Make ya’ head bust.” When the cops would roll through they’d yell, “Ness! Raise up!” They was callin’ the cops “Ness” back then. I used to carry a little reporters notebook with me. I know it was God’s will. I would just watch people and take notes. Then I learned the different [grades of cocaine]—”rock” was the bargain basement, “fishscale” was in the middle, and “flake” or what they call “the Perico,” the best cocaine. There was a block on 129th Street, between Eighth and St. Nicholas, where we would score. I would watch when raids would come to the block—they’d call it “a sweep.” [Police cruisers would block both ends of the block]. They’d put flares down in the middle of the street and the cops would say, “Look at all the roaches runnin’!” Dudes would be trying to swallow the bags and run. I watched all of that. I never sold drugs, but I was out there. I had a weird life, ’cause one foot was in the library—at [Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture], the other foot was in the streets.
So creating “Nino Brown,” it was an amalgam of these guys. It was watching the original [1932 Howard Hawks-directed] Scarface with Paul Muni, which is what Mario watched—his shots and [lighting], and some of it was straight-up [Bram Stoker’s] Dracula. When you look at Wesley closely, or look at a few of his close-up-shots—when he says, “Cancel that bitch. I’ll buy another one,” and they zoom in for that extreme-close-up shot, read the frame and look at his eyes. He’s wearing eyeliner like a pharaoh. He did that purposely. There’s a lot of Horror film elements to this. “Nino’s” mansion was like Transylvania. There was a reason for that.
So that passage from I Corinthians 6:9…George Jackson came to pick me up one day. We were going to a meeting at Warner Bros. I had just finished reading my scriptures for the day. He said, “What is that? You read The Bible?” I said, “Everyday. I don’t follow it, but I’m trying to learn it. That’s how I was raised.” So we turned to [that verse] and he said, “Man, look at that!” He never forgot that passage! To be honest with you, when I saw that spray painting [of I Corinthians 6:9] on that wall on Woodcrest Avenue in the Bronx, I was shocked. I looked at George, I said, “Yo!” He said, “I never forgot that passage.” That’s what [the whole premise is]: Idol worship—trying to replace God with a false god.
Ambrosia For Heads: “Am I my brother’s keeper” remains one of the most famous lines from the film. What do you think of the weight of that question 25 years later, in light of what’s still going on in places like Chicago, and the added perspective of the Black Lives Matter movement?
Barry Michael Cooper: That’s deep that you asked that. Again, serendipity, God’s will. That rooftop scene, to me, is the scene that defines the entire movie. We were in the midst of shooting and we got to the rooftop scene between “G-Money” and “Nino Brown,” Wes and [Allen] Payne. I didn’t touch that scene for a reason, because it was almost kind of lifeless. Wes said, “Let me do somethin’.” He went home and he went to The Red Badge Of Courage [by Stephen Crane, and brought that to the scene]. He’s a very intelligent guy, an intellectual. Wes is a well-read actor. [The producers and directors all liked it but thought the reference might be too esoteric]. I said, “Let’s take it back to church.” I think it’s in “the fall of man,” after Adam and Eve. One of the first children committed the very first murder. That’s Cain. I said, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” That’s what it should be. Give me an hour. We went to Tribeca Studios—Robert DeNiro’s film complex. I saw his face get kinda tight. I said, “Yo man. Hold on for a minute. Give me a moment. I’m not denying what you did, it’s dope. But let’s retrofit it.” I went into one of the offices. About 60 minutes later, I came back and I wrote that scene. George just started smiling; he didn’t say nothing. Mario said, “Oh, okay.” Wes said, “I got to give it to you. This is dope. This what we gotta do.”
We filmed that rooftop scene at the Silvercup Studios in Queens—right over the 59th Street Bridge. That morning, maybe around nine o’clock that morning. It was me and Al, we went over and met Wes at his beautiful brownstone in Fort Greene—I think it was on Washington Avenue. We went through the scene. Wes said, “Okay Barry, you gotta direct us through this. You gotta call ‘action,’ you gotta call ‘cut.’ When you went to Wesley’s house, he had a room that was just set up for “Nino Brown.” There was a portrait on the wall of Nicky Barnes. There was a wall covered with a black panther—like some anthropomorphic thing of the skeleton, the veins, the head—when he got his haircut by Larry Cherry, that was the spine of a black panther. On another wall was newspaper articles on [drug dealers] Felix Mitchell, Rayful Edmond, and Nicky Barnes. He was studying all the stuff. He took all of this stuff and put it inside of him as an actor. So we rehearsed the scene for a couple hours. Wes used to have an Acura Legend coupe—cream interior with a hunter green exterior. We just rolled from Brooklyn to Manhattan, and we rode around the West Side Highway and we rode around the East Side Highway—maybe three times, in silence. What was playing on his [stereo] was Wally Badarou’s “Mambo.” We got into almost a trance. We were focused, man. When people see Wes cry, it’s dope—but Al pushed him to that. If you see the outtakes and reversals of those shots, Al is in tears, man. He said, “Let’s just go back to bein’ us…”
[Looking on], I said to George Jackson, “I don’t know what this movie is gonna do, but this rooftop scene between these two Black men, these gangsters, they’re human now! The love they have for each other as brothers. I’m tellin’ you, George.” That’s the scene people remember to this day.
But as far as “Am I my brother’s keeper” and Black Lives Matter, and where we are now [through Philadelphia], and Chicago, and B-More, and Oakland all of these war-torn cities, it’s a very complex issue, because it goes back to what “Nino” says in the courtroom: “They don’t manufacture Uzis in the ‘hood. We didn’t bring these drugs here. So “Am I my brothers keeper?” is a multilevel question. The answer is “Yes, of course is yes, we are.” But we’ve got a lot of opposing forces outside, pushing against us—and even we’ve got opposing forces that our pushing [from within]. We gotta pull focus and get it together.
Ambrosia For Heads: It’s an interesting greater question. Maybe we should be asking ourselves what we can do for our “brothers” across racial lines, and so forth…it’s really a question of who is our “brother”?
Barry Michael Cooper: That’s it! You just hit it! That question transcends race. It transcends religion. It transcends gender, It transcends humanity itself. We gotta look out for each other.
[What so many people fail to understand is that] “Nino” dies in the end. He’s killed by that old man, Bill Cobb, in that courtroom. [When I tell that to hustlers, they say], “That’s the part we block out.” [Chuckles] That’s deep. That kind of psychology is really deep. [New Jack City] is a cautionary tale.
Ambrosia For Heads: When we first spoke in 2006-2007, I remember you telling me when writing “Nino,” you were looking at the Greek tragic style. “Nino Brown’s” hubris in New Jack City gets lost on people.
Barry Michael Cooper: It does because [of] Wes’ powerful performance. This dude gave a performance that resonates through the ages. This is before Barack Obama, so this is a proud Black man doing his thing. He’s pushing back against the Italians, against the establishment, and does his thing. But that ultimately undermines him. There is a bit of a Greek tragedy in that. There is a bit of classic literature. Anybody who “gets high on their own supply”—whatever that drug is, it may be ego, but they’re gonna fall.
[“Nino Brown’s”] sense of power is a sense of confidence in the Reagan Administration. Don’t forget his speech, he says “The Reagan Administration.” That’s where all this stuff is cemented at. New Jack comes on the heels of not just crack, but Reagan turning Black life upside down. For him to come back and push back against that, he became a hero. But there was very serious consequences to his heroism. It’s funny how people want to go back to the ’90s and the ’80s now. [People are] trying to explore two [decades before them] to define where [they] are right now. I think New Jack City’s longevity has a lot to do with that. A lot of these [kids] are crack babies. These millennials? They’re crack babies. This sense of spiraling out and trying to find themselves and define themselves, they come from that era. I’m calling them “crack babies” and their parents didn’t necessarily have to use drugs at all. But they came out of a [time] that challenged you emotionally, mentally, and socially. You raise your kids a certain kind of way [because of it].
Ambrosia For Heads: You mentioned earlier, the dealers calling the cops “Ness.” You were about the same age as “Nino” in the film, and grew up in Harlem. You also mentioned the round-table scene, which has a possible allusion to The Untouchables. That said, is “Nino” aware of what he’s doing, in playing the part?
Barry Michael Cooper: I think to a degree. That’s a great question. My era—I never went to Rooftop. I know people that went, and they’d describe it for me. By that time, I was in B-More. But I did go to Harlem World on 116th Street and Lenox Ave [and other places]. All of those places and Hip-Hop parties had scramblers. The difference of my era is…in my era of the late ’70s, early ’80s, all those dudes were in the shadows. They didn’t want to be out front. Fast forward to Rooftop and Alpo [Martinez] and Azie [Faison] and Rich [Porter]. These dudes were celebrating who they were. That was the difference. Wes was a split of both—half of it was he could make the reference to Elliot Ness and The Untouchables. The other part is when he’s walking to the spotlight with that split of Moet with a straw—which is what we used to do in Harlem World—you’re celebrating who you are. “Fuck it, I’m that dude. Y’all gonna celebrate me.” That’s what Rich—God rest his soul, Azie, and Alpo was doin’. “Nino” reflected both of those eras: “I want to stay in the shadows, but I can’t stay here ’cause I got too much ego. I want y’all to know what I’m doin'” [Laughs]
In the [1987 Brian De Palma] version of The Untouchables, the [police] were almost as fly as the gangsters. That was the whole thing. They were equally matched—just as fly, just as suave, just as flamboyant as the [mob] guys. “Nino” understood that. When you get to a guy like Ice-T, when Mario says, “I need some New Jack cops to take down a New Jack gangster,” they were just as fly too.
That’s another guy. He was the original “Scotty.” They gave it to Michael Wright. Mike said, “I can’t do that.” Years later he said, “Barry, that was the worst mistake of my life, man.” I said, “Naw. It just wasn’t the time.” Later on [he and Wesley Snipes] played brothers in Sugar Hill. Ice-T came in. Dope rapper; I didn’t know how he was as an actor—’cause I didn’t count [Breakin’ II]. When he got on set, he’s another one that doubled down. He did a very, very good job, and has since turned to a very capable actor. He was fearless, man! That scene at the end when he said, “I wanna shoot you so bad my dick is hard,” I didn’t write that. That’s ad-lib. He came up with that!
Ambrosia For Heads: At the time, “Cop Killer” hadn’t even come out yet. What’s more, he’s played a cop on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit for going on 20 years since…
Barry Michael Cooper: What’s great about Ice is that he saw the gangster in the cop. Even on Law & Order: SVU, there’s a street side to the cop. That’s the brilliance of what Ice-T did on New Jack City, and that’s what he’s doing now.
He came in the game—going back to the narrative—’cause “Nino” killed his moms. Shot in the head. He carries that.
Ambrosia For Heads: You mentioned the cops of your youth calling residents “roaches.” In the film, you have “Nino” eating a banana, and two seconds later they call him “Cash Money Monkeys.” How deliberate was that?
Barry Michael Cooper: Very. Very deliberate. Extremely. The whole move of him moving away from the Italians to the Colombians was a spit in the face. That was part of what [audiences] cheered on. If I’m not mistaken, Wes made that call with the banana—in script there’s no fruit eaten. He did that.
I wanted to show that dynamic between those two racial groups. There’s no getting around that. When Nicky Barnes was doing his thing back in the day, the Italians didn’t like him, but they respected him because he was moving their product. That’s the way it was.
Ambrosia For Heads: What’s the correlation between Ice-T’s character’s name “Scotty” and the Star Trek-inspired description used for taking crack “beam me up Scotty”?
Barry Michael Cooper: You’re very astute. As a young writer back then, which I wouldn’t do now, ’cause I understand subtlety a lot more—I was trying to hammer home a lot of things. A lot of that stuff with “the enterprise” is overblown. People [tell me so]. Of course it is, it’s a Warner Bros. movie.
When I saw the first screening in Pasadena, California, me and George Jackson were there, L.A. [Reid] and Babyface were there, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis were there, the theater was packed with people. They stood on their feet ’cause they’d never seen anything like that before. When I came out of the theater, I said, “I should have said something. You know, those [real life] dudes wasn’t scrambling in no Star Trek jackets on 129th and St. Nicholas.” [George Jackson] said, “Barry, this is not a documentary. This is a movie. Did you see how these people reacted? They’ve never seen Harlem like that before.” He hugged me, and told me it’d be okay. You got that authenticity of Harlem in the ’80s in Paid In Full. Had there been no New Jack City, there’d be no Paid In Full. To answer your question, I was trying to nail a lot of things on the nose and be very obvious.
Ambrosia For Heads: “Nino” argues for the legalization of drugs while on the stand and draws analogies to prohibition. Did you think it would take 25 more years for governments to strongly consider legalizing marijuana?
Barry Michael Cooper: That is a great question, and a complex one, also. In many ways, I think the government took a quarter of a century to grapple with the legalization of marijuana, because it took that amount of time to assess how they would tax and monetize marijuana, and to create a federalized infrastructure to support it. The US government also had to find a way to retrofit its legal system, as the use of marijuana became more and more decriminalized. But as it was with the repeal of prohibition, and the use of alcohol became more and more available, that did not come without its repercussions, either. Fatalities from drunk driving, the complete destruction of families because of alcoholism, all of the deaths connected to the wide availability of alcohol. We will see this exacerbate with the availability of marijuana. Sometimes we get what we ask for…and everything that comes with it. There is a price tag for everything in this life, and that price will be paid, no matter what. “Nino Brown” wanted power at all costs. And that addiction to power cost him everything, and the most precious thing of all: his life.
Ambrosia For Heads: I know in Above The Rim and other points of your career, you had a role in the film music—even if you weren’t credited as Music Supervisor. You also are a music journalist. This film had Hip-Hop, R&B, bits of Hip-House and all of that. How much did your script and authenticity inform the music selected?
Barry Michael Cooper: You’re asking the million dollar joints. I was all the way involved in that. It’s funny you ask that, ’cause maybe a week after New Jack got green-lit, I was riding around with George Jackson one night—God rest his soul. We were riding around Laurel Canyon. We were playin’ Redhead Kingpin [and the F.B.I.’s] first album [A Shade of Red], which I loved. You hear that [“Do The Right Thing”] sample when they’re raiding CMB at The Carter, which sampled “The Kingpin” from Marvel Comics’ Spiderman. So we were listening to that. I said, “Yo, you gotta get Teddy Riley to score this movie. If not Teddy Riley, then Wally Badarou; I love his music too—which is what informed the Rooftop scene.” He said, “You’re right.” I don’t know what happened [as far as why that didn’t happen], but Teddy did write the title track with Aaron [Hall] and Damion [Hall, as Guy]. But a lot of that movie, in my head…God. I gotta give a shout out to the Morgans Hotel on Madison Avenue, between 37th and 38th Street. I wrote a bulk of that movie at the Morgans. Back in the late ’80s, the flyest hotels in New York for the in-crowd, so to speak, were the Royalton and Morgans. The dudes that owned Studio 54: Ian Schrager and Steve Rubell took these run-down S.R.O. hotels and turned ’em into something very European chic and the whole nine yards. I’m in my room at the Morgans just writing every night, playing Teddy Riley, playing New Jack Swing, and thinking about what this movie is. I would give George a playlist: Teddy Riley, Keith Sweat, Heavy D, take it back to the ’70s with Blue Magic. I told him, “This movie has to almost be operatic, from the ‘hood, ’cause the film, the way I’m writing it, has kind of an orchestral suite to it.” [Laughs] I gotta give it to George; the New Jack City soundtrack set it off for a lot of people man. You listen to [Ice-T’s] “New Jack Hustler” and [Color Me Badd’s] “I Wanna Sex You Up,” what? Everybody and they mother was trying to get on that soundtrack. George put on the hat of a record [executive]. He was interviewing people, talking to people, and [deciding] who went in the movie. I gave him ideas, but George Jackson executed that soundtrack. Him, and a guy by the name of Gary Harris. He has a blog called Soul City. He was at Giant Records, and he was one of the most brilliant minds in the record industry, bar none. But yeah, I had a major hand in that. George said, “Sit down. Give me a soundtrack. What do you listen to? What does this feel like? What does this sound like?” And I would tell him. He gave me a shout out on the liner credits on the New Jack City soundtrack.
Ambrosia For Heads: Deservedly so. What do you have going on right now?
Barry Michael Cooper: I’m writing and I’ve written, a prequel and a sequel to [New Jack City] called, Am I My Brother’s Keeper. I got a potential publisher. But this goes into “Nino’s” childhood, man—”Nicholas.” That’s his name: “Nicholas Brown.” [It explores] where he grew up and what he overcame to become what he was, and the larger issue of what he said at the end of that courtroom [scene]: “We didn’t bring the Uzis into Harlem.” I don’t want to say no more than that.
I wanted to add something important about the origin of the name “Nino Brown” right now. It was an insider shout-out to all of the scramblin’ dudes, the street dudes from my era. Clothes, gear—and how you rocked them—was very important in Harlem, back in the day. Harlem dudes were always on the cutting edge of fashion, and none more than the dope-boys of the era of the late ’70s to early ’80s. Pre-Dapper Dan. I love what Dapper Dan did, because he took the elitist swag of ruling class in New York City–Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Fendi, Chanel, and Michael Cromer Munchen, a/k/a MCM–and made it available to the scramblin’ kids [or] street dudes of the day. And wearing those clothes put you in a certain mindset of invincibility and better yet, determination. When the young guys of my era–mid to late 70s–got money, they went to 125th to buy their gear. Places like A.J. Lesters on 125th and 8th Avenue to buy a Damon mock neck, gabardine pants we called “tailor-mades” because of the elaborate “W” stitch over the back pockets, and for shoes, we went to British Walkers on 125th and Lenox.
But there was a certain group of scramblin’ guys, who made a little more money, those were crewed up with Nicky Barnes or “Fly Freddy” Myers out of Mount Vernon, and those dudes didn’t shop on 125th Street. They actually shopped Downtown, the expensive boutiques on Fifth Avenue, Madison Avenue, Lexington Avenue, and Third Avenue on the East Side. And there was an exclusive men’s shoe boutique on Third Avenue between 59th and 60th called Nino Gabriele. Back in May of 1976, I remember I came from the Baronet/Coronet theater across the street from the store one night with my girl, and I told her I just wanted to look in the window of the Nino Gabriele. I saw this pair of chocolate brown loafers, kid-glove-leather that almost had a satin sheen. I dreamed about those shoes that night, and the next day, I went back to the store. The proprietor, Nino Gabriele–a slim, well dressed guy with a swarthy complexion, and a scar on the side of his face—asked if he could help me. I saw the shoes on display inside the store; when I turned over to the sole of the shoe looking for a price tag, there was no price tag. Nino looked at me, and said, “If you have to ask the price…you can’t afford them.” Nino then told me the shoes were $105! Which is comparable to a pair of $1,700 pair of Gaziano & Girling brogues or $2,000 Berluti monk strap shoes today. When I think asked him was that “Before or after taxes?,” he looked at me as if I had three heads. I had a Neighborhood Youth Core job after school, and I saved up six of my $45-dollar-a-week checks to buy those shoes, before I went to my first—and last year—at North Carolina Central University in Durham, North Carolina. The icing on the cake was the Nino Gabriele store shopping bag. It looked like this ultra-fly plastic valise, in shades of brown and tan, with the name “Nino Gabriele” written in an art-deco style. I remember carrying that brown—Nino Brown—bag back to my neighborhood, and one of the big scramblin’ guys from my block stopping me. His eyes were kind of wide with surprise and said, “Yo! I know you didn’t buy a pair of Ninos! You? You?!” He told me to open my bag, and show him the shoes. He looked at them admiringly, and gave me a hug. “Yo, I’m proud of you Barry!” We cracked up laughing when he said that, but in the midst of his sarcasm was the truth that he really was proud of me, that I worked hard to buy that luxury item, that uptown Harlem badge of honor, with the proceeds of an honest job, and not holding shopping bags filled with quarter bags of heroin on 114th And Manhattan Avenue. So the name “Nino Brown” is a testament to that moment, something to remind me of where I came from, and how I got there, All By GOD’s Grace, as is the name “CMB.” Its my initials, backwards. Reminders of a moment in time.
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