Words: David E. Thigpen
Illustration: Dubelyoo

Lil’ Kim lies to a grand jury, gets a perjury conviction, and winds up getting a year behind bars, all for refusing to give up two members of her Junior M.A.F.I.A. crew caught in the infamous Hot 97 shoot-out. Cam’ron takes bullets in both arms and is rushed bleeding to a Washington, D.C., emergency room, but once he’s stitched up, he refuses to tell police who shot him. Busta Rhymes sees his bodyguard Israel Ramirez, a close friend, shot dead during a beef at a Brooklyn video shoot, but clams up when the NYPD ask him to help them catch the killer.

On mean streets everywhere from Compton, Calif., to Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and even in the world of big-money hip-hop, it’s a commandment that may as well be etched in stone: Don’t snitch. The message is driven home by countless MCs—from The Game’s DVD Stop Snitchin, Stop Lyin to Lil Wayne’s song “Snitch” (“Never let shit about Gs leave ya mouth”) to Scarface’s “Never Snitch” featuring Game and Beanie Sigel. It’s been at the center of some of hip-hop’s longest-running beefs: Ja Rule and Irv Gotti cite an order of protection with 50 Cent’s name on it as proof he snitched about their 2000 studio brawl; Scarface and rival Houstonite Lil Troy have been accusing each other of snitching for over a decade now. Numerous “Stop Snitching” DVDs warn potential informants about what bad things can befall them if they open their mouths. (One featuring Carmelo Anthony brought the rising NBA star a storm of negative press.) And of course, everyone’s seen the bold red logo on the ubiquitous T-shirts.

But Lil’ Kim’s trip to jail and the February murder of Busta’s bodyguard have put the no-snitch code under a spotlight like never before, triggering a debate that’s being hashed out among hip-hop artists, on music Web sites and on the streets. Should Busta cooperate? Was Lil’ Kim smart or stupid to lie in court? And is snitching always bad? It’s a loaded issue—one colored by the historical mistreatment of Black people by the American justice system, and shaded by difficult ethical gray areas. The answers aren’t as clear-cut as you might think.

The Ramirez shooting, which went down during a video shoot outside a Brooklyn soundstage, thrust Busta into a position that no one would envy. Busta faced two choices, neither of them good: honor the code of the streets and refuse to talk, or honor his bodyguard and help police get a trigger-happy knucklehead off the streets. If he refuses to talk, Busta could get subpoenaed and land in jail, putting a very successful recording career on hold. If he does talk, he risks being labeled a snitch and having his record sales plummet anyway as a result. The smoke had hardly cleared from the gunshot that killed Ramirez when Busta started catching criticism. Although he was just one witness among many who may have been close enough to see the killing during the taping of the video for his all-star remix of “Touch It” (Tony Yayo, Swizz Beatz, Lloyd Banks, Missy Elliott and others were also on the scene that night), Busta quickly became the prime focus of the media and police. Yayo, who’d just been paroled, and who some media accounts put at the center of a beef that erupted just before the shooting, immediately had his attorney release a statement to the Brooklyn district attorney’s office saying he wouldn’t voluntarily answer questions and shouldn’t be contacted by the NYPD. The following week, with no arrests and signs that the investigation was stalling, a frustrated New York City Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly called an unusual press conference to accuse Busta of hindering the search. “This individual worked for him,” said an angry Kelly. “I’d think he’d be knocking on the door to come in and give us information… Someone is your employee, is murdered in front of you, you’d think he might want to talk to the police. But that hasn’t happened.” Busta also drew the attention of the grieving Ramirez family. Although the rap star agreed to pay for the funeral, the family made it known that what they really want is for the killer to be captured. Discussing a phone conversation she had with Busta a few days after the shooting, Ramirez’s sister Claurice Lara said that he only gave her scant information about what happened that night, and she seemed unsure just how far he would go to get justice for her brother. “I think that he knew something that he wasn’t able to tell me,” she told New York’s Daily News. “But that’s up to him. That’s his conscience. If he’s a God man, like he swore to me he was on the phone, I think he’ll do the right thing.” Weeks passed, and Busta remained silent. A month after the shooting, he turned up onstage at New York radio station Power 105’s Birthday Bash concert at Nassau Coliseum, but said nothing about helping or not helping to catch the killer. Instead, he took a moment to blame the media for making him look, in his words, “real crazy.”

Not surprisingly, many rap artists are loath to speak on the subject. (“I don’t want to get into that one,” said Nelly, laughing. “I watched Carmelo get into that one. I learned from that situation.”) Of the artists that did agree to be interviewed by XXL, most didn’t judge Busta for holding his tongue. “Hey, everybody gotta fight their own battles, ya understand me?” says Cam’ron’s Dipset partner Jim Jones, whose “Baby Girl”/“G’s Up” video prominently features “Stop Snitching” T-shirts. “All I tell people is have a little bit of dignity.” According to UGK rapper Bun B, it’s a “moral choice” whether to snitch or not. “It all goes back to the life that you choose,” he says. Others, including Daz Dillinger and Junior M.A.F.I.A. member Lil’ Cease, say the best thing for Busta to do is help himself—cooperate, but say nothing. “In Busta’s situation, I’d plead the Fifth,” says Daz. “I mean, all he gotta do is say, I was in the building, but I was nowhere near there. The police doesn’t know who was there and all, do they?” Lil’ Cease, who avoided jail in the Hot 97 case by telling the truth to a grand jury—which isn’t the same as snitching, he says—puts a different spin on that. His advice to Busta is don’t lie and don’t go to jail for something that’s not about you. “It ain’t about keeping it gangsta,” Cease explains. “If it ain’t got nothing to do with you and if you ain’t seen nothing, you ain’t seen nothing.” Cease thinks that stonewalling the police or outright lying will only get you in more trouble, because one way or another the case will get cracked. “You gotta understand there’s gonna be a point where something’s gotta happen. You think a nigga like Busta really wanna go to jail right now? Nigga’s got a hit record out—and you’re gonna go to jail for something you ain’t got nothing to do with?”

Continue reading this feature in the June 2006 issue of XXL (#81).

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