Saturday, November 10, 2007

lessons learned from "american gangster"

i went to see american gangster this afternoon with my friend at the magic johnson theater in harlem. where else could i go to hear this uptown story but uptown? i felt so guilty about liking it as much as i did, in part because frank lucas did way more harm than good to my neighborhood. i don't care how many turkeys he gave away every thanksgiving. heroin killed the heart of harlem. he had to know the impact of what he was doing, and he didn't care. justifying it by saying that someone else would have done it anyway is a massive cop-out.

as we walked home afterwards, i thought long and hard about my time in a ground floor apartment on E. 100th street between 3rd and lex. the area so desperately wanted to be yorkville but it was standing on the verge of spanish harlem, with projects and abandoned buildings everywhere. it was dangerous on my block. and scary. i would watch filthy scab-covered junkies crawl into and out of the abandoned building across the street from me at any given hour like mice do in those mgm cartoons when they're eating a hunk of swiss cheese. dealers did their business on the rooftop, lowering the drugs to the ones who handled business on the ground with the actual buying and selling. each drop was one order. the money went here with one person, the drugs went there with another person, while little kids were parked on bikes as lookouts on each corner at either end of the block. it was a well-run money-making organization these young black kids had on their hands. a part of me couldn't help but wonder what they would be able to pull off if they were ever allowed to be a part of the corporate world.

one evening, i distinctly remember seeing a line of people going up the block, waiting, as the drug dealers scrambled to accomodate them. everyone was panicky because the line was so long. but no one left. i remember thinking, how good is this crack, anyway? heck--how good is crack, period? i recall falling into a conversation in a bar downtown with a part-time junkie who was also a full-time wall street exec of some sort. when i told him where i lived, he was suitably impressed. there's really good shit on your block, he murmured approvingly.

why did this cross my mind after seeing that movie? i don't know. maybe what i lived through on E. 100th street was a minature version of what i'd seen on the screen. maybe it was the closest i'd come to seeing the mechanics of how the drug thing worked on the street, firsthand. the business side of it all -- that was the connection.

what's the upshot? what did i learn from all this?
  1. cut out the middleman. frank lucas went straight to the source in southeast asia for a product that was ultimately better than everyone else's
  2. undercut the competition. he sold a better product at a cheaper cost
  3. branding is key. he called his product blue magic. whenever anyone made that point of purchase, they knew what to expect
  4. word-of-mouth is your best advertising tool. once the word went out on the street, that's all anyone wanted to buy
  5. they will want you -- and in frank's case, need you -- when you don't need them. frank's competition came calling when they realized he beat them at their own game
now that i think about it, all of these things are what independent musicians and labels are using to attempt to create a new model in the music industry.

there were other lessons, too. stuff like, don't do the crime if you can't do the time. still and all, it was interesting to see a business model applied to drug dealing. how hollywood was that movie? frank lucas is alive and well in north carolina. nicky barnes is in the witness protection program, working a 9 to 5 like any other lemming. but something tells me that there's way more to the story than what i saw. (thus begins my winter reading list...)

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