Richard Donnell Ross, more famously known as Freeway Ricky Ross, is more than a street legend. Every movie you’ve ever seen about crack cocaine in Los Angeles was influenced by him. The shows about crack pipes and gang warfare, and the rappers and music videos that pay respect to the OG’s…that was all Freeway Ricky Ross. He was the kingpin, the ultimate drug lord. 

Not only that, but Ross was the direct link between Ronald Reagan’s administration and the Contras. For those too young to remember, President Reagan found his administration tied up in a nationally televised drug scandal. His administration sold weapons to Iran, then used that money to fund “freedom fighters” in Nicaragua. Those freedom fighters, with whom Reagan sympathized repeatedly, used our money to fund their war. Shipping cocaine to America was one of the freedom fighters' biggest revenues of income. So, American money, gained from the illegal sale of weapons to Iran then funneled to Central America, was tied into the proliferation of crack cocaine in the States. Freeway Ricky Ross was at the center of this plot, and became one of the wealthiest and most influential drug lords of all time.

Ross served 20 years in prison, while he watched his politically pardoned business partner get away with betrayal. He was released on September 29, 2009, after he won his appeal to the federal court. Because the Clinton-era three-strikes law was unconstitutionally applied to his case, Ross was able to beat the system that tried to destroy him. Since his release, Ross has been focused on telling his story, and his Netflix documentary Freeway: Crack in the System is a testament to his legend.

Sitting across from a man that has seen more money and cocaine than almost everyone on the planet is less intimidating than you would think. Ross has a short build but a big shadow, one that he was instinctively aware of. He doesn't seem to be burdened by the past, or too concerned about the future. Ross is a man living in the moment, committed to taking in everything around him as it occurs. At times, his mind seemed to move faster than his mouth, and his frustration with himself was represented by a look of amusement. Translating his thoughts was entertaining to him; perhaps he enjoys the complexity of making his ideas audible. When he did speak though, he was certain of his words.

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HotNewHipHop: You were born in Texas and moved to LA as a youth. While in LA, you watched your mother kill her brother in self-defense. In your documentary, you talk about staying away from killing those who did you wrong. Did seeing murder at such a young age affect your mentality on violence?

Freeway Ricky Ross: Why would you do something you can’t take back? You know, when you take someone’s life you can never give it back. Even if you regret doing it later, once you sober up or calm down. For me, it just makes sense all the way around. It was easy for me to explain to my guys why we don’t have to kill everybody that did something to us.

You played tennis as a youth and your friend Cornell Ward played football. Both of you became ineligible for sports, and soon after you turned to the drug game. Were drugs or sports really the only lanes for young Black men at that time,  and how have options changed for young Black men?

It was rough then, but it’s rougher right now. I think this is probably one of the roughest times to be young and Black in America. Hip-Hop has done… the drug game did a number on it. We intimidated the country with our drug dealings. But rappers took that to a whole ‘nother level. I mean, they literally took movies and stories and told people they were real. People believe that this is real, the kids believe that these people are real.

Why do you think there’s a disparity in hip-hop though? When kids see an actor in a movie killing people, they know it’s fake. Why can’t they see that when a rapper, who lives in Hollywood, is talking about killing, that it's just a form of entertainment like a movie that isn’t necessarily real?

The record labels promote it as if it’s fact. Just like the guy that took my name... that they gave my name to. Kids believe that that’s really his name. They really believe that certain guys are Crips and Bloods, but they never really lived that life. It’s hard to live a double life. When we sold drugs, it was hard to gang bang and sell drugs. Because to a certain extent, you become a public figure. And if you’re a gangsta, who put in work, somebody's gonna be after your head.

When you were hustling, you were rich without being able to read. Many young kids say, “I don’t need an education to get this money.” Being someone who lived life on both sides, uneducated with millions and then educated with a purpose, what would you say to youth on both sides of the argument? The kids who are in the game, and the kids trying to escape, what lesson would you share with both.

I've never felt this way before. I’m still fighting financially, right? But something keeps telling me, enjoy this. ‘Cause it’s about to be over, and you’re never gonna get to do this again. You ain’t never gonna get to be poor again in your life. If you really peep the documentary, it talks about education. Education is not just what you go to school to learn. See, there’s street education, there’s rap education. There’s education in books, education on the internet. So there’s so many forms of education, but you must be educated, in SOMETHING. I myself was educated in the drug trade, but that education was transferable, and it’s universal.

What is your opinion of Reaganomics, and how can you compare his policies to what is going on in politics today?

When Reagan came in, he took out all the programs that they had for inner-city kids. Right now, for African-American males the unemployment rate is at an all-time high. I believe that times are really similar. I was just reading an article, couple months ago, and it talked about Blacks being totally broke in twenty years. I was alarmed. We had a discussion about it, me and a couple of my friends, and they argued with me that it was impossible for Blacks to go broke in twenty years. So, I did a survey.  I did a survey of my family, and I said, ‘lemme see who in my family I can get a hundred dollars from.’….. Nobody.

Statistics would go against your claims, the unemployment rate in minority communities is actually at an all-time low. Do you think those numbers are being manipulated?

Absolutely. If they said Black men unemployment rate is at an all-time low, I would definitely say that’s BS. One of the problems is, most Black men don’t even put in the application anymore. They don’t file for unemployment, they done wore their unemployment out twenty years ago. They been unemployed so long, they don’t even count in the census. 

When it comes to rappers taking the names of mobsters or gangsters, which has happened for decades throughout hip-hop history, why do you think they are able to get away with taking someone else’s lifestyle and image?

Is it authentic and should society go for it? Or are young kids buying into it? I believe they are. Even with (the movies) Scarface and Superfly, when I was coming up I bit into those stories. I believed that a person could come from Cuba, barefoot, and be holding the world in the palm of his hands. And I believed you could do it with cocaine.

Speaking of Superfly, that film is getting a remake. In the documentary, you said the original was a big influence in your life. How did that movie influence you the most, and will you be seeing the remake now that (rapper) Rick Ross is in it?

I didn’t know that (he was in the movie), *laughs*. It won’t have an effect on if I go or not go. Me going to see that movie mostly depends on, how is it going to benefit me. I just don’t support things that don’t support me. (When the original came out) I was young then, you know, I’m a totally different guy now. When I went and saw Superfly I was 14, 15 years old. Couldn’t read or write. Had never been to prison, never been to jail. (In Superfly) the Black man beat “the man.” I had issues with “the man.” We moved out during the Watts riots, so I saw the Black Panthers march. My brother marched, and one of the cops slapped him in the mouth. Knocked his tooth out, so I had issues with cops. So Superfly, when he beat “the man,” at his own game…

That was like Superman to you.

And he was Black! I have never seen a Black (man) do that.  It gave me hope.

Speaking of rapper Rick Ross, you have attempted to take a legal route to stop him from using your name and image, but it didn’t work. He’s still making millions while using your name. In this world of social media, short attention spans, and youth who easily buy into “fake news,” do you think you will ever “win” against rapper Rick Ross?

I felt vindicated, even though the courts didn’t give me what I thought I should have had. During the time of the lawsuit when his album came out, he was on the front page of Rolling Stone magazine, and if you ever read that article, all they talk about in the articles was me. So technically, I stole that article. Rolling Stone would never do an article on me, because I’m authentic. But they’ve done numerous stories on him, maybe they bought the cover, I don’t know. Rolling Stone kept talking to him about me. The story became not about his album, but about me.

So, you kind of interfered with his album roll out and press release. In your documentary, you talk about how rapper Rick Ross claims someone mistook his nickname “Big Boss” for “Rick Ross” one day, and that’s how he claims he got his rap name.

There’s so much strange stuff about him, I mean, it’s guys like that who really make hip-hop not really hip-hop anymore. It’s not real, it’s not real anymore. In the old days, the rappers used to rap about… like Sugar Hill Gang. When I fell in love with hip-hop, it was, "Daddy, I don't wanna go to school/ ’Cause the teacher's a jerk, he must think I'm a fool/ And all the kids smoke reefer, I think it'd be cheaper/ If I just got a job, learned to be a street sweeper." It was about real things, real issues. Now what we talking about, our Bentleys? That they don’t even own. They hide the true stories. Why is there no Ricky Ross movie out right now? We did Frank Lucas, we just did (Snowfall on FX).

Has anyone ever approached you about making a biopic?

They have, but they wouldn’t commit. You know how they do in Hollywood. They buy your rights. They don’t have a time that they gotta do it, so what do they do? They just put it on the shelf.

Iran-Contra was one of the biggest American scandals ever. Contra was being funded by your partner Blandon. When you learned that you were a pawn in a government-run plot to destabilize both a Central American regime and poverty-riddled black communities, what did you think? After being betrayed by Blandon, how did that affect how you viewed other friendships?

I was in prison, I was looking at a life sentence without the possibility of parole. They were telling me that I was never going home again, and that I would never be a free man again. And, this stuff is coming to light. I felt duped. Hoodwinked. Bamboozled. It didn’t affect my friendships, or my trust for people. (Blandon) was just one person. He made his decision based on how he felt it would benefit him and his family, and I totally understand. It made me feel ill will towards him, I wanted to kill him during that time. But after I had time to calm down and think, and to realize it wasn’t his fault. He’s not the one that put me in the drug business, that I put myself in. I always had the right to say, ‘No, I ain’t gonna do it.’

Do you believe Gary Webb, the journalist who broke the story about the government's involvement with crack cocaine and its proliferation, really killed himself? Or do you think the CIA got to him?

I don’t believe Gary killed himself. I didn’t see any of the evidence, I don’t have any evidence to back it other than what I read in the paper that he shot himself twice in the head. I think that that’s hard to do. But they had a coroner there that said it was possible. So, I don’t know… I’m kind of lost for words.

With marijuana becoming legal, how do you feel about corporations making millions after locking up minorities for decades? Do you think the young men and women serving time, or that have marijuana-related charges, should have their records erased and earn freedom?

Absolutely, and they’re already doing that here in LA. They’re already expunging records with marijuana convictions. But they’re not letting people out of prison for marijuana convictions, which I think they should. As far as corporate America coming in, pushing all the guys out who started it, I think that’s messed up. I don’t think that it should go down like that. I think that the license (to sell marijuana as a business) should be more affordable. They shouldn’t put prices on them to push people in the ghetto out of the business. We started an organization called NDICA, I’m on the board of it. That’s one of the things that we’re doing, we’re fighting to make sure that Blacks get equity inside the marijuana industry around the country.

It’s like they’re gentrifying marijuana.

Yes! *laughs* Just like they do in the neighborhoods. But this (legal marijuana) money could really go a long way in the Black community. It could finance businesses, help send kids to school, buy supplies, and so many other things. So, I’m really, really determined to make sure that we are recognized at the top of this industry.