Before his death eight years ago, Bay Area hip-hop legend Mac Dre frequently used the term "thizz" to describe the feeling of being high on ecstasy. Dre, born Andre Louis Hicks, would drop the word in his breezy, synth-filled songs, helping foment the hyphy movement of the early 2000s, and even renamed his Vallejo-based record label Thizz Entertainment.
Last month, the Drug Enforcement Administration alleged an even closer — and very recent — link between Thizz Entertainment and the ecstasy trade: It busted a trafficking ring it says involved individuals directly tied to Dre's label, which is now in the hands of the late rapper's mother, Wanda Salvatto. But Salvatto, and many in the East Bay hip-hop community, say the DEA is flat-out wrong in linking ecstasy traffickers with Thizz Entertainment, and believe the agency is simply trying to sensationalize its bust.
Of the 25 individuals arrested by the DEA last month, only four are artists with links to Thizz Entertainment. One of those, Michael "Miami the Most" Lott, is alleged by the DEA to be a "co-C.E.O." of the company — a fact Salvatto, the label's owner, denies. Yet in documents about the bust, the DEA repeatedly emphasizes the connection between the traffickers and the label. One press release included the headline, "Arrests in Major Nationwide Drug Trafficking Investigation — Includes Those Associated with 'Thizz Entertainment.'" The DEA's complaint against Lott mentions that a "confidential source ("CS-1") provided historical background about the origin of Thizz Entertainment ... and many of the target subjects in this investigation." It goes on to say that, "Many of the target subjects in this investigation ... have released rap albums through Thizz Entertainment."
Critics say these statements exaggerate the connection between Thizz Entertainment and the traffickers, and unfairly give the impression that a large part of the Bay Area hip-hop community is affiliated with the drug trade. One longtime local industry figure known as Stretch, who manages such artists as Kreayshawn and Mistah F.A.B., explains the issue this way: "If four out of 25 people are associated with the label, how does that make the label involved? I bet you at least four of those people are also related to a church or a basketball team. My problem is, if an artist gets arrested that's associated with Universal Records, they don't say it's a Universal drug ring unless there's actually a plot to make money off of it."
That the busted drug ring made money off of its activities isn't in doubt. The DEA's investigation resulted in the seizure of 45,000 ecstasy pills, four pounds of crack cocaine, half a pound of heroin, and $200,000 in cash. In attempting to link the drug ring to Thizz Entertainment, though, the investigation relied on information procured from those it arrested: According to the criminal complaint filed by the DEA, Lott boasted that he "operated Thizz Entertainment," while other details came from a confidential paid informant.
Salvatto maintains that the links claimed by the DEA are wrong. She says that since her son was murdered in Kansas City in 2004, ownership of Thizz Entertainment has been in her hands only, and that the label exists simply to manage Mac Dre's revered back catalog of music. No one from the DEA, she says, ever contacted her to verify the information about the ownership and day-to-day running of the business. "Maybe they got the information [about Thizz Entertainment] from the arrested people," she says. "I'm still guessing."
Confusion on the DEA's part as to who is involved with Thizz Entertainment may have arisen due to the presence of a separate company named Thizz Nation. Both companies are based in the East Bay, and both have worked with artists who are continuing Dre's legacy. But Thizz Nation is a distribution company, while Thizz Entertainment is a record label.
According to Stretch, who counts himself as a partner in Thizz Nation, the distribution company was formed in 2003. The two entities are run separately, but the sheer number of artists both companies have worked with at various times may have obfuscated this issue: Stretch estimates that Thizz Nation has handled more than 160 albums by 50 or more artists, plus many other guest features. Factor in the relatively small size of Vallejo, where many of the arrested reside, and you have a situation where, as he puts it, "every time someone's arrested in the Bay Area, you could tie it to us — but that's just the volume of people involved."
Asked about this issue via e-mail, DEA spokesperson Casey Rettig would not confirm whether the agency recognizes a difference between Thizz Entertainment and Thizz Nation. Rettig said it was standard procedure to not comment on ongoing investigations, and instead sent SF Weekly the original criminal complaint documents.
Salvatto is still unsure why her son's reputation has been called into doubt by association. She suspects that it could be a form of discrimination. Jay King, a consultant for Thizz Entertainment, agrees, saying, "You can't just say all rappers are involved in drugs, just like we don't say all cops are corrupt."
But though she's working to clear her son's name, Salvatto isn't concerned that the DEA bust will tarnish his legacy. She plans to carry on running Thizz Entertainment as a business focused on handling Mac Dre's music. Currently, Salvatto is reviewing proposals from artists who have requested permission to work with some of Mac Dre's unreleased recordings. "Andre has been dead for eight years," she says. "So what happened three years ago when they were investigating has no bearing on Andre."