By Mike Enemigo
Mac Dre is one of the Bay Area’s most beloved hip-hop figures of all time. Born Andre Hicks on July 5, 1970, in Oakland, California, he was raised in Vallejo, California in the Country Club Crest neighborhood, often called “The Crest,” or “Crest Side” by its residents. At the time of Dre’s upbringing, The Crest was an area that suffered from poverty, gangs, violent crime, and other results of the crack epidemic.
Dre began rapping as a teen in 1984, some say under the name “MC Dre,” before changing it to “Mac Dre” in 1985 to represent the “player” and “pimp” flavor of his neighborhood, rather than the east coast style of “MC.” According to fellow Crest-Sider and Dre associate Mac Mall, “it all started with Michael Robinson.” Michael “The Mac” Robinson, a rapper with a pimp persona, who both Mac Dre and Mac Mall’s names pay honor to, was one of the Crest’s first musical successes who provided the mold for the younger kids in the neighborhood before he was ultimately shot and killed in 1991.
Dre made a bunch of demo tapes that were popular in The Crest –“He was famous for his demo tapes,” says Mac Mall – but he first made waves in the larger Bay Area with his single “Too Hard for the Fuckin’ Radio” in 1989, while still a student at Vallejo’s Hogan High School. Despite the title of the song, it was a hit on local radio. After dropping his first three albums, between 1989 and 1991, Dre’s career began to pick up the pace.
Dre ran with a local group of teens who referred to themselves as the Romper Room Crew –named after the TV show, in reference to the crew’s youth. “There was fourteen of us,” remembers Romper Room member and Dre collaborator Coolio Da’unda’dogg. “Little youngsters between the age of fourteen and twenty-one. We started hanging out, selling dope, hustling, drinking, partying every Friday and Saturday night.” However, just as Dre’s music career began to take off, Romper Room’s criminal activity began to increase, too: they went from selling drugs and other relatively low-level crimes to robbing pizza parlors and eventually banks.
In 1992, after a surge of local business and bank robberies began taking place by a crew referring to themselves as The Romper Room Gang, knowing Dre’s affiliation with the crew, police began dissecting his lyrics, hoping to find clues to the robberies. Dre made numerous references to The Romper Room, and in one song he rapped about a harrowing credit union robbery. Suspecting the crew, police kept them under surveillance. Coolio remembers several interactions with the police: “They used to come through sweatin’ us. They used to call us by our nicknames, calling me Coolio, calling Dre ‘Mac Dre.’So, we used to tell them, ‘Fuck y’all! Get away from here.’” According to DJ, hip-hop historian, and co-founder of the Bay Area Hip Hop Coalition Davey D, “There was a point when the Vallejo police arrested forty-odd people and they looked at music lyrics around Romper Room or the Compilation album [a Dre-led compilation of Crest-Side rappers] as part of a way to round up folks.”
Not feelin’ the heavy-handed tactics, Dre recorded “Punk Police,” proclaiming his innocence, in which he raps, “They said some banks were robbed, and I fit the description / But that’s drama, so save if for your mama / I’m not criminal-minded, punk police / I’ma dope rhyme dealer, not a money stealer,” and “You labeled us a ruthless G-A-N-G / But the biggest Gangstas are the VPD / They hate to see me drivin’ a car I bought / They hate how I talk, I can’t spit on the sidewalk.” He even went as far as to call out VPD detective David McGraw, the cop he felt was most responsible for the harassment.
On March 26, 1992, with the assistance of a wired informant, VPD and federal authorities followed Dre, along with rappers and Romper Room members Simon “Kilo Curt” Curtis and Jamal “J-Diggs” Diggs to Fresno, where Dre had recently performed with rapper Ice Cube. For two days, more than 35 officers and FBI agents followed the group as they picked up girls, shopped for shoes, and even bought deodorant from Walmart. On the first day, according to surveillance notes, the group cased a Bank of America in downtown Fresno by driving around the block in circles. They also parked an extra car nearby, presumably to use as a get-away vehicle. Later that night, Dre, Diggs, and Curt played dice in their motel room and hung out with girls.
The next morning, according to reports, Dre stayed at the motel while Diggs and Curt went back to the bank. They parked the car and took out masks, but as they did, a television news crew who’d caught word about the heist on the police scanner arrived. Spooked by the cameras, Diggs and Curt smashed back to the motel, picked up Dre, and headed back to the Bay. However, police pulled them over two hours later on a deserted stretch of road near Los Baños.
Prosecutors charged Diggs and Curt with attempted bank robbery and Dre with conspiracy. They claim Dre was the ringleader and used his lyrics in court to help support their case. According to agents, the gang was responsible for 13 robberies, netting around 1.5 million that they claimed was used to invest into Dre’s rap career. Dre was reportedly offered a deal to snitch, but he refused, telling the prosecutors to go fuck themselves.
Refused bail, Dre sat in the Fresno county jail for a year awaiting trial. While there, he recorded raps over the Fresno county jail telephone, where he taunted law enforcement. His album, Back in da Hood, was a result of these recordings, as were several guest verses he recorded for other rappers.
Dre was ultimately sentenced to five years, and on March 12, 1993, he was sent to Lompoc federal prison. To many, this was a grave injustice. According to Davey D, “Dre had nothing to do with it,” he says. “I tell you, at the time, I would have put my hand on the Bible and been like, ‘Nah, Dre had nothing to do with that.’ He was just somebody who was down with the neighborhood, and that neighborhood was getting profiled, and he’s standing up for it. Maybe he’s part of a larger group of people called The Romper Room Crew, but he ain’t robbing no banks.” And Davey D isn’t the only one who feels this way. The majority of people who knew Dre and the crew say the same thing. It seems as if Dre was a pawn for the feds to try and get a witness against the actual robbers, who Dre was affiliated with, but when he refused to snitch, he went down with them. Typical fed tactics. For doing so, however, Dre’s respect and legacy as “a real one” only grew.
Dre paroled on August 2, 1996, eager to get back into the rap game. “There was a drought, in terms of the Bay Area,” says Davey D. “I mean, people were putting out records, but it didn’t have the national attention that it did [before]. I think Dre for five years was very hungry and had a lot to think about. When he finally got a chance, he was able to do his own thing that he really wanted to.” Only, Dre quit rapping about robbing, and instead began rapping about partying; he wanted to make music you could dance to. This turned out to be a good thing for Dre, as his audience began growing, and mainstream radio began giving him more airtime. A notorious ecstasy enthusiast, Dre began rapping about the drug and coined the term “thizz,” a slang word for ecstasy, and he pioneered the “hyphy” movement. Though Dre affiliate Keak Da Sneak is credited with creating the word “hyphy,” a combination of the words hyper and fly, it became a style of music and dance that became synonymous with Bay Area hip hop, and with its gritty but danceable hard-hitting sledgehammer beats, and Dre with his flashy showmanship and sense of humor, he became a perfect ambassador to lead the movement.
In 1999, in an effort to give himself some distance from the Romper Room Gang’s controversy, Dre moved to Sacramento, California, and started Thizz Entertainment in partnership with Walter Zelnick, vice president of City Hall Records. Dre began rapidly producing material and grew a diverse following, selling thousands of CDs all over the country, and even places like France and South Africa. One of the largest contributors to this was his use of the word thizz and his embracement of the drug in his music, where he began rapping about it as common as most rappers rap about smoking blunts. Already an emerging drug on the streets, Dre popularized the word and experience, transforming the flavor of Bay Area hip hop from hard and gangsta, to more fun, wild and carefree. He incorporated his sense of humor into his music, in part by creating “characters,” such as “Ronald Dregan” and “Thizzelle Washington.” He wore a large afro, and big, oversized “stunna shades,” and he created the “Thizz Dance,” a funky dance that holds no specific rules. “He was really on ecstasy pills and thizzing,” says Coolio. Dre became famous for his “Thizz Face”– his version of the “Stank Face.” It has a double meaning that the music is so nasty, you gotta squint your face,” says Davey D.
According to Mac Mall, though Dre transformed his music from gangsta to fun, he could turn his gangsta on in a second if needed. “Dre was loving, Dre was funny, Dre was a comedian, man. But Dre had that gangster side, too. Dre kept a smile on his face, but the minute that smile was gone, you know he would be in your ear. I did seen Mac Dre on the turn knock out a cat three times his size. Knocked him out flat on his back, KO’d him. Drewas a character.”
By 2004, Mac Dre was a god in The Bay and respected nationwide. And like most of the other Bay Area rappers, he had a large fan base in Kansas City, Missouri.
On Friday, October 29, 2004, Dre and several other Bay Area rappers performed a show in Kansas City, Kansas. After the show, Dre, Keak Da Sneak, The Jacka, Messy Marv, Yukmouth, and other artists attended an after-party. Though the details are unclear, likely because of hip-hop’s “no snitching” policy, it’s alleged that while at this party, a small argument broke out between Dre and the show’s promoter over money. Oddly, the promoter had never been named. Diggs, who was not present on account of federal parole, doesn’t put much significance on this disagreement. Yukmouth would later tell VladTV that they did get paid, and he also minimized the issue. According to the TV show American Gangster, however, there was an “altercation” between associates of Dre’s, and local rapper and thug Fat Tone’s, though this has not been supported by witnesses. Keak Da Sneak would later tell VladTV it was he and Mac Mall who had an altercation, but with each other,and they are both associates of Dre. In any case, Yukmouth and Keak would later admit to Vlad that the atmosphere in Kansas City was “tense.”
While most of Dre’s Bay Area rap associates left Kansas City the next day, Dre stayed because he had booked a walk-through at a club for the following night, October 31–Halloween. Once Dre finished the Halloween-night walk-through, he and Thizz artist Major “Dubee” Norton (there may have been others) got into a white van and left the club; Dubee drove and Dre rode shotgun. According to authorities, just minutes later, at around 3:30 am (which would now be November 1), while Dre’s van was heading northbound on U.S. 71 Highway (now known as I-49), a “stolen Infinity G36” pulled along the driver’s side of the van and unloaded shots into it from an assault rifle. The van then reportedly swerved across a grass median and four southbound lanes, crashing into a ditch. Despite the shots being fired through the driver’s side, the driver escaped “relatively uninjured,” ran down the highway to a store, and called 911. When paramedics arrived, however, Dre was dead, reportedly from a gunshot wound to the neck.
Mac Dre’s fans, friends, and the Bay Area rap world was devastated. People wanted answers. They wanted to know who did this. Dre’s crew was determined to find out. It didn’t take long for the streets to start talking, and they were saying a notorious Kansas City gangsta was behind the murder of the Bay boss: Fat Tone.
Anthony “Fat Tone” Watkins was a large figure, literally and figuratively. He was a member of the infamous 51st Street Crips, even allegedly earning a leadership position after a turf battle with a gang member and convicted killer Rashawn Long, a former 51st Street boss.
Fat Tone’s reputation as a gangster was notorious. He was once charged with the murder of 17-year-old Shameka Posey and her unborn child, but he was released 9 months later after charges were dropped due to uncooperating witnesses. He’s been accused of many other shootings and robberies, though none of them have ever been proven. In 2003, when Fat Tone was 22, he was shot while riding in a car through the Westport area of Kansas City with, interestingly, Dre associates Messy Marv and Killa Tay. Never one to miss an opportunity to capitalize on his “gangsta,” his next album cover was a picture of him ina hospital bed giving the middle finger. He had become “Fat Tone the Untouchable.” According to Detective Everett Babcock, the lead investigator in the Mac Dre murder, “Every shooting that happened [in Kansas City], you would get calls saying, ‘Fat Tone did it, Fat Tone did it.’ His name always came up.” But when it came to Dre’s murder, the rumor had legs. So much so that Babcock summonsed Tone to Kansas City police headquarters for an interview. “I told him we expected retribution,” Babcock says. “He said, ‘I’m watching myself.’” Several months later, Tone released a song denying anything to do with Dre’s murder, but according to Babcock, “The rumor was that he had admitted it.” In the end, Babcock, who claims Dre was shot over a “financial dispute,” cleared Fat Tone for the murder. However, the streets had their own opinion.
By May of 2005, just five months after Mac Dre’s murder, San Francisco promoter Andre “Mac Minister” Dow and Jason “Corleone” Mathis, a pimp, were trappin’ in Vegas. According to reports, Corleone had rented a house there, and he’d been pimping 21-year-old Lee Danae Laursen, from Payson, Utah. Laursen’s dad claims she was forced into prostitution by Corleone, who, according to reports, “would escort her into various Las Vegas hotels hiding an AK-47 under his clothing.” The father had rescued his daughter once, in March or April, but she voluntarily returned to Corleone in Vegas shortly after.
During the past few months, Minister had befriended Fat Tone, who, by now, J-Diggs had publicly cleared in the murder of Mac Dre, promising to help him with his rap career by introducing him to various rappers and other VIPs in the rap game. So, when Ministercontacted Tone and offered to introduce him to Snoop Dogg, who he (Minister) was promoting a May 22 show for, Tone was excited to jump at the opportunity, as it could finally bethe big break he needed.
A day or two before the Snoop Dogg show, Tone and his goon, 22-year-old Jermain “Cowboy” Watkins, a fugitive from a federal cocaine charge, arrived in Vegas. They pulled up early so they could participate in typical Vegas activities, like girls and gambling. According to Tone’s mother and girlfriend back home, he hit for several thousand dollars at the table, but he was irritated with Minister who he says kept asking him for cash and jewelry in exchange for the Snoop Dogg introduction. The tone felt Minister was pressing him.
On May 23, in the early morning hours, Minister, Fat Tone and Cowboy left the MGM, where Tone and Cowboy had been staying. From here, what exactly happens is unknown, but roughly 80 minutes later, a security guard patrolling a housing development under construction about five blocks from the house Corleone was renting, found Fat Tone and Cowboy, dead. According to reports, Tone had been shot around twenty times with an AK-47 and he laid slumped over in a blue 1992 Toyota Tercel. Cowboy had been shot about 13 times by the same gun and laid a few feet from the car. Meanwhile, another car – a white Pontiac Sunbird had been seen speeding from the scene.
The next day, though unbeknownst to Las Vegas police at the time, police in Vallejo, California responded to a report of a burning car. The vehicle? A white 2000 Pontiac. The registered owner? Lee Laursen.
Las Vegas police began investigating the murders and learned through Tone’s mother and girlfriend that he was there to meet Snoop Doggy way of a promise from Mac Minister. When they learned that Tone had been staying at the MGM and reviewed the tapes, they saw Minister, Tone, and Cowboy leaving the hotel approximately 80 minutes before the bodies were found. They also learned that the blue Tercel Tone was found in had been given to Minister’s 28-year-old girlfriend by a Berkeley activist, and they found footage of Laursen buying ammo in a gun shop for the gun Corleone was known to carry on May 14 – about a week prior to the murders. Lots of circumstantial evidence, but neither Minister nor Corleone were anywhere to be found.
Corleone and Laursen had evidently gone back to the Bay Area. They were living in and out of hotels, offering Lauren’s services as “Alana” on Craigslist. But on July 12, Corleone was arrested in San Francisco for allegedly beating Laursen. When San Francisco police learned he was a suspect in the Vegas murders, they notified Las Vegas police that they had him in custody. Las Vegas detective Todd Hendrix and his partner came to San Francisco and tracked down Laursen. During the interview, they begged her to cooperate, even promising to help her get her life back on track, but she refused.
“She wouldn’t stand for it,” Hendrix said. “She was completely snowed by Mathis [Corleone]. She thought he’d take care of her. We pleaded with her to get out of there so she wouldn’t get harmed.”
On November 2, Mac Minister and Corleone were indicted on two counts of murder and two counts of conspiracy to commit murder in the deaths of Fat Tone and Cowboy. According to Corleone’s arrest warrant, he had admitted to a friend that he shot Tone and Cowboy to avenge Mac Dre’s killing. Corleone “said he shot Watkins, then chased Atkins into the street and shot him while he was on the ground pleading for his life,” the warrant alleged. While Corleone was already in custody, however, Minister’s whereabouts were still unknown.
On November 4, just two days after Minister and Corleone were indicted, Fairfield police responded to reports of gunfire in a quiet neighborhood. When they arrived, they found Laursen dead of a gunshot wound to the head. A dark-colored SUV had been seen speeding away; shortly after, Cowboy’s Saturn sedan, which Laursen had been driving, turned up burning in Richmond.
“She had information that could be very damaging,” says Hendrix. “The timing of it is uncanny.”
Mac Minister remained on the run for nearly a year after the indictment, where he would go on to record the Intro for rapper The Game’s Doctor’s Advocate album. He was featured on America’s Most Wanted, and eventually arrested on March 2, 2006, becoming AMW’s capture #879. He and Corleone both pled not guilty and maintain their innocence to this day, but they were each convicted and sentenced to four life sentences for the murders of Fat Tone and Cowboy. Laursen’s murder remains unsolved.
“The tragedy of this thing is that assuming [Laursen] was killed as retribution for being a witness, that’s three people dead over a financial matter over an amount of money that wouldn’t pay for a weekend in Vegas,” says Babcock, the Kansas City detective who cleared Fat Tone of Mac Dre’s murder.
Will we ever find out the truth about the murder of Mac Dre? Will we ever know why he was actually killed, and by who? J-Diggs was one of Dre’s closest friends. Since he cleared Tone of Dre’s murder, shouldn’t we? Or did he clear him publicly, but perhaps not privately, amongst his comrades? That’s what I would have done. If I thought Tone was responsible for the murder of my folks, I would have cleared him publicly in order to make him comfortable enough to come to Vegas in the first place so I could avenge my folk’s death. If Minister and Corleone did kill Fat Tone, wouldn’t they, as insiders, know whether or not Tone was responsible for Dre’s murder? And would they have killed Tone if he wasn’t? Or maybe Tone was cleared by Diggs and Babcock because he didn’t personally pull the trigger, but maybe he had something to do with it, such as send his goon, Cowboy? We may never know. Diggs goes into some detail about the story on his song Rompaugraphy, and his interviews confirm he and his crew were in Kansas City head-hunting after Dre’s murder. He tells VladTV that everyone involved has since passed on. Could this be a cryptic way of saying it was Tone and Cowboy, or have others “passed on,” too? Vlad blatantly said he knows who the prime suspect is based on interviews he’s done, but he won’t reveal the name as the individual has since “died.”
We may already know, or we may never know who killed Mac Dre, or even Fat Tone and Cowboy, but what we do know is that Mac Dre is sorely missed; gone but certainly not forgotten. Mac Dre’s birthday – July 5 – has been dubbed “Dre Day” by his family, friends, and fans. He’s been shouted out at least twice by hip-hop superstar Drake;“My city loves me like Mac Dre in The Bay,” and “Shoutout to Mac Dre in The Bay.” Rap superstar Rick Ross has shouted him out as well; “Rest in peace Mac Dre, throwing up Thizz.” Mac Dre’s impact on hip-hop culture has been undeniable as fans celebrate him around the world, still to this day. “Dude was our Tupac, dude was our Biggie Smalls,” says Mac Mall. “And now, as I travel throughout the world, I see people recognize him for the flavor that he brought to hip-hop. Nobody touched the Bay Area like Mac Dre touched the Bay Area, and I don’t think nobody will. Dre is the king of The Bay.”
About the Author: Mike Enemigo is America’s #1 incarcerated author, with over 25 books published and many more on the way. He specializes in writing about prison and street culture. To learn more about Mike and his books, visit thecellblock.net, where you can also follow his blog. Be sure to follow Mike and The Cell Block on social media at @mikeenemigo and @thecellblockoffocial.