There are certain calling cards in hip-hop that, at one point in time, carried a lot of weight. In the present day, there are certain producer tags, such as those of Metro BoominWheezyKenny Beats, or even DJ Khaled’s trademark rallying cries which immediately command our attention. In previous eras, it could be a guttural growl from DMX or a stuttering delivery of g-g-g-g-G-Unit which signaled the arrival of a new track that’d echo from car stereos and sound systems alike.

But, for what now feels like a fleeting moment, there was no clearer signifier of a chart-topping hit in the R&B and hip-hop lane than the authoritative declaration of “it’s murder.” The product of the sons of a New York cab driver, the early 2000’s saw Irving Lorenzo Jr and his brother Chris oversee an empire that was built from grit, determination and incessantly catchy tracks that permeated cultures far and wide.

Yet as quickly as it ascended, the bubble of the man who was christened “Irv Gotti” by Jay-Z would be unceremoniously burst through a series of adverse circumstances that left the Def Jam-backed label’s legacy misaligned.

Prior to becoming a music mogul, the Hollis, Queens raised Irv cut his teeth behind the turntables. “That’s what built the passion for the music,” he reflected. “Seeing people like Eazy-E, Dr. Dre and Russell Simmons getting paid for the passion…I wanted to get paid for it as well, you know what I’m saying? But the passion — that came from being a DJ.”

Working under the moniker of DJ Irv, he got his foot in the door as a producer when he linked up with fellow New Yorker Mic Geronimo. After encountering one another at a talent show, Irv would go on to help shepherd his career and was behind the boards for several tracks on his 1995 debut album, The Natural, his breakout single “Shit’s Real” and perhaps more importantly, the first ever posse cut to feature Jay-Z, DMX and Ja Rule with “Time To Build.”

With his innate knack for manufacturing moments and spotting talent, Irv’s success with Mic Geronimo soon led to a job as an A&R with the Lyor Cohen-led Def Jam.

Known for his willingness to push boundaries to get what he wants,, this combativeness that’d become a cornerstone of his strategy actually aided him in getting his job at the record label as when he was asked about his five year plan, he told Lyor,”I’m gonna become you, and I’ll destroy you. I’m from the ‘hood. You can’t know more about hip-hop than me.”

During his initial run at Def Jam, Irv proved himself to be an invaluable resource as a scout and as signees such as DMX – who is credited with saving the company by many– and Ja Rule began to gain traction, he was given an increasing amount of leeway to enact his vision.

DMX 2002

DMX, 2002 – David Klein/Getty Images

Allegedly extracted from an A&E documentary on Bugsy Siegel and the cadre of Jewish mobsters that were known as Murder Inc, Irv sought to launch his own label with seed money from Def Jam and saw the trio of Jay-Z, DMX and Ja Rule as pivotal in doing so. But while the label would soon take off, his plans to form a supergroup was thwarted as swiftly as their arrival was announced on the cover of XXL.

“The supergroup with JAY, X, and Ja, I used it to push branding for Murder Inc,” said Gotti. “All I gotta do is put a hot track on and they gone go at it. In the studio, rappers is rapping and X is trying to kill you. Hov, you can’t tell Hov he ain’t the best. He thinks he’s the illest ever, and he might be.” But even as tracks featuring all three men began to surface, Irv concedes that “one was never truly onboard.” 

Although the blame usually lies at his door, Jay-Z maintains that he wasn’t solely at fault as in his estimations, each man’s own drive to succeed ultimately proved to be a hurdle that they couldn’t overcome. “I think it was everyone’s ambition, everyone’s ego. It was just three guys, three independent labels, three Black men, who were all fighting to be the best in the world.” 

Leading with a manifesto to dominate the world, Murder Inc’s existence formally commenced in 1999 with the release of Venn Vetti Vicci. Propelled forward by lead single “Holla Holla,” the project would land at number 3 on the Billboard charts and from there, Ja refused to take the foot off the gas for a fleeting second.

Doubling down on the fame they’d accrued, 2000’s Rule 3:36 would soon follow, with his first number one album courtesy of infectious, R&B inflected tracks such as “Put It On Me” and “Between Me And You” with label signees Vita and Christina Milian respectively.

Toeing the line between thug and lover, the glossy beats and melodic tendencies combined with Ja’s commanding growl proved to be a recipe for success that’d pay dividends for years. Meanwhile,  Irv Gotti Presents: The Murderers from that same year established the label’s initial supporting cast such as Black Child and Tah Murdah who, while truly never stars in their own right, added texture to many of the album tracks on records from the label’s major exports. Over time, they’d be joined in these ranks by the likes of Charli Baltimore and Nemesis.  

After scoring another major commercial coup with The Fast & Furious OST being released through his label, Irv’s intention of co-mingling hip-hop with pop sensibilities had begun to pay off and had the industry in a tailspin.  

“People get confused because it sells like pop music,” he told The Guardian. “But we make black music first and foremost, and all our records is ‘hood first.”

irv gotti and ja rule

Irv Gotti & Ja Rule arrive at The Source Awards, 2001 – Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Once Ja Rule repeated his chart-topping feat with Pain Is Love, the presence of his co-star on the timeless hit “Always On Time” from that record would soon become the secret weapon in Irv’s arsenal.

Devised as the antidote to much of R&B’s direction at the time, Ashanti’s career was guided with the principle of being “pro-man” in a way that other artists weren’t. According to Gotti, he led with this philosophy, “because I was making her album, and I don’t buy R&B records.” And while he may not have been as familiar with the sector, it did nothing to prevent listeners of all genders from buying her self-titled debut.

Eventually certified 3x platinum, the album was a landmark for the label that delivered their first number one single. Around this time, Ashanti and Gotti would become embroiled in a love affair that would eventually turn contentious. While for Irv, Ja’s appearance on “I’m Real” with Jennifer Lopez helped to take them “over the top.” With their two aces leading the charge, Murder Inc seemed to be on track for a genuine golden era that was defined by endless radio airplay and plaques lining the walls of their famously blood-red walls in their offices.

irv gotti and ashanti 2003

Irv Gotti & Ashanti backstage on R. Kelly‘s “Chocolate Factory” tour, 2003 – Johnny Nunez/WireImage/Getty Images

Even though the label’s name was derived from contract killers, Irv was always insistent that there was nothing nefarious at play. “When you have a hot record, people say you put out a hit,” he maintained. “I thought, ‘I’m going to call my artists murderers, because they put out hits. This is the whole psyche behind it, man. Nothing more.” Unfortunately for him, the Feds weren’t convinced and on January 6th 2003, the labels’ premises were subject to raids from the feds.

Placed under serious legal scrutiny, things would only go from bad to worse for Murder Inc, and more specifically, its flagship MC, that year.

Since the end of the last century, Ja Rule had been embroiled in a feud with what was formerly an up-and-coming rapper in 50 Cent. Over the years, the two had exchanged no shortage of barbs on wax and at one point, Murder Inc artist Black Child even stabbed 50 during a confrontation outside Hit Factory studios.

Even though the two rival crews had traded shots back and forth, Ja would take things too far on April 2003’s “Loose Change” when he targeted 50’s boss, Slim Shady, and his family.

In a line that would seal his fate, Ja provoked the Shady/Aftermath camp when he proclaimed “Em, you claim ya mother’s a crackhead and Kim is a known slut, so what’s Hailie gon’ be when she grows up?”

From there, the gloves were off and Ja was resoundingly aired out by Em, 50 and Obie Trice on the scathing diss track “Haillie’s Revenge.”

“It was orchestrated very well,” Ja said of 50 and Em exploiting Murder Inc’s moments of weakness to launcb their attack. “He was a part of the juggernauts at that moment. Eminem, Dre, they were very, very big in what they were doing as well. So, as we were big over on our side they were also big on their side…There was a lot of things that were falling apart for us. It was easy for him to get people to turn on. And there was things that were behind the scenes that y’all don’t see that also made us seem more irrelevant. Like we couldn’t go to awards shows.”

Between the rise of 50 CentAshanti and Irv mixing romance with record sales, and the lingering prospect of legal issues, Murder Inc no longer seemed so invincible– and while Ashanti’s Chapter II debuted at number one, Ja began to cascade away from the top spot with Blood In My Eye. Despite the warning signs, Gotti believed that his reign as one of the industry’s kingmakers would remain intact.  

“When you’re going through it and you’re having that success, it’s a feeling of invincibility,” Gotti says. “It’s like, ‘This sh*t ain’t never gonna stop.’ I was totally naive until the end.”

irv gotti murder inc

Lyor Cohen, Ashanti, Irv Gotti, Ja Rule, Chris Gotti, Russell Simmons & more at press conference announcing Murder Inc’s name change to The Inc, 2003 – Johnny Nunez/WireImage/Getty Images

In spite of a name change to The Inc, the feds’ interest in Irv and Chris refused to subside and in 2005, Irv and Chris were indicted on money laundering charges and surrendered themselves in January of that year.

As to why, the 37-page indictment accused “Lorenzo and his brother Christopher of laundering drug money for their neighborhood friend Kenneth “‘Preme” McGriff, who was charged separately with the murders of three men.” If they were found guilty, their alleged role in the crack and heroin business of McGriff’s “Supreme Team” carried a penalty of up to 20 years behind bars.

Throughout the trial, Irv and Chris maintained their innocence and on the 5th December 2005, they were found not guilty and cleared of any wrongdoing.  

“I’m overjoyed,” Irv stated outside the courthouse. “In this case, the government had it 100 percent wrong. They went after me because of someone I know. I would never have worked this hard, from nothing to having millions of dollars, to jeopardize it with something stupid or illegal.” However, any aspirations that he had of picking up where he left off with his full-fledged domination of the industry would prove to be short-sighted.

With the court of public opinion souring on Ja and no other breakout stars emerging save for R&B sensation Lloyd, The Inc was no longer the colossal presence across pop, rap & R&B charts that it once was. While in Ashanti’s estimations, Ja’s feud with 50 and the fallout from the legal battle subjected her to exile by association.

“People have to understand it wasn’t just 50 and G-Unit and Murder Inc,” she told HipHopDX. “It was 50 and G-Unit, Murder Inc, the Federal indictment, going to court. And then it was crazy because it was [Irv Gotti] and [Ja Rule] goin’ through issues, but it would be my picture on the cover of the post.”

By 2009, the wheels had come off once and for all. Ashanti and Lloyd jumped ship in quick succession, and their departures, combined with Ja leaving to form his own indie label known as MPire, reduced The Inc to rubble.

ashanti 2002

Ashanti, 2002 – Vince Bucci/Getty Images

Suddenly, the label that Irv had built with a three million investment from Def Jam was in ruins and years on, he’d suggest that it was a combination of everything that was thrown his way which led to its demise. “It wasn’t just one thing, like everything came at us,” he told Hot 97 in 2013. “So, I couldn’t even do business because the Feds told Universal if you do any business with Irving Lorenzo, you’re gonna be co defendants with Irving Lorenzo…I couldn’t enter into a new agreement. So, they couldn’t give me no money,” Irv explained. “They couldn’t do nothing. So, I’m sitting there trying to organize things and do things and I gotta do it with nothing because the Feds is on my back.”

Down but never out, Irv Gotti has remained a fixture in the entertainment industry through his Visionary Ideas Entertainment and even relaunched Murder Inc through 300 Entertainment in 2017. Recently, he sold his share in his songwriting catalog– which includes Ashanti’s highly disputed masters– for $300 million to Iconoclast.

“I sold my past to ignite my future,” he said at the time of the announcement. “I’m building Visionary Ideas Entertainment into a multi-billion dollar entertainment company. Instead of going to the investment circle and maybe raising $100 million, I did it myself, and I’m betting on myself.”

Years removed from the federal investigations and the feud with 50, the Murder Inc catalogue has become ripe for reprisal. And in Ja and Irv’s opinion, the power of hindsight has enabled their lasting contributions to finally be treated with the respect they deserve.

“We were talking earlier about how I do shows now and people don’t remember the time and songs they were hating on, like ‘Wonderful’ and ‘Mesmerize,’” Ja explained to Billboard in a recent interview. “‘Mesmerize’ was a big record, but n*ggas were hating on me. You would never know that.”

“You know what’s funny,” Gotti added. “A lot of you Murder Inc fans — those appreciative of our music — are coming out of the woodworks now. It’s cool now to love Murder Inc.”