Raw Power

Just released from prison, Miami hip-hop icon DJ Raw is ready for the takeover

Then Raw, looking rather stoic and wearing no shirt, enters the lobby, and flashbulbs click.

"Why'd you do it?" a reporter asks.

"I guess it was just to bring something positive to the area of Wynwood," he says, his voice cracking.

"How so? How'd you bring something positive to the neighborhood?"

"I brought Hoodstock for World Peace that gathered more than 10,000 heads. They come [from] all over the world... My neighborhood has a lot of negativity and — "

"What about the drugs — you were bringing drugs as well," she interrupts.

"Yes, I was bringing drugs in, but..."

Raw, Price, and Kurage were arrested September 16, 1997, after a yearlong investigation that included wiretaps, surveillance, and the use of informants. They were caught up in an operation that DEA agents called "Wind-Jammer." The raid swept through Raw's North Miami home, where police found 16 kilograms of cocaine, 523 marijuana plants, $35,000 in cash, eight handguns, and two assault-style rifles.

Although many of the others arrested that day had closer ties to Colombian drug cartels, everyone's attention focused on one person. Newspaper headlines the following days read like a movie: "Idolized Inner City DJ Accused of Drug, Thug Life," "The Rise and Fall of a Legend in the Hood," "Good Guy Gone Bad or Great Pretender," and "Happening in the Hood Dashes Dade's Hip Hop Dreams."

Raw was initially charged with trafficking cocaine, conspiring to traffic cocaine, and selling the drug in a school zone. Undercover agents said they had bought about 254 grams on three occasions at Raw's house on 115th Street, just a few blocks from Lakeview Elementary School.

He was held on $700,000 bond.

For the next two years, Raw was caught in a series of depositions that led to multiple charges. He says he confessed everything since he knew the other 25 arrested would blame him. Raw hired private defense attorney Thomas Payne (who declined to comment for this article); he later settled for a public defender because he was low on cash and "didn't trust that guy [Payne]."

Finally, on September 9, 1999, he pleaded guilty before Judge Mark King Leban to racketeering and cocaine trafficking. The charges for selling coke in a school zone were dropped.

Kurage and Price both pleaded guilty and were sentenced to three years in state prison. Raw got ten years. "I guess I felt relieved," Raw recalls about his sentencing. "I knew I had to go to jail to set an example to the kids that crime does not pay."

Peter Price has his own idea about why Raw confessed. "He did it for me and Kurage so we would get a lesser sentence and so we wouldn't have to rat him out. He took the fall."

His first four years were the hardest. "When I went to prison, I was an illiterate. I could barely read and write. So I had to start with the basics, got my GED, and during my sentence, I took part in an HIV prevention training and got seven certifications from the Florida Department of Health. I even created an HIV program for the Florida Department of Corrections."

Indeed, records show that Raw was an exemplary inmate. He received several awards for his good behavior. He was sent to a lesser-security correctional facility with the help of several guards, who wrote letters of recommendation.

While in prison, Raw recalls running into a young man who went by the name Chinito; he was serving two years for aggravated assault and battery. Now only 21, Chinito looks older than he is, his quiet presence often mistaken for defense. "I used to a fight a lot," he says. "I would get into a lot of trouble, drugs, violence. I was a bad kid."

Raw, Chinito says, "was like my older brother. He always kept me focused. He saw I liked hip-hop and made me redirect my energy from fighting other inmates to getting in the studio." Since his release almost a year ago, Chinito has been working diligently to finish his first album. "If I hadn't met him, I don't know what would have happened... I'd still be in prison, I guess."

In 2004, Raw received a letter from an up-and-coming Miami rapper named Michael Garcia, or, as his fans know him — just Garcia. "I needed to write a letter to Raw on how he really inspired me to pursue my dreams of being an artist," Garcia explains. Now a successful hip-hop artist who's worked with Pitbull, Rick Ross, and DJ Khaled, Garcia shares that he first performed on stage at Hoodstock. As he stood in front of the stage, rapper Fat Joe asked if anyone wanted to get on the microphone; then he invited 16-year-old Garcia up. "It was the greatest feeling, being in front of all those people. Hoodstock literally changed my life," Garcia says. "We need Hoodstock back 'cause there's probably some kid like me back in the day who doesn't have that outlet. Man, it just sucks!"

Raw recounts the day, his 40th birthday, when he got the letter. "Yo, that letter really saved me," Raw solemnly nods his head, "because man, I was so depressed. You know, it's my birthday, and I can't be with my family and kids and just, everything seemed hopeless until I got that letter, and it really — how can I say? — lit a fire up my ass."

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