Between 1997 and 2009, Buju put out six full-length albums and made dozens of appearances on various mixes. In 2009, he released Rasta Got Soul and started touring to promote the album.
Roy "Gramps" Morgan opened for Buju on the seven-week U.S. tour, which snaked from Philadelphia to L.A. to Florida. He remembers long drives in between shows chatting about girls and politics, laughing till their faces hurt. Buju is a machine on the road; his energy is second to no one, Morgan says. He describes Buju's schedule on the tour thusly: wake, pray, work out, eat porridge prepared by his chef, travel, perform, and repeat. Many mornings, Buju would be bounding to Morgan's bus and banging on the door before anyone else was awake.
Buju, Morgan says, never drinks on tour. One glass of wine and he's gone.
On July 26, 2009, Buju boarded a first-class flight from Madrid to Miami. He had just finished the eight-and-a-half-week European leg of the Rasta Got Soul tour and decided to celebrate by watching Ben-Hur and kicking back with a mimosa. The man seated next to him told Buju to try red wine because "that's a man's drink." The two hit it off. They drank for eight and a half hours, going from wine to scotch to beer. They got so drunk and loud that the flight attendant told them to settle down. When a tipsy Buju was stopped coming back into first class from coach, the stranger vouched he was indeed supposed to be there, a gesture that made a lasting impression.
The guy — his name, he said, was Junior — told Buju he ran a successful fishing business. He also had a passing knowledge of the reggae industry — he name-dropped Lloyd Evans, a manager whom Buju had looked up to as a young man — and said that he had powerful friends in the recording industry out in Los Angeles, a detail that enticed Buju. These were the first of many drunken lies Alex Johnson would tell.
As the plane neared the American coast, Johnson pulled out a wad of cash and gestured to Buju that he was bringing money in from other, illicit ventures. This piqued the musician's curiosity. A boozed-up Buju, not wanting to be outdone by a fisherman, bragged that he too had his hand in something on the side — a drug ring that moved kilos from Venezuela through St. Martin to Europe. At the end of the flight, they exchanged numbers and went their respective ways.
The next morning, Buju's phone rang.
"You want to get something to drink? You want to get something to eat?" Johnson said, asking if Buju was still jet-lagged. Buju agreed.
A few hours later, he and a friend met Johnson in Fort Lauderdale and headed to the now-defunct restaurant Bova Prime. They started sucking back drinks and laughing, the whole conversation recorded surreptitiously on a wire worn by Johnson.
"We were drinking for eight and a half hours nonstop," Johnson bragged about the flight from Spain to a realtor who had stopped by the restaurant to show Buju some listings. "He's drinking champagne, and I'm drinking red wine. We were drinking and laughing, and everybody is looking."
For more than two hours, the men drank, talking about family, women, cars, home buying — the beginning of a blooming bromance. Then Buju's low tolerance hit him.
"Too much red wine," he slurred. "I need water."
Realizing that he was bombed, Buju cut himself off. He went outside to smoke a spliff and catch a ride with his friend. Johnson rushed over before they could leave.
"Excuse me, excuse me. I hate to, I hate to bring up the cocaine," Johnson said in his harsh Colombian accent. It was the first mention of drugs all day.
Just like on the flight, Buju started rambling about his supposed drug-dealing ventures. He portrayed himself as a Bond-type villain, leading Johnson to believe that he toured the world with his band by day and moved thousands upon thousands of kilos throughout the world by night. The drug talk quickly fizzled, though, and Johnson started chatting about his boat and how much fun they would have on it one day.
After that night, the calls kept coming. Johnson said he told his wife all about Buju and asked how he could get backstage passes. Though at times he sounded like a desperate hanger-on from summer camp, Buju didn't totally write him off. Hanging out with Johnson was fun, and it's not every day that Buju was wooed with booze and promises of music-industry contacts that might be able to put the "Boom Bye Bye" legacy to rest.
After a few days, Buju agreed to meet for some more drinks at a nearby Marriott. The day progressed as it had at Bova Prime and on the plane. Buju brought a friend, and the threesome started in on the booze. It wasn't until everyone was lubed up with liquor that Johnson steered the conversation toward the coke trade. Buju, again, started bragging. Again, the conversation was taped.