Rick Ross doesn’t tell his story right off.
He starts his speaking engagements, mostly on high school and college campuses, by having students read aloud from a piece that ran in Los Angeles Magazine.
“That gives the kids a little insight,” says Ross, in town 8 a.m. Friday for a Black History Month speaking engagement at Fresno City College. “They feel the impact from his point of view, from someone with journalistic integrity.”
Ross’ life — as a drug kingpin and CIA pawn, a three-strike felon who managed to get early release from federal prison despite a life sentence — was front-page news. It’s been written about in long features in LA Magazine and in Esquire. It’s been formulated into an autobiography and documentary; there’s even a feature-length film in the works. Director Nick Cassavetes wrote a script and Nick Cannon signed on to play Ross.
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Ross may have the craziest rags-to-riches story ever.
He wasn’t the first person to sell crack cocaine, but he was arguably better at it than anyone before him. A 19-year-old kid who lost a college tennis scholarship because he was illiterate, Ross would make millions ($300 million by one estimate) in the 1980s, selling crack in large sections of Los Angeles. He created the model for drug sales and exported it to cities across the country. At one point, his drug empire reached to 42 cities, according to Esquire.
He was finally caught and convicted on federal drug charges in 1996. That same year, an investigation in the San Jose Mercury News linked Ross’ drug supplier (and FBI informant) to the CIA and the arming of rebel fighters as part of the Iran-Contra scandal. The series of stories lead to a senate inquiry and caused many to wonder if the U.S. government was complicit in the crack epidemic. The story became the basis for the movie “Kill the Messenger” starring Jeremy Renner.
Moral standings aside, there was a brilliance in the way Ross dealt drugs.
It’s the reason hip-hop fans might get this Rick Ross confused with the other Rick Ross — the Florida rapper who appropriated the name. The rapper is known for albums with titles like “Teflon Don,” “Mastermind” and “Hood Billionaire.”
It’s also the reason Ross gets recognized in public by random 20-somethings. It happened on a trip just this week.
“He looked at me and said, ‘I know you. You helped me graduate college,’ ” Ross says.
The kid wasn’t impressed by the fact that Ross had been a drug kingpin. He was inspired by the intellect, drive and dedication it took to make that happen, Ross says.
“No matter where you are at today, you can always grab hold of the reins and change direction,” says Ross, calling from Oklahoma City, where he was speaking before coming to Fresno.
Ross’ lawyer made it clear that he would never get out of prison if he was expecting anyone to do more for him than he was doing for himself. So, Ross taught himself to read and write and worked to help appeal his conviction. He was 28 years old. His sentence was eventually reduced on appeal and Ross was released in 2009.
That revelation sustains his path as a mentor and motivational speaker.
“I don’t want anyone doing more for me than I do for myself,” Ross says. “Nor, do I want anyone to do more for my community than I do for my community.”