The High Life and Low End of Harlem’s Hip-Hop Hustler

Eight Avenue in Harlem, New York, New York, August 27, 1991.

Source Allan Tannenbaum/Getty

Why you should care

Because crack-era Harlem drug lord Rich Porter had it all, until his brother got scatched.

Richard Porter walked down a cold Harlem street in December 1990 wearing a bulletproof vest and carrying a loaded pistol. He was ready to go to war. His 12-year-old brother, Donnell, had been kidnapped the week before, and the kidnappers wanted $500,000 for the boy’s safe return. Yeah, Porter was a hustler, and, yeah, he had it going on — driving luxury cars, dating dime pieces, rocking the latest fashions — but $500K cash? He didn’t have that kind of money and only knew one man who might.

But the kidnappers didn’t care. They wanted to get paid. They cut off one of Donnell’s fingers to prove they weren’t playing, deposited it in an uptown McDonald’s bathroom and told Porter’s family where to retrieve it. The denizens of the block had sunk to new lows — snatching a prepubescent teenager off the street and holding him for ransom, expecting his drug-dealing big brother to cough up the cash. In the 1980s, Harlem was an ugly world being ravaged by the crack epidemic, but the abduction of Donnell Porter was something even the most hardened criminal would abhor. 

He was willing to lead a flamboyant, high-profile lifestyle, probably knowing deep down where that would lead.

Ron Chepesiuk, author

At 25, Porter wasn’t much older than his mutilated little brother, but he’d been down on the block hustling at the same age. A teenage prodigy who became a street star in mid-’80s Harlem. Slinging cocaine and defining what it meant to be an inner-city drug lord. An iconic persona of mythic proportions in both hip-hop and the chronicles of gangster lore.

But at that moment, Porter desperately needed help. He turned to his cocaine connection, Richard “Fritz” Simmons, and asked for the funds to get Donnell back. But Simmons wouldn’t give Porter the money. Instead, the Harlem consignment king rummaged in his stash spot and handed Porter a Louis Vuitton bag full of cocaine. Legend holds that Simmons told Porter not to worry about the debt — just go and get his brother. 


“Porter [had] charisma in his short life,” says Ron Chepesiuk, author of Gangsters of Harlem: The Gritty Underworld of New York City’s Most Famous Neighborhood. “But he was reckless and lived on the edge. He was willing to lead a flamboyant, high-profile lifestyle, probably knowing deep down where that would lead.” Like a lot of young American men raised in poverty, Porter had values that focused on materialism and living for the day. He was a hip-hop hustler who lived by his word and his balls. But the nightmare engulfing his brother rocked him to his core.

The 2002 movie Paid in Full, which stars Mekhi Phifer as Richard Porter and Harlem rapper Cam’ron as his duplicitous partner, Alberto “Alpo” Martinez, depicts the life and times of the infamous Harlem drug dealer. From cars and girls to drugs and money to death and betrayal to Porter’s impact on hip-hop and the streets, the story sticks pretty close to the real-life script, albeit romanticizing a cautionary tale that’s held Harlemites enthralled for close to three decades.

“We dressed like rappers before they brought that style to the world through hip-hop,” says Kevin Chiles, Don Diva Magazine founder and former Harlem drug lord who ran the streets with Porter. “Back then, we looked like that every day, but we weren’t rapping. We were going about our days a certain kind of way. You would see us on 125th Street driving by or at a basketball game, and it made impressions in that era and on that generation.”

Think about what a rapper exemplifies today, and times it by 10. Because these guys weren’t on a stage. Rappers are on the photo or video shoot looking all fly, but you don’t see them like that every day. With guys like Porter and Chiles, you did. They were the epitome of ghetto fabulous. Dope AF “New Jack City” drug dealers and hustlers extraordinaire. Getting rich off cocaine and heroin as the crack era raged from California to New York. 

Almost a month after Donnell’s kidnapping, Richard Porter’s body was discovered in Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx. He had been shot. By the end of January, his little brother’s body ended up in the same park. Frozen and wrapped in plastic bags, Donnell Porter was finally going home.

People initially believed that the same people who had kidnapped Donnell had also killed Richard. But over the years the truth has emerged. It turned out that Porter had taken the cocaine to his partner, Martinez, who murdered him in the ultimate betrayal, stealing the drugs instead of paying for them. “We originally didn’t know Alpo killed Rich,” Chiles says. “It was speculated, but it wasn’t confirmed until he did an interview and told on himself. But Rich’s death had a huge impact on Harlem. The timing couldn’t have been worse.” 

The death of Rich Porter, Harlem’s favorite son, was devastating because he embodied what it meant to have that uptown swag, New York confidence and innate ability to hustle and get money. His demise was the death of the ideals that many Harlemites held dear and admired. It left a bad taste in their mouths. 

It was also a tragic time for the family. One brother kidnapped, the other brother — the only one who could have possibly saved him — murdered. All the same, it was a predictable end for a young drug-thug who got caught up in the intricacies of the narcotics trade — and was destroyed during one of Harlem’s darkest hours.

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