1 on 1 with The Real ”American Gangster” Frank Lucas

By now, you’ve probably seen the movie, or at least heard the story of the American Gangster. But have you heard it from the original gangster himself? Probably not. And does he ever have a story to tell! 77-year-old Frank Lucas has seen and done a lot of things in his life, much of which he regrets, starting with his choice of outfit to the historic Ali/Frazier fight that triggered his downfall. But you already knew that, didn’t you! However, do you know what still gives this God-fearing family man the chills? Which Hip Hop icon’s dad Frank Lucas was friends with? Did he really say “My Man”? Or even how he made $1 million A DAY right under the cops’ noses? To find out the answers to these and many more questions, check out this rare interview with the man, the myth, the legend himself.

Rhyme Revolution: How are you doing, sir?
Frank Lucas: I’m here, still kicking and eating.
RR: That’s good to hear. Is everything alright?
FL: Yes sir. I’m trying to do the best I can and the best I can has to be good enough right now.
RR: Let’s start from the beginning. What was North Carolina like in the 1930s and ‘40s for a person of colour?
FL: The same way the rest of the South was back in those days, prejudiced. You looked at a white girl and they called it “reckless eyeballing”.
RR: And unfortunately, you saw first-hand what reckless eyeballing could do, correct?
FL: I saw what it could do when I was 6 years-old. They (Ku Klux Klan members) blew my cousin’s head off.
RR: I can’t even imagine what that would do to a young child. Is that what made you decide to leave North Carolina?
FL: That was part of it. Another thing is I robbed the biggest white man in the world, what I thought was the biggest white man in the world anyway, a rich man. I robbed his store and I had to leave so they couldn’t hang me or kill me.
RR: You arrived in Harlem in the mid-40s. What was it like coming to the big city as a young man who was not even 16 years-old?
FL: I wasn’t even 16, maybe 13 years-old. When I got off the bus I said ‘Hello Harlem USA. I finally made it to the promised land.”
RR: In the 1950s, you were the protege of Harlem gangster Ellsworth "Bumpy" Johnson.
FL: Yes sir, I guess you could call it that. I worked for him for 13 years, 9 months and 8 days. He was my boss and what he asked me to do, I did. It was amazing grace.
RR: What was Bumpy like as a person?
FL: He was the father you’d like to have, the brother you think you’d never have. A man among men, put it that way. He was a great guy.
RR: Was he really the Robin Hood of Harlem?
FL: I guess you could call him the Robin Hood and then some!
RR: What do you think Bumpy saw in a young Frank Lucas that made him take you under his wing?
FL: Well, there was a guy in the pool room, his name was Icepick Red, he had like 10 Grand in his hands. And I guess Bumpy saw that I might get in trouble if I didn’t get that money so he asked if I could beat [Icepick Red] in pool. I said, ‘Yes sir!’ We volleyed for the break and I won the break and he didn’t get a shot! See I had to hustle pool and everything I could because if I didn’t, I’d have nowhere to sleep at night and didn’t have nothing to eat. I was by myself at a young age, no place to go and nothing to do.
RR: So what was the most important lesson you learned from Bumpy?
FL: Be a man. Keep your word. And do the right thing.
RR: You’ve spoken a lot about the importance of family, in fact, you were very adamant about only working with family members and close associates – The Country Boys. That being said, a lot of people say business and family don’t mix. Do you agree?
FL: Family is the only thing you’ve got. If you can’t get along with family then something has to be wrong with you. I love my family and everything I did I took them with me, except for one thing. I didn’t want them to get into game I was in. I did everything I could to keep them out but they got into it anyways. There was nothing much I could do about that. That was after I went to jail that they got into it. If I stayed in the streets they never would’ve did it.
RR: So is that different from the movie, because in the movie it seems as though you called them up from North Carolina. Is that not how it happened?
FL: Well, in a way that’s how it happened. That’s pretty much true. They got me in a lot of trouble! (laughs) We’re a tight-knit family.
RR: How on earth did you come up with the idea of shipping heroin back from Vietnam in the caskets of dead American soldiers?
FL: That’s partly true and partly not true. I never touched a dead person, you’ve got to believe that! And I would never disrespect them and put something in their coffin. But I did put it in a false-bottom under their coffin, yes I did. And it’s very hard for me to admit that today, but that’s the truth, that’s what I did and I’m very remorseful for what I did.
RR: How accurate was the movie compared to your real life experiences?
FL: Put it this way, it was 75% accurate but you got to remember it’s a movie and Hollywood’s going to make money.
RR: Right. So how much involvement or hands-on were you in the actually making of the movie? Did they ask you for your thoughts?
FL: Yes sir, Mr. (Denzel) Washington asked me everyday. I wasn’t on the scene everyday, but 90% of the time. He’d ask me if this was the way it’s supposed to be done, how he wrapped his gun, whatever. You can’t get better than Mr. Washington.
RR: No you can’t. I understand Denzel spent a lot of time with you studying each gesture. Did he get your mannerisms down pat, your swagger?
FL: Yes he did. And he did a great job. Of course, you don’t know me but I’m here to tell you he did.
RR: Did you really say “My man”?
FL: I say that all the time. I think Mr. Washington got that on his own. He didn’t ask me about that, but I use that saying a lot. Maybe he just heard me say it.
RR: I heard you’re writing a book. How different will it be from the movie?
FL: See the movie only had 10 years of my life. The book will cover from the day I was born to the day they stop writing the story. I’ve got another 60-70 years they can write about!
RR: When can we expect it in stores?
FL: I have no idea. Right now we’re negotiating a pretty decent book deal as we speak. I know it’ll be a bestseller, there ain’t no question about that!
RR: You just mentioned you are very remorseful of your actions. Why the remorse and is there anything you don’t regret?
FL: Well, there’s a lot I regret. I regret going to Vietnam, I mean, Southeast Asia. I regret going to the Ho Chi Minh Trail, I regret doing all the things I did, it wasn’t the right thing to do. So I’m going to Alaska to the Caribbean to Hawaii to New York telling the kids, ‘Please don’t do this, this is the wrong thing to do. Don’t get involved in the (drug) game, this is a terrible game to get in. If you get into it, there’s ain’t nothing but trouble. Don’t do what Frank Lucas did.’ The only thing you can do is wind up in jail and the judge does not mind giving it to you because it’s drugs. When you go to jail, for the most part, you’re going to have life without the possibility of parole and the expiration date will be death.
RR: And now taking lessons from her own experience, your daughter Francine has established a website, Yellowbrickroads.org. Can you please tell us about it?
FL: Thank you very much for mentioning it! It’s a website for children of incarcerated parents. She went through the same thing but she was lucky she had grandparents. They gave my wife some time in jail for throwing money out of the window, what they say was $585 but I’m here to tell you there was over $12 million there. I don’t know what happened to the rest of the money but it never showed up. And I took lie-detector tests with the Feds and I passed with flying colours, but I never heard nothing about it no more.
RR: Did you get back together with your wife after your release?
FL: She never left me. In fact, she’s in the other room. [calls out to his wife] ‘Julie!’ And I got this little guy here, if I don’t mention his name he’s going to have a heart-attack. Little guy named Ray Lucas. He’s 11 years-old and a pain in the butt. (laughs)
RR: I read that you said we’d be surprised how much grown men break down and cry in prison because they miss their kids. I guess we don’t always realize the dual lives people live. It’s hard for someone to believe that as cutthroat one has to be in the drug trade, they can also be a loving husband and father.
FL: Oh my God! Listen, you ain’t gonna believe how many people - like I did and I’m not ashamed to tell it – break down on account of their kids. You go in there when your kids are 5 or 6 years-old and when you come out they’re grown. Now that’s a shame! That’s why I say ‘Don’t do this. It ain’t worth it. It ain’t worth it to your family. It ain’t worth it you. It just ain’t worth it, man.’