Hip hop entrepreneur Damon Dash says he has identified with Leroy “Nicky” Barnes since the 1970s–when he was a kid in Harlem, where Barnes’ crime syndicate ran the drug trade. Barnes is the central character in filmmaker Marc Levin’s new documentary, Mr. Untouchable–the moniker given to Barnes by the New York Times Magazine, when it ran a cover story on the gangster.
Back then, we all wanted to be Nicky Barnes,” says Dash, who is one of the producers of Mr. Untouchable. “He was the king of style and swagger, and he was a great businessman. Drugs was just another business in Harlem–that’s the way it was. A fact of life. But when Nicky ratted out his partners, he broke the code. Everything changed–there was no organization, the streets was wild.”
Dash attributes the origins of gangsta rap and hip hop style–the basis of his very successful Damon Dash Enterprises–to Barnes’ influence. “E’rybody still wanted to be Nicky–the godfather–running our businesses the way he did. And we wanted his swagger,” says Dash. “Harlem sets style for the world–in Tokyo and Paris, everywhere, e’ryone follows Harlem’s style.”
No doubt Nicky Barnes is part of Harlem’s History, as Dash points out. But he was a heinous criminal who dealt drugs, murdered rivals, hooked and killed his clients. So, does Mr. Untouchable deserve the career replay he’s now getting? While documentary films can cover any and every subject, and this film’s insider glimpse at Harlem’s underworld is quite fascinating, it would be a shame if youngsters who’re now the age Dash was when he was so influenced by Barnes were to assume an attitude of reverence towards Harlem’s notorious gangster. Mr Untouchable doesn’t exactly glorify Barnes, but it doesn’t quite comdemn him either.
The DVD releases today so go to your local best buy or blockbuster and get it.
© 2008, Brandon Wyche. All rights reserved.