Updated: Jul 13
The figures behind
Harlem, early nineties. BMW E30’s in a bouquet of colors line the block. The Mercedes-Benz 560 that accompanies the Mazda Rx-7 on the curb bleeds hues of red. The night is live in front of Willie’s Burgers, a scene of status. “This is the stage. If you was here, you was definitely somebody.” Throwing dice and slinging bands with your girl on your arm like its routine.
Cuban links and gold baguettes sit upon down jackets and Hilfiger puffers. Louis Vuitton leather bombers with the fur collar camouflage the pain underneath. Diamonds dance around necks and sparkle like falling tears. As Ace looks on at the routine festivities in the opening scene of Paid In Full, shadows of the kingpin he once was flickering in his eyes, he reflects, "The Game is over.”
Let's run it back to the early 80s when the game was a 'lil different. Scarface was fresh in theaters and the streets were galvanized by their rags to riches hero. Nickel and dime bagging bud was soon passé as the flow of CIA-sponsored cocaine entering the country was far more profitable. Ace Boogie, Rico, and Money Making Mitch— a trinity of coke lords led by the quiet-moving ways of Ace. The streets are kept happy under his philosophy of that everybody eats. The "George Jefferson" of the neighborhood, as Mitch coined him. If everyone is put on, Harlem runs smoothly. “Live and maintain”, he professes. But yet there are those who eat and still glutton for more.
Time to Play the Game
The real-life figure behind Ace in Paid In Full is Azie Faison, known to those around him as AZ. He was born in the Bronx, but at age six he and his mother moved to Harlem where they would make their home. Growing up in the Sugar Hill section gave AZ a vivid sight into the diverse cast that makes up the opera of the streets. The pimps and damsels in distress, the players and hustlers, all of whom are just attempting to survive. To AZ, Harlem was "the Mecca of the streets." He never wished to let his surroundings consume him. However, while working at the cleaners making ends for him and his mother, AZ stood on the outside looking in.
It was Rich Porter, affectionately known to viewers as Money Making Mitch, that gave AZ the first taste of the life. Rich was finessing the pack from an early age. Since twelve he was in the game doing what he needed to support his family. He took the responsibility of looking over his younger brother, trying to steer him away from following in his image and impart some guidance. Like depicted in the film, those around him do glow of him as the trapper with a heart of gold.
Given how tight the two were, he trusted AZ on occasion with sitting upon a trap-icopia at the cleaners; stacks, packs, and burners. The ol’ “Hold this for me, hold that for me,” according to AZ himself.
The Dominican connection
“When I met LuLu the product was so good, ya feel me, that people was knocking on the window like ‘come outside the cleaners’”. - AZ
In a pool hall on 157th street in Harlem, the career trajectory of Azie Faison was about to skyrocket. It was there he met Lulu, a Dominican plug with whom he would grow very close with on a personal level over their years working together. He recounts Lulu’s mother would even greet him into the living room when he would visit. The foundation of this closeness lies in his admiration for how AZ kept low, moved quiet in the streets, and of course, was just as lucrative. From there, AZ started to establish his blocks. His economic policy was one Frank Lucas would have admired. With quality so pure and prices so low, the product was moving itself. One who is accustomed to buying hundred dollar grams can now find even better white for thirty. Regarding profit margins, “It went from $10,00 a day to $50,000,” AZ claims. But the man behind Ace Boogie never intended to be a boss or a kingpin. He just wanted to make sure everyone ate alongside him. AZ exclusively held that close connection, but as he put it, “If Lulu gives me five birds Imma take it to the streets. I might give Rich one, give this [guy] one. You finished? Just keep it doing what it do.” It wasn't long before five turned into fifty.
The Unholy preacher
With a growing presence on the street, enemies were bound to be in the making. To extract something from a person of power you must go to those they love. In the film tragedy is brought to both the families of Mitch and Ace, with the kidnapping of Mitch’s 12 year-old brother, Sonny, being the first shock to their emotional foundation.
The true story of this tragedy plays out quite the same, but the crew behind the abduction was more sinister than ever detailed in the movie. Rich Porter’s Uncle, Johnny “Apple” Porter, ran with Clarence Heatley and his Preacher’s Crew. During the late 80s, many outfits sprung up in New York who operated chiefly off of robbing and extorting drug dealers. Being of this cut, Preacher’s Crew specialized in kidnapping and murder. They were alleged to have burned the skin of their victims to avoid identifiable tattoos, along with scrubbing down their crimson-stained killing room floors with boric acid. Their surgical methods earned them the sobriquet of, “The Black Hand of Death”.
On December 5, 1989, Johnny and Preacher’s Crew kidnapped Donnell Porter on his way to school in Harlem. The following day, Rich received a phone call directing him to a McDonald's bathroom on 125th and Broadway. After sending someone to investigate, they found a coffee can that held Donnell’s right index finger along with a tape capturing the haunting echoes of his desperate cries for help. They demanded $500,000 from Rich for him to see his brother alive.
Rich would be killed before he could.
With the untimely death of Rich, the financial burden of the ransom now fell on his family. Considering this, and that the 12 year-old had been exposed to all of their identities, Preacher’s Crew viewed themselves with just one option. Donnell Porter was murdered.
His blood lie on his uncle's hands. "The Black Hand of Death” had claimed another hopeless victim. An innocent life that had not yet been lived, caught as collateral in a fatal play.
Niggas die everyday, B.
You may now be asking yourself, dear reader, what truth lies behind the fateful end to the real-life inspiration of our "Money-Making" Mitch? Well the answers lie within the actions of one man: Alpo.
His name rings in the streets of New York like an all but yet forgotten tune. Known to viewers of Paid In Full as Rico, he is manically brought to life by the thespian Cam'ron. Like Rich, Alpo Martinez was in the game from an early age. It wasn’t until linking up with AZ that both his clout and his profits started to reach its zenith. Alpo was a sociopathic playboy even in real life. As the legend goes he was never seen hustling in the same outfit twice. Everything about his presentation was loud, the antithesis of AZ. But this snake was always slithering from low. New Yorkers from the era refer back to how if you had a beef with Alpo, he would fuck with every women you love. Your girl, your sister, your mom, your auntie; all to get into your head. Good old fashioned murder did the trick for him too. The slime was strong with this one.
But the depths of Alpo’s treachery ran deeper.
Late one night playing ball on the court with his friends, AZ recalls them hearing a few gunshots ring out. “Niggas die everyday, B.” They think nothing of it and continue their game. A short while later, AZ sees Alpo’s Suzuki pull up to the block and he hops in to say what's up. Also in the car was another man he didn’t know. Once they’re eye to eye he notices some fresh scratches on Alpo’s face. When asked about them he writes it off as a fight with his girl back in D.C. A car then happens to drive by to which Alpo says owes him money, so he pulls off real quick to collect.
Later in the night, Alpo returns and waves for AZ to come to the car. Before he could do so, his friend happened to call for him from the other side of the street, saying it was important. Caught between this tug of war for his attention, he puts Alpo aside to go and see what his friend’s urgency was about. He tells AZ not to go over to Alpo’s car. He informs him he had been in the cut and was laying low.
AZ runs up to his apartment and when he comes back down, Alpo is gone. Soon, his pager is going off wildly and he checks it to see the name of Rich’s sister. When he returns the call he steps into a daze. She tells him Rich is dead.
Dropping the phone to his side, all AZ could see was Alpo in front of him with his scratched face. He thinks back to that tug of war for his attention on the street, and questions his fate if he had walked over to Alpo instead of his friend.
Alpo shared his perspective of the night in an interview with the iconic cult-street magazine F.E.D.S. He was supposed to be meeting Rich that night. Once inside his van, Alpo locked the doors and pulled off while questioning Rich on the source of his coke.
With the amount of attention brought by the fallout of Donnell Porter's murder, there was a drought beginning to hit the streets. Therefore any wind of some white would surely be of high demand, especially thirty birds that Rich was alleged to be in possession of. According to AZ the price of a brick had inflated to $25,000, estimating the total of Rich's stash to be worth 1.5 to 2 million dollars on the street.
When Alpo felt he was being lied to in the van, he gave the nod for his man to fire his .357 Magnum into the chest of Rich Porter. Alpo would say he later put the final bullet into Rich's conscious head, before burying his body in a Bronx neighborhood.
"I was very mad", Alpo said. "I just killed a nigga that I loved, a nigga that I was making money with. A nigga I called my brother."
Like Cain did unto his brother Abel over the envy of God’s love, Alpo slayed Rich over the greed of thirty bricks.
Revenge Or road rage?
Alpo Martinez was shot dead on Halloween morning of 2021 upon his return to Harlem. He emerged from witness protection after serving the better part of a 35-year sentence at ADX Florence, avoiding a life sentence in 14 counts of murder by turning state's. Was his return an act of fatal hubris?
Considering the legend surrounding Paid In Full, many were reasonable to assume it was a thirty year plot of patient retribution when they heard the news of Alpo's death. The mind naturally drifts to Vito Corleone returning to Sicily to avenge his family in the blood of Don Fannuci. For Alpo to pay the iron price at the hands of one close to Rich, would be fittingly romantic. But unfortunately it doesn't appear so.
The sparse details available from inside sources point to a series of road rage incidents with neighbor Shakeem Parker. The climax of these repeated altercations left the former kingpin blotted with gunshots in his Dodge Ram. Parker, 27, would be just 7 years old when the story of Alpo, AZ, and Rich Porter were immortalized for the culture when Paid In Full released in 2002. It is also important to note, most of everyone entrenched in the dope politics of that time who could have possibly held a grudge became casualties of it; either passed on or imprisoned.
Once a pillar of the coke game in Harlem, Alpo Martinez lay lifeless in those same streets as Abraham G. Rodriquez of Lewiston, Maine.
In the final act of Paid In Full, it brings the audience full circle back to the film's opening scene. Ace receives a phone call that his girlfriend is about to deliver their first child. Overjoyed and with an innocent jubilance on his face, he celebrates with both friends and business partners Mitch and Rico as they questionably pop a bottle of champagne all over a perfectly fine 6 Series BMW just minding its own business (most definitely staining the windshield).
Ace races over to his apartment with both his mind and heart in a flutter. As he opens the door he’s caught in a whirlwind of bony flesh and pistol whips. Knuckles, elbows, and Timberland soles were soon about to give way to a hail of steel.
The way this misfortune actually played out for AZ Faison runs pretty straightly alongside the film. A slight change is made with the angle of the birth of Ace’s child being used to lure him to his apartment, an understandable use of fiction. As it goes, it was a routine trip for AZ that brought him back to one of his traps in the Bronx to reup for one of his men. Upon ambushing him at the door, the ski-masked men ordered that he open the safe in his bedroom whilst also threatening bound hostages. A pistol whip had opened a flowing river of iron from the brow of AZ and flooded his eyes, like rain collecting into eroded earth.
With AZ blinded and unable to open the safe, the attackers cut their losses on the home invasion. All of the hostages were executed. Three were dead on the scene, one of which being AZ’s aunt. Two survive with their life. For AZ, Like Tony Montana he miraculously withstands nine bullets, twice of which are to the head.
“When I got shot, my spirit left the body, man”, AZ reflects . “So when I came back into the body, I got up off the floor, walked into the bedroom and seen all the bodies. And I felt guilty, man, I felt like it was my fault. I’m shaking people and nobody’s responding.” He continues, “So I climbed in the bed, put the covers over me, my brother, and I just wanted to die. I wanted to wake up dead, next thing you know I wake up and I’m in the hospital.”
Just like in Paid In Full, the perpetrator of this robbery is the jealous boyfriend of AZ’s sister, Kevin Clark. Furthermore, AZ did in fact recognize him underneath his mask like in the film with his attempts at reason just driving Kevin closer to murder. He’s actually portrayed by a young Alton Saint from FX’s Snowfall, so shout out the very Earl Sweatshirt lookin’ Kevin Carrol to match the very Tyler, the Creator lookin’ Wood Harris.
Unlike the film, there was no retaliation to be carried out. With the spectacle of over a thousand people lining the streets of Harlem outside the hospital for this seemingly unknown kid, the law was right there waiting for AZ to make a move. To visit him you had to go to the precinct to be fingerprinted and ID’d before being admitted. Neither Rich nor Alpo came to visit, which he understood. But as AZ recalled, Lulu did come. A cute testament to the bond those two shared.
But before any conscious decision could be made anyway, police were already forcing their way into the hospital room that could have sat the potential death bed of Azie Faison.
They placed a tape recorder on his bullet ridden body and asked him questions like who the president was to establish if he was fit to interview. In an act of self preservation, he hurriedly answered through the questions they asked with one being the name of who carried out the group killing.
“And then it seems like again my spirit left my body. So now they asking me questions and I’m not answering.” AZ continues, “They grab my pulse and they took the tape recorder, they’re like ‘he’s outta here’ and left. Soon as they left seems like my spirit went back into my body…it's like God saved me.”
AZ would later testify against Kevin Clark. He did not do so to ingratiate his position with the law—nor to avoid prison time, being that he was in no legal straits by any means. He did so out of his own will because he felt it was right with the universe. The guilt of feeling responsible for three innocent lives being taken as collateral for his sins was too much to bear on his conscience. To those who bring up the street code with his situation, he says, “It's deep man, it's deeper than what people can see.”
The irony is that if Kevin Clark and his crew from the Bronx had simply approached AZ about doing business, he stated he would have let them hold onto something and then they could all expand in the BX. “But not everyone thinks that far ahead," he said.
Another example of how everybody can eat.
The death of his friend Rich Porter was the final tipping point for Azie Faison to leave the game he never glorified.
the game is over
The final scene of the film returns to that lively night in front of Willie's Burgers. The matured Ace looks upon the swarming crowd of Pelle Pelle jackets and diamonds dancing in the moonlight. In an act of clever misdirection, the scene of festivity was revealed to all be the set of a music video shoot. As Ace stands on the street watching the production and looks upon the next generation, he sees the pain and sacrifice that is masked by the façade of glory. The force ghost of Mitch appearing in the distance reminds him of the loss that the game brings, but also the memories of luxury and brotherhood that they created for themselves from nothing. Pushing Euros down the street while also trying to push solidarity. "Maybe I will be the George Jefferson of the neighborhood," he reflects. "I'll get back to you on that."