Freeway Ricky Ross on Built Resilience

Freeway Ricky Ross is an American entrepreneur known for the drug empire he controlled in the 80s. In 1996, Ross was convicted of drug trafficking. He was released from prison in 2009.

So this is MISC’s Bounce Back issue.

FRR: You’re right. Ain’t nobody ever bounced back like me!

Can you paint a picture of your life in the eighties?

FRR: Oh, when I was in the game?

Yeah.

FRR: Man, you know I started off with $125 and at one time I made as much as 3 million dollars in one day. Was there times that things went bad? Absolutely. I can remember a time when I was only buying a thousand dollars’ worth of drugs, one time, I went to a guy and he tried to buy some drugs from me, and the deal didn’t go right. What happened was the guy sold me some bad stuff and I went back and stole his car. I almost got killed, this guy was a big-time guy at that time. And he sent a hit squad at me, like three guys, and they had automatic guns and everything, so that was a trying time for me.

How did those events affect your outlook?

FRR: I’d never been shot at before so it really scared me. They shot about a hundred, two hundred shots. The car that I was just behind was chopped up like a sardine can, they shot so many holes in it. But lucky for me that that car was there and I was able to jump behind it and get away. But you have to be resilient, you have to suck it up and figure out how to get around those type of situations.

And at that time you carried on with the same activities you were involved in?

FRR: Yeah, I just didn’t steal nobody else’s car.

You’ve been referred to as the Walmart of crack at that time. Can you break down the sources, the distribution channels? Summarize how your operation was functioning.

FRR: Well, the first thing is that you have to have a connection to get the product from, or you can’t build a business. So, the first thing I had to do was establish a good solid connection, somebody that was trustworthy. Once I had that in place, the next thing I needed was someone to sell it. There was no limit to those, there was plenty of people in South Central without jobs, with no source of income, that was looking to make some money.

And you were distributing through Blood and Crip gang members?

FRR: Oh, absolutely, absolutely. The gangs were my primary distributor.

So there was competition among your distributors too?

FRR: Yeah, I created competition with distributors. Competition is good, it’s good for the customer, it’s good for me, it’s good for everybody.

And how far-reaching was your footprint? You were moving product as far as Ohio?

FRR: I moved all around the country. Ohio, New York, Kansas City, Louisiana, Seattle. Everywhere. If I wasn’t going directly myself, I had someone else going.

In an operation of that size, there are interruptions, there are surprises that are going to come up. How do you respond to things you can’t anticipate and get back to business as usual in the fastest way possible?

FRR: You have to be a critical thinker. I’m very good at figuring out how to get things to work for myself.

Tell me about the houses.

FRR: I built a system where people who didn’t have any connection could double up their money. They could take a hundred dollars and go get two hundred fifty dollars’ worth of drugs. I did that because I knew when I was trying to come up, I couldn’t find a good solid connection. So I built a system where you could go to one house and purchase a hundred and fifty dollars’ worth and then if you took that and worked it the correct way, that house could elevate you to the next level. And then you could go to another house and get a thousand dollars’ worth of drugs. And I just kept houses like that where you could constantly elevate yourself to the point where you’d be dealing with me directly.

The other benefit is that if one house is raided or robbed you’re able to keep business in motion.

FRR: Absolutely. We kept multiple houses for those purposes. If a house got raided, we would have another house in that area that we could move into the same day or the next day. And we would rotate. We would work a house for a couple weeks and then we would shut that house down and move. Because normally, it would take the police three to four weeks to do an investigation and get a search warrant. But we were dealing with cops that weren’t ethical. They were forging search warrants and putting judges’ names on them, because they knew if they went through the proper procedures they wouldn’t be able to get the proper search warrants that they needed in time to get the bust. So they started faking the warrants so they could raid it as soon as they found out about the house.

When did you realize this wasn’t the route for you?

FRR: I had stopped selling drugs a year before I went to prison. I cam to the realization that nothing was what I thought it was in the drug business. My whole thinking was wrong. Even though I wasn’t selling to the kids, I was still having an effect on kids, because when I sold to their mothers, they were using the money for the food and light bills and spending it on drugs. So even though my family had everything that they needed, other families were suffering.

When did you realize that the CIA was importing your cocaine? [During the Iran Contra scandal]

FRR: When I was going to trial. The guy that I had been getting my drugs from testified that his organization got money from Ronald Reagan and the CIA.

How did you stay resilient through your years in prison?

FRR: It was tough. I had a life sentence without the possibility of parole. I know I had to fight. I started reading and studying things like As a Man Thinketh and The Richest Man in Babylon to name a couple.

You call yourself a survivor. What does that mean to you?

FRR: To survive is to be resilient. No matter what they throw at you, you come through. As human beings we’re resilient. We’re able to adapt to a lot of things.

You were incarcerated for 13 years, and the world changed in that time. How did you adapt when you got out?

FRR: It changed but I adapted while I was inside. I kept up. One of the worst things about being in prison is not being relevant. Not being important, like an empty bottle that you throw away. I fought to make myself relevant. I studied. I learned to read and write and I read law books and fought my case.

You got out September 29, 2009.

FRR: And I had two hundred dollars in my pocket. I knew I had to find an income and I knew that I wasn’t going to get a job with my background. So I started numerous businesses. I’m working on a motion picture of my life story. I started a record label. My roster is about fifteen deep. Jay Worthy, C. Carter and Franco the God are some of my artists. I started a couple website properties that are doing well. I go around the country talking to kids in high schools and juvenile detention centres and universities. I’ve spoken at UCLA, a USC law class.

What’s your ultimate goal right now?

FRR: To change my legacy. I don’t want to be remembered as a drug dealer. I want to be remember as a great man that did great things for the world. One of my teachers, when asked how did he get so great, he said, “Because I made a lot of mistakes.” That’s resilience.

This interview originally appeared in MISC summer 2013, The Bounce Back Issue

Read more in MISC’s series on resilience: Andrew Zolli on Strategic Loosen and John Solomon on Narrative and Gamification

the author

Robert Bolton

Robert Bolton is head of foresight studio at Idea Couture. See his full bio here.