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A Perfect Storm in Harlem

In 2002, Roc-A-Fella Records’ Damon Dash backed ‘Paid in Full,’ a movie loosely based on the tales of real-life legendary Harlem drug kingpins. The film wasn’t a hit, but it’s lived on as a cult classic thanks to an indelible performance from one of the greatest rappers the borough ever produced. 

Dan Evans

This week on The Ringer, we celebrate those movies that from humble or overlooked beginnings rose to prominence through the support of their obsessive fan bases. The movies that were too heady for mainstream audiences; the comedies that were before their time; the small indies that changed the direction of Hollywood. Welcome to Cult Movie Week.


It seems innocent at first: Three friends sit around a table exchanging stories, jokes, and philosophies. They’re eating Chinese food, drinking champagne, and launching balled-up pieces of paper at a trash can like they’re putting up jumpers at Rucker Park. That’s when the betting starts. “Five thou you can’t make it again,” the loudest says in all of his bombast to the most mild-mannered. He declines, but the third accepts the challenge and makes the shot. “Double up,” the loudmouth responds. Never one to be outshined, the third flashes his million-dollar grin, balls up a brown paper bag, and fires it at the trash can. He misses. It costs him $10,000, but that’s the point: These guys have no problem blowing money. They spend it fast because they know they’ll recoup it fast. Such is the life of the boisterous Rico (Cam’ron), the reserved Ace (Wood Harris), and the charming Mitch (Mekhi Phifer)—three young drug dealers setting Harlem ablaze, circa 1986.

Other scenes from Paid in Full capture the splendor of the fast life at the dawn of crack-era Harlem—for example, the scene outside of Willie’s Burgers as a convoy of luxury cars turns onto 145th Street to the sounds of Eric B. & Rakim’s “Paid in Full”—but none do a better job of capturing the dynamic between Ace, Mitch, and Rico. It shows their bond as well as the differences which ultimately corrode it—and that’s no spoiler, because how else could this story end besides fallout?

Loosely based on the lives of legendary Harlem drug dealers Azie “AZ” Faison, Richard “Rich” Porter, and Alberto “Alpo” Martinez, Paid in Full illustrates the glamour associated with the drug world without glamorizing it. You could be a 20-year-old millionaire with 15 cars and no driver’s license one year, then end up in a morgue or federal prison the next. At its core, it’s a story about the American Dream—or rather, how the American Dream is a fallacy, especially if you’re Black and poor.

Paid in Full was the result of a perfect storm: Produced by Roc-A-Fella’s film division at the height of the record label’s dominance, it was directed by Charles Stone III just before he made Drumline. It also featured Wood Harris the same year he began portraying Avon Barksdale on The Wire; Mekhi Phifer just before the release of 8 Mile; and a secondary cast filled with notable names, from Regina Hall to Ron Cephas Jones to Esai Morales. Yet the movie—which Elvis Mitchell listed as one of the 10 best of 2002—was barely seen when it hit theaters, bringing in just $3 million against a $7.5 million budget. But like many cult classics, the reverence for Paid in Full has nothing to do with conventional measures of success.

Beyond the movie’s sharp commentary, iconic moments, and black market presence, perhaps the main reason that Paid in Full became the gem of the Roc-A-Fella era is Cam’ron’s work as Rico (a take on Alpo) in his first acting role. Just months after the release of his Roc-A-Fella debut Come Home With Me, Cam’ron helped make Paid in Full a phenomenon, en route to becoming one himself. No character chases fame more recklessly than Rico, who will do almost anything for power and respect. Where Ace is pensive and Mitch is Harlem’s golden boy, Rico is a volatile exhibitionist with a penchant for violence, who wheelies full blocks on his Suzuki. Rico craves the spotlight and Cam’ron commands it in every scene. “If you think about Rico’s character, he’s supposed to steal the scene,” says Stone. “Once he leaves, people are supposed to go: ‘Yo, what’s up with your man?!’”

Roc-A-Fella cofounder Damon Dash has always been particular about his goals. As his label’s profile grew in conjunction with Jay-Z’s popularity heading into the millennium, Dash aimed to branch out into other mediums. A Harlem native himself, Dash saw the true story that inspired Paid in Full—for which Faison had written a screenplay titled Trapped—as the perfect way to do that. “These guys were real ghetto celebs,” Dash told MTV News in 2001. As one of the film’s producers, he hired Stone, who was drawn to the true story’s decadence after reading about it in magazines like Don Diva and F.E.D.S. “That period in America—specifically in Harlem—and the excess spending of these young men,” says Stone, who cut his teeth directing music videos for the likes of A Tribe Called Quest, The Roots, and Public Enemy, and gained national attention for directing Budweiser’s “Wassup?” commercial in 1999. “The subculture that came out of the culture in Harlem of like, buying cars just for specific parties and then ditching them.”

Paid in Full highlights how seductive and perilous the spotlight is, and no one embodies that double-edged sword better than Rico. Dash wanted a performer who could do him justice—and he wanted someone who was from Harlem. Stone had reservations about going with an inexperienced actor, but also saw the appeal of casting a diamond in the rough. Both got exactly what they wanted in Cam’ron, who grew up in East Harlem and whom Dash was managing at the time.

“There was this thing about Cam’ron: He had this confidence that was unflappable,” Stone says. “Like, if the two of you are standing in front of a poster and it’s blue, and he’s telling you it’s green, you’d start to reconsider. He had this confidence that, in many ways, when you step aside, it’s like, ‘Yo, this dude’s nutty.’” Stone was also intrigued by the uneasiness Cam’ron inspired. “He had this confidence but also this volatility where you didn’t know what the fuck could go down,” he adds. “That makes him scary. I had him read a couple of different things and I was like, ‘I think this could be the cat.’”

Cam’ron’s commitment to method acting was ... aggressive, to say the least. “I brought the gun from home, because you know Alpo … time has gone by, so kids don’t really know him like that these days,” he told ThisIs50 in 2016. “But when I was younger, [Alpo] was a big deal. So I was at home practicing, reading my lines, all that shit, and I was like, ‘Man, I’m gonna show these niggas I want that part.’’ Cam’ron hadn’t blossomed by the time Paid in Full began filming in the fall of 2000. He’d released two albums, 1998’s Confessions of Fire and 2000’s S.D.E., and successful singles, but was actively trying to leave an undesirable situation at Epic Records to reroute his career. Mainly, he was just eager to be in a movie.

Cam’ron was a rookie actor, but his background as a rapper helped him as a performer. Body language—particularly facial expressions—is a major aspect of both, and Cam used it to his advantage. “He was an active listener, looking at us with his eyes open ready for the ball, in a sense,” Wood Harris told The Breakfast Club in 2017. “You didn’t have to teach him, and that’s great acting already: You’re listening. Once you’re listening, you’re gonna give a genuine response. When you’re looking at his eyes in the movie, you see genuine expression in his eyes.” The result was powerful: Even when the action is subtle, Cam’ron wrings the most out of every scene he’s in; all of Rico’s squints, smirks, and scowls have a purpose.

Paid in Full succeeds in depicting the value of money in a world where people treat it like trash if it touches the ground. The crowd tosses cash into the air while Doug E. Fresh performs at a reimagining of The Rooftop, but Rico’s disgusted reaction indicates it’s all small bills. “There’s an egotistical dimension to it that motivates one to go: ‘I ain’t trying to fuck with singles,’” Stone says. That conceit leaps off the screen because of Cam’ron’s ability to simultaneously captivate and unsettle, which also comes across when Rico stresses the benefits of expanding their operations to D.C., despite Mitch’s clear disinterest.

“I told him: ‘Cam, can you drive up on the curb?’ It’s those little things that just make it like, ‘Dude, relax,’” Stone says. “Just look at Cam’ron looking at Mitch. It’s stone-faced and that, to me, is creepy—but I loved it.” Stone adds that Cam’ron based Rico’s unpredictability on people in his orbit. “He said he knew cats like that, so even though he’s not a trained actor, he’s an actor because he knew to pull that and utilize it,” he says. “I think it even made Mekhi uncomfortable, because for that scene, early on in the takes, Mekhi wasn’t trying to bait him, but kind of match him in terms of intensity. I told him: ‘You know this energy, and you’re like, This nigga is good for this, this, and this, but I need to keep him on a short leash, so just be cool.’”

Stone gave Cam’ron guidance, but still granted him the freedom to improvise. “Charles Stone was really great giving me pointers here and there, but what we would do on set is two takes of everything,” Cam’ron told ThisIs50. “So I would read my lines, then they’d say, ‘Cam, say what you would really say.’” Riffing or not, the novice aspect of Cam’ron’s performance makes Rico’s lack of boundaries seem even more sociopathic. After Ace gets shot during a robbery, Rico, eating potato chips at an obnoxious volume, offers a response that’s hilarious, but also completely devoid of empathy: “Niggas get shot everyday, B. You’ll be alright, nigga. You’re tough, right?”

“I was like, ‘Can we give him a bag of potato chips?’ When the scene opens, you hear someone chewing. I don’t even think Cam’ron looks at him when he says the first couple of lines,” Stone says.

Then, when Ace announces he’s leaving the game, Rico’s response is even more callous: “Pull your skirt down, B.” “It’s such a great scene to me, tone wise, because of the dynamics,” Stone says. “The scene is fairly quiet: Ace is not saying much—he can barely fuckin’ talk, anyways—Mitch is being the statesman, and then you’ve got this dude.”

Rico’s singular focus on the streets is harrowing, but there’s an absurdity to his presence as well. His antics—whether it’s shooting someone in the ass in broad daylight or punching another in the face and dragging him out of his car—are punctuated by hilarious one-liners. He proudly poses for pictures in a robe with his guns in the air and there’s a look of pure glee on his face as he analyzes his sex tapes in the middle of a party. It’s all enhanced by a brand of audacity Cam’ron specializes in, be it his music, skits, videos, or fashion sense. He’s as brazen as he is talented, and his performance as Rico projects the same “fuck it” bravado that ultimately made him a star.

One upside to Paid in Full being shelved by Dimension Films for a year following disputes about authenticity (much to the ire of Dash, who reportedly accosted Harvey Weinstein at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival) was that Cam’ron had become a superstar by the time it was finally released in October 2002. He signed with Roc-A-Fella in 2001, and Come Home With Me, which reached no. 2 on the Billboard 200, was on the way to becoming his first platinum album. He was in the midst of releasing his influential Diplomats mixtape series, and Roc-A-Fella was at its peak as a cultural steamroller: Jay-Z was in the throes of his war with Nas; Beanie Sigel’s Philadelphia crew State Property had released its self-titled debut album, which was also the soundtrack to a film of the same name; Dash had cowrote and directed Paper Soldiers, a B&E comedy starring a then-unheralded Kevin Hart. Paid in Full made Roc-A-Fella’s moment feel even bigger, and Cam’ron’s breakthrough performance was at the center of it. “Without Cam’ron being great, that movie [wouldn’t be] a classic,” Harris told The Breakfast Club in 2017.

Paid in Full is a footnote in Cam’ron’s legend, but like many cult films, it caught an emerging icon at an ascendant moment. Cam’ron was just stepping into his Laffy Taffy–colored Range Rover glory. In the ensuing years, he shone the spotlight on his crew, The Diplomats; he recorded songs with Mariah Carey; he feuded with Nas, Jay-Z, and 50 Cent; he drove himself to the hospital in a Lamborghini after getting shot; he mocked Bill O’Reilly on his own show; he decried snitching—even on serial killers—on 60 Minutes; he debuted a line of capes with designer Mark McNairy at New York Fashion Week; he wrote, directed, produced, and starred in 2006’s Killa Season; and he continues to produce independent films. Even if he never acts at the level he did in Paid in Full again, his performance will always stand out as lightning in a champagne bottle.

Like its inspiration, Paid in Full is a story some have never heard, but that others know by heart. Whenever someone mentions shoving cake in somebody’s face to show them love, or calls someone a “Kermit the Frog face-ass nigga,” or uses any variation of “Niggas get shot everyday,” they’re paying homage to Paid in Full. And of all the lines from the movie that have caught on within popular culture through the years, Rico delivers many of the best—some that are the product of Cam’ron’s ad-libbing. “Cam’ron did a great job and he made personal choices where I was like, ‘Oh, that’s dope,’” Stone says. “It’s not like I was the puppet master.”

Paid in Full captures the essence of a romanticized era: the Dapper Dan outfits and Cazal shades; the vintage Benzes, Bimmers, and Saabs with gold BBS rims; and the airbrushed photo backdrops at The Rooftop. It shows the adrenaline rush that came with attaining more than ever imagined without sensationalizing the means used to acquire it. Paid in Full tells a familiar and relatable story about misguided ambition, and, similar to Scarface, is an allegory about the danger of living for the moment. It gave Cam’ron the opportunity to play an infamous character who killed a beloved one—and the opportunity to rap about it later, as only he would. But more importantly, it was a full circle moment for the Harlem native: It let him take the world home with him twice in one year.

Julian Kimble has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Undefeated, GQ, Billboard, Pitchfork, The Fader, SB Nation, and many more.

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