New York’s Illest Releases Independent Album To Help Free Their Innocent Comrade! (Get To Know The New York's Illest Crew)
New York’s Illest Releases Independent Album To Help Free Their Innocent Comrade!
By Nedra James and Nicholas Zimmerman
NEW YORK ILLEST STORY
Backtrack to April 2001. A small, independent record company enters the New York Hip Hop scene. Flyers, stickers, poster boards, and other debris cultivate the metropolitan area, advertising the birth of the new company and it’s first CD release. The promotional and marketing plan for the album would be somewhat ingenious, but dangerously controversial. Mimicking the New York City Police Dept. slogan of “New York’s Bravest”, the company C.E.O. would name his group “New York’s Illest”. The title brought publicity to the project, but not all was positive. Republican activist groups spoke out against the release of the CD (and its lyrical content), calling it “a disgrace to one of the best law enforcement agencies in America.” Before this, the group, the company, and its owner, Nicholas (Puzz Pacino) Zimmerman were virtually unknown to the Hip Hop world, although the State and Federal Government were very familiar with “Mr. Puzz.” Notwithstanding the promotional blitz for the CD, its release would be derailed.
Fast-forward to January, 2012. Mr. Zimmerman is in 23 hour lockdown at an upstate New York Correctional Facility facing 40 years in prison for a crime most people (and apparently some judges, too) say he didn’t commit. For instance, Puzz was charged and convicted of being in possession of a gun. However, no gun was ever recovered in his case? Nakia Stubbs, the only witness to allege that Puzz was in possession of a gun, has repeatedly recanted her trial testimony, admitting that she was coerced and threatened by the Queen’s District Attorney’s office to implicate Puzz in the case. (The court said they don’t believe Nakia?) Even more, six witnesses have come forward to confirm that Puzz was in their presence on the night in question and that he never possessed a gun (the court says they are lying?) More importantly, there were witnesses in the audience of Puzz’s trial that could have corroborated his alibi, but the judge denied their testimony (the Court said they were irrelevant?) As the story apparently goes, “Mr. Zimmerman’s trial was (set up) for him to (go down),” says Anisha Miles, a long time friend of Nicholas’ and supporter of his innocence since the start of his incarceration. In the end, the jury would never hear any of the evidence that proves Puzz’s innocence, and eventually they would convict him. For many, this would only be a nightmare that most people could wake up from. For Nicholas Zimmerman, this is life.
MEET NEW YORK’S ILLEST, a group of artists that pretty much did things their way. No one gave them permission to litter New York City streets with their promotional materials. No one gave them the O.K. to shoot three videos for an album that hadn’t even sold three copies. And no one allowed them to be the opening act for Lil’ Kim’s 2001 tour. They did all of that themselves, and on their own terms. “I remember calling a company in California that tracks airplay of music videos,” says Puzz. “I just wanted to know if they had added our videos to their system, and if they were tracking them. When I mentioned New York’s Illest the guy says, “tracking it? Man, Boe & Villa has one of the fastest rising videos in our system. Who are you guys, what label are you signed to?” Puzz would get the same response from every company he called to check on the promotion for the album. As Puzz would see it, “It was time to take this thing to the next level.”
BOE & VILLA are the two-man duo that cover the more grittier side of New York City. They’re not your average hard-core rap group. They actually sound good! Their lyrics are filled with firsthand knowledge of the bullet-riddled buildings that make up East New York’s Cypress Projects. The history of this area of Brooklyn was enough to convince this writer to relocate the meeting place for their interview to the more comfortable setting of Rego Park, Queens. (Less bullet holes) Boe & Villa make their debut on the street certified hit “Life Is Too Short.”
The track appears to make a slow, concentrated entry with the listener only hearing the strings of a Jimi Hendrix guitar sample at first. But then, all of a sudden, the baseline comes in, and the beat drops, and all hell start to break loose.
Villa sets off the track first, explaining, “Niggaz will roll up shooting from baby strollers.” Boe follows him, asserting “We playin’ for keeps, shit is deep, and the price is huge – Life is too short to snooze.” The song displays the group’s musical chemistry and enables Boe & Villa to be mentioned in the same sentence as other hip-hop duo heavyweights. This writer also had the opportunity to preview the remix to “Life Is Too Short”, which only gave her even more of a reason to never visit Cypress Projects. Also from this housing complex three more artists appear; Syperior, F.L.O.W., and Puzz Pacino (yeah, the C.E.O. raps too). Every participant on the song seems to battle for the spotlight while, at the same time, complimenting each other’s position. Even without quoting lyrics from the actual song, you can rest assured that the remix is gangsta, with a capital G.
PEPCI covers the gutter R&B section of the CD. Also a Brooklynite, I scratched the idea of interviewing her at her Albany Projects apartment. (More bullet holes) On the up-tempo track Boyfriend/Girlfriend, Pepci seems to be having relationship problems. Serious relationship problems! Apparently, Pepci has a boyfriend, who has a girlfriend, who has a boyfriend – and that boyfriend has a boyfriend? As confusing as it sounds, Pepci explains that the idea of the song came about when her best friend found out that her boyfriend had been unfaithful. But the story didn’t stop there. “When we found out that my friend’s boyfriend was cheating, first we wanted to beat his ass, then find the girl he was cheating with and beat her ass. When we tracked her down, I realized that I recognized her from somewhere, so I said ‘hold up, aren’t you Corey’s girl?’ And she was like “yeah and . . .” After that revelation, Pepci and her crew didn’t want to beat her ass anymore because they “felt sorry for her.” Unfortunately, the young lady was the last one in the neighborhood to find out that Corey was uh . . . well . . . gay! Pepci’s creative genius compelled her to make a song of the situation, to-wit Boyfriend/Girlfriend.
“Most of the songs I write are about everyday life experiences. I can make a song about anything. I’ll be on the bus going to work and I’ll write about the man with the bald spot sitting in front of me. Some of the songs I write are funny and some are not. It all depends on how I feel at the time”. The content of the song and her corresponding vocals shows that Pepci is a voice to be reckoned with. However, more cynical observers might question the validity of Pepci’s debut, and say she bit off of R. Kelly’s “Trapped In The Closet” sequels. “No, no, no. I wrote Boyfriend/Girlfriend in 2000. I been had that song. R. Kelly might have heard my version and did a little biting himself,” Pepci said.
KIRA SCOTT was barely 19 when she recorded “I Got Something 4 U”, her lead single from the New York’s Illest collaboration. But don’t let the age fool you; Kira’s style of music is comparable to R&B veterans such as Miki Howard, Anita Baker and Jody Watley. Her production, lyrics, and vocals are polished with a thick coat of experience, hiding the fact that she is a new artist. Her beautiful smile corroborates the beautiful music she makes.
Originally from Teaneck, N.J., Kira had dabbled in Broadway acting, modeling, and a failed attempt at American Idol before landing on the New York’s Illest roster. Speak to anyone in the music industry and they will tell you “Kira should have definitely made the finals.” Janice E. Portsmith of Madison Avenue Entertainment Group argues, “Kira definitely deserves the spotlight. She is a tremendous talent that is only lacking a proper recording home. Hopefully, with the attention from the New York’s Illest compilation, record companies will finally start to see her worth.”
Apparently someone in the United Kingdom recognized Kira’s worth. When Kira’s single was originally released in 2001, an insurmountable amount of inquiries started to pour in from England. “I don’t know what it was. I don’t even know how it got there, but Kira’s single (Something 4 U) started popping up on mix CD’s and radio stations in London and all over England. I was getting calls from promoters every other week that wanted to book Kira for shows over there. I couldn’t accept the dates because we weren’t even prepared for anything like that. We were a local group at the time, but you just never know where your local CD will end up.”
Puzz admitted that “it was hard to keep Kira focused in 2001. She was so young and still wanting to have fun instead of handling business.” In 2012, Kira is mature, her vocals have enhanced and her petite 38” 25” 42” frame makes video hoochie mama’s shiver in their boots. “I’m definitely more focused on my career now. I gotta make this happen for me and my son. I feel good about the New York’s Illest CD and other projects I have lined up. So as long as Puzz believes in me, I’m there for him and he knows that.”
THI-LAI doesn’t want to hear any more excuses from her boyfriend. On the man bashing single “Apology Not Accepted”, Thi-lai comes across as a woman that has been hurt one too many times and now she is “finna clean house”. A reasonable person might ask what kind of guy could lie to the
Thai-American mix beauty and Howard University graduate, but as Thi-lai explains, “pretty girls experience broken hearts, too.”
While Thi-lai was mending her broken heart, she moved to New York City to record her first single from the New York’s Illest CD. Although Thi-lai was not originally from the Tri-State area, Puzz made Thi-lai feel comfortable joining the project. “When I met Puzz, he was promoting his new website that was based in N.Y. City. The company sold CD’s and posters online and it was a huge site. Everyone in my school had heard about the website and so I’m thinking that this guy doesn’t have time to focus on promoting me as an artist. I felt that he couldn’t run a website and a record company at the same time, but less than a month after we met in D.C., he had me in N.Y. recording songs, doing interviews, at video shoots, etc. I guess you can say he does a little of everything.”
A lot of people say that Thi-lai missed her calling when Puzz went to prison. Juanita Mcleod, also of Howard University, was on board to be Thi-lai’s manager. Ms. Mcleod charges that if Puzz hadn’t been arrested, Thi-lai and Beyonce would have been a fierce competition. “At that time, I was dating Puzz and I introduced him to Thi-lai. I knew if I could get Puzz to listen to her, he would sign her. Puzz agreed to put Thi-lai on the album the same night he met her. We were coming up with ideas for Thi-lai’s clothing line, perfume, handbags, etc. . . . just everything. And then Puzz got locked up. After that, everyone pretty much lost contact with each other.”
Puzz also regrets his current situation and how it has affected his ability to executive produce the CD. “A lot of people always ask me why Thi-lai is only featured on one song on the album. I actually got arrested during the production of that song. It was so many things that I wanted to do with Thi-lai particularly. She is an incredible talent; I don’t think that a lot of the female artists that are out now could have dealt with her. She is also very funny and that would have only strengthened her acting career. Because of her Thai background I think she would have been huge in that country. Now that the CD will finally be released, she’ll get her chance to do her thing.”
PUZZ PACINO is quick to tell you that “he isn’t a gangsta.” Well . . . at least not anymore. Pacino was the brainchild behind the New York’s Illest collaboration, courting the artist, producers and video directors for the album. While he is also featured on the CD, many agree that Puzz’s intentions were never to be the star of the group. Evidence of this is the fact that he pushed Boe & Villa’s “Life Is Too Short” single more than he pushed his own. “When I was younger I wanted to be a rapper” recalls Puzz. “I remember the first time I saw Rakim’s (Puzz’s favorite rapper) Microphone Fiend video, he was the coolest dude on the planet at that time. It was that video that made me want to become a rapper. However, when I got older, I realized that I didn’t like being famous. I much rather be behind the scenes. Less headaches. In any event, I knew Boe & Villa could sell that CD on their own, they didn’t really need me.” Puzz’s assertions on this point may be incorrect.
It was his video for the single “Ghetto Girl” that got the most spins out of the New York’s Illest crew. The base heavy sample of New Edition’s “Candy Girl” can be heard in the background, while Jason, the lead singer of the R&B group Soul 4 Real, assists Puzz on the track. On this song (and like many of his others) Pacino appeals to the women.
In the video for “Ghetto Girl”, Puzz and crew are parked on a Brooklyn block when a beautiful young woman walks by. Puzz attempts to get her attention but she doesn’t seem to be interested. He then exits the car and walks alongside the potential model and begins to rap his “Ghetto Girl” song to her. He gets nowhere fast. Noticing the uninterested woman, Puzz’s friends call his cellular phone to clown him. “A yo son, she keep looking over here, I think she wants me” says the man on the other end of Puzz’s phone. Puzz assures the guy that everything is under control, however, by the time he finished his call, the Brooklyn beauty has walked off and Pacino is left hanging. Towards the end of the video, Puzz’s luck starts to change for the better. Later in the day, he bumps into the “Ghetto girl” again, gets her number, and a really tight hug. In the video, everything ends well for Puzz and the pretty lady as they walk off in bliss. In real life, this is one “Ghetto Girl” Puzz Pacino wishes he never met.
The ghetto girl (Tamara Johnson) would eventually be one of the five girls to testify against Puzz in 2005 about an apparent escape conspiracy at New York State’s second oldest prison, Sing-Sing Correctional Facility. Ms. Johnson alleged that she and Jatanya Belnavis (also Puzz’s girlfriend) dressed up in correctional officer’s uniforms, strapped guns to their waist, and attempted to enter the prison posing as security staff. Ms. Johnson went on to state that the plan only derailed when Belnavis thought she had been recognized by a sergeant at Sing-Sing that was familiar with her from previous visits she had made to Puzz at the prison. Thinking quickly, Belnavis faked an asthma attack, kept her head low, and exited the prison. No one noticed her.
While Belnavis also corroborated Johnson’s escape conspiracy testimony, she also alleged that they broke into the prison in order to find Puzz and to give him a gun and correctional officer’s uniform so he could escape. Six other people would testify to the same, however, Puzz would be the only one to deny the allegations.
Throughout the trial, disciplinary hearings, depositions, and notarized affidavits, Puzz alleged that he was not involved in the escape conspiracy and did not know that Belnavis and Johnson were planning to break into the prison. Despite the woman’s testimony, Puzz alleged that Belnavis and Johnson were lying and agreed to corroborate the District Attorney’s myth of an escape plot only after they were arrested without probable cause and held in jail.
Recently released by Madison Avenue Entertainment Group (the book publishing division) is a 502 page tell-all book that exposes the corruption involved in Puzz’s initial weapon’s case and the subsequent escape allegations. In “MY SIDE OF THE STORY / THE INVESTIGATION/PART I”, author Kendra Lyneigh Hughes pieces together an investigation that would make Sherlock Holmes proud. Included in the book are notarized affidavits, court documents, investigative reports, and the original transcripts to Puzz’s trial which, when read in chronological order, displays Pacino’s innocence and the judicial system’s maliciousness.
For now, Puzz Pacino’s future lies in the hands of Federal District Judge, Allyne R. Ross of the Eastern District Court. Judge Ross is set to hear Pacino’s appeal soon. (Check, FreeNicholasZimmerman.com for updates). His mother, Carole Zimmerman, looks forward to Ross’s decision and hopes the judge does not ignore the newly discovered evidence in her son’s case. “It’s been a long eleven years. My son is incarcerated for a crime everyone knows he didn’t commit and yet the judicial system ignores us. They act as if they don’t know what we are talking about? How long are they going to play this game with my son’s life? My son’s case is before a new judge now, who knows if she will pay attention to the facts of the case or just ignore the issues like every other judge did? No matter what, we will not give up the fight to free my son.”
Ms. Zimmerman is not alone in her fight. The artist on the New York’s Illest compilation has agreed to donate the profits from the CD to Puzz’s legal defense fund (FreeNicholasZimmerman.com) to help pay for Pacino’s lawyers, investigators, appeals, etc . . . The crew plans to do free shows in the Tri-State area in order to promote the album and bring more awareness to Puzz’s case. A portion of the proceeds from, “MY SIDE OF THE STORY” will be donated to the F.O.C.I.S Movement (Families Oppressed by the Criminal Injustice System Movement), an organization that Puzz started in prison that helps wrongfully convicted inmates.
While the book and CD can be purchased at FreeNicholasZimmerman.com, Puzz has also opted to become a part of the MySpace online community. (visit Myspace.com/FreeNicholasZimmerman) Consumers and supporters of Puzz may want to visit this site first in order to sample the CD, read an excerpt of the book, get up-to-date information on Puzz’s case, watch the New York’s Illest videos, learn how to contact Puzz, etc. . . . One may be impressed to find that Pacino created this site himself, by hand. “My current situation does not stop me from being creative. I have so many ideas in my head for new business ventures that I can’t sleep at night. However, a prisoner, no matter how innocent, cannot legally run/own a business in New York State. That’s my only roadblock for now, but when I’m released, sky’s the limit.”
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