Irv Gotti's career comeback -- We talk with the rap mogul about the downfall of his empire, future of Murder Inc., and his show ''Gotti's Way''

By Margeaux Watson
Updated December 07, 2007 at 05:00 AM EST

From Gayle King to Jay-Z, Irv Gotti has no shortage of powerful pals in the entertainment industry. And to hear him tell it, they’re all captivated by his VH1 reality show, Gotti’s Way. ”Jay-Z gave me the illest compliment,” Gotti says over dinner at a midtown Manhattan restaurant. ”He said, ‘Yo, I don’t even like reality shows, but your s— got me glued.”’ As the brash hip-hop impresario-turned-reality TV family man continues boasting about the success of Gotti’s Way, an imposing guy in a dark pin-striped suit strides across the dimly lit dining room and stops at Gotti’s table.

”Irv, how are you doing?” says the cocksure stranger. ”I’m [New York] State Senator Kevin Parker from Brooklyn. I just wanted to say that I’m a big, big fan of yours.” Parker hands Gotti his card. ”If you need a state senator, give me a call.”

”All good,” Gotti cheerfully replies. ”Catch you later, Senator!” Moments later, when Parker is beyond earshot, the 37-year-old father of three lets out a deep belly laugh. It’s easy to see why he’s amused. This is a guy who named his record label Murder Inc., calls his recording studio the Crack House, adopted the surname of late mobster John Gotti (his real last name is Lorenzo), and endured a high-profile money-laundering trial two years ago (he was acquitted), so it’s surprising to see him getting props from an elected government official.

But Gotti’s no stranger to keeping mixed company. ”Irv has one foot in the street and one foot out,” says friend and former Roc-A-Fella Records CEO Damon Dash. ”He has a good family — mother, father, nice house — but I don’t think he hung out with people that did.” Starting in the late 1990s, Gotti was one of the most influential players in hip-hop. As the CEO of Murder Inc., he launched the multiplatinum careers of rapper Ja Rule and R&B singer Ashanti; produced hits for Jennifer Lopez, Mary J. Blige, and Eve; sold more than 17 million albums; and was a millionaire by age 32. Then, in 2003, Gotti lost everything when he and his brother Christopher came under federal investigation for their financial ties to close friend — and notorious convicted drug kingpin — Kenneth ”Supreme” McGriff.

Now, two years after being found not guilty and avoiding a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison, Gotti is trying to resuscitate his career, keep the peace with his wife, Deb (they’re separated but still close), and balance the demands of fatherhood. All of that is chronicled in Gotti’s Way, a half-hour ”docudrama” that wrapped its first season on Dec. 3. The show is a decent-size hit by VH1 standards — Way averages 1.7 million viewers a week — but the same can’t be said about Gotti’s music comeback. So far, none of Murder Inc.’s post-trial projects — including two Ja Rule singles and pop ingenue Vanessa Carlton’s third CD, Heroes & Thieves —have helped restore the label’s platinum sparkle. But Gotti’s not giving up. ”The [music] industry ain’t what it used to be,” he says. ”But you still have to work and you still have to go for it…. The [industry] ship may be sinking, but I’ma be the last one to hit the water, like Leonardo DiCaprio [in Titanic]. I’m Leo, yo!”

Irving Lorenzo Jr. was the youngest of eight kids growing up in working-class Hollis, Queens — and money was always tight. ”Up until I was 14, 15 years old, I only had two pairs of pants,” he says. ”I used to get the free lunch ticket at school, then come home and we would eat rice with pork and beans.” As a young teen, Gotti taught himself how to DJ and began spinning at local parks. By 16, he was selling mixtapes for $10 a pop.

When Gotti was in his early 20s, his father came home one night and announced that he had lost his job as a taxicab dispatcher. That, Gotti says, was the moment his music career truly began. ”It was the biggest turning point in my life,” he says. ”There were nights that I went past my dad’s job and I had a gun and I wanted to kill somebody. But I took that energy and said, ‘I gotta make it happen for my family.’ I was an animal. I didn’t care about anything except doing this music s—, and I went after it with reckless abandon.”

In 1994, he produced and independently distributed a popular underground single called ”S—‘s Real” for Queens rapper Mic Geronimo. That eventually landed him an A&R job at Def Jam, where he signed DMX and Ja Rule. Three years later, Def Jam rewarded its top talent scout by giving him $3 million to launch Murder Inc. Driven by a string of No. 1 albums Gotti produced for Ja Rule and Ashanti, the label reportedly reaped more than $50 million in profits in its first five years. ”When you’re going through it and you’re having that success, it’s a feeling of invincibility,” Gotti says. ”It’s like, ‘This s— ain’t never gonna stop.’ I was totally naive until the end.”

At 6 a.m. on Jan. 3, 2003, FBI agents and NYPD detectives conducted raids on Murder Inc.’s offices and several other locations. Two years later, on Jan. 26, Gotti and his brother Christopher were formally charged with laundering more than $1 million from McGriff’s drug operation. Def Jam’s parent company, Universal Music Group, swiftly dissolved all ties with Gotti, who spent millions on legal fees (the brothers’ defense team included one of John Gotti’s attorneys, Gerald Shargel). By the time he and Christopher were acquitted on Dec. 2, 2005 (after a two-week trial), Murder Inc. was in ruins and Gotti was broke. ”People totally turned their backs on him,” says Dash. ”Universal just totally kicked him out of the office. They left him for dead.”

Then, in 2006, Universal Music Group chairman/CEO Doug Morris had a change of heart. ”As soon as he was found innocent, I called his lawyer and said, ‘Let’s get back together,”’ Morris says. But Gotti had mixed emotions about taking a meeting with his former boss. ”When the feds hit and [Universal] had to sever ties with me, that s— scarred me deep,” he says. ”I wanted Doug to mentor me. I didn’t want him to leave my life. I was in love with this dude, yo! And when the government came in, I was mad. They took away the guy who I knew could help me become the person I’m supposed to be in the music business. And I was mad at Doug, ’cause I was like, ‘You don’t believe me! You’re not riding with me!”’

Ultimately, however, Gotti agreed to sit down with Morris and hear him out. ”It was the realest meeting ever,” he says. ”Doug looked at me and said, ‘You put me in harm’s way, kiddo! You had the United States government running up in our offices with guns!’ As crazy as it may sound, that was the first time it hit me that I f—ed up and that my relationship with [McGriff] — which I cherish and it’s not going anywhere — is what caused this.” After four or five months of negotiations, Gotti accepted Universal’s offer. ”They gave me an unbelievable deal — eight figures — in a climate where people aren’t getting those deals. And they gave me all of my masters.”

But despite Universal’s support, it’s been tough for Gotti to get Murder Inc. (now also known as The Inc.) back up and running. Earlier this year, he scored a modest hit with R&B singer Lloyd’s second CD, Street Love, which debuted at No. 2 on Billboard‘s top 200 chart and has sold 523,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan. Yet Vanessa Carlton’s Heroes & Thieves, though well received by critics, has sold a mere 41,000 copies since it dropped on Oct. 9. Originally due out this fall, Ja Rule’s eighth CD, The Mirror, has been pushed to next year following two failed singles. And Ashanti’s fourth studio disc, The Declaration, won’t be out until 2008 either.

”I don’t look at things with one record,” Morris says. ”It’s a period of the next five years. When people go through difficult things and get beat up and knocked down, there’s nothing better than when they come back. And that’s what I’m expecting from [Gotti] based on one thing: He’s really talented. He’s got a lot of personality, and he wants to win.”

Gotti’s first response when asked to do a reality show: ”I’m not Flavor Flav! I said, ‘VH1, sometimes y’all clown people. I’m not with that.”’ But executive producer Cris Abrego (The Surreal Life, Flavor of Love, I Love New York) wouldn’t give up. ”The trial is what really hooked me,” says Abrego. ”The initial framing for Gotti’s Way was as a comeback tale…. I said, ‘Irv, you can’t just sell records anymore — use this as a platform to sell music.”’ Gotti was intrigued, but he remained uncertain. ”He asked everybody in the camp if he should do it,” says Ja Rule. ”We all told him no.”

In June 2006, Gotti reluctantly agreed to film a pilot. He had no idea what he was in for. Right after the cameras started rolling, Gotti received a call from his stepdaughter, Angie. ”She said, ‘Dad, are you my real dad? Someone at school said our last names ain’t the same and you’re not my real dad.’ She was crying a little bit and I said, ‘F— them! I’m your dad and that’s just it.”’ That was the moment both Gotti and Abrego knew Gotti’s Way had the potential to be more than a comeback story. As production continued, the show quickly found its center as a story of nontraditional family values. ”The heart of the show is really the family aspect,” says Gotti. ”It’s the reason why people are loving it.”

What, if any, impact Gotti’s Way will have on Gotti’s music career remains to be seen — the show was recently renewed for a second season, which is expected to premiere this spring. But Brian Graden, president of MTV Networks Music Group, thinks the exposure can only help. ”In the age of American Idol…having a high profile on TV is as important as radio with the music business,” he says. ”The higher profile [Gotti] becomes because of the show, the more traction he can get within the music industry.”

But while Gotti looks forward to season 2, his ultimate career goal is to join the ranks of music’s legendary power players, such as Morris, Clive Davis, and Ahmet Ertegun. ”I love making, promoting, and marketing records; shooting videos; and going to retail and telling them my records are the hottest s—,” he says. ”I really don’t want to do nothing else. When they take a picture of the last supper in the music business with the last executives and artists standing, I’m gonna be in that picture.”