Romper Room Gang
Growing up near the ironically named Country Club Crest, Dre was subject to the crime and poverty that comes with living in a low-income area that had been destroyed by crack cocaine. Dre’s inventive lyrics and ability to articulate life in the Crest gave him instant credibility with his underground audience. However, before he could reach that audience, Mac Dre needed money, which is where his gang, the Romper Room came in.
According to Detective McGraw of the Vallejo Police Department (VPD), in a Black Entertainment Television (BET) documentary entitled American Gangster: Romper Room Gang, the Romper Room gang was a tightly knit band from the Crest. Two of these boys, Jamal Diggs and Simon “Kilo Curt” Curtis, would later mature into the main players in the Romper Room gang. Within the documentary’s narrative, Diggs states that the Romper Room gang’s name came from a kid’s show, and also due to the younger boys pulling pranks on the older “homeboys” from the gangs in the area. Soon, the gang’s criminal activities would evolve from drug dealing to bank robbery while Dre began to evolve from a neighborhood kid to an underground rap star.
According to Diggs, Dre’s first appearance as a rapper was at a local Boys Club. By the late 1980s, Dre had released his first song, “Too Hard For the Fucking Radio.” It was on a cassette tape, and was passed around until it became an “underground sensation.” Based on the success of “Too Hard For the Fucking Radio,” Dre released his first album, Young Black Brother, which coincided with the time the Romper Room gang began committing robberies, which police believed were financing Dre’s music.
During the early 1990s, the Romper Room gang needed a more lucrative way to earn money, and began doing “licks,” or robberies, of pizza parlors. According to Diggs, it was “easy money” if you picked the right pizza parlor, and robbed it at the right time. Diggs articulated that the robberies would be conducted in “takeover style” in which the robbers would quickly enter, secure any patrons and employees, demand money, and leave quickly. Diggs states that everything was always done in the same fashion, quick and methodical.
The VPD had received several leads that made them believe that those responsible were tied to the Crest, began surveilling the Crest, and following those who came out of it. Since there were only two ways in and out, it was a naturally “insulated” community, which made surveilling it easier in some aspects, and harder in others. According to Diggs, they all knew they were being watched, and they were being stopped constantly. Curtis claimed “they aren’t even calling us by our government names;” instead they referred to all three by the names they rapped under. Curtis also claimed that due to the “harassment” from the VPD, Dre wrote Punk Police, which taunted the VPD’s inability to arrest the criminals responsible for the robberies, and detailed the harassment Dre faced.
All three believed that they were still safe, since there was no way that law enforcement linked them to any specific crimes. That would change when the FBI and VPD found an informant. According to FBI Agent Michael Repucci, during the trial of Diggs, Dre, and Curtis, the FBI and VPD’s informant, Cory DeAndre Dunn, was used by the three men to steal getaway cars used in the robberies. The FBI rented a car for Dunn to claim that he had stolen it, and used a “trustee” at the jail to make the car appear as if it had been stolen by altering the steering column. Dunn was then given the car, and was supposed to give it to Dre, Diggs, and Curtis to use in a robbery in Fresno. According to Detective Becker of VPD, Dunn was “wired for sound,” and that during the drive from Vallejo to a hotel in Fresno, Diggs, Dre, and Curtis discussed the robbery, which was scheduled to take place March 26.
According to FBI Agent Lindsay Gentry, who worked the surveillance on March 26, there were three people in the car, Dre, Diggs, and Curtis, along with the informant. Gentry observed the car enter downtown Fresno where it made numerous circles, first going past the Bank of America, then the First Interstate Bank. According to Gentry, there were numerous vehicles and an airplane involved in the surveillance, which were necessary since Diggs, Curtis, and Dre engaged in counter surveillance techniques that consisted of rapid lane changes and erratic driving including excessive speeding, and slowing down unnecessarily.
According to Fresno Police Department Detective Frank Rose, once the suspect felt safe enough, they went to the bank intending to rob it. However, once they arrived at the Bank of America, Diggs observed a news van, just as he was exiting the vehicle to commit the robbery. Diggs, not sure what was taking place, immediately got back into the car and sped off. All three men were arrested shortly there after.
While awaiting trial, Dre spent a year in the Fresno County Jail, where he recorded, via telephone, most of Back In Da Hood. Dre also gave an interview via phone to 106 KMEL, a Bay Area based radio station, to inform people of the circumstances of his arrest. During the interview, Dre mentioned that Dunn was an FBI informant. KMEL broadcasted the entire interview, including the portion labeling Dunn a snitch. The next day the FBI showed up and spoke with the owners of the station, warning them of the consequences if the informant’s name was broadcast again.
During his trial, Dre explained his song, “Punk Police,” which was played during opening statements. According to Dre, his song was a way for him to express how he was being treated by the VPD, and the criminal justice system. Dre claimed that he was innocent in the song: “I’m not criminal minded, punk police. I’m a dope rhyme dealer, not a money stealer.” Dre went on to make fun of the VPD’s efforts, as they were “steady accusing, but these cases you losin,” which Dre said meant they were constantly filing charges but could prove nothing. Dre even went so far to call out a specific member of the VPD, “Ima dedicate this to Detective McGraw,” because Dre felt McGraw was the one pushing for the arrest of the Romper Room gang members.
Dre felt the police brought a case against him because they had to accuse someone and because he was black, rapping:
|“||Punk police are nothing clean,
Look how they did Rodney King.
In every neighborhood, state, city and town, a crooked policeman can be found. Off duty he neva would squab hard,
But give 'em that gat, badge, and that squad car,
Then it's jack time, Fuck wit a black time.
I'm talkin real man, listen to a Mac rhyme.
During questioning, Dre stated that there was a Romper Room gang; however, Dre claimed he was not a member. Dre stated that the Romper Room Gang came into existence when he was sixteen. When I first started hanging out in the Crest, the older generation, the older guys used to call the younger people in the Crest the Romper Room because they used to ride around happy-go-lucky. They named them after the kids TV show “The Romper Room.”
Dre also stated that there were requirements to join, two of which was growing up and living in the Crest, neither of which he met. While Dre claimed he was not a part of these robberies, law enforcement’s primary suspects were financing his music, and that information coupled with an informant’s testimony was enough to send him to prison. In the end, VPD Detective Nichelman stated that the task force believed there were forty-seven robberies that could be attributed to the Romper Room Gang. By 1992, the FBI and the Vallejo Gang Suppression Task Force had enough evidence to prosecute, and convicted Mac Dre of conspiracy to rob a bank, while Diggs was convicted of attempting to rob a bank. According to Diggs, Dre was convicted because Dre refused to “snitch.” After the convictions, the FBI called 106 KMEL, and dedicated a song to Dre, “I Fought the Law, and the Law Won.” Dre was sentenced to five years in a federal institution.
In prison, Hicks gained some notoriety by recording the lyrics to songs directly over the Fresno County Jail and Lompoc United States Penitentiary inmate telephone. His album, Young Black Brotha, was a result of such efforts, as well as guest appearances on fellow artists' songs, all while Hicks was still imprisoned. A later album, Back 'N Da Hood, was also made up of these prison-recorded songs. Upon his release in 1996, Mac Dre was a changed man. According to Diggs, instead of wanting to continue his hard-core gang lifestyle, Dre realized that the lifestyle he yearned for was one that included a non-stop party.
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