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Stranger than fiction 

A look inside hip-hop's shadowy empire

Damn. I didn't know that.

I didn't know that either.

You're kidding!

This is just t-o-o-o fucked up!

That's how my half of conversations with Senior Writer Mara Shalhoup must have sounded over the last couple of weeks, when Shalhoup was on the homestretch of her investigative project on the Black Mafia Family.

Part I of her three-part series is this week's cover story, with parts II and III running over the next two weeks. I bet it's the longest story in Creative Loafing's history. And on the web, you'll be able to link from each part of the main story to websites, court documents, audio clips, notes on sourcing, and additional story details and anecdotes.

I was continually surprised by what Mara was digging up. Maybe "astounded" is a better word. BMF's tale, and the related stories of feuds between hip-hop artists, cocaine-trafficking charges, parties drenched in excess and at least six killings, seemed to deal with so many extraordinary events and so many familiar people – from pop star Bobby Brown to Mayor Shirley Franklin – that the leads and anecdotes prompted enough double-takes to get a sore neck.

Needless to say, a project like this ain't easy. Building trusting relationships with sources. Patiently going over relevant documents. Seeing patterns and finding connections. Backing up each part of the complicated story with careful fact checking. Organizing all those facts. Finding the right voice and pace from which to tell the story. It takes all those qualities, along with a crazed compulsion to check every word – a perfectionism that can drive one's self (and, ahem, those around you) crazy – to write this kind of story. You'll be able to tell from the results that very few journalists put together all these qualities as completely as does Mara Shalhoup.

And we as a community are richer for it. "Hip-hop's shadowy empire" is a great yarn. But it isn't just a great yarn. It tells me something about the "legitimate" world of the entertainment business and celebrity culture, the "illegitimate" world of crime, and the gray area where the two clash.

But, hey, I don't want to give too much away here. I want you to read the story. I want you to begin commenting online about it. Most of all, I want you to beg for next week's issue.

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