Markuann Smith: The Mastermind Behind Godfather Of Harlem Speaks

Markuann Smith is the creative and visionary force behind The Godfather of Harlem. Check out his masterpiece.

(AllHipHop Features) Markuann Smith, for all intent and purposes, should not be here right now and he assuredly took the long route home. Home? Right now, home is at the mountaintop now that the executive producer of “The Godfather of Harlem” has seen his television dream come true. The journey to this point has taken 18 years, but the story of the infamous gangster, father and rebel is now airing on the EPIX channel for all to see. And the reviews are in and the consensus is we are staring at another classic series. 

Chuck Creekmur talked to Markuann about his rigorous journey and how he’s bringing others along as well. 

AllHipHop: Let’s talk about “Godfather Harlem.” Now you’ve got the whole Internet ablaze, because you’re going to tell the story of Bumpy Johnson and all the circumstances around his life. 

Markuann Smith: Well, the Godfather Harlem is basically the collision of Civil Rights in the underworld. So we’re telling a narrative of Bumpy Johnson was played by Forest Whitaker and his relationship with Malcolm X, who was played by an amazing actor by the name of Nigel Thatch. Nigel played Malcolm X and in”Selma.” So you’re gonna see characters like Adam Clayton Powell. Giancarlo Esposito is playing Adam Clayton Powell. Then we have the Italian side. You got Vincent D’Onofrio playing a real-life gangster by the name of Vinnie the Chin. He was the gangster was walking around Mulberry Street with the bathrobe on in the late eighties, early nineties before he got locked up by the feds. And then you have actor Chazz Palminteri from “Bronx Tale.” He’s playing on Joseph Bonnano. And then you have Paul Savino, Big Paulie from “Goodfellas,” he’s in there. 

So it’s a story. Basically, I call it the tale of three cities. So we tell the story about the Spanish Harlem, East Harlem, and Pleasant Avenue and Central Harlem. So you’ll hear music like from Sam Cooke to Martha and the Vandellas. Swizz Beatz is the executive music producer, so you hear Rick Ross, DMX, HER, I mean, it’s, it’s an amazing project. 

AllHipHop: So your official role is executive producer, one of them. And you’re also an actor. Now, people may not know you are an actor. Talk about the duality of being the executive producer as well as an actor. 

Markuann Smith: Well, the Godfather Harlem started as a brainchild in 2000. Margaret Johnson, who’s Bumpy Johnson’s granddaughter is like my godmother. And we had a wonderful relationship. She’s no longer here. She passed away. But during the time that we spent together, I made her a promise that I would get the story of her father told, it’s really her grandfather, but that was more like his daughter. So you know it was, it was a journey and myself as an actor, you know, I got a thousand no’s before I got one yes. And my motto was this: “You either going to chase your passion, are you going to chase your pension.” I was working at BET and I was like, there’s no pension over here, so I might as well go after my passion. And we’re creatives. And I feel like if you suppress us, I know I’d rather be dead if I can’t be creative. 

I can’t be trapped behind the cubicle. We had those talks. I can’t, it’s nothing that inspires me about that so, the journey was real and like I said, it was a brainchild of mine. It took me 18 years and it’s still amazing and surreal to me. Just to see it happening. 

And even as an executive producer and becoming part of this series, I still had to go through the potholes and the trials and tribulations of being an actor. Not “you’re an executive producer, so I’m putting myself in there as an actor.” 

No, I had to go out there, I had to show them I had chops. I’m around the greats like Forrest Whitaker and Giancarlo Esposito and running lines. Forrest is like my big brother, speaking to him every night and telling me to believe. I had disappointments and I proved to them that I, I can do what I said I can do. 

AllHipHop: I mean I think it’s amazing. Now I just want to say for the record, I was supposed to be on the set, but they get up at 4:00 am, 3:00 am, in the morning. I already live far away, so we didn’t make that happen. But I’m going to definitely be there for season two. So how did the cast come about? I mean, as soon as you see Forrest Whitaker, it’s official, that’s going to give it the official stamp. But you also have all those other talents too. 

Markuann: The project is represented by WME and Forrest being attached to it was a great vision that myself and my partner James Atchinson had. And Forest’s, manager, Joanne Colonna is like my big sister. 

And she believed in the project when they flew out to New York and met with Margaret. So we sat down with Yang Bongiovi who is an amazing producer and their company Significant Productions. They believe in my vision and they believed in the concept and they said they were on board all the way to get it done. So when you have a project like that and then you have someone like Forest attached to it, you tend to draw in great names. The pilot was directed by John Ridley “12 years of Slave.” Guillermo Navarro of “Pan’s Labyrinth.” We got an award-winning DP, an Oscar-Award winning director, and writer. And then my showrunner is Chris Brancato. He created the TV show “Narcos.” So he was the one that penned this. And then I had Paul Eckstein (Narcos) who also part of the co-creation of “Narcos” with Chris Brancato. So I had a wonderful team. 

AllHipHop: I also see on the other side, I see some of my friends in there. Samson Styles and also Kern did some artwork and things like that. 

Markuann Smith: My narrative may be different than yours, but we all have dreams. And I’m the type of person that I’m not selfish. Because each one is supposed to teach one. For example, Kern has always been an amazing artist, but someone needed to give him a shot. Everybody starts from somewhere. You feel what I’m saying? And, when we as a community and as a tribe are not scared to share and drop jewels and help people, it makes the journey better. You know, for me to get my boy Samson to be on the project was amazing to me. Because he’s one of the most talented people that I know that comes from the streets that did a 360 and changed his life around. He has an amazing project and Revolt right now called “Killing Beef” and just to have him on set and showing him a different experience about what it is on set life, what it is, what a first AD is, what an AD is, you know just dropping knowledge and jewels. It was just an amazing thing, man. So I’m so happy that, you know, Samson was able to shine.

AllHipHop: All of us were at BET. We were all kind of outliers. Now, transitioning from that type of environment, how difficult was that? I know for me it was not as difficult as a lot of people think because I was doing both at the same time. And then the bigger AllHipHop got the more problems that I had. But you seem to be working projects almost on the side.

Markuann Smith: I’ll be frank with you. You know, we are on and I’m not about shooting smoke signals to your audience. So I’m working at BET, you know, I’m grateful for the experience but it wasn’t an experience for me. I mean, I’ve always been a talented person. I feel I’ve always been creative. I’ve got offers numerous times for projects that I had on at BET, but it wasn’t just the right fit. 

I wasn’t born to be put in a dark corner to digitize videos, you know what I mean? I wasn’t born to be putting music videos in heavy rotation, medium rotation, a light rotation. So when I left BET in 2016 because of the Viacom take over, it was bittersweet because you feel that you generated a tribe of colleagues that are your friends. And when you leave that door and it closes behind you and your phone stops ringing, I mean, we work in a world of freelance. 

Freelance to me is ayo Chuck, I got a position for you. l didn’t get any calls. So it was a brutal realization to see that, wow, that really wasn’t my friend. That was just somebody I was working with for 16 years. 

It’s just like, wow. A lot of people look at my breakthrough, but they don’t know what I’ve been through. A lot of people want success, but are you really ready for success? Are you ready to eat tuna fish sandwiches? Are you ready to eat Ramen noodles? Are you ready to fly on a buddy pass, knowing I have a meeting at Netflix at 10 in the morning, I hope I can make this plane because I don’t have money to afford a regular ticket? Are you ready to sleep on somebody’s couch because I can’t afford the prices on a hotel tonight? And I’m not being funny. 

So a lot of people look and they say they want success, but they’re not ready for it. It’s a lot of clout chasers out there. I see a lot of people in the music industry trying to get in film and television and it’s not working because this is not a game. The lay of the land here is about talent. And they will pull your skirt, trust me if you don’t have any talent. 

AllHipHop: I’ve seen a lot of people move in that direction and now it just seems like it’s the new rap game or something like that. 

Markuann Smith: And it’s not because we’re dealing with a different type of breed. We are dealing with great white sharks out there, you know, and this is not like 91, 92 music videos where you can get $200-300 grand for shooting music videos. It’s totally different, man. And if you don’t have great content, if you don’t have what’s called a fog cutter show, the show that’s going to cut through the fog that separates you from everybody else, your skirt will be pulled.

AllHipHop: What is it about the streets of Harlem other places too, like South Central, that’s so provocative to people. It never gets old. 

Markuann Smith: Let me ask you a question. Have you ever thought about this? Why is there a Malcolm X Boulevard and a Martin Luther King Boulevard in every hood? I don’t care – across the United States there’s always a South Side. People gravitate to struggle. People gravitate to a story. Myself as an actor, I looked up to people like Samuel L. Jackson, who was on drugs. He didn’t get his career growing until maybe like he was 48, 49 years old. I look up to people like Charles Dutton who went through jail to Yale. If you don’t have a journey, it doesn’t make any type of sense. So I think people look and gravitate to these stories. There is a Bumpy Johnson. And in every hood, there’s an Alpo, there’s a Rayful Edmonds. With poverty and adversity comes strength. You know what I mean? I’m working on a project right now with Darryl Reed, Lil D. He’s from Oakland, California. He’s like my big brother. Obama gave him clemency. So these are the stories I like to tell. I like to tell stories about us. This is our time and this is a narrative for us right now. 

AllHipHop: The thing that people might not know about is your big brother, Father MC. So you were running around in the 90s, Uptown Records with that whole crew. Talk about how that was for you, getting your feet wet a little bit in the 90s. 

Markuann Smith: Well, I’ll tell you this, I came up in Harlem, grew up in a place called Far Rockaway. Far Rockaway is known as the sixth borough. You might know Father MC, you might know Chinx Drugs, you may know Stack Bundles. And Far Rock was bittersweet to me. It was bitter because of all the tragedy I saw. But it was sweet growing up and learning lessons. 

And when Father first got signed to Uptown Records, Puff, I didn’t even know him. So our first tour was with Candyman Tony! Toni! Toné! Hi-Five, Troop, Second II None, AMG. So it was an amazing experience for me to be on a tour bus and be able to see different cultures and travel across the country. I started off as a roadie, I was carrying those big coffins. Pac was a roadie for Digital Underground and that was a good friend of mine. Money B., you know, shout out Money B. and Cleetis Mack, those guys are still my friends to this day. Treach (Naughty By Nature) was a roadie for Queen Latifah. 

I was able to gravitate and see when music was fun, you know. No disrespect to the music that’s out now, the Kodak Black’s of the world and Tekashi 6ix9ine’s…NBA Younboy’s or 21 Savages. It was just a totally different movement. That’s what music was fun when people weren’t scared to dance. It wasn’t a competition. We were all family. We were all crew on the road.

AllHipHop: I didn’t really know you were friends with Pac like, what was your experience like with him, do you have a story? 

Markuann Smith: He was a very passionate, very emotional character man. Very like f##k you. f##k you. f##k you type s##t. That’s, that’s the way he was. I remember I can tell you a funny story. We were on tour and what we used to do was we used to knock on people’s doors with the hotel garbage cans full of water. So we will knock on the door and be like “room service.” And we would just throw water and do some crazy crazy s##t. I could tell you stories for days. I mean I that’s somebody I really miss man. Cause we came up with dreams, we sat down, we had our bottle and on a bus and would just talk about how we want to change our lives. You know, drive the flyest cars and get the baddest women. We just were trying to be with young cats trying to succeed and on his unfortunate demise it just really hurt. 

AllHipHop: Pac he had a lot of haters and I don’t know how much you know, but you have a lot of haters. Whenever certain people see us together, someone always has something slick to say. 

Markuann Smith: See I, come from a place like where we addressed like “Yo, come outside at three o’clock and I’m gonna f##k you” up type s##t. And it’s so funny how you have haters or people that just talk about it. Don’t even know you or they think they know you and you didn’t come up in the sandbox. And I love to be the underdog. I mean a lot of people have haters. I think if you don’t have the haters, you’re not doing something right. It’s so funny. 

I hate to bring this up, look at what happened to Nipsey Hussle. He was, he was a person that I’ve met, talked to, chopped it up, and look what happened. And whoever hates me, I tell him God bless him. Cause now nowadays my life is this. If you say 1+1= 5, I’ma say, yeah, correct, enjoy, enjoy your life and I’m gonna keep it moving. 

AllHipHop: That’s the best way to go about it. And that also comes with maturity. We’ve, we’ve been in this game for a minute and our approach 10 plus years ago is different than that. So where are you heading? What do you have lined up? 

Markuann Smith: It’s exciting for me. Possibly getting a first-look deal at a studio. I have a couple of amazing projects I’m working on. I’m working the Aaron Hernandez story, the football player from The New England Patriots who unfortunately took his life. That’s a series that I’m putting my attention to right now. I’m working on the Darryl Reed project in Oakland. Working on The Sly and Family Stone project, I have a couple of different projects that I’m working on. I’m just trying to stay creative, stay out of the hater zone, make them keep hating me. 

AllHipHop: What’s funny is you checked in on me and I’m just so used to people checking in on me and then asking me for something right. I was like, “Yo, he checked in on me and didn’t even ask for anything.” 

Markuann Smith: I never did. Yeah, we’ve always, we’ve always had a relationship where we worked together. I mean from me hosting your content and you’ve given me my first opportunity to start hosting to me being in a reality show. 

AllHipHop: What advice would you give a young person? My niece, she’s 18, wants to be a filmmaker and she’s at NYU or film making What advice would you give someone like that? 

Markuann Smith: Always master your craft. Understand what you’re talking about. One of my pastimes I liked to go to Barnes and Noble and I used to just get books on film “Filmmaking for Dummies” or “Screenwriting for Dummies,” “Acting For Dummies.” 

And just use your brain as a muscle. There’s no time off of this. And be ready to get ready to hear a “no” before you hear a “yes.” You might get a thousand “no’s,” but that one “yes” could change your life as it did mine.