Sir Dyno's Deal with the Devil 

Rapper David Rocha thought a norteño gangsta CD was his ticket to glory -- not life in prison.

One morning this past August, Sir Dyno sat in his Dodge Caravan, stuck in I-580 traffic, knowing he'd be late for his court hearing in San Francisco. It wasn't quite the impression he wanted to make. In fact, the 31-year-old gangsta rapper, whose real name is David Rocha, wanted nothing more than to distance himself from his codefendants.

By the time Dyno got to the specially constructed federal courtroom, he was fifteen minutes behind schedule. The rapper arrived dressed in neatly pressed beige Dickies pants, spotless work boots, and an untucked flannel-print shirt -- a vato in his Sunday best, mumbling his apologies. His shackled codefendants didn't even look at him as he took his seat among them.

It was a hell of an audience to keep waiting. Chained to their seats on a triple-tiered bleacher facing the jury box were fourteen men dressed in blood-red jumpsuits. Black tattoo ink scribbled across their forearms and crawled up their necks, and some of them hid stone-faced beneath dark Ray-Ban-style glasses. They were, according to the government, members of Nuestra Familia, Northern California's most notorious and ruthless prison gang.

There sat Cornelio "Corny" Tristan, one of three alleged NF generals. He already was serving a life sentence for murder in Pelican Bay State Prison, but now he was under indictment for ordering a hit on an underboss named Miguel "Mikio" Castillo. Not far from Tristan sat Rico "Smiley" Garcia, facing the death penalty for carrying out his bosses' orders and putting two bullets in the back of Castillo's head.

There was also the lean and smooth figure of Gerald "Cuete" Rubalcaba, the gang's most powerful captain, whose job inside Pelican Bay, a fellow gang member told the feds, was to "keister" the syndicate's constitution in his rectum, along with the master hit list which, by now, read fifty names long. There was Henry "Happy" Cervantes, built like a fire hydrant, who got caught on an FBI wire offering to murder two Santa Clara County district attorneys.

In all, 21 people were indicted in the FBI's three-year investigation into Nuestra Familia, code-named Operation Black Widow. When it concluded in April 2001, after a $5 million investment, it was one of the largest takedowns on a prison gang in US history. The amount of violence attributed to the men inside the courtroom and their associates on the outside was staggering: fifteen killings, eighty conspiracies to murder, ten attempted murders, ten felony assaults, one hundred assaults, and two drive-by shootings. The official list of charges, which included more than thirty drug-related crimes along with acts of extortion and robbery, simply ended with the open-ended clause "and other numerous crimes."

One of those footnotes involves Sir Dyno who, despite his history of gangsta-rap posturing, clearly is not a criminal on a par with his codefendants. His alleged crime is conspiracy -- in other words, simply having associated with the men sitting beside him. The deep trouble in which he now finds himself has everything to do with his performance on a gang-funded rap CD titled Generations of United Norteños -- Till Eternity.

The rapper's story varies somewhat depending on who's doing the telling. Ultimately it'll be a jury's role to sort out the truth, but this much everybody can agree on: In 1997 an NF captain named Robert "Huerito" Gratton was paroled from Pelican Bay State Prison, moved to Modesto, and started a label called North Star Records.

Gratton knew nothing about the music business, but he had bricks of cash and a simple plan: to produce a rap CD that would work as a recruiting tool for Nuestra Familia and also serve to launder the gang's drug money. The album would preach the unification of norteños -- Chicanos born north of an invisible border located somewhere around Fresno who, once inside the prison system, were eligible to join Nuestra Familia. All Gratton needed was a rapper.

He found his man in David "Sir Dyno" Rocha, then a 26-year-old budding rhymer and producer from Tracy. It is here that the stories begin to diverge: Rocha claims that in the eleven or so months he knew Gratton, the parolee never discussed his ties to the highly secretive prison gang. Instead, he says, Gratton talked business. He offered to cover all production costs and promised Sir Dyno a fifty-fifty split on profits. To the broke and ambitious rapper, the deal sounded too good to refuse.

Gratton, Sir Dyno says, wanted him to aim his lyrics at bringing together norteños. At the time, norteño street gangs were engaged in "red-on-red" turf wars, and were giving up overall ground to the sureños, their blue-clad enemies from the south. On seven of the CD's fourteen tracks, Sir Dyno raps as hired: He's a heartless gangsta with a nihilistic agenda. He makes drug deals here, he caps sureños there, he disses cops everywhere, all of it in the name of norteño supremacy.

"You see, this is Norte," he growls on "Scrap Killa." "X-I-V fourteen, don't ever ask me what I mean/I got the gat that will put you in the dirt/I piss on your grave with your mama's feelings hurt."

Sir Dyno claims Gratton stiffed him on payments a few months after the CD hit the streets, and that he never worked with the dude again. Till Eternity -- which most people simply call the G.U.N. CD -- turned out to be one of about fifty disks the prolific rapper has appeared on in the past ten years, and the most militant in its norteño ideology. Dyno has since expanded his own label, Darkroom Studios, starred in three independent movies, and penned a fictional autobiography about a gangster named Joaquin who takes up arms for the Zapatistas. Today, the real Sir Dyno has five kids, a home in Tracy, and makes a living off CD sales, which he estimates at beyond 100,000 nationwide.

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