Just before dawn on a crisp November morning, federal agents converged on a two-story home in suburban Maplewood, N.J., and woke up Cynthia Brent. They told her to get dressed for court.

Brent, a soft-spoken accountant for rap label The Inc., was facing charges of laundering more than $1 million in drug money.

Over the next eight days, federal and local agents swept from New Jersey to Manhattan and Queens, making arrests in a probe linking one of rap music’s hottest labels to one of New York’s most notorious gangsters.

After filing charges against seven suspects, including rap star Ja Rule’s manager, federal prosecutors appear to be closing in on their ultimate targets: The Inc. founder Irv “Gotti” Lorenzo and convicted crack kingpin Kenneth “Supreme” McGriff.

Convicted criminals and artists alike long have boasted about the links between the industry and the drug underworld, but no major charges have ever been filed against a label as successful as The Inc, which has sold about 20 million records behind flagship artists Ja Rule and Ashanti.

Prosecutors have declined to discuss the case. But defense attorneys and law enforcement officials said Brent, Ja Rule manager Ron “Gutta” Robinson and two alleged McGriff associates are under pressure by the government to provide information about the rap mogul and McGriff.

The arrests signal that the investigation, after a yearlong lull, is “gaining momentum,” said one of the law enforcement officials, all of whom spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.

Longtime friends, Gotti and McGriff are suspected of laundering money from McGriff’s cocaine and heroin operation through Gotti’s platinum-selling label, according to court documents filed in support of search and property seizure warrants.

McGriff, 44, founder of one of the city’s most violent drug crews, allegedly returned to his old ways when he was released from prison in 1997. He had served about nine years for drug conspiracy.

A police official said investigators believe that once free, McGriff set about reviving his drug-dealing operation. They also suspect he and his associates could be responsible for a dramatic rise in homicides there, the official said.

The number of killings in the Queens neighborhood in which he operated defied a citywide downward trend last year by rising to 29, compared to just 13 a year earlier. So far this year — with McGriff behind bars for a minor gun possession conviction — killings total 16.

Cooperating witnesses have told investigators that McGriff admitted to the 2001 revenge slaying of up-and-coming rapper E-Money Bags in New York and arranged the Baltimore killing one month later of an informant in his drug organization. A security camera captured a luxury sport utility vehicle registered to a McGriff associate dropping off another shooting victim’s body at a Queens hospital in 1999, court papers said.

McGriff hasn’t been charged in any of the killings, and he’s denied any wrongdoing. His attorney, Robert Simels, said his client has become a scapegoat for unsolved murders based solely on his criminal history as boss of a former gang known as the Supreme Team.

“I think he’s a convenient person to point to because of the lore of the street,” said Simels, referring to the gang’s reputation in rap circles.

“When you hear talk of the south side, you hear talk of the Team,” rapper 50 Cent says in one song. “See (people) … respected ‘Preme.”

As for Gotti and his associates, they say they’re proud of their friendship with McGriff.

“That’s like my brother, I love this boy,” Ja Rule said when asked about McGriff in a recent interview with The Associated Press.

The Inc. was founded as Murder Inc. in 1997. Gotti changed his label’s name earlier this year to deflect negative publicity from the investigation. Its new single, Wonderful, featuring Ja Rule and Ashanti, was No. 2 on Billboard’s list of hot rap tracks last week.

Gerald Lefcourt, Gotti’s lawyer, insists The Inc. is a legitimate business financed by part owner Island Def Jam, a Universal Music label.

“All we see is government pressure on all kinds of people to provide negative information with no justification,” Lefcourt said.