Gangsta lyrics sell a dark life

Charlie Brennan, Rocky Mountain News
February 17, 2007

Marijuana cigarettes fat enough to choke on. More jewelry than body parts on which to display it. Plentiful women whose beauty is exceeded only by their compliance. Rap lyrics often play like an ad for a lifestyle unattainable by playing it straight.

Park Hill native Terrance Roberts, sucked into the Bloods gang by the time he hit puberty, and shot in the back during Denver’s 1993 Summer of Violence, says the message of hip-hop’s darker side is potent to impressionable audiences.

“When we talk about millionaire Bloods and Crips who made it, they got the bling bling, they got the women, the cars. Who doesn’t want to be successful?” said the former gangmember, who now runs the Prodigal Son Initiative, working with at-risk kids through Hallett Elementary in Park Hill. “That influences grown men, not just kids.”

Some hip-hop artists’ glorification of the outlaw lifestyle – and the question of whether that comes at a price for society – is back on the table in the wake of the Jan. 1 slaying of Broncos’ cornerback Darrent Williams.

Williams was killed shortly after leaving a party at a Denver hip-hop club. The murder remains unsolved, but the suspects allegedly used a car owned by a Denver gang member, and the one man identified so far by police as “a person of interest” is affiliated with the same gang.

Such episodes underscore the Rev. Calvin Hall’s conviction that hip-hop’s hands are not clean. “The kids that adhere to this hip-hop subculture, in point of fact, are literally taking these messages as patterns for their behavior.”

Hall founded his Youth Counseling and Intervention Program in the wake of the January 2005 murder of his son, Contrell Townsend, in the Montbello High School cafeteria. Two years relater, Hall doesn’t hedge in his indictment of gangsta rap. “It’s sending out extremely negative messages to our teens especially, and to a limited number of adults.”

The legacy of hip-hop’s “gangsta” subgenre for young people, said Hall, is negative and distorted self-imagery, low self-esteem and the promotion of self-destructive and antisocial behavior.

Eric Stevenson, a former Los Angeles gang member now on the staff of Rev. Leon Kelly’s Open Door Youth Gangs Alternatives, agreed that imagery can be fuel on an already dangerous fire.

“It’s like an aphrodisiac,” Stevenson said. “If you’re already feeling that way, and you eat a whole bunch of oysters . . . Their mind was already there. They just needed somebody like they listen to, to put them over the edge.

“We used to listen to Eazy E, before we’d go and do something stupid. It motivates them in the wrong way. It’s like a blueprint. They talk about how they sold this. They talk about how they got away with murder.”

Rapping about the life

The New Year’s event that marked the last hours of Williams’ life celebrated the birthday of Denver Nuggets’ player Kenyon Martin.

But the occasion doubled as a chance to promote Da Graduation, the recording debut of the Billion Dolla Scholars, rappers from Williams’ hometown of Fort Worth, Texas, on Williams’ recording label.

A sampling of the Scholars’ album shows at least some of it falls within a genre dubbed by some critics as “cocaine rap” – drug dealers-turned-rappers, or rappers posturing as if dealing is a key part of their biography, rhyming about the thug life.

A recent piece in The New Yorker cited two hip-hop acts, Young Jeezy and Clipse, as exemplars of the trend, observing that the artists “rap about dealing more than about anything else.”

The Billion Dolla Scholars embrace some of the genre’s common themes, boasting about how illegal exploits, real or imagined, have left the artists with extraordinary riches, accountable to no one.

“F— a damn shopping spree/ I would rather cop some keys,” they declare in Going To The Top, an apparent reference to kilos of cocaine. “Just trying to move units like a crack sale,” is a throw-away line in We Stack Grands.

Troy David Asmus is director of athletic marketing and public relations for the Momentum Sports Group of San Antonio, and represented Williams. On Dec. 29 Asmus pestered Williams over the phone about not yet having received his copy of Da Graduation. Williams assured his agent the recording was on its way.

The two discs arrived at Asmus’s office Jan. 2 by UPS as promised. Williams had been dead a little more than 24 hours.

That same morning, with Williams’ body lying in the coroner’s office, a woman representing the Scholars called a Denver radio station to see if they could stop in for a promotional appearance.

No thanks, she was told.

Williams’ death by gunfire in what may prove to be a gang-related shooting on the night he was promoting his own label’s rappers is, Asmus said, “if anything, a sad irony.” Asmus hastened to distance Williams, who volunteered at a Denver Boys’ and Girls’ Club, from the violent culture. “He wasn’t that type of kid . . . he wasn’t a gangsta-thug kid.”

Art imitating and celebrating the gangsta life has become a central theme for some hip-hop, according to Jared Lewis, director of the Madison, Wis.-based Rap artist The Game put a movie out in 2005, which he says documents his life. The film “shows him becoming a rap artist by selling drugs and moving on up in the drug industry, and that’s how he financed becoming a successful rap artist,” said Lewis, a former Modesto, Calif., police officer.

“I can’t tell you how many times, as a police officer, I dealt with individuals who were out there selling drugs, who said they just felt it was a stepping stone getting them to their real goal: being a recording artist and being able to pay for time in the studio.

“They were all going to be famous.”

Chicken and the egg

Others who have explored links between rap and gangster life agree it leads into chicken-or-the-egg territory, and the bottom line is fuzzy.

Ron Stallworth, a former Colorado Springs police officer who headed Utah’s state gang intelligence effort, doesn’t see an automatic cause and effect. “Is listening to this music alone causing kids to go out and kill cops, sell dope and rape women? That hasn’t been proven and I don’t buy the argument that it does.”

Stallworth, who has testified before Congress, authored a self-published book, Real Niggas: Gang Bangin’ to the Gangsta Boogie in Amerikkka, exploring the relationship between hip-hop and gang activity. He also served as an expert witness in the 1992 Texas death penalty case of Ron Ray Howard, whose defense team argued that he killed a state trooper, in part, because he was listening to gangsta hip-hop.

Stallworth pointed out that Howard came from one of Houston’s most blighted neighborhoods, where every sociological factor was stacked against him.

“He was a product of a single-parent home,” said Stallworth. “His mother and father were not married. His father was a dope dealer. He testified that his father used to cut cocaine on the table in his house . . . His father used to smoke marijuana and blow it in his face to put him to sleep when he was a baby.

“He killed a cop and ended up paying for it with his life,” said Stallworth. “The music does play a part, but for just anybody simply listening to that music, without any other environmental factors coming into play, it wouldn’t be the same. People just aren’t going to listen to that music and go out and kill a cop.”

Then there’s the issue of a community’s culture. Gang historian Alex Alonso argues that young people in rural or suburban areas, and midsize cities like Denver, may be affected more than major urban hubs such as Los Angles, Chicago or New York.

“Maybe in a small rural town in America, some of those kids are more impressionable by what goes on in a city like L.A.,” said Alonso. “But in L.A., where it’s all happening, it’s irrelevant, because the whole gang culture is fueled by itself. In fact, the rappers are influenced by the gang culture. It’s the other way around.”

Cat Collins, program director for Denver’s hip-hop station, KS-FM (107.5) , says don’t blame the music. “Johnny Cash is one of my all time favorite artists, and some of his songs are very violent,” said Collins, citing the line, “Took a shot of cocaine and I shot my woman down,” from Cash’s Cocaine Blues. “Every time some white guy in the mountains kills a woman, I’m not going to be blaming Johnny Cash.”

Collins, who allows his station isn’t “Radio Disney,” takes the long view. “People need to take a breath, relax, and educate yourselves. Listen to the radio station and listen to the lyrics. I don’t think it’s any different at all from rock ‘n’ roll back in the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. Back when I was growing up it was all about sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll.

“Now it’s sex, drugs and rap.”

Former gangmember Eric Stevenson, now an Open Door Youth Gang Alternatives staffer, invited youngsters to write essays about the music in their lives. Most are students at the Wyatt Edison Charter Elementary School. Here are some excerpts, in their words.

Hip-hop, in general

I like to listen to rap or as you say hip hop is because I’m a good dancer and I like to dance to it. I think thats the only music I can dance to. Another reason why I like it because thats the only music I really listen to because my twin brother Gabriel and (another) brother Ny-aire always are bumping it loud enough, on the radio or computer. . . .

By your future hip-hop star, Gabrielle Reaves

Artist: The Game

The Game went from gangbangin in Compton to a talented rapper. Life in Compton wasn’t easy. He grew up without his father and later on was robbed and shot in a dope spot. Thats when he decided to focus on his rap style. He got signed to Fifty Cent’s G Unit but left after a short time due to a arguement with Fifty. Now he’s doing his own thing. His music inspires me and makes me believe that no matter where you come from you can make it if you believe.

DaShaune Grant-Newson, 10, fifth grade

+Artist: Ludacris

Ludachris’s lyrics (Runaway Luv) influence me alot because it makes me think about life, and how I can make the right choices. Ludachris’s lyrics also influence me because he speaks the truth and talks about stuff that really happens, and stuff that I can relate too.

Tyandra Young, 14, eighth grade

Artist: Pharrel Williams

Pharrel’s music (Beautiful) makes me wanta just get up and dance. His lyrics makes me look at life from a defrant point of view.

Codischa Robb, 13, seventh grade

Artist: Tupac Shakur

There are many rappers who inspire me and 2Pac (Shakur) is one. 2Pac inspires by tellin me in his lyrics keep your head up. Belive in your culture and were you came from. He’s good by telling me stay out of drugs.

Koran Ray, 11, fifth grade

Faces from the local scene

Jared Desmond (aka B-Boy FYNES)

• Age: 29

• Craft: Break dancer

• What is hip hop? “It’s a way of life which defines our activities, how we speak, how we dress, how we act and how we see the world today and how we shape the world.”

• The local scene: It needs a lot of growth. We need to unite. We need to come together and learn about Colorado’s true hip-hop history.”

• Why hip-hop gets a negative rap: “Unfortunately, rap music on the radio promotes misogyny and genocidal, self-destructive behavior and the kids trying to do something positive don’t have access to television or other means to get their message out to the masses.”

• Mission statement:”I think our dance is very spiritual. I’ve been teaching for almost 10 years and it’s about teaching people how to get in touch with themselves. It’s as valid as yoga, or tai chi or any body- healing medicine.”


• Age: 26

• Craft: MC; Spoken-word artist

• Soundtrack: Toss-up between Nina Simone’s I Put a Spell on You and Feeling Good.

• What is hip hop? “Hip-hop is Africa. It is everything that is ancient. It is survival. It is the urban reporter. It tells you what’s going on in this country. It transports dreams. It supports babies. It opens people up to different concepts.”

• The local scene: “It’s still a hard place for a chick, but goddesses are making strides.”

• Why hip-hop gets a negative rap: “It’s a scapegoat. Something that gives power to oppressed people will eventually be demonized. There was a period when they were saying the same thing about jazz.”

• Mission statement: “Be that reachable, accessible person in hip-hop who can be in the villages. I don’t want to get to a point where I’m not writing about what’s going on in the street.”

The Voice Robinson

• Age: 37

• Craft: Musical artist

• Soundtrack: My Life by Mary J. Blige.

• What is hip hop? “Hip-hop is truth expressed . . . through the struggle. Whether you express that truth through lyrics, dance, style, music, graffiti, language, literature – truth being – who you are, where you come from, what you believe, what you stand for and what you can give back to the struggle.”

• The local scene: “It’s not as powerful as it could be. It’s small to me. You kind of see the same artists.”

• Why hip-hop gets a negative rap: The images that hip-hop artists are portraying now – they’re putting it out there. But just from a lot of what we see on television and what we hear on the radio it’s all about booty-shaking and drugs. If you put out negative energy, you’re going to receive negative energy.”

• Mission statement: “My purpose is to give back, and the best way to share is through my music.”

Lawrence Bergl (aka Larry B.)

• Age: 28

• Craft: Graffiti artist

• Soundtrack: Anything by the Wu-Tang Clan

• What is hip hop?: “It’s a positive, artistic way to express the gutters, the street life.”

• Why hip-hop gets a negative rap: “When we do our art, because it comes from a negative environment, it’s associated with negativity, but it’s not. We invented this . . . to break out of the lifestyle.”

• Mission statement: “I believe in my heart that the world is ready for real counselors and real mentors (in hip-hop) – people who aren’t in it for the money.”

Mario Rodriguez (aka DJ Chonz)

• Age: 29

• Craft: DJ

• Soundtrack: A Song for You by Donny Hathaway.

• What is hip-hop?: “It’s a culture. It encompasses all the elements: graffiti art, the DJ, the MC the break dancer.”

• The local scene: “Denver’s like gumbo – we’re a little bit of everything.”

• Why hip-hop gets a negative rap: “People think rap is basically hip-hop. But how can a break dancer have a bad image? What is negative about a person expressing himself through dance?”

Posted by on Feb 17 2007. Filed under News. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

3 Comments for “Gangsta lyrics sell a dark life”

  1. yea botch

    whats dat guys name

  2. yea botch

    yea mflo crips steppin up

  3. yea botch

    fock those locs

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