Trading Bullets for Beats

Trading Bullets for Beats
“Rep Yo Set” is more than a hip-hop double album and documentary DVD. It’s a project to get gang members off the streets — and into the recording studio.
By Chris Lee
Times Staff Writer

October 22, 2006

REPRESENTING: Robert Lewis, back row second from left, president of Reputable Records, with gang rivals who came together to rap. Photo: Ricardo DeAratanha / LAT
The executives behind “Rep Yo Set,” a two-disc hip-hop compilation and documentary DVD that came out this month, will be the first to tell you: A little gangsta goodwill can go a long way. It certainly came in handy after they were robbed at gunpoint.

Robert W. Lewis III, president of Reputable Records and one of “Rep Yo Set’s” chief organizers, was filming a segment of the documentary in one gang-infested Los Angeles neighborhood when the confrontation occurred.

“Six guys came out of the trees with machine guns,” Lewis said. “Every single camera got taken; footage, wallets, watches — everybody was handing things over.”

But word of the cred Lewis and the rest of the “Rep Yo Set” team had established with neighborhood gang chieftains, known as O.G.s, quickly reached the responsible parties, prompting an apparent change of heart. Everything, down to the last lens cap, was returned to the crew two days later.

Project co-founder Charles “Big Chuck” Stanton, the head of Drama Family Entertainment, likes to refer to “Rep Yo Set” as ” ‘American Idol’ for the ‘hood.”

In place of a casting call, Stanton trawled Los Angeles’ meanest streets and gang-active neighborhoods — Watts, Inglewood and Compton — auditioning real-life street soldiers who are living the shoot-’em-up lifestyle glorified in rap songs. The objective: to find hardcore rhyme sayers in the vein of Snoop Dogg, Eazy-E and the Game who might galvanize gangsta rap at a time when West Coast hip-hop has largely fallen off the pop chart.

Where the outcome of “American Idol” has been stardom for the clean-cut likes of Kelly Clarkson and Clay Aiken, “Rep Yo Set’s” four-month star search culminated in a cease-fire between rival factions of the Bloods and Crips.

Stanton and Lewis’ aim is to both do well and do good. They hope the inter-gang musical camaraderie “Rep Yo Set” fosters will translate into a lasting peace on the streets. Law enforcement authorities have reported a significant decrease in gang-related violence in Compton this year compared to 2005, but nobody’s suggesting that’s the result of one CD and film project.

Still, Lewis said his hope going in was that “if we could give Bloods and Crips the opportunity to go in the recording booth with the hottest producers in a major recording studio and give them national exposure, it’s a solid chance for people in the gang life to go positive.”

With more than $1 million in backing from British businessman Jon Nokes, Lewis and Stanton auditioned nearly 1,000 amateur rappers from 34 Southland neighborhoods representing various gang sects. But the first hurdle was convincing the O.G.s that “Rep Yo Set” was a worthy endeavor.

It fell to Stanton — a veteran industry executive who worked with Dr. Dre for eight years, helping to bring superstars such as Eminem and the Game to his Aftermath imprint — to handle negotiations.

“It was a hard sell at first,” Stanton said. “To get to young talent, we had to seek out the ‘hood overseers. I had to tell the O.G.s, ‘This is going to mean jobs. This is better than bringing in a package of dope or a gun into the neighborhood.’ ”

The documentary was filmed concurrent with recording sessions and documentarians traveled deep into the ‘hood to investigate some of the harsh realities that shape gangsta life and rhymes. “We met all the gang bangers in their environment,” Lewis said. “At times, that was a frightening experience.”

In addition to standard talking-head interviews, gang members brandish machine guns in the film, flash gang signs and attempt to parse the ghetto nihilism that results in their die-hard gang ties.

Several interviewees say the choice to belong is a choice between being and nothingness: Gang affiliation means power and security while not joining one can result in beatings or death.

“Everybody stands for something,” a member of the Neighborhood Compton Crips says in the film. “It’s like Al Qaeda. They stand for their existence over there. Same thing over here.”

In the end, MCs from 27 gangs — among them the Avenue Piru Bloods, Kelly Park Compton Crips, Campanella Park Piru, Bounty Hunters, Nutty Blocc Crips and Bloodstone Villains — were chosen to “represent their sets” on the album.

The next challenge was getting them to peacefully coexist. Strict ground rules were laid before anyone could get on the mike: no “set tripping.”

“We didn’t allow them to call out rival gangs or mention people who were killed,” Lewis said. “We said: ‘You can do a theme song that represents who you are, your colors, lifestyle, where you live, how you put it down. But it’s about putting down your guns and reconciling your differences. It’s not about dissing a Crip or a Blood.’ ”


Rivalries aside in the studio

ABSENT the “up with me, death to you” bolsterism that has characterized most West Coast hip-hop from N.W.A onward, you still wouldn’t call “Rep Yo Set” gangsta-rap lite. An appreciation of “stackin’ and jackin’,” selling drugs and putting enemies in the mortuary, prevails on almost every song.

Rival gangs regularly shared studio time with hip-hop producers, including Ron “Neff-U” Feemster, Brian “B-Nasty” Reed and Mansur A. Zafr, who stocked the album with G-funk beats in the vein of Dr. Dre. Even though several MCs went so far as to bring semiautomatic pistols with them into the recording booth, a banger détente prevailed.

Marcel “G-Cell” Thomas, a member of the Avalon Gangster Crips who has served prison time for attempted murder, was as surprised as anyone. “You had six, seven groups at a time, people who have been rivals for 15, 20 years,” he said. “Not a bottle broke. It was amazing. We bonded.”

Added Lewis: “Crips helping Bloods with their hooks. Bloods helping Crips with their verses. The atmosphere wasn’t about retaliation and banging. It was about getting out of that. And the intent was to make every song on the record good.”

In July, the film went on to win best documentary at Long Beach’s Action On Film Festival, a competition specializing in action and martial-arts movies. The album sold just 400 copies in its first week of release, according to Nielsen SoundScan, indicating that the project’s biggest impact is whatever improvement it has inspired in intragang relations.

But Lewis is proud to point out that 40 gang members have received membership in the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, ensuring that they will earn royalties and licensing fees for their work. For his part, the label president signed two of the artists to Reputable Records and created a spinoff rap group, the Reputables, consisting of “Rep Yo Set’s” most promising MCs.

The project isn’t the first to draw hip-hop music out of gangland tensions. That honor belongs to two Bloods & Crips “Bangin’ on Wax” albums released, respectively, in 1993 and ’94. But unlike those CDs — populated with songs such as “Crip, Crip, Crip” and “Set Trippin’ ” that are unveiled Crip versus Blood provocations — “Rep Yo Set” intends to stop the violence.

“It’s going to be a long process,” Stanton said. “We’re taking it one step at a time, trying to get the community to stand by us. The West Coast needs to stick together. When it does, it saves lives.”

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