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South-Central's Message Is in the Music

May 31, 2000|JONATHAN KIRSCH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"I have been visiting Los Angeles for 12 years, yet I have only strayed into Southcentral on a few occasions," confesses William Shaw in "Westside: Young Men & Hip Hop in L.A." (Simon & Schuster, $23, 333 pages). "They were usually when I lost my way and discovered myself in some neighborhood on Western where I could make out no other white faces, where I pressed down the door locks on my rental car, embarrassed at my own timorousness."

Shaw is a London-based journalist who contributes to such urbane periodicals as Details, Vogue and Esquire. But he was bold enough to venture into a neighborhood of Los Angeles that many locals never see at all--he exited the Harbor Freeway at the offramp for Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and searched out seven young men who struggle to survive on those mean streets. The title of the book refers to the western fringe of South-Central, and the book includes a map of Compton and Watts that may be as unfamiliar to readers in West Los Angeles as it will be those in the West End of London.

What makes Shaw's book so refreshing and so compelling is the notion that the best way to understand South-Central and the people who live there is by listening--and, more crucially, paying attention--to the various strains of rap music. "Hip hop in particular," he insists, "is about where you're from." The rap group N.W.A., for example, was founded by a member of the Crips from Compton, Eric "Eazy-E" Wright, and its first single, "Boys-n-the-Hood," was "a simple, effective conjunction of masculinity and geography," as Shaw puts it.

Music figures crucially in the lives and aspirations of all seven young men whom we encounter in "Westside." We meet Babyboy, for example, over a meal at the M&M Diner at the corner of King and Crenshaw. Back in grade school, a recruiter in a spiffy uniform inspired him to join the Marines, but he was soon disillusioned and ended up back on the streets of South-Central and then in prison on a check-forgery charge. Now he lives in Culver City with his girlfriend, a secretary at Fox Studios, and he tries to reinvent himself as a rapper and a rap music producer under the moniker No Respekt Mob Entertainment.

"I'm a hustler, man," Babyboy tells Shaw. "I don't hustle cocaine, heroin, speed, sherm. Music is the new dope game."

Indeed, these young men find themselves at the ragged and uncertain boundary line between music-making and gang-banging, and few of them will ever see their earnest dreams come true. An aspiring rapper who calls himself Rah once belonged to a fledgling gang (a "click," the slang term for a "clique") called the Criminal-Minded Assassins. For him, the music business seems to offer a way out of the gang life even if he is still only "sniping," a term for the "guerrilla marketing" technique of stickering lampposts and telephone poles with posters for the latest touring rap group.

"It's a word that conveys some of the adrenaline rush that snipers get," explains Shaw, "putting up the posters on a busy street, hoping the police won't catch them."

Not long ago in this space, I wrote about a book that allows us to hear the voices of a disempowered generation that expresses itself through graffiti. Something of the same powerful and disturbing insight is at work in "Westside" too. "Creating culture is the act of writing yourself into the land," Shaw explains. "That's what hip-hop does, more literally than any other pop culture yet." Some readers, I suspect, will be as put off by rap music as they are by graffiti, but we ignore these unsettling expressions of anger and yearning at the peril of ignorance and complacency--or worse.

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Sisters in Crime is an international organization that seeks to celebrate the contribution of women to the mystery genre, and 12 members of its Los Angeles chapter--men and women alike--have contributed stories to "A Deadly Dozen: Tales of Murder From Los Angeles," an anthology of crime fiction edited by Susan B. Casmier, Aljean Harmetz and Cynthia Lawrence (Uglytown, $13, 224 pages).

"A Deadly Dozen" is the third high-spirited publishing venture by "SinC/L.A.," as the local chapter of Sisters in Crime identifies itself. Earlier works included "Desserticide," which paired dessert recipes with "advice for would-be murderers," and "Murder by Thirteen," a short story anthology published in 1997. The latest collection includes an even dozen stories of every variety: "Hard-boiled, soft-boiled, cozy, suspenseful, character-driven, and classic puzzles," as co-editor Cynthia Lawrence sums it up.

"The precision with which the blade sliced through the pink flesh, nearly separating it into six equally beautiful and symmetrical pieces, sent a chill down my spine," writes Kate Thornton in a characteristically playful moment that sets us up for a surprise in her story, "Ai Witness." "Or maybe it was the air-conditioning. They always kept it too cold in the Ai, but it was my favorite sushi bar."

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