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Hard rhymes

Their albums are being released even if many of the artists who recorded them aren't. In the sub-genre of prison rap, there's an underlying message that you can't escape.

April 03, 2005|Baz Dreisinger | Special to The Times

Beanie Sigel is on the brink of a breakthrough. The roly-poly rapper has two albums and a successful clothing line under his belt, but he's hungry to make the leap into platinum-sales-and-household-name territory.

So last week, as Sigel's "The B. Coming" became the premiere release from Island Def Jam's new Damon Dash Music Group label, the Philadelphia rapper launched his shot at becoming what CEO Dash calls "a franchise and a phenomenon." One thing, continues Dash, can do the trick: promotion.

There's the rub. Sigel is in the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility in the City of Brotherly Love, serving a one-year sentence after pleading guilty to federal drug and weapons charges. From prison, he cannot do in-store appearances; from his disciplinary stint in solitary confinement, he cannot do interviews.

"What can I say? My hands are tied," sighs Dash, who helped launch the careers of such musicians as Cam'ron and Foxy Brown. "The music will have to speak for itself."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday April 07, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 38 words Type of Material: Correction
Beanie Sigel -- An article in Sunday's Calendar section about rappers in prison said rapper Beanie Sigel is serving a one-year sentence at Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility in Philadelphia. Sigel is at the Federal Correctional Institution in Fairton, N.J.

Unless, however, absence speaks louder than words. Without saying a thing, Sigel, born Dwight Grant, has set himself in the midst of a contentious trend in hip-hop, one that could generate more discussion -- and deliberation -- than old-fashioned promotion: jailhouse rap.

It's not a wholly new phenomenon; in 1995, Tupac Shakur's "Me Against the World," recorded before the rapper entered prison for sexual abuse, was released after his incarceration and went to No. 1. Nor is it terrifically hard to explain: With 44% of the prison population made of up African American males, according to a 2003 U.S. Department of Justice study, coming up with rhymes and lyrics is a natural outlet for young men raised on hip-hop and faced with time and creative energy to burn.

What's new is a dramatic increase in the number of releases as well as the stature of the incarcerated rappers making them. Both factors have propelled jailhouse rap to a new level -- one that some cultural observers are deeming the hip-hop generation's version of the prison writings of Eldridge Cleaver, Angela Davis or Assata Shakur.

"What's happening with rappers speaking from prison is absolutely along the lines of what we saw with prison writers back in the '60s," says Paul Butler, a law professor at George Washington University and author of a recent Stanford Law Review article arguing that hip-hop's ideas about criminal justice deserve to be taken seriously. "Rappers are the griots of their generation," he says. "When they confront prison, we'll hear about it."

Not everyone is thrilled about what they hear; or even cares to hear it.

"Shyne may have released a critically acclaimed album," says Roland S. Martin, nationally syndicated columnist and author of "Speak, Brother! A Black Man's View of America." "But he's in jail for shooting up a nightclub. At what point do we confront the reality of what the rapper has done to end up in prison?"

The litany of releases, however, is growing. Koch Records has put out "The Truest [Expletive] I Ever Said," an album by New Orleans rapper C-Murder, who is serving time in Gretna, La., on a 2003 murder conviction. Pimp C, a member of Texas rap duo UGK, is in a Houston jail for aggravated assault; Rap-A-Lot Records released Pimp C's "The Sweet James Jones Stories" last month. Mystikal, a Grammy nominee for his 2001 album "Tarantula," is serving six years for sexual battery but is reportedly recording in his cell in St. Gabriel, La.

Rap's most prominent inmate is former Sean "P. Diddy" Combs protege Shyne, who signed a $3-million deal with Def Jam while serving time for a 1999 Manhattan nightclub shooting. His 2004 album "Godfather Buried Alive" landed him in magazines, on MTV -- and in hot water with the New York State Crime Victims Board, which launched a case against him for violating the state's "Son of Sam" law, created to prohibit criminals from profiting from their crimes. Recently, a Brooklyn judge froze funds from the Def Jam contract pending the outcome of a civil suit against him by two of the shooting victims; undeterred, the rapper is now prepping two summer releases: a new album and a documentary co-produced by Mark Wahlberg.

And now that Lil' Kim -- convicted of perjury last month and facing up to 20 years in prison -- is said to be diligently recording, the first behind-bars release from a female rapper may be in the making.

The African American outsider voice belongs to a musical tradition that runs back decades, to the jailhouse blues of Leadbelly and Son House, and even centuries, to the field hollers of slaves.

Could jailhouse rap be the latest incarnation of this voice?

Angst for the future

Such a question was doubtless beside the point to Sigel, who recorded "The B. Coming" with more pressing matters on his mind.

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