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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.

October 22, 2006|Chris Lee | Times Staff Writer

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.' "

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Rivalries aside in the studio

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