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The Nation | COLUMN ONE

Rap's Captive Audience

Ex-con musicians with a white power message are using a sales method pioneered by some black artists: promoting their album in prison.

September 27, 2006|Chris Lee | Times Staff Writer

The three burly, skin-headed members of the hip-hop group Woodpile want a bigger audience, but they know the odds are long.

They have no hope of cracking mainstream radio or MTV with songs like "They Hate Us" or "I'm a Wood," in which they rap menacingly about blasting enemies with shotguns. Further limiting their commercial prospects, their August album, "The Streets Will Never Be the Same," boasts of the group's affiliation with the Woods, a white power prison gang.

So the Arizona-based group's label is using a viral marketing technique to create word of mouth. Its goal is to connect with an influential constituency of taste makers.

Namely, people behind bars.

Since June, executives at the marketing firm RBC Records have been sending out bundles of Woodpile promotional material twice a month to several dozen of the group's incarcerated friends, supporters and family members.

As the thinking goes, Woodpile gets buzz in the prison yard that translates into positive word of mouth, spreading beyond penitentiary walls as prison visitors and released prisoners carry the gospel of Woodpile to the streets.

For Brian Shafton, an RBC partner, jailhouse marketing makes obvious sense. "Prisons are great because you have an incredibly captive audience that has a lot of entertainment time on its hands," Shafton said.

"These people are definitely influential, and not just in the prisons," he said. "A lot of these guys are still calling shots in the outside world. You look in some of these urban communities and you see some of these pimps and gangsters as the governors of the ghetto."

Major labels have tried unusual brand-building techniques, but prison marketing isn't on their radar yet.

"Back in the day, what we considered grass-roots marketing was running in the club, buying every bottle of champagne and leaving them on tables," said entertainment mogul Damon Dash, who launched Roc-a-Fella Records with rap superstar Jay-Z in 1996. "That was us branding ourselves and our artists as guys that had money."

But he was appreciative of RBC's innovations. "It's a saturated market now, and how many times can you sell people the same stuff?" he said. "I think it's creative to go the jail route."

In the past, targeted hip-hop salesmanship has resulted in gangbusters business.

In the late 1980s, marketers for the incendiary rap quintet NWA began peddling the group's albums from the trunk of a car at Torrance's Roadium Swap Meet and giving away promotional "merch" to Huntington Beach skateboarders and surfers. Within five years, NWA's label, Ruthless Records, was one of the most successful in the world.

"Rebels are always opinion makers," said Ruthless co-founder Jerry Heller.

A respectable album run inside prison means selling as few as 1,000 cassettes. (Although rules vary from state to state, CDs are banned in most maximum-security facilities because of their potential as weapons.) In recent years, RBC's prison marketing has resulted in underground hits for Compton rapper-producer DJ Quik -- now serving a five-month sentence for assault -- and Memphis rapper 8 Ball. To hear it from the company's executives, a cellblock hit can lead to outside sales of up to 300,000 copies: major success for an independent record label like Woodpile's imprint, West Coast Mafia Records.

With 2.2 million people incarcerated in America -- an estimated 548,000 of them African American and between the ages of 20 and 39 -- the penitentiary has come to take on an almost mystical importance within hip-hop, with its African American roots.

Nelson George, author of "Hip Hop America," says prison is an indivisible part of the black experience. "In this country, black people have been getting incarcerated justly and unjustly since we got here," he said. "The prison system has impacted black culture. And its influence on hip-hop is a subset of that."

Of course, hip-hop artists who have never seen the inside of a cell, including Kanye West and the Black Eyed Peas, regularly top the pop charts. But in recent years, the number of rap stars being incarcerated has skyrocketed, and the notion of the clink as a kind of "finishing school of hard knocks" persists in gangsta rap.

Prison officials have so far not taken issue with efforts to popularize hip-hop in prisons -- there is nothing illegal about what RBC is doing. But according to Lt. Brian Parriott, a spokesman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, officials will be keeping their ears open for Woodpile's music.

"We don't support gangsta rap that would encourage a criminal mind-set," he said. "The department is definitely not going to be supportive of anything that is influencing individuals to break any law. If the type of music they're producing would influence gang activities, the Department of Corrections will take actions to block the music from coming in to the prison system."

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