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The New Hustle

Stop Snitchin’ Made Them Infamous, But Underground Dvds Are Forming the Freshest Front Lines of Hip-Hop Life

CANDID CAMERA: Stills from homemade hip-hop DVD The Reel, which brings local MCs and other community personalities into your living room

By Bret McCabe | Posted 5/18/2005

The young man with fierce eyes stares defiantly, directly at you. He doesn’t even appear to blink. A black cap is pulled tightly over his head, his black hoodie zipped up to the neck. He stands in what appears to be some back room of a warehouse, stickers on concrete walls, the dull roar of others murmuring in the background. His lips part to reveal a gap-toothed intimidation leer, and he barks the first words out of his mouth: “I represent the niggas from the gutter.” What follows is a pyrotechnic freestyle rap, a compendium of violent threats and promises involving everything from shotguns to knives and killing your whole family.

When he finishes, you can hear people laughing in the background. And Diggs, the Baltimore MC behind this TNT-blast, almost cracks a smile. It’s just a rap, one of many contained on the underground hip-hop DVD The Reel, the latest in an ongoing proliferation of street-made and -sold products bubbling through Baltimore and other cities nationwide. This particular one is the spring 2005 debut from Malcolm Compton’s Compton Media Group, the first in a planned series of DVDs documenting unheralded local MCs and area nightlife. Most of The Reel’s approximately 90 minutes features material primarily shot over the past six months in Baltimore clubs, on streets, and in private homes with people just hanging out, interspersed with two comedic sketches. Compton and a small crew head out and shoot footage on digital video, dump the material onto a computer for editing, and then burn the footage onto DVDs to sell.

So far, Compton says they’ve made about 2,000 copies of The Reel, passing out a large portion of that for free just to get their brand name out there. “We probably passed out 650 to 1,000,” Compton says. The compact, lithe 33-year-old Northeast Baltimore native possesses a disarmingly good-natured calm, and you can imagine the man coming up to you outside a club and not thinking twice about striking up a conversation.

“We’ll go out and wait till the clubs let out and just target the clubs,” he says. “We might target Hammerjacks one night, we might target club One another night, we might target Redwood Trust, and just kind of stand in the borders of our target audience and pass things out. Our target audience is basically 18 and up. We’re not doing anything for kids.”

Compton sounds a bit apprehensive talking about the nature of the DVD, perhaps for good reason. In the past six months, one Baltimore underground DVD has gained national notoriety. Stop Snitchin’, the ninth in a series of locally made hip-hop DVDs, created a storm of national political hand-wringing over its subject: people talking about and around witness intimidation. The DVD was specifically mentioned in conjunction with the May 11 arrest of two Baltimore City police officers on federal drug charges. The Baltimore Police Department has even issued a just-under-two-minute response, “Keep Talking,” which thanks the makers of Stop Snitchin’ and credits it with the arrest of three people included on the DVD. It’s a mammoth response to a low-tech product that is basically just a compilation of clips of people talking, about whatever they want when a camera is pointed at them. What the infamy of Stop Snitchin’ has really achieved is bringing underground hip-hop DVDs into the mainstream, even though it’s an anomaly of the genre.

It’s difficult to pinpoint the beginning of
underground hip-hop DVDs—it can’t be too old, since home write-once DVD burners first appeared in 1997 but didn’t really spread through the consumer market until 2003. But in the past year the practice has exploded. Hip-hop DVDs and local scene reports are coming out of New York (see the volumes of the DVD “magazine” Smack), Detroit, Chicago, and particularly Houston.

“A lot of people are releasing DVDs with their mix tapes,” Matt Sonzala says over the phone from Houston. Sonzala is a correspondent for the underground hip-hop magazine Murder Dog, radio host for the Wednesday night Damage Control radio show on Houston’s KPFT (90.1 FM), and the guy behind the Houston So Real blog. “I don’t know when it really started, it’s just blown up in the past few years with everybody doing DVDs. I do my radio show and I, personally, own about 5,000 DVDs by now that I haven’t even seen. Everybody does DVDs.”

Part of the impetus behind their swift rise is a response to CD burning. File sharing and bootlegs have made commercially released major-label rap albums extremely easy to obtain even before they’re released; people started adding DVDs to their albums just as an incentive to buy the album. Baltimore MC Labtekwon released a DVD just prior to his The Ghetto Dalai Lama earlier this year; likewise, Ogun reports having a DVD planned.

“Now people can burn DVDs, sure, but it’s not as easy or as cheap as CDs, and not everybody has a DVD burner yet,” Sonzala says. “So that just became the hustle—it’s like, ‘If I’m going to make a CD, I better put a DVD in there, because they can get the CD before it even comes out half the time.’ And then the DVD hustle kind of blew up.”

The underground DVD is thriving not among established artists but with local unknowns and lesser-known MCs trying to get their name out in the proverbial there. “There’s a dude here named Showtime who does this H-town Underworld series,” Sonzala says. “And it’s just him going around to every rapper in town and catching them in the parking lot at a concert or a club or catching them here or there in the studio. And they’re basically just sitting there holding up their Hennessy bottles and saying, ‘Yeah, my CD’s coming out,’ over and over and over. Sometimes they’ll show street fights or just crap they’ll see in the streets. They throw together any footage they can get.

“You got cats down here kinda making DVD magazines,” he continues. “A lot of the artists are kind of doing their own thing. And most of the time they’re horrible. They’re just unwatchable. A lot of the people like some of the freestyle ones, but a beat playing in the background and somebody you never heard of freestyling gets kind of annoying after a while.”

Compton’s The Reel is just such an episodic mélange, a sample of the underground hip-hop DVD in its still-gestating form. It’s a continuous series of vignettes featuring different freestyles, people hanging out in a club, guys hanging out at home making beats, interviews with local MCs, and Compton’s Top Cop Jones comedy interludes. His second volume is due in July, and as with the first, he plans on teasing the release with 30-minute sample broadcasts on Comcast Public Access Channel 5 prior to its release.

For Compton, the DVDs are just a springboard to something bigger. He got a taste for the video world when he worked at BET for a year, and he’d like to parlay his budding enterprises into making music videos, which he and his partners have started turning to in order to fund their activities. In fact, Compton’s first professional work was a local TV commercial for Bossman’s Law and Order debut, broadcast locally last December.

“It kind of started with Bossman’s camp,” Compton says. “They saw some of the work on the TV shows we did, and they said, ‘We want you guys to just kind of hang out with us and see if we click together.’ So we went out clubbin’ a couple of times, they had birthday parties, and we went out with the cameras, and a lot of that stuff is from the party or us going down there and bogarting our way in. We’ll get a couple minutes of film, and that’s kind of all we need.”

Since the commercial and The Reel came out, Compton and his crew have started getting noticed as local hip-hop filmmakers. “Once we did that commercial for Bossman then the phone started ringing a little more,” he says. “That’s what I want to do—I’d really like to start making videos. So we try to drum up business through filming, we go out and film artists. If you want straight video, we can do that. If you want to be on the street with your boys and you want to document some history as far as where you come from and everything, we’ll do that, too.”

He’s hoping his next DVD, due in July, can garner CMG even more attention. “It’s a slow progression, but people are starting to recognize us, recognize the name, and that’s all we really want,” Compton says. “My biggest problem is money. I really would like somebody to make an investment, grant-wise. So right now we’re trying to get distribution. But, you know, money’s tight, and trying to get 1,000 DVDs into stores isn’t cheap when you have other responsibilities to see to.”

It doesn’t help that Compton recently discovered that his The Reel was being bootlegged. “One of the girls that was on the DVD that was rapping, she called me and said, ‘They’re selling bootlegs for $20,’” Compton says. “And the first thought that came into my mind was, $20? I’m only selling them for $5.

Compton’s situation is more emblematic of the underground hip-hop DVD producer than the media coverage of Stop Snitchin’ portrays, which allies the practice with the sort of criminal element associated with witness intimidation, treating it as a cause and effect rather than a symptom of something tragically already present. Lest we forget, the first season of The Wire starts with witness intimidation at a trial and a witness murder. Not to confuse televisual narrative and the “reality” of what is portrayed on Stop Snitchin’, but actually watching it is tedious: Anybody has something to say once you put them in front of a camera.

It probably doesn’t help the cause that they circulate through below-the-radar channels, much like mix tapes did before hip-hop web sites made them readily available online. (City Paper obtained its copy of Stop Snitchin’ through eBay, and it’s undoubtedly a bootleg.) These DVDs are probably headed for a similar availability once an infrastructure arises to meet the demand; the hip-hop marketplace has already proven itself able to accommodate all kinds of new products, from mix tapes to the porn-friendly DVDs from the likes of Snoop Dogg and Lil’ Jon. Currently, though, these DVDs exist outside conventional markets.

“On the street,” Compton says of where he usually sells his DVDs. “I got them in my bag now. I just come up on people.”

You have to know who is selling them and where, or be at the right club one night when somebody is out with them to sell. “In Texas, the out-of-the-trunk thing is big,” Sonzala says. “If you go to a club or a show, everybody is trying to sell something, their CD, their DVD. But there’s also a huge network of stores that sell this thing. There’s this kind of little circuit that these cats do, and they go to the mom-and-pops directly and sell directly to them. Flea markets are huge. They sell in barbershops. There are all kinds of outlets for it, but you just have to know them.”

Such evasive availability both hurts and reinforces their profile. Everybody wants what’s hard to find, and being so hard to come by only accentuates whatever stigma that recent coverage has grafted onto them.

Shortly after Diggs’ molten appearance on The Reel, Baltimore MC Tyree Colion steps up and prefaces his freestyle with, “I’m gonna tell you something in rap form so it’s not a threat and they can’t stretch this shit,” before launching into his verbal camera beat-down. It’s a momentary admission that everybody is in on what’s going on, that what they do for the camera they’re doing for the camera. Some of the more interesting moments on these DVDs have nothing to do with rapping, the mundane moments of people who aren’t rolling on 20s with the top back. The overwhelming impression of watching these DVDs is how ordinary these people’s lives are when they’re not playing the MC. And those moments are the things for which Compton searches.

“I’m not looking for fights. I’m not looking for anything controversial,” Compton says. “I just want people to appreciate good music and people to appreciate that there are people out here trying to do good work, just take away the misconception that all rappers are ‘rappers,’ that they don’t have any sort of life outside of rap.

“Because a lot of rappers that I’ve met that are just from the streets, but they are very intelligent people,” he continues. “Me, personally, I would come up to people and be thinking, Ah, he’s just a knucklehead. And then they sit in front of that camera and they kind of open themselves up, and you start giving them questions and you start getting that feedback from them, and people can actually feel how they feel. That’s what I strive for.”

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