Music Industry: How Rappers Boost Street Cred

On the cover of a DVD called Hot Ice, Curtis Jackson, the Grammy-winning rapper known as 50 Cent, points an automatic weapon at the camera. He does not look happy, despite the bikini-clad model behind him.

During an interview shown on the video, Jackson describes a recent run-in with a rival rapper: "I hit him. But I hit him 'cause what he was sayin' was tellin' me to hit him." Later he details how he took the rival rapper's jewelry. Boasts Jackson, who owns boxer Mike Tyson's former Connecticut estate and has a net worth estimated at up to $100 million: "He ended up giving me two watches in order to get the chain back."

No, this isn't the Barbara Walters interview. Rather, it's part of an edgier underground scene playing out in the storefronts of New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago, and on News Corp (NWS)'s MySpace social networking site, where reality-based DVDs featuring raw versions of songs and uncensored interviews are promoted and sold. A network of small-time filmmakers cranks out these "hood videos"—productions spiced with the cars, ganja, guns, and girls that characterize the genre.

For the rappers, it's a way to retain credibility with their most dedicated fans and settle scores. The record labels often supply music for the gritty videos gratis because it helps sell their mainstream releases. "In the underground, these artists can keep their core audience," says Ronald Branch, owner of Sub O Entertainment, a New York-based video producer. "They can show how tough they really are. 50 Cent can't curse on TV, so he can't really be 50 Cent. So he may be on Jay Leno tonight and in the 'hood with me being a gangster the next day."

Playing to both audiences makes smart business sense. 50 Cent has sold more than 20 million records for the Interscope Records unit of Vivendi's Universal Music Group. Dwayne Michael Carter, better known as Lil Wayne, a multiplatinum-selling rapper who records for Universal's Cash Money Records label, and Shawn "Jay-Z" Carter, one of the music industry's best-selling stars, have also appeared in hood videos. Carter is signed to a Live Nation Worldwide recording, touring, and producing deal; that music will be distributed by Sony Music Entertainment.

The record labels don't produce these videos or make any money off them, says James Lopez, a senior vice-president for marketing and brand partnership at Atlantic Records, owned by Warner Music Group (WMG). "For some of my artists who have reached a certain level, I really don't want to see them in those things," Lopez said in an interview. In other cases, the videos "are good promotional vehicles."

The DVDs also help record labels find new talent. One hot new artist, Onika Tanya Maraj, who records as Nicki Minaj, was discovered on an underground video called The Come Up and signed last year with Young Money Entertainment, a label distributed by Universal Motown.

Many record labels provide the entrepreneurs-cum-filmmakers with upcoming songs as well as uncensored versions of released material, says Sub 0's Branch. The videos help promote the music at a time when music industry revenue has fallen dramatically, he says. "It's hard to make money selling records, so they're using these videos to increase sales," says Cathy Jones, who ran Threat Records, a defunct recording label that was affiliated with the rap group Wu-Tang Clan.

With names like Smack, Cocaine City, and Trapstar (slang for a person especially adept at selling drugs), the DVDs sell for $8 to $15 each, and can be found at independent video and convenience stores in urban areas and on Internet sites. Highlights are featured on hip-hop websites, and many of the filmmakers use pages on MySpace to promote and sell them. A MySpace spokeswoman declined to comment.

The productions can be as raw as the streets that give rise to many of the artists. In one, Mario Mims, a rap artist who records on Sony's (SNE) J Records label under the name of "Yo Gotti," brandishes automatic weapons and appears to be preparing packets of a substance that appears to be crack cocaine. The video is part of a DVD called Cocaine Muzik, produced by Dirty Money Films. The company could not be reached for comment.

Producer Branch, whose videos have also featured cameos by sports figures such as NBA All-Star Vince Carter, says the DVDs are in demand because they show a side of urban life often ignored in mainstream media. "Whatever gets blocked creates a vacuum," he says. "And that's an opportunity."

The bottom line: So-called hood videos showcase the rough edges of urban music. Record labels go along, thankful for the marketing help.

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