RAP Music labels struggle to market stars behind bars
Several rappers have released albums while they were imprisoned.
By RAFER GUZMAN
LONG ISLAND NEWSDAY
As Lil' Kim faces a possible 20-year prison term for lying to a grand jury, she's keeping a low profile and refusing to grant interviews to the press -- for now.
Undaunted by the prospect of prison, Lil' Kim is forging ahead with her career. She's working on a new album and even hoping to launch a reality television show, "Lil' Kim's Hollywood Makeover," on VH1. If the rapper does go behind bars (her sentencing date is June 24), she's making sure she'll remain as much as possible in public view.
Lil' Kim is just the latest rapper raising an issue for record labels: How can an artist behind bars continue to make money? Over the past year, Beanie Sigel, C-Murder and Shyne have found ways to sell albums despite -- or perhaps because of -- their incarceration. Sigel's latest album, "The B. Coming," debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard charts earlier this month even as the rapper is serving a one-year jail term for weapons possession.
"Record companies are dependent upon releases, and they don't want to lose momentum," said Erik Parker, music editor at Vibe magazine. "If an artist is in jail and they hold the record, it could interfere with plans for other releases. So in many cases, it's better to just get it out."
But as labels become adept at marketing their jailed rappers, they're raising questions about their methods and testing the limits of the law. Prison authorities cracked down on C-Murder (who recently changed his name to C Miller) after discovering that most of his album was recorded within their walls. And a Brooklyn court recently froze profits from Shyne's latest album, citing the so-called Son of Sam law that prevents criminals from making money from their crimes.
"The argument on the part of the prosecutors is that rappers have capitalized on their criminality," said Brian MacNamara, assistant professor of law at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. "That increases their popularity, so when they come out with new songs, their sales are higher."
But the Son of Sam law "wasn't meant to prevent people from profiting from work they were doing before they were ever imprisoned," said Richard Klein, professor of criminal law at Touro Law Center in Huntington, N.Y. "It's not in society's interest to have people come out of prison absolutely impoverished."
Tupac Shakur enjoyed a No. 1 album, "Me Against The World," while serving a prison term for sexual assault in 1995, but other jailed rappers haven't fared as well. In 1991, Slick Rick recorded two albums' worth of material before entering prison for attempted murder, but he never regained the popularity of his 1980s heyday. Keith Murray's 1999 album, "It's a Beautiful Thing," flopped while the rapper sat in a Connecticut prison for assault.
Record labels don't want those histories to repeat themselves. After Beanie Sigel, born Dwight Grant, pleaded guilty to gun and weapons charges last October, he and his label, Damon Dash Music Group, went into action. Sigel shot five videos in five days, put together four television specials and finished a movie, "State Property 2," which premiered Wednesday.
Sigel's album, "The B. Coming," debuted at No. 3 despite the fact that it has yet to produce a hit single, notes Minal Patel, charts manager for hip-hop and rap at Billboard Radio Monitor. Sigel's incarceration, she says, is what's driving sales.
Recording behind bars
That may also be the case with C Miller, the younger brother of Louisiana rapper Master P. The 34-year-old, born Corey Miller, recorded the vocals for his new album inside the Jefferson Parish Correctional Center in Gretna, La., where he's serving a life sentence in the shooting death of a 16-year-old boy.
The rapper's lawyer brought in a digital recording device during visits, Miller says, allowing him to listen to beats created by producers and then record his rhymes. The room's small confines and flat acoustics are clearly audible on the album.
Meantime, though, prison officials have restricted Miller's lawyer from bringing anything to visits except for legal documents and a pad and pencil. Pens, whose hollow tubes could be used to conceal lyrics, are also prohibited. Phone calls are still allowed.
"Of course they put restrictions on me, but that's going to be lifted when they realize their mistakes," Miller said. "My main thing is, I'm a hustler. I'm going to keep doing what I'm doing."